Tag Archives: Rosh HaShanah

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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We Don’t Need A Superhero

Sermon for Rosh HaShanah Morning

October 3, 2016 – 1 Tishri, 5777

Temple Beth El of Boca Raton

By Rabbi Daniel Levin

 

Over last spring break, my sister came to visit and my son suggested that we all go see a movie together.  “Let’s go see Batman vs. Superman!” he said.  And so we did.  In Imax.  In 3-D.

In the film, Superman is blamed for destroying Metropolis after his previous battle with General Zod. People are conflicted about whether Superman is a hero of hope or an alien threat.  Billionaire socialite Bruce Wayne, also known as Batman, sees Superman as a potential threat to humanity and becomes obsessed with him. He decides to build a Kryptonite weapon to use as a defense against Superman.

Meanwhile the evil Lex Luthor, who has manipulated Batman into his fight against Superman, kidnaps Superman’s mother Martha, and demands that Superman kill Batman or else.  In the midst of their epic struggle, when Batman has nearly overpowered Superman with his kryptonite weapon, they realize both of their mothers are named Martha and understand they are really on the same side.  Together, they fight to defeat Lex Luthor, who has fashioned a superpowered monster, but at the end, the monster is destroyed. Then, in its dying breath, the monster kills Superman … or does he???

In a spirit of shared suffering, I have related this story to you in this abbreviated fashion.  This movie stole 151 minutes of my life that I can’t get back.  I love my son, and it is because of that love that I have chosen this Rosh HaShanah to forgive him for bringing our family to see this film.

But I can’t really blame him.  The film grossed $166 million dollars in the opening weekend.  The fact is people love superheroes.  We always have.

Back in the 1930s, two creative Jewish high school friends, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster began to invent a comic strip called Dr. Occult, a supernatural “ghost detective” who would battle vampires, ghosts, and sorcerers.  Soon, Dr. Occult was dressed in blue tights and a red cape and began to demonstrate supernatural powers.  They called their new character: Superman.

Arie Kaplan, who chronicles the group of Jews who created the comic book industry, notes that Siegel and Shuster created Superman as adolescents in the midst of the Great Depression and as Hitler was rising to power in Germany. “The Superman narrative is … rich in Jewish symbolism. He is a child survivor named Kal-El (in Hebrew, “All that is God”) from the planet Krypton, whose population of brilliant scientists, is decimated. His parents send him to Earth in a tiny rocket ship, reminiscent of how baby Moses survived Pharaoh’s decree to kill all Jewish newborn sons. In the context of the 1930s, the story also reflects the saga of the Kindertransports – the evacuation of hundreds of Jewish children, without their parents, from Austria, Germany, Poland, and Czechoslovakia to Great Britain. Angst-ridden adolescent fans, Jewish and not, shared Siegel and Shuster’s feelings of helplessness and yearned for a super-savior.”[1]

Comics scholar Peter Coogan defines a Superhero as “A heroic character with a universal, self-less, prosocial mission; who possesses superpowers – extraordinary abilities, advanced technology, or highly developed physical and/or mental skills… The superhero’s mission is to fight evil and protect the innocent.”[2]  As superheroes evolved, they came to hide their superhero identities with alter-ego personalities: Superman was mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent, Batman was billionaire orphaned playboy Bruce Wayne.  The messianic overtones to the message seem clear – even the average person you would least suspect could potentially be the savior of the world.

And wouldn’t that be great? Wouldn’t it be great if we could be protected from all that we fear by some perfectly altruistic selfless superhero?  Wouldn’t it be great if someone with superpowers could rescue us from our scary, corrupt, and broken world and just fix it once and for all?

It’s something we’ve dreamed of forever.  When our people were enslaved in Egypt, there appeared from out of nowhere the perfect Jewish superhero – Moses.  It was as if he came in from outer space, wandering into Pharaoh’s palace as if he belonged there.  A savior.  He even appeared to have superpowers.  He could turn his staff into a snake, he could strike the waters of the Nile and turn the river into blood, he could hold his arm over the waters and caused the sea to part.

But as they journeyed through the wilderness the Israelites were taught that Moses was not a superhero.  Moses was not their God.  He was just like them, fully and profoundly human.

There is a midrash that talks about the moments before the revelation at Mt. Sinai.  Moses had returned to the mountain to get God’s instructions.  The midrash imagines that God had wanted to give the Torah right then and there, but Moses was in the way. “God thought: When I am revealed to them and say: ‘I am YHVH your God,’ they will ask, ‘Who is speaking? God or Moses?’ Let Moses, therefore, descend and then I will proclaim:  “I am YHVH your God.”[3]  God is afraid that the Israelites will think that Moses is God, but Moses isn’t God. He is simply one of them.

The Israelites in the wilderness are vulnerable and scared.  They feel powerless against all the threats they face to their survival. Stamped in their consciousness is one word – slave – a person who cannot make his own decisions, a person who cannot control her own destiny.  As slaves, their lives were in Pharaoh’s hands, for after all, Pharaoh was a God.  And so now they wonder if their lives are in Moses’ hands, and they wonder if Moses is their God.

The fact is in many ways we are those same Israelites wandering in the wilderness.  We also feel vulnerable and scared.  We worry that our destiny and our future is not under our control.

And so we look for superheroes.  We look for superheroes who will come and save us, superheroes who will protect us from evil, who will right the wrongs of our world and make us safe.

So often this is what we expect from our leaders.  We expect our president to be a superhero – who can come into office and instantaneously fix everything that’s wrong with America and the world.  We expect that the president can single-handedly make our adversaries stop hating us, lead us into battle and painlessly vanquish our enemies, restore us to prosperity, protect us from those who would seek to hurt us, and ensure that the injustices in our world and our country are made right.  We expect the president to be free of fault, to be of pristine morality, to live with altruistic integrity, to be constantly of good humor, agreeable, never given over to anger or frustration. We demand that our president be all-knowing, all-powerful, and clairvoyant.

We want our president, we expect our president, to be a superhero.  And in order for the president to be a superhero, then it only follows that whoever opposes the president must therefore be a villain – these days a supervillain.

If the superhero is the one who makes you feel safe, then the supervillain is the one who makes you feel afraid. Robin Rosenberg writes in her book What is a Superhero? that there are lots of different kinds of villains. A villain may be simply a straightforward criminal, or maybe a person who is out for revenge to hurt those who hurt him. A villain can be seemingly heroic, who, with a warped sense of altruism, employs evil means for what may seem a worthy goal, and sometimes a villain is a sadist, who takes grotesque pleasure in wreaking death and destruction.[4]

To be sure, there are supervillains in our world.  Want to see a supervillain in action – look to Bashar Assad in Syria, dropping barrel bombs on innocent civilians, attacking aid workers who seek only to help the humanitarian crisis, deploying chemical weapons on his own people.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdati is another supervillain. The founder of the Islamic State or ISIS, he employs gruesome and sadistic means to cultivate fear and effect control over portions of Iraq and Syria.  He twists the teachings of Islam to inspire others to commit hideous acts of terror and violence in ISIS’ name throughout the world.

The list of villains is long.  And in some ways they are winning.  Not because they tactically can do much damage to any of us, but because they have succeeded in making us afraid.

Terrorism works because it attacks people seemingly at random – a pizza restaurant, a dance club, a random street corner, with no immediate justification or rationale.  Terrorism succeeds when we recoil in fear at the prospect of doing what should be simply part of a normal day. As Daniel Gardner writes in his book The Science of Fear, “Terrorism is vivid, violent, unjust, and potentially catastrophic.  It presses all of [our] buttons.”[5]

Ironically, despite our growing fear of terrorism, the likelihood that any of us here today will be hurt in an act of terror is infinitesimally small.  The University of Maryland reports that in the twenty years from 1995 to 2014, the number of Americans killed by terrorist attack in the United States was 3264, the overwhelming majority killed on September 11, 2001.[6] The number of people killed in automobile accidents in the United States in the same period was 785,195.  In 2013 alone, almost 57,000 people died from the flu and pneumonia.  A recent article in Foreign Affairs magazine reported that “Americans were more likely to die in an accident involving a bathtub (one in 950,000), a home appliance (one in 1.5 million), or a deer (one in two million).[7]

We must not be naïve.  Forces like ISIS are truly evil, and we must do all we can to vanquish that evil.  But we have a choice with what we do with our fear.

One option is to tell ourselves to be afraid.  We can, if we choose, succumb to the fear that a terrorist seeks to instill.  We can listen to those who would seek to be our leaders who tell us that we need to be afraid, afraid of our neighbors who practice Islam, afraid of refugees fleeing their war-torn country, afraid of immigrants from Latin America, the Middle East, or south Asia.  We can criticize and mock those who do not foment our fears as not sufficiently patriotic or as somehow in cahoots with our enemies.

Fear is natural and useful. As Rabbi Donniel Hartman explains, “fear instinctively causes us to go into defense mode, to shift our attention to our own needs, and protect ourselves from the real or supposed dangers that threaten us.”  Moral behavior, however, is based on the ability “to see others, their pain, their needs, and to respond.”  But then fear becomes dangerous: “At times,” he says, “fear does not merely shift our vision from the ‘other’ to ourselves, it also changes the way we see the other. Fear can lead to anger, anger to hatred, hatred to vilification, and vilification to denigration.”  Fear he says, can be like an infectious disease, depriving us of the ability to hope.  “Hope,” Hartman says, “cannot be constructed from the building blocks of fear. Its foundation must be the reaffirmation of our vision of both the world as we want it to be and ourselves as we ought to be.”[8]

We cannot conquer our fears by waiting for a superhero to tell us what we should fear and how he and he alone can make us safe.  That’s what villains do.  Villains do everything they can to make us afraid.  Like Lex Luthor in Batman vs. Superman, villains use lies and deception and half-truths to divide us from one another, to make us afraid of one another, and to seize power through that division and fear.

We do not need leaders who pretend to be superheroes.  The fact is there are no superheroes.  We don’t need leaders who pretend to be Pharaoh, who think they are gods, infallible and all-powerful.  What we need are leaders who bring us together to face our fears with courage and hope and faith. What we really need are people like you and me to refuse to be cowed by fear, to come together each and every day to do the right and good and loving thing, even when we are scared, even when we feel vulnerable, threatened, and weak.

This is the truth that Sebastian Junger uncovers in his book Tribe.  In this extraordinary little volume, Junger seeks to uncover why veterans returning from war have such a difficult time adjusting to civilian life in America today.  He explains that throughout the centuries and in a variety of different cultures, we learn that a healthy society is one in which people come together as a tribe, and take mutual responsibility for each other, working for the common good.

Junger writes that “Today’s veterans often come home to find that, although they’re willing to die for their country, they’re not sure how to live for it.  It’s hard to know how to live for a country that regularly tears itself apart along every possible ethnic and demographic boundary…  To make matters worse,” he writes, “politicians occasionally accuse rivals of deliberately trying to harm their own country – a charge so destructive … that most past societies would probably have punished it as a form of treason. It’s complete madness,” Junger writes, “and the veterans know this.”[9]

Junger explains that it is a platoon’s tribal bonds of love and sense of collective responsibility that is the source of its strength. “A modern soldier returning from combat goes from the kind of close-knit group … back into a society where most people work outside the home, children are educated by strangers, families are isolated from wider communities, and personal gain almost completely eclipses collective good.”[10]

We don’t need superheroes to save us from our fears.  We need each other.  We need to know that we can rely on each other, that we can depend on each other. We need to be willing to sacrifice for each other, and in turn, trust that there will be others who will sacrifice for us.  We need to turn away from the politics of derision and division, to replace our own selfish cares and concerns with what is in our collective interest and the collective good.

Junger writes that “The United States is so powerful that the only country capable of destroying her might be the United States herself, which means that the ultimate terrorist strategy would be to just leave the country alone…[11] But that isn’t the way it has to be.

In the year 5777, our nation and we as individuals face monumental choices.  What kind of a society do we want for ourselves, and what kind of leaders do we want to lead us?  But even more importantly, we must also ask ourselves what kind of citizens ought we to be, how will we face the challenges that lie ahead, and how will we confront all that rightly causes us anxiety and trepidation and fear?  In making those choices, let us choose not to give over to fear but instead to cultivate hope.  Let us choose to reject selfish care and concern and realize that our strength lies in how we choose to break down the barriers of division and fear.  In this New Year 5777, may the sounding of the shofar call us to embrace the truth our people has taught for centuries, the truth embedded in the motto of this great nation – E Pluribus Unum – Out of many, We shall be One.

[1] “How The Jews Created The Comic Book Industry,” by Arie Kaplan. Reform Judaism Magazine, Fall 2003, Vol. 32. No. 1.

[2] What Is A Superhero? Robin S. Rosenberg and Peter Coogan, eds. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 3-4.

[3] Exodus Rabbah 28:3

[4] Op. Cit. Rosenberg, pp. 107-111

[5] Daniel Gardner, The Science of Fear. New York: Dutton 2008, pp. 282-283.

[6] https://www.start.umd.edu/pubs/START_AmericanTerrorismDeaths_FactSheet_

Oct2015.pdf

[7] https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2016-08-15/how-safe-are-we

[8] “Fear and Hope: The Core Emotions of our Moral DNA” by Donniel Hartman.  Delivered at the Shalom Hartman Institute July 10, 2016, Jerusalem, ISRAEL.

[9]  Sebastian Junger, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. New York: Twleve, pp. 124-125.

[10] Ibid., p.93.

[11] Ibid, pp. 127-128.

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War and Sacrifice – Rosh HaShanah Morning 5775

On September 11, 2002, I came home late, pulled off my shoes, and flopped down on the bed in my room.  It had been a very difficult, powerful day.  It was the first anniversary of the terror attacks, and I had chaired the Livingston, New Jersey town’s commemorative events, which had culminated that evening with an interfaith prayer service for several thousand people at the high school football stadium.

I flipped on the TV and up came my good friend David Letterman. Then I started thinking: who could David Letterman have on his show on the first anniversary of 9/11 without offending … everyone.  His only guest that night – former President Bill Clinton.  They had a very substantive conversation, not at all what you would normally expect from David Letterman on Late Night.  Then David asked the former president a powerful question.

It must be difficult, he said, to relinquish the presidency, and then to sit and watch events unfold over which you used to have some power or control. What’s your biggest regret or frustration now that you’re out of office?

Clinton replied, “The Israeli-Palestinian peace process.  We were so close, and we couldn’t get it done.  The deal we had at Taba in January 2001 is eventually going to be the deal.  It’s the only deal.  So the question is, how many more people are going to die before the two sides realize they have to make that deal?”

Twelve years later, it’s still the question.  How many more people are going to die before this conflict ends?  Since the second Palestinian uprising began in late 2000, nearly 1400 Israelis have been killed in terrorist activities and military operations, and in the same period more than 9,000 Palestinians have died in the conflict.  In this summer’s war alone, more than 2100 Palestinians and over 70 Israelis were killed.  Eighty percent of Palestinian deaths were young men between 18 and 35, all but five of the Israelis killed were soldiers of the same age.

Our tradition has taught through the centuries that a single human life is of ultimate, precious, infinite value.  We all know the famous piece from the Mishna: “Whoever saves a single human life, the Torah considers it as if that person had saved and entire world. But whoever destroys a single human life, the Torah considers it as if that person had destroyed an entire world.”[1]

How can we not grieve for the tragic murders of Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaer and Eyal Yifrah, killed for the crime of being Jewish and needing a ride home from school?  How can we not grieve for the terrible loss of Max Steinberg, who grew up in Los Angeles and decided to make Aliyah and join the IDF at 22 after participating in a Birthright trip.  Despite having no family in Israel, more than 30,000 people came to pay their respects when he was killed in action July 20.  How can we not grieve for four-year old Daniel Tragerman, killed while playing in his living room when a mortar hit his house in southern Israel. Each life lost, a world destroyed.

And how can we also not grieve for the tragic murder of Mohammad Abu Khdeir, killed for the crime of being Palestinian while standing on the street outside his house.  How can we also not grieve for Mohammad Bakr, a nine year old boy who was killed in a missile attack while playing on the beach?  Each life lost, a world destroyed.

That’s why the Torah portion we read this morning seems to make so little sense.  Knowing that to destroy a single human life is to destroy an entire world, the Holy One asks Abraham to self-destruct.  “Take your son,” asks the Holy One, “your only son, Isaac, and get yourself going to the land of Moriah, and offer him up as a burnt offering on one of the mountains which I tell you. (Gen. 22:2)”  I never get over the sheer audacity of the test.  How can God ask Abraham to sacrifice his son?  How could Abraham agree?  What could be so valuable, so vital, so important, that we should be willing to sacrifice ourselves and our children?

I thought a lot about this question over the summer.  In June, I visited the World War II memorial in Washington, DC on the National Mall.  Seventy-five years ago this month, on September 1, 1939, German forces invaded Poland, igniting the long-simmering fuse that exploded into the deadliest conflict in human history. If we include war-related disease and famine, 85 million people were killed in World War II including the Six Million of our people tortured and murdered in the precisely engineered Nazi death machine.

Initially America refused to fight. But after the heinous attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, America could no longer sit idly by while our neighbors bled.  Eventually more than 16,353,000 Americans served in the Second World War.  407,316 were killed; 671,846 were injured.

Looking out at the Lincoln memorial and the reflecting pool I stood facing the Wall of Freedom, where 4,048 gold stars commemorate 100 fallen soldiers each.  In front of the wall, I stopped at the simple extraordinary message beneath: “Here lies the price of freedom.”

As hard as it is for us to imagine Isaac’s journey to Mount Moriah, it is even harder to truly understand the journey of those who served.    As I stood at the memorial in the middle of June, I thought about what had taken place exactly seventy years ago.  The Allied invasion at Normandy, Operation Overlord, was the largest military operation in the history of the world.  The landing involved over 5,000 ships, 11,000 aircraft, and 175,000 men.  Many of the first men to storm the beaches were not yet 20 years old.  By the end of the day there were more than 10,000 casualties and 4,900 killed.

Eisenhower and his leadership team understood deeply what was at stake.  In his famous address, Eisenhower said: “You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months.  The eyes of the world are upon you.  The hope and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you…”[2]  Eisenhower spent the night of June 5, 1944 among the paratroopers loading the aircraft.  When the last plane roared off, Eisenhower turned to his driver, Kay Summersby.  She saw tears in his eyes.  He began to walk slowly toward his car. “Well,” he said quietly, “it’s on.”

War is a horrible, awful, terrible thing.  It wreaks havoc and destruction, and causes good people to experience profane and unholy phenomena beyond our comprehension.  It causes people to endure and commit ghastly acts of violence.  It imposes horrible suffering and hardship.  People are wounded and maimed in both body and psyche, and people are killed in the prime of life. “Here lies the price of freedom…”

Isaac’s expedition to Mount Moriah was nothing compared to the journey of the men who would land on Omaha Beach.  The English Channel churned from stormy weather with six foot waves washing over the Higgins boats for hours and hours.  Every man was seasick, drenched, and exhausted.  The men who landed on Omaha beach arrived only to find that despite the aerial bombardment, the guns of the Atlantic Wall were still intact. The horror they faced defies description.  Entire platoons were massacred before they could hit the beach.  Some men, weighed down by 80 pounds of gear, drowned before reaching shore. Others managed to make it to shore only to be shredded by German fire.

Private George Roach was an assistant flamethrower.  He weighed 125 pounds and carried over 100 pounds of gear ashore.  Somehow, he made it to the seawall and helped the medics tend to the wounded and dying.  “Over the years,” he said in 1990, “I don’t think there has been a day that has gone by that I haven’t thought of those men who didn’t make it.”[3]

As I stood at the wall, thinking of the extraordinary stories of valor and misery that accompanied the invasion at Normandy, I was overwhelmed with awe and grief and sadness. My visit to the World War II memorial came just days after I returned from Israel.  Little more than a week before, while sitting around the Shabbat table with my dear friend Rabbi Nir Barkin, we learned of the kidnapping of the three Israeli teenagers.  The Barkins are like most Israeli families.  Their oldest daughter Amit was traveling in South America, having recently completed her years of army service.  Their middle son, Omri, deliberately sought out an elite unit to serve, and was home for Shabbat. During our dinner, Omri excused himself, and went to pack his bags to return to base.

Standing at the memorial, staring at those 4,000 gold stars, I thought of Omri, whom I have watched grow from a sweet little boy into a powerfully built, strong young man.  Omri left his parents that Shabbat evening June 12 and eventually was sent to fight in Gaza.

Sitting in his home weeks later on a Shabbat evening in July, Rabbi Barkin reflected on his worry and anguish:

“I choke when I hear the phrases ‘A war for our home’ and ‘An unavoidable war’ – not because I have the slightest doubt that these statements are true, but because this is the first war in which Anat and I are parents of a combat soldier at the front. …

“We somehow get through the days… but the nights. The nightmares cross decades of [our own] traumas. They leave us with black circles under our eyes, with a perpetual feeling that it’s difficult to breathe and with a terrible fear – a fear of an unexpected knock on the door, of a Red Code siren, of a telephone call notifying us that…

“We are so impatient to hear the phone ringing with the special ringtone we’ve set for Omri’s calls. So impatient to hear his beloved voice in real time saying “Hi Abba….I’m okay”[4]

Thankfully on August 6, Nir emailed me a picture Omri took of himself on the bus ride back to his base.  His father wrote: “He’s finally out … We start breathing again.”  But we know that for 64 other families, their nightmare is permanent.

The Jewish people are a little people.  Of the more than seven billion people on planet earth, we are but 2/10 of one percent.  The State of Israel comprises .01 percent of the land mass on earth.  It is right, and it is just, that when an enemy shoots thousands of missiles and mortars at civilian populations we must do whatever is necessary to protect and defend ourselves.  When an enemy builds a labyrinth of sophisticated tunnels under the border for the purpose of kidnapping and murder, it is right and it is just that those tunnels be destroyed.

But more than that.  We believe in something, an idea that is precious and holy and good.  We believe in building a world that is founded on justice and compassion, on freedom and understanding, a world in which women have equal rights and equal opportunities to live as they so choose, where the vulnerable and the weak are afforded collective care and protection, a world in which we love our neighbor as ourselves.  We believe in a world where the rule of law is imposed by the consent of the governed, where the freedom of spoken or written or artistic expression is sacrosanct, where all people are free to express their religious beliefs as they choose.  We believe in the idea that human life is of infinite and ultimate value, and that love is what gives life enduring meaning and holiness.

These are values worth defending.  These are values worth fighting for.  There are times when, much as we detest all that war is, we are obligated to fight.  Not only must we fight to defend ourselves from aggression and attack, there are times when we must fight to defend the values and principles that make for a free and good society.

War is incredibly seductive, alluring, and addictive. Chris Hedges writes in his book War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning that war can be an elixir, enticing, and intoxicating.  It gives us resolve, a cause. It allows us to be noble.  It makes us feel tremendous power and it unleashes our need to avenge suffering and injustice. It can appear to give life meaning.[5]

So while there are times when we have to fight, and when we have to ask our children to fight for us, we cannot in that fight sacrifice the values for which we’re fighting in the first place.  We cannot rejoice in the suffering of our enemies, nor glory in their downfall.  We cannot employ inhumane means to accomplish justified ends.  And we must, no matter how angry or bitter or wounded we become, ever give up our pursuit for peace.

It’s amazing to think that seventy years since the United States led the world in vanquishing the Nazis and the Japanese, reducing Europe to rubble and incinerating Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that we now can count the Germans and the Japanese among our closest allies.  It is because in the aftermath of our victory, we chose to administer justice, and help our enemies rebuild their nations in keeping with the values for which we fought.  It is because we fought the evil in our enemies, but never let go of the promise of peace.

On this Rosh HaShanah, I think of the young men and women I know in our congregation who chose to serve in our nation’s armed forces.  I think of the men and women I know who answered the call to serve in our nation’s past efforts to lead the free world in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait, Viet Nam, Korea, and World War II.  I think of them and I honor their sacrifice, I mourn their losses, and give thanks for the gift they have given me and my children.  If you are a veteran, having served in America, our Allies, or Israel’s armed forces and you are worshipping with us this morning, I ask you please, if you are able, to rise, so that we may salute you and your service.

And for us, as we give thanks that we spend this Rosh HaShanah in the peace and tranquility of this sacred congregation and privileged community, we must look in the mirror and ask ourselves a simple question: Do I live my life in a manner that honors the sacrifice of those who fought for me?  What am I giving to better my society so that I can repay the debt I owe to those who gave so much for me?  Do I give enough of my time, my energy, or my resources to better the lives of others?  Does what I say, what I write, what I forward on email, what I talk about with friends over dinner, contribute to building the kind of society those who went to war fought to protect?  Am I teaching my children the importance of selfishness or the value of service?

The New Year 5775 begins with a sense that what is good and right in the world is collapsing.  We pray that those whose hearts are hardened with hatred be softened to embrace compassion and love.  We pray that those who see no answer but to slaughter and maim will have their swords turned to ploughshares and their spears to pruning hooks. We pray that soon and in our own day, we will see a world in which the vision of the prophets is true: a world where “national shall not lift up sword against nation, and neither do they study war anymore.”  May the one who makes peace in the high heavens, let peace descend on us, on all Israel, and all the world.

[1] Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5

[2] Stephen E. Ambrose: D-Day June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994, pp. 170-171.

[3] ibid, pp. 330-331.

[4] My thanks to Rabbi Nir Barkin, Kehilat YOZMA, Modiin, Israel, for sharing his thoughts with his congregation, and with me.

[5] Chris Hedges, War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, New York: Anchor Books, 2002 p. 3.

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Change And Choice – Rosh HaShanah Evening 5775

This summer, I was blessed to have the opportunity to take a few trips. I don’t fly as often as some of my friends who travel every week for business, but I travel enough that I have my airplane routine. After getting settled in my seat, and pulling out the book or magazine I hope to read during the flight, I usually spend a few minutes browsing the SkyMall catalogue before my taxi and take-off nap.

I love the SkyMall catalogue. It’s the greatest collection of stuff that you’ll never need. For $119.99, you can buy the Grillbot, an Automatic Grill Cleaning Robot; for $59.99 you can by a motorized gondola for your pool, complete with gondolier Luciano Poolvarotti who seranades you with three Italian songs; and, you can buy a raincoat for your dog for $39.99, complete with rain hood. Honestly, it’s usually the same garbage from year to year, but on the last flight I took in August, I saw something new that blew my mind.

It’s called the “Happiness Watch”. The ad says that using statistics and a personal health algorithm, the watch calculates your life-expectancy, and then the countdown begins. On the face of the watch is the rest of your life, counting down by years, months, days, hours, minutes, and seconds. Seize the day, follow your heart, and be happy, the ad says. Oh, and it does also tell you the current time — $79.99.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that watch. In many ways, I kind of wanted to buy it. No matter where we are in our life’s journey, the recognition of our mortality is often very useful. It’s an important theme of these High Holy Days. Tomorrow, our liturgy will declare “Let us proclaim the sacred power of this day,” as we think about life’s fragility “Who shall live, who shall die? Who shall see ripe age, and who shall not?”

As I think about all the things I want to try to accomplish in my life, all the things I want to experience, time seems awfully short. All of us are, as they say, on the clock. It’s trite but true – but my children all seem to growing up way too fast. As my aches and pains build from my obsessive need to keep playing soccer, I admit to looking a little longingly at the younger players in our league. The reminder that time is ticking away might indeed spur me to be more deliberate and diligent in attacking my bucket list.

But the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that the “Happiness Watch” isn’t going to make us happy. While the sense of our fragility, of the limited nature of our sojourn here on earth might encourage us to shout: “Carpe Diem! – Seize the Day!” it also might have the opposite effect. We might look at the time we think we have left and think we’ve missed our chance to make a meaningful impact on our world, that there isn’t enough time to do what we want to do. We might feel like throwing up our hands in despair, like a football team that’s down by too many points in the fourth quarter – and choose not to live at all.

Rosh HaShanah is a holiday that has many names. The Torah describes it as Yom Teruah – a day for loud blasts and the mystical call of the shofar. The rabbis called it Yom HaZikaron – Remembrace Day, for it is on this day that we are called to remember what each of us did in the year that’s passed, and for God to remind us of the path in life we might have, could have, should have taken. But later the rabbis called this day Yom Harat HaOlam – this is the day of the world’s beginning. Traditionally the congregation would call out these words after each sounding of the shofar, to recall the three times the world itself was renewed – at the beginning of time in creation, with the renewal of the world after the Great Flood, and lastly with the giving of Torah at Mt. Sinai. But what the rabbis seemed to understand is that each Rosh HaShanah is a renewal of the world. The New Year gives us the opportunity to renew not simply the world, but our own lives in it.

Think about the story of creation – which we read on the second day of Rosh HaShanah. The story of creation begins with these famous words: “בראשית ברא אלקים את השמים ואת הארץ – In the beginning God created the Heavens and the Earth.” But the first act of creation was not the grand proclamation: “Let there be light!” The first act of creation was an idea, a question: “What if I could make a world? What would it look like? What would it be? Who or what would inhabit it?” And then – from answering those questions emerged … a choice. “Do I create or do I not create?” And from that primordial moment of choice began life itself – an ever growing and cascading wave of choosing, in each and every moment, choice after choice after choice. And with each successive choice, God saw that it was good.

And then, as the process unfolds to its penultimate moment, God chooses to create humanity in God’s own image. What does that mean? What is it about huamnity that makes us a reflection of the Divine? The essential element of any human life, the Divine aspect to our being, is our God given right and ability and freedom to choose. We are not here by accident. It was God’s conscious choice to bring us into being, and to bless us with consciousness and choice.

It is also not by accident that the entire core of Torah, the corpus of our narrative of learning and instruction, is a story about freedom – the freedom to choose how we will act and respond in each and every moment of life. In every single moment we live, from the first day we enter this world until the day we lose hold of our consciousness, we are constantly choosing and choosing again, choice after choice after choice.

The context in which we make our choices is also continually changing. From the moment we take our first breath to the moment we breathe our last, at the most elemental level, our lives are in constant flux. Science teaches us that essentially each of us is a collection of atoms, constantly moving and interacting, always flowing in and out of us. We inhale and exhale, we eat, digest, excrete. We move and touch and give and take with the rest of creation, continuously and simultaneously.

The universe is in constant motion, and ultimately so are we. No matter how repetitive our daily tasks, and no matter how mundane our daily routine, each of us is constantly, inexorably, growing and changing. The world around us changes, the world inside us changes, and with every moment of change comes a new opportunity to choose. Change and choose. Change and choose, Change and choose.

The world and we, are constantly in process. A process is a series of actions or steps we take in order to achieve a particular end. On Rosh HaShanah, we are asked to think about the process of our lives. Think about the choices we have made in the year that has passed. How often do make the choices each moment demands without thinking about the particular end toward which we should rightly aim?

The Book of Life has a page with our name on it. In every moment, since we first were born and took our first breath, we have made choices – in each and every set of circumstances we made choices of what we chose to do, how we chose to react, what we chose to learn. From the moment as infants we turned our heads away because we decided we had enough to eat, to the moments we chose to cry because we wanted something to drink, in each and every moment of life we made choices that determined what the next moment in life would look like, and what choices we would have when that next moment came.

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson teaches: “We each know that in our own lives, choices that we made years ago shape the kinds of choices we have available now….”[1] For better or for worse. By choosing to be frugal and save money, we might secure a nest egg that will provide financial security for a more stable retirement, or resources to pass on to our children, but that frugality may have required that we forego opportunities for life experiences that can never be replaced. At the same time, if we choose to indulge every whim or fancy we may enjoy so much of what life and our world have to offer, but we may also consume the resources necessary to care for ourselves in later years.

I often think back to choices that seemed so inconsequential when they were made, but completely altered the course of my life. By choosing the Freshman Seminar in my first year of college titled: “Moral problems of the 20th century” I thought I was just taking an interesting class. But that class was taught by Professor Charles Rice, who became my advisor and my mentor, who steered me toward courses in Philosophy and Religion and well … here I am today. I think of a night out with friends at a dance club during my junior year in Israel when I decided to hang out with this cute girl named Aimee instead of another girl I also knew and well … here we are. With each and every choice we author new episodes and chapters in the book of life.

But we are not the only authors of the story of our lives. The Book of Life is co-authored by all creation. Everything that has come before in some way impacted the setting and circumstances of our own lives. We share authorship of the Book of Life with everything and everyone who has ever lived. Our page has an infinite number of footnotes and referents to pages in other parts of that book, to those whose lives and choices shaped not simply the pathways through history that created our own situation in life, but to all those we have affected and impacted through the process of our own decisions and choices.

We do not always have choice over how our world changes. The choices made by those we know, and those we may never know, can drastically impact the circumstances of our own predicament. A person can choose to look down at a phone instead of keeping eyes on the road and change the lives of countless people. A group of people can bet too much money on the housing market, which can impact the choices of another group of people who loaned too much money to people with shaky credit, which can impact another group of people who thought they could buy and trade those mortgages, and the entire economy of the world can convulse and cause untold numbers of people to suffer.

Sometimes the events that take place seem incredibly unfair. A loved-one is stricken with a terrible disease, a child is made to suffer trauma, someone we love dies much too young. If God is a choosing God, then did God choose this too? Is God the big bearded force on high who sits around this time of year and deals out tzurris? I’ll give cancer to you, a stroke to you, a failed business to you, a broken marriage to you, an autistic child to you? How can there be suffering and evil in the world when there is an all-powerful God that could choose to make a difference?

Years ago a member of my congregation in New Jersey became sick with lung cancer. It was the greatest of ironies, as he was the administrator at Sloane Kettering of the department that studied lung cancer. He was a young man, in his forties, married with a teenage daughter. His wife was bereft. Together we sat in the sanctuary and she said: “Why? I just want to know why?” She had to ask, how could she not ask? Where is the justice, the fairness, the goodness in a world where a man is stricken with the disease he has devoted his life to cure?

But as we talked, she realized that “why” was not simply a question we couldn’t answer, it was not really the question she needed to answer. What she really wanted to know, a question she could answer was this: “What now?” “What can I do to help my husband cope with the radiation and chemotherapy? How can I raise my daughter so that she will become all she can be? What choices do I need to make today, tomorrow, next week, next month, next year?

The fact is that God is not what we often imagine God to be. God is not the unreachable, unchanging, wrathful force that compels and punishes. God does not determine our future, and God does not pejoratively impose suffering and hardship. God is part of the process, the force that invites us to see the world anew, the source of novelty and imagination.

In the Talmud, the sage Resh Lakish teaches that the Holy One renews the work of Creation every single day.[2] Rabbi Jacob Emden, the great scholar of the eighteenth century teaches that the word מחדש – renews, should be translated differently. He said instead we should think of it as “make something novel.” Each day is novel in that there never was and there never will be such a day in the history of the world.

Our tradition teaches that with God we share a covenant, a relationship which inspires us to grow in love for each other. The book of Exodus describes God as ever changing. When Moses asks for God’s name, God replies: “אהיה אשר אהיה – I will be what I will be.” As Rabbi Toba Spitzer writes: “God is the ultimate Source for all possibility and potentiality in the universe.”[3]

God is ultimately what process theologians call the lure – the force that inspires us to make holy choices in the context of our freedom to choose. The covenant we share with God is filled with commandments, mitzvot, which we may choose to perform. Those laws are not there to annoy or to restrict, but to challenge and guide. The fact is that the more our choices in life are guided by the loving wisdom of our covenant, the more our choices lead to a deeper, richer, more meaningful and purposeful life.

God shares with us in a life of process, guiding us toward the particular end for which God brought forth human life. That end is a world in which, together with God, we create a world which is filled with light and love, a world balanced by knowledge and wisdom, justice and compassion, drive and wonder, splendor and life. A world that is one with itself and one with God as well.

Change is liberating. We are not enslaved to who we have been before, nor are we chained to the choices we are used to making. We can make different choices, healthier choices, more loving choices.

In this New Year 5775, let us find happiness in counting forward, rather than in counting down. Let us use each and every moment we are blessed to share to choose to build a different kind of world. No matter where we find ourselves, no matter how constrained our choices may seem, let us be drawn by God to choose life, to choose love, to choose service over selfishness and purpose over placidity. Let the chapters we author in the book of life not only tell the story of how we grew to our highest possible selves, but how our choices liberated others to be their own highest selves. And may all of us together, with God’s loving help, be inscribed for health, happiness, blessing, and peace.

 

[1] Bradley Shavit Artson, God of Becoming and Relationship. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 2013, pp. 10-11.

[2] Talmud Chagigah 12b

[3] “Why We Need Process Theology,” by Toba Spitzer, CCAR Journal, Winter 2012, p. 89.

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