Friday, May 24, 2002

Getting To ‘Yes’ (Jewish Week)


Getting To ‘Yes’
Joshua Hammerman

I am in a very precarious position at the moment. You see, I am a lifelong Boston Red Sox fan living in Cablevision-land who happens to have access to something extremely valuable: Yankees games on the YES satellite TV network. Ironically, I acquired a satellite dish a few years ago specifically to enable my children to grow up with their Sox on.

DirecTV was my only hedge against their assimilation into Yankeedom — and it has worked. Now my kids have the pleasure of suffering both from an upsurge of global anti-Semitism and from not having won the World Series since 1918.

For me, this is a classic win-win. If the Yankees lose, the Sox gain ground. If the Yankees win, their diehard supporters suffer from not being able to watch them.

But I’ve come to realize that it’s not just Yankee fans who have been trying desperately to get to YES recently.

It’s been a very depressing year for all of us, a year when affirmation has seemed a distant dream.

Golda Meir once said: “Pessimism is a luxury a Jew cannot allow himself.”

We need, so desperately, to get to the kind of “Yes” that comes from deep within the soul, one that can overcome all the little things that get in the way, and the big things too. We need a “Yes” embedded in profound faith; a “Yes” that is embodied by the liturgical response “Amen.”

Amen appears 30 times in the Bible, mostly in formulaic endorsements of blessings, curses and oaths. In our liturgy, the word almost always comes as a response to hearing a blessing recited.

The custom of responding with “Amen” developed centuries before Gutenberg, when only the prayer leader had the written words in front of him, so the rest of the congregation had one chance only to state, unequivocally, that it endorsed every word spoken, by saying “Amen.”

Jewish legend stresses the great religious value of responding “Amen,” saying it prolongs life and promotes forgiveness from sin. Even God nods “Amen” to the blessings offered up by mortals.

“Whoever says ‘Amen’ with all his strength,” said the rabbis, “to that person the Gates of Paradise will be opened.” That’s what we need — an “Amen” that forces open the Gates of Paradise.

When we say “Amen” to a blessing, we are affirming that there is a direction to history, a foundation for morality and a purpose for Jewish peoplehood. We are saying that miracles do happen if we work in partnership with God. We are signing on to all those things, we are sealing the deal, and we’re even toasting the agreement.

We are getting to “Yes.”

By saying “Amen” we are suspending some of our doubts and laying our cynicism and fatalism aside in order to be full participants in the cosmic experiment known as the Jewish people. We are taking a leap of faith. Every “Amen” is one more “Yes” to life that can counteract all the negativity that we hear out there. It’s a “Yes” to being human, a “Yes” to cherishing every moment, every encounter, every morsel that we eat. It is a “Yes” to seeing all of life as a blessing. When we adopt this “Amen” mentality, we can begin to turn away from all that holds us down and really enjoy our few, fleeting days of life.

And now, the cry of our generation, our most sacred obligation of the moment, is for each of us to stand up unabashedly and say “Yes” in solidarity with Israel and against terror. We owe it to America. We owe it to Israel, to ourselves and our children, to the world.

But we have a problem. Judaism is a glass-half-full religion. Unfortunately, however, most Jews are glass-half-empty people, weighed down by our glass-mostly-empty recent history. Take a look at a recent American Jewish Committee survey of American Jews. Only 9 percent of those surveyed think anti-Semitism will decline over the next five years. OK, given how things are in the world right now, that’s understandable.

But look at this: fully 40 percent actually disagreed with the statement, “Virtually all positions of influence in the United States are open to Jews.” This survey was conducted exactly one year after an identifiably Jewish individual nearly became vice president. How soon we forget. And this pessimism appears at a time when, according to the Wall Street Journal, high-ranking colleges are fighting to recruit more Jewish students to their campuses.

Abba Eban called us the people who could “never take ‘yes’ for an answer.” The Torah and the Jewish people seem to be the worst mismatch since, well, the Red Sox and the Yankees. Our tradition has provided us with an eternal hook-up to the YES network, yet far too few have subscribed.

We get another chance to do that now. Having just ascended to Sinai on Shavuot, we can’t allow ourselves to wallow in pessimism and self-pity. Heck, even the Red Sox have a shot at winning it all this year. If they can do it, surely anything is possible. Neither Cablevision nor Arafat should keep any of us from getting to YES this year. As the rooters of that other New York team used to say, “You Gotta Believe.” n

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman, spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Stamford, Conn., can be reached at His new book, “ Seeking God in Cyberspace” can be previewed on-line at

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