Friday, October 1, 2004

High Holidays Sermons 5765: "I Am Jewish"

Day 1 | Day 2 | Kol Nidre | Yom Kippur 
"I Am Jewish"
Rosh Hashanah Day One
Because I Can
Three hundred and fifty years ago this month, in September of 1654, the French frigate named “Saint Catherine” sailed into the port of New Amsterdam, containing a human cargo of 23 bedraggled Jewish refugees from Brazil. They had been expelled when the Portuguese recaptured the colony from the Dutch, and they were now seeking a new home. They were not the first Jews to set foot on these American shores, but they became the first Jewish community to reside here.
In contrast to the pilgrims, who also fled religious persecution before landing in Plymouth 25 years earlier, the Jews came with no other options, penniless and desperate for refuge. How fitting that the grand experiment that was to become American Jewry had such humble beginnings, and that we, the eternal ping pong ball of nations, bounced our way to America by way of Brazil, having bounced there from Holland, having bounced there from Spain, having bounced there from Babylonia, having bounced there from Jerusalem. And we landed ‘kerplunk,” right here, where we’ve stayed for 350 years.
(Of course, most of us came here by way of Russia, by way of Poland, by way of Germany, and almost none can trace American ancestry more than a century and a half, but for all of us, to some small measure, it began with that boat from Brazil).
How often in our history have Jews actually had the chance to choose where we would live? But from those humble beginnings, we’ve achieved great things on American soil. Pick a field, any profession, any academic discipline, any facet of the arts or media or politics, and there we are. The Jewish contribution to American Civilization has been immense. We’ve done it all!
And we’re popular! At one point last winter, virtually the entire field of democratic candidates was vying to prove that they had the most authentically Jewish lineage. As we celebrate 350 years of Jewish presence on these shores, some strange things are happening. While we Jews have been focusing so much attention on Mel Gibson’s “The Passion,” some of our neighbors have become mighty passionate about Judaism. Non-Jewish kids are begging their parents for Bar Mitzvahs and Madonna is not doing concerts on Shabbat and is spending this Rosh Hashanah attending SRO services at a hotel in Tel Aviv.
But what defines this Jewishness that is so exploding in popularity? What does it mean to proclaim, “I am Jewish?”
For the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, those were the final words he uttered before being murdered by terrorists in February of 2002, his beheading was a grisly, macabre ritual that has been repeated all too often since; but his final words remain a lasting tribute to his courage. “My father is Jewish. My mother is Jewish. I am Jewish.”
As a memorial to their son, Judea and Ruth Pearl decided to ask dozens of Jews to reflect on those final words, and their responses were collected into a book. Over these next ten days, we’ll have a chance to pay tribute to Pearl in our own way, as well as the many others who have suffered a similar fate, and to mark the achievement that is 350 years of American Judaism, by reflecting on those words.
What does it mean to say “I am Jewish?” In Lenny Bruce’s classic comedy routine from the 1960s, being Jewish had less to do with ancestry than with your culinary preferences. “Kool-Aid is non-Jewish, he said, using the “g” word, as well as all Drake's Cakes. Pumpernickel is Jewish, along with black cherry soda, Macaroons and Fruit salad. On the other hand, white bread is very, well, white bread, as are instant potatoes and lime Jell-O.
When Bruce wrote this, most American Jews still had roughly the same ethnic and cultural background. His distinctions no longer ring true to most audiences. But he was onto something in defining Jewishness in terms of a particular approach to life rather than merely by parental lineage.
So I’ve spent the past several months looking for the magic definition that would tie together all the strands of Jewish experience, sort of a unified string theory -- with tzitzis. Our journey to define “I am Jewish” begins, ironically, with the words of someone not himself Jewish: Bill Clinton. Last spring, as he began his worldwide book tour, the former president sat down for an interview with Dan Rather on “60 Minutes.” In the most enduring moment of that interview, Rather asked Clinton why he did what he did in his reckless relationship with Monica Lewinsky.
The former president’s response: “Because I could.”
He then added that this is "the worst possible reason ... I think that's just about the most morally indefensible reason that anybody could have for doing anything."

But he did it – because he could. I don’t want to single out Clinton as the only one who abuses power – and I do wish him the best of health. But this is a theme that runs through our society, people with power exercising it arbitrarily, simply for the sake of reveling in that power. We who live in the Nike era of “Just do it,” look in awe at those who have the power to look back at us and, without a single flicker of conscience, say, “You’re fired.” 
Why is Donald Trump now a mega TV star as well as a mega billionaire? Because he could. Because he could say that line, that way. 
Why do famous athletes use designer steroids, jeopardizing their health to run faster or hit more home runs? Because they could. Why do corporate executives like those at Enron bilk their own stockholders and betray the public trust? Because they could.
Why is John Roland an ex-governor right now? Because he thought he could. 
And, while in no way would I make a moral comparison between corrupt politicians and terrorists, why do terrorists blow up a school and kill hundreds of children in Russia, or kill innocents on buses in Be’ersheva, or murder 50,000 in Sudan? Because they can. 
The idea of terrorism is to display power – arbitrarily, for its own sake. As David Brooks wrote last week in the Times, “This death cult has no reason and is beyond negotiation. This is what makes it so frightening. This is what causes so many to engage in a sort of mental diversion. They don't want to confront this horror. So they rush off in search of more comprehensible things to hate.” 
In the 19th century, Lord Acton wrote, “Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” But that’s not what Judaism says. Judaism says that power ennobles. But only if that power is utilized to ennoble others. We Jews had our own Bill Clinton once – his name was King David. His act of indiscretion brought ruin to his family and placed him clearly beyond the pale of divine legitimacy – until he repented. Power is a gift, our tradition teaches, but only if we use it wisely. And with the advent of Zionism, Jews have made the conscious choice of power and wisdom over powerlessness and self-pity.
To be a Jew is to ennoble the world - because we can. To feed the hungry - because we can. To assist victims in Darfur who are half a world away - because we can. We may or may not be a chosen people, but we are, in the words of Michael Medved writing in the Daniel Pearl book, a “choosing people.” To be Jewish is an act of will – we exercise our will, not arbitrarily because we can, but morally - because we can. To be Jewish is to choose the hard way – to dream up the impossible, and then to fulfill it.
This year we marked the 100th anniversary of the passing of Theodore Herzl, the giant who dreamed the dream of a Jewish state and then willed it into reality. It is humbling for me to recognize that when Herzl was my age…he had been dead for three years.
As Hillel Halkin wrote recently in the Jerusalem Post, “Although it is tempting to speculate how much more he might have accomplished had he lived longer, it is more likely that he would have accomplished less. He only managed to do what he did in the nine hectic years between writing The Jewish State and dying of complications from a heart condition by living at an unsustainable pace. "I gave my heart's blood for my people," Herzl said to a bedside visitor not long before his death, and for once this greatest of political and diplomatic poker players, who bluffed his way through high-stakes pot after pot without a single strong card in his hand, was not exaggerating. 
Herzl created the international movement called Zionism from practically nothing…. Any normally sensible person could have told him that if you wanted to build a successful Zionist movement, you had to spend years, country by country, in organizing Zionist branches, recruiting members, raising funds, building an infrastructure. Herzl saw it differently. First, he thought, announce a gala congress to celebrate this non-existent movement's success; and then, at breakneck speed, use the electrifying effect of the announcement to get the branches, members, funds and infrastructure to materialize.

But he knew that if you juggle three balls in the air they look like five; that five look like 10; that seven, if you can manage them, look like 20 - and that none, as long as they remain in the air, can be examined to see if they are real. 
The Turkish sultan owned Palestine and didn't want Jews but needed international loans? Herzl convinced him he could deliver those loans even though he didn’t have a penny to his name. Then he convinced Rothschild he was the sultan’s best friend. Then he convinced Kaiser Wilhelm that the loan he was obtaining for the sultan could lead to a German protectorate over millions of Palestinian Jews. It didn't matter that Rothschild, the sultan, and the Kaiser all laughed and thought he was mad. Herzl met them all and was able to play them all off of each other. And it worked. 
Herzl was not a heavyweight Jewish thinker. He knew no Hebrew, had only a superficial knowledge of religious tradition. To a serious Jew, Herzl was something of an embarrassment. 
But Herzl’s life embodied the essence of what is most Jewish of all – He nearly single handedly created a Jewish state from nothing – because he could.
This summer as many of you know, I led our Beth El tour of Israel and then went on through Europe with my family. The contrast between Israel and Europe was jarring for me. For one thing, I felt much safer in Israel. Israel faces seemingly insurmountable problems, awash amidst a sea of enemies, with the world ready to blame it for every ill this side of diaper rash. Seemingly helpless to do anything about the wave of senseless terror, Israel came up with the one solution that had a glimmer of a chance of working: The security fence. And it has worked – the most beautiful ugly fence I’ve ever seen. Israel has the moral obligation to protect its citizens, no matter what the World Court thinks, and it is doing so. Our group walked confidently through the streets of downtown Jerusalem because it was our way of asserting our own will against the fear tactics of terror. The shop owners placed signs in their windows, “Thank you courageous tourist.” In Israel, the simple act of going shopping downtown becomes an act of political will. We went shopping – because we could.
So a few weeks later I was in France. The Jewish community is very depressed over there – and many are leaving. Aliyah to Israel has risen threefold over the past couple of years. I spoke with a shop owner in the Jewish quarter of Paris and he plans to move to America this fall. While I was there a Jewish soup kitchen was vandalized and burned. The day after this atrocity, the French papers were filled with indignation. They blamed the neo-Nazi right extreme. They blamed the Islamic left extreme. They blamed the German influence. They blamed the Moroccan influence. They blamed Ariel Sharon, because it’s always easy to blame Ariel Sharon, who the month before had called on French Jews to make Aliya. They blamed everyone else, but refused to look in the mirror and confront the deep truths that have haunted the French soul since, well, since Theodore Herzl sat in that courtroom and witnessed the humiliation of Alfred Dreyfus. 
There was no act of will here, no desire to take a problem by the horns, so to speak, and solve it. There was no rolling up of the sleeves, like there is in Israel whenever a problem arises. Just bluster…. They rounded up the usual suspects. 
So I couldn’t sleep one night in Paris and turned on the radio. Fittingly, most of the stations were playing American songs. They can’t even do anti-Americanism right. I finally found a station playing a French song: (sort of)
It was “Que Sera Sera.” Doris Day.
Jews don’t know from Que Sera Sera. Sometimes I wish we did. During the Yom Kippur War in 1973, an Israeli songwriter tried to come up with a Hebrew version of the Beatles song “Let it Be.” In the end she couldn’t. She just couldn’t do it! To be Jewish, evidently, is to be unable to let things be! We’ve got to tinker – to change things. We don’t just fiddle on the roof – we fiddle EVERYWHERE. We love to fiddle. “Yidl with the fiddle.” The song she ended up with, “Lu Yehi,” became one of the great songs of that era, and if you sing it alongside “Let it Be” you’ll find clear metric parallels – but Lu Yehi does not mean “Let it be” – it means “If only it would be.” (“There is still a white sail on the horizon/ against a heavy black cloud/ All that we desire – MAY it be"). Lu Yehi Lu Yehi, Ana Lu yehi – Kol Shenevakesh Lu Yehi. Jews dream impossible dreams and then get down and make it happen. We can’t let it be, we can only try to make things better.
That songwriter? Her name was Naomi Shemer. Israel’s greatest songstress, who died this past June at 73 after a long fight with cancer. After her funeral, near the beautiful shores of the Kinneret, on the kibbutz where she was born, scores of fans stayed behind long after the celebrities had departed, and together they sang her songs. “Machar” “Tomorrow,” (which she sang long before Orphan Annie). “Al Kol Eleh,” a hymn beseeching God to protect the fragile things that sustain our lives. And most famous of all, “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav,” a mournful love ballad written just before the 6-Day War, to a Jerusalem that was withering. After the war she added a new stanza marking the Jewish return to the now overflowing wells and the sounding of the shofar on the Temple Mount.
We are Sisyphus, pushing that rock up the mount – and it times we even get close to the top. But always we are pushed back. Yet we keep at it, despite the setbacks. We can’t just let it be. Every setback is seen as a challenge, and no problem is beyond our capacity to overcome it.
Every year we come back here, searching for answers, wounded by life’s hard knocks. We parade before the Almighty, one by one, hoping to be inscribed in the Book of Life – and then even that Unetaneh Tokef prayer refuses to let us off the hook. “Book of Life, Book of Shmife!” it tells us at the end, your own Teshuvah, prayer and acts of justice can themselves avert the decree. All it takes is an act of will. We can ensure our own survival – our own immortality – we can, and we must – because we can.
For every problem a solution. Did you know that this summer an Israeli physicist announced the creation of the world’s first air-conditioned motorcycle. The air conditioner itself is a small, lightweight box that fits into the motorcycle's storage compartment and is powered by the motorcycle's battery. Cool.
Israel produces more scientific papers per capita than any other nation by a large margin - 109 per 10,000 people -- as well as one of the highest per capita rates of patents filed. I told you – we’re fiddlers. In proportion to its population, Israel has the largest number of startup companies in the world. Israel has the world's second highest per capita of new books. Israel has more museums per capita than any other country. And, an Israeli even created the Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers.
That is the Israel that I saw this year, the one most Americans never get to see.
And now, Israel has developed a resistance to terrorism, combining technology, intelligence gathering capability and strategic savvy to win this war. Even as the bombings still go on, and to some extent they will, the people have learned to live with it. And wonder of wonders, the economy is growing again. When we were in Jerusalem last month, our hotel was completely booked. They have found a way to live with the fear and to stare down the evil, without losing moral bearings. Despite 55 years of unrelenting terrorism, ostracism and isolation, Israelis continue to respond with a life-affirming ingenuity, to bring goodness to the world. Why? Because they can. 
60 years ago, on September 15, 1944, in the Wolfsberg Labor Camp in Germany, Naftali Stern, a Hungarian Jewish inmate, had a dilemma. Rosh Hashanah was approaching that week and there was no Machzor from which he might be able to lead the prayers for others in the camp. Stern, who later became a renowned cantor, took some paper scraps from bags of cement that he had purchased with bread rations. Using a pencil stub he found, he began transcribing from memory the prayers of the musaf service that we just completed. When he finished this task, he recorded the date and then added a list of names of the people from his city who had died. On Rosh Hashanah the Germans allowed the Jews to have a service, but on Yom Kippur they did not. That Rosh Hashanah however, was very emotional for Stern and the other Jewish prisoners, who for a short while were able to forget about the barbed wire and watchtowers.
For Naftali Stern, exactly 60 years ago, no Machzor – no problem. He literally gave up his daily bread to write his own Machzor. This hand-written, 25-page cement bag Machzor is now part of the collection of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. It is a remarkable achievement – the entire service, from memory.
When our group was at Yad Vashem last month, we were victims of a scheduling snafu
that denied us the chance to have lunch in their cafeteria. It’s part of the ingenuity – Israelis are constantly thinking of new ways to drive you crazy. Why? Because they can.
We were ushered into a conference room. At that point I wasn’t hungry. It was all so annoying and threatened to cast a shadow over our Yad Vashem experience until something happened that made me realize how Israelis have overcome their biggest obstacle of all – they’ve discovered customer service.
A distinguished man came into our room. He told us the story of Naftali Stern and his hand-written machzor and presented me with a facsimile to take back to the congregation. I’ve been davening from it this morning.
Here is the inscription: To Temple Beth El, Stamford Connecticut. In testimony to the triumph of the spirit over the frailties of the body and an expression of spiritual steadfastness that sparks a commitment to Jewish continuity and the hope for continued growth of the Jewish People. And he signed it, Shaya ben Yehuda, Director of International Relations, Yad Vashem.
And at that moment, it seemed much less annoying and far more fitting to have given up my daily ration of lunch for this Machzor.
In the 19th century Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav taught that in order to do Teshuvah, you have to be happy. What he was saying is that we have to reverse the natural psychological process that occurs when we review our shortcomings. It would be easy to get down on ourselves for those bad habits that seem impossible to break. Nachman was saying that we have to overcome that by envisioning what we can be like at our best and then reach for that goal with optimism and hope.
100 years ago, Herzl single handedly laid the groundwork for a Jewish state before he died. He did it, because he could. 60 years ago, Naftali Stern brought a moment’s respite to tortured souls by denying his body its physical sustenance. Why? Because he could. For her entire career, Naomi Shemer brought vocal expression to our dreams and crystallized our hopes. Why? Because she could. In 350 years, American Jewry has gone from 23 ragged refugees to one of the great success stories the world has known? Because we could. 
And so I ask. If they could do all this, if we could do all this – how is it possible that yesterday we didn’t have a minyan in the morning? 
How is it possible that we don’t have a way to ensure quality, affordable Jewish education for every child? 
How is it possible that anyone might think that the war on terror isn’t winnable? 
How is it possible that anyone here would think that we can’t become an even more warm and vibrant community? 
How is it possible that fewer than a quarter of us have ever been to Israel? 
How is it possible that we become so cynical that we expect that people will gossip or cheat or that an idea won’t work because we tried it once before, 27 years ago? 
How is it possible that a single child might leave here not being head over heels in love with being Jewish? 
How is it possible that you might have a non-affiliated friend who is wandering looking for answers and you haven’t offered to bring him here, thinking it’s none of your business? 
How is it possible that there are people who are hungry and we haven’t fed them? How is it possible that right under our nose, a teenager we know was falling into a life of despair and addiction and we aren’t doing anything about it? 
How is it possible?
I don’t care if the mountain is Everest, we will continue to scale it, because we can. And I don’t care if the problem seems insurmountable, we will continue to attack it – because we can. 
And I don’t care if you don’t care because I won’t accept that – nor should you accept that from me. 
I won’t accept “we can’t” – because, we can.
That’s what it means to say “I am Jewish.” At least until I give you my second definition -- tomorrow.

The Jewish Stain
I was looking through the book “I Am Jewish” the other day, that collection of essays written in memory of Daniel Pearl, and one contribution in particular struck me. It was by Na’ama Kelman a rabbi and descendant of ten generations of rabbis who in 1992 became the first woman rabbi to be ordained in Israel. 

“Being Jewish has taught me how to laugh! First and foremost to laugh at myself and at my situation. More important, to laugh in order to act in the world. That is not to say we are to make fun of someone or make light of our fate. Rather, one is not to take oneself too seriously, but to take one’s responsibilities very seriously.”
Today’s Torah reading contains one of the saddest stories ever to have been told – that of Isaac’s near slaughter at the hands of his father Abraham. Yes within Isaac’s very name lie the seeds to our redemption from the weight of this history. His name, “Yitzchak,” means “He will laugh.” Not that he did - but that he will – even after this life-altering trauma, he WILL laugh. The first child born to a Jewish mother was given the name “He will laugh.”
And we Jews have known, ever since Isaac, that if we did not have the gift of laughter, all we would ever do is cry.
My mother is Jewish. My father is a maniac. I am Isaac.
Kelman points out that laughter alone is not enough – unless it leads to action. And one way that it can lead to action is, strangely enough, if the laughter is directed inward. To laugh at oneself, to puncture the ego and deflate it – that is the key to effective action. We have to be able to poke fun at our own foibles, because in doing so, we are forced to come face to face with out fallibility. Laughter, when done the right way, the Jewish way, promotes that quality that the world needs now more than perhaps any other: humility.
And since yesterday we have already defined Judaism in terms of our desire to act – because we can, today I want to speak of how we need to add humility to our lives, because we can’t do it alone. 
It is important to note that we never actually see Isaac laugh in the few chapters that are devoted to him. In fact, Isaac is a great model for humility in the Midrash, for his dealings with his neighbors, and his family. Here was a man who was thoroughly betrayed by his wife and sons and nearly killed by his father. Yet we never hear of him responding with similar maliciousness. On the contrary, the commentators laud the respect he shows to his father Abraham. When faced with a water shortage, Isaac doesn’t dig new wells, he returns to the wells of his father and re-digs them; and when he re-digs them he doesn’t rename them, instead he reinstates the names given them by his father. Isaac doesn’t care if the plaque with his name appears on those wells. And Isaac, the only patriarch not to be granted the honor of a new name during his life, has a name that changes its meaning throughout his life. Before he is born, his mother laughs out of shock and joy. As a child, his brother laughs at him; and as he ages, his laughter become more inner-directed as he loses sight of the world around him. Come to think of it, we all do laugh differently as we go through the stages of life. By the end of Isaac’s, Yitzchak might literally still mean “laughter,” but we hear humility, and understand his laughter as the unique ability to laugh at oneself – to submerge the ego for the greater good, to, in the words of our sources, “Say little and do much.”
The rabbis considered arrogance one of the worst qualities you could have and called humility "the greatest virtue of all."
In rabbinic literature, the schools of Hillel and Shammai disagreed on almost everything. If one of them said "tastes great!" the other would say "less filling!"
 There was one point of law that they were arguing about for three years. Finally a voice from heaven cried out, "These and those are the words of the living God" (One of the most important maxims in all of Jewish literature -- "Elu v'elu divrei elohim hayyim." But the law went according to the ruling of Hillel because the followers of Hillel were kindly and modest. They not only studied the rulings of Bet Shammai, they mentioned them before their own.
We read in the Talmud, "From the person who seeks greatness, greatness flees. But the person who flees from greatness, greatness follows."
This is election season and we often hear the term “character” bandied about. But the characteristics that are discussed by the campaigns and reported in the media rarely include humility, although the candidates step on their toes from time to time trying to sound humble and self-effacing. They think it works really well with the soccer moms.
What’s interesting, however, is that the negative stereotypes we’ve heard regarding each of the presidential candidates also involve humility. Kerry has been painted as a flip-flopper. More supportive analysts use the term “nuanced.” Certainly we want our presidents to have principles, but I wonder what is so wrong about having the humility to second-guess one’s prior assumptions and to reevaluate information as it streams in. By the way, the precise definition of Teshuvah is “flip flop,” a real change of direction. And as for Bush, while the press was all over him after last winter’s news conference for not second guessing himself enough, the primary suspicion opponents have of his character has to do with his deep faith, as if his belief in a higher power were somehow a bad thing. Ralph Nader apparently has no such problem. No one is accusing him of being overly humble.
Neither of the major party candidates is very good at self-effacing humor. You can’t feign humility; and face it, to want to be President you have to have a huge ego. Each candidate in his own way possesses a form of modesty – Kerry intellectual and Bush spiritual – and both of these qualities are absolute requirements for a true leader. And yet these are the very qualities being mocked on late night television and panned on the op ed pages. 
By the way, if you were hoping to get some guidance as to whom to vote for, I can only tell you that I’ve been doing a lot of flip-flopping a lot on this one. Our votes are too important to be given over to knee jerk responses. While I believe both candidates are tough enough to face the severe challenges ahead of us and I do believe that both candidates truly do “get it” in understanding that Israel is on the front lines of this war and is a strategic ally of the highest order, each candidate has a burden of proof. Bush has to prove that he would continue “get it” in a second term in the face of enormous international pressure to appease, knowing that he would never have to answer to the voters again but would have to answer to his Saudi backers, and Kerry would have to prove that he would continue to “get it,” in the face of enormous internal pressure from the left wing of his own party, many of whom are still wallowing in nostalgia for Woodstock in a post 9/11 world that has become much more complicated. There – now have I offended each side equally?
After World War II, Winston Churchill humbly commented that, "I was not the lion, but it fell to me to give the lion’s roar." That’s the type of talk we need to be hearing.
In the Talmud we read (BT Yoma 22b), “One should not appoint any administrator of a community unless he carries a basket of reptiles on his back, so that if he becomes arrogant, one could tell him, “turn around.” Hey buddy – look how foolish your really are – you have a basket of reptiles on your back!
I would love to see one of these candidates act as if he knew he had a basket of reptiles on his back (instead of the snakes manipulating the soft money). True leaders are able to step down from the pedestal and acknowledge frailties without worrying about being labeled “girly men.” That’s one reason I love to take congregants to Israel with me. It helps us to see one another as human beings, confronting the same problems facing the same fears. You can never look at your rabbi in the same way again after you’ve seen him on the back of a camel. 
This year marks the 18th Rosh Hashanah that I have stood up here to speak with you. It has been a great privilege. I’ve always tried not to become stuck on some pedestal, either in your eyes or my own, because I always wanted to take the path of greatest humility. Whether I’ve succeeded is not mine to determine, but I know that I’ve never had any problem laughing at my foibles, and I appreciate that neither have many of you. That’s a good thing.
I have the audacity to believe that just maybe some of the messages I’ve shared have touched some lives along the line, but I also know that eighteen years is a long time, and it makes me wonder what more could have been done. This past summer, somewhat nostalgic as this chai anniversary approached, I took the opportunity to read over some of the sermons I’ve given over the years on the High Holidays. There are some greatest hits, to be sure. But there are also some things that I said that just make me cringe with embarrassment. You, know, when you take chai and hold it up to the mirror, you get yechhh!
Don’t get me wrong. There are many moments I am proud of. The supreme challenge of responding to September 11, for example, and the Ten Days Project, when so many took to heart my message on the dangers of gossip. Way back when I first got here, I did this thing comparing the world views of Coke and Pepsi – people still talk about it. Then there was the time I said I would not be shopping at Stew Leonards for a year and lots of people got upset about that one. But it got me a tour of the place from Stew Junior, plus a free ice cream cone, and, for several years, corn stalks for our congregational Sukkah. And perhaps my favorite of all, the Silent Scream, about teen depression and suicide, and about how all of us wear masks and lose touch with the real human being behind it.
But then there are the moments I’m less proud of, humbling moments, events crying out for Teshuvah and painful reassessment. Towering above them all for me is time in 1999 when our parking lot was desecrated with medical waste and swastikas just a few weeks before the holidays. Little did we know then that the perpetrator would turn out to be someone from the Jewish community. That would only come to light five months later.
But this incident came on the heels of a series of hate crimes against the Jews, in Chicago, Sacramento and Buford Furrow’s attempt to kill children at a JCC in southern California. So, on the High Holidays I was on high horse, hurling accusations while accepting the condolences of our neighbors and fellow clergy. 
This incident fed into my own innate need to identify an enemy, an Other, as part of what I considered the eternal Jewish condition. Although I was born years after the Holocaust, my world had been framed by images of Auschwitz. At Hebrew School assemblies we were subjected to horrifying black and white films of flaccid corpses being tossed into mass graves. The Six Day War took place when I was ten, and no childhood event shaped my life more than that single moment in 1967 (the Red Sox won the pennant that year, which qualifies as formative mega-event #2). At long last, both the Jews and the Red Sox were fighting back, and winning! Throughout my formative years, I never felt so Jewish as when I was vicariously experiencing persecution and then victory over the enemy. It was not the most positive, celebratory form of Judaism in the world, but it was the only Judaism I knew. This is the world I had been born into, not my real world, which was as secure as any world has been for any Jewish generation ever, but the mythic world that defined my real world, a world of the never-ending struggle to survive amidst a sea of enemies, a world where, in the words of Rabbi Shlomo Carlbach, “There’s something that has kept us alive as Jews – the fact that someone is always trying to kill us.” That was the worldview I brought into those horrible days after the swastika incident. The sermons that year were actually pretty good – you can judge for yourself at our web site. But I missed a precious opportunity to transcend the hate.
When the arrest was made the following February, I found myself in an awkward position, to say the least. The demonizing of an unknown perpetrator had enabled the community to come together as never before. So much good had come from this united crusade against this latter-day Amalek. And now Amalek, it turned out (with apologies to Pogo), was one of us.
But Amalek is always one of us, I now realize, because something of Amalek resides within each of us. The battle against hate is internal as much as external. 
Ironically, the perpetrator was charged with the federal civil rights crime of obstructing persons in the free exercise of their religious beliefs. In fact, his act had brought people to a deepened awareness of their faith attachments. Service attendance increased substantially after the incident. He had also clarified for us the battle lines, redrawn every generation, between “us” and “them.” We had become each other’s Other. Everything was crystal clear, that is until his identity became known. I could feel myself backpedaling as I told the local reporter that “we still must fight bias, whatever the source,” but my discomfort was acute. 
For the perpetrator, it was far worse. Acquaintances later informed me of his general instability and distress over what had transpired. I never met him, nor did I ever attempt to contact him or his family. Two years later, I came home from summer vacation and heard that he was dead, an apparent suicide. I wonder what would have happened had I taken the opportunity to seek him out and befriend him, to make amends and maybe bring him back into the congregation. I blew my chance and led you astray in the process. 
The blood in our parking lot has long since been washed away, and the container with the swastikas has been destroyed. The place has been sterilized. But the stain just won't disappear.
Strangely, while I was in France this summer, the exact same thing happened. I mentioned yesterday that a Jewish soup kitchen was torched in Paris; what I didn’t say is that it turned out to be a Jewish ex-employee, a homeless man, who did it. At least the chief rabbi had a better response than I did when hearing of the news, saying that an atmosphere of hate leads people to do crazy things. And no one can deny that there is real anti-Semitism there, much more than here – a few hate groups eagerly claimed responsibility for the crime that it turns out they did not commit. That incident followed an equally bizarre case where a non-Jewish woman claimed to be attacked on a Paris train by Moslem youths who mistakenly thought she was Jewish. That turned out to be a hoax.
We live in an Orwellian world of hoaxes and manufactured truths and spin doctors that truly set our heads spinning. Remember that Pentagon mole who was supposedly spying for Israel? We learned this year that our intelligence services don’t seem to have a clue as to what’s really going on in the rest of the world, so why should we believe this one? You’ve heard my theory – that it was not a mole but a mohel. It’s easy to confuse the two. So he cut and ran.
Truth is so elusive. And all we get is noise, when what we need is nuance. Whenever we are absolutely sure about something, whenever we are ready to see the entire world in black and white, we need to remember what happened in our parking lot – and be humbled by our utter ignorance and how quickly we jump to the wrong conclusions.
Now don’t get me wrong: there are absolute truths in the world – we just don’t own them – we read in the Torah just last week that the hidden things belong to God. The only truths we know are partial and flawed and obscured, like that story of the blind people and the elephant. Five were brought up to different parts of an elephant and asked to describe it. One, who touched his ears, said the elephant is like a sail. The one who touched the trunk said an elephant is like a hose. The one who touched the foot said an elephant is like a tree trunk. The one who felt the tusk said an elephant is like a hard smooth stick. The one who touched the tail said--like a rope. There is some truth t each statement, but no one comes close to the whole truth. We need to be able to look at ourselves and never be afraid to say “I don’t know,” even at the risk of seeming indecisive. It’s not indecision – it’s humility. 
In the Talmud, there are no fewer than 319 passages where a legal discussion ends with the expression “tayku,” which means that the rabbis essentially agree to disagree, acknowledging that no human being really knows the right answer. The term is actually an acronym for the expression, “Tishbi Yitaretz Kushiot U’sh’aylot,” meaning that Elijah (the Tishbite) will resolve the difficult cases. Since Elijah is, according to Jewish tradition, the one who will usher in the messianic era, the implication of tayku is that these questions will remain unresolved for a long, long time. The rabbis were in no rush to bring the Messiah. And, I must add, neither am I.
Being Jewish is never being afraid to say “Tayku” and to admit that we are only human. For humanity and humility come from the same root – from the ground, the humus. There is no greater compliment that one can give the Talmud, and the Torah as well, as that they were written by human beings. For it is the fact that they were written by human beings that makes them sacred, that makes them truly divine.
Rabbi Yitzhak of Kozmir asked, “Why do we say the blessing on the fringes of the tallit, the tzitzit, rather than on the tallit itself? Because the fringes hang down and are dragged along the ground humbly. That is why they are the most important.”
This is a humbling day. Yesterday I made the claim for the power of the individual to effect change -- because we can. Today I’m saying that we can’t do it alone.
Nine sainted rabbis cannot make a minyan. Ten professional wrestlers can. None of us can do it alone. But if each of us could give up a half hour one or two mornings a month, we could change the world – we could put a comforting smile on the face of someone who has just lost a parent or a spouse. When I sit up in our chapel at 7:45 and we’re one short of a minyan and I see the saddened look on the face of the person who just came in for the first time, just got up from shiva and was hoping against hope that maybe he would find an outstretched arm here – I just want to scream. It’s the kind of scream that you do when you see your child fall and there is nothing you can do about it. There is nothing I can do. We have nine and it’s quarter to 8. There are things we simply can’t do alone. It is humbling.
It is humbling to be a Jew, not merely a rabbi, but any Jew, entrusted with something so precious and so fragile as the Jewish future. The 2000 National Jewish Population Survey pegged the ten-year population decline from 1990 to 2000 at about 5 percent, from 5.5 million Jews in America, to 5.2. The decline is historic, marking the first time since colonial days that the Jewish population has gone down. This 350th anniversary of Jewish life in America, then, is not merely a celebration, but a time for vigorous introspection. If I could reverse those trends by snapping my fingers, I would. If taking a group over to Israel every month did the trick, I’d do it. If fantastic programs with great music, dynamic youth activities and innovative adult education did the trick, we would try it, and we are. But after 18 years I’ve come to realize, more than ever, that no one can do it alone. I need help. From each of you. And frankly, not everyone is pulling his weight. While I might to some degree be preaching to the choir, I hope all of you can feel the humbling nature of the task at hand. We may not finish the task, but we gotta roll up our sleeves and get started.
Of course in Europe things are worse. While we lost 5 percent over the past decade, some accounts show that in England between 1945 and 1995, the Jewish population fell by as much as 36 percent. 
When my family was in Europe, we visited Jewish sites. One was the old ghetto in Venice – the first ghetto – dating back to 1516. Very few Jews live there any more. You know how I know? Because wherever I go, I look for mezuzahs. The thing that is most interesting, however, is that in places like Venice where the door posts are made of stone, you can still see which houses had mezuzahs at one time. There is a long, angular gouge in the stone where the mezuzah once was affixed. And so I looked, house after house, first in the ghetto, then across the city, first in Venice and then everywhere else I went. I looked for gouged out mezuzah holes. I began to notice different styles, some longer, some thicker, some painted, some plain. I recalled that I had seen the same things at archaeological sites in Israel as well – ancient gouges for ancient mezuzahs. And all these houses shared two things: 1) Jews once lived here and 2) Jews don’t live here anymore.
It was depressing. Until, somewhere in Venice, I felt this funny smile start creeping across my face. I suddenly realized… Even when the Jew is gone, the residue of the Jew remains. The legacy remains. The memory of the Jewish life that was once there – remains; and so in some way – the Jew is still alive. I imagined some Venetian homebuyer moving into his new home and trying somehow to carve it away, to wipe off the spot like Lady Macbeth, or the way we cleaned that stain in our parking lot – but this one won’t go away. Call it the Jewish stain. It’s a history that outlives its own people – while Jewish numbers dwindle, the Jewish presence still sharpens and deepens and expands. And I realized, with that smile still growing, that I can’t screw this up. Somehow the Jews survive even if there are no Jews around! We will outlive even ourselves. We are eternal. We just won’t go away! We are bigger than ourselves – part of something much bigger, much more immortal, much more indelible. And to achieve this triumph we do not have to defeat anyone! There needs to be n lightning victory in battle. We don’t need to vilify or demean. All we need to do – is live….is live a Jewish life, and that carved out mezuzah shell, like that Debbie-loves-Johnny graffiti in the rafters of bunk 7 at camp – that Jewish life that we live will live on forever.  
I carried that thought around Europe with me. We were in London toward the end of the trip catching a show on the West End, “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” for those who are interested, when I went out to stretch during intermission. I thought of an idea for this sermon – something about how the Brit Milah, another indelible sign of Jewishness, has parallels to the mezuzah – and I jotted it down. I went back into the theater and suddenly heard a voice: “Rabbi Hammerman?”
 OY. Here – even here! Turned out it was a young family that had moved from Stamford to London. I recognized them and looked over at their two kids, who looked to be about 7 and ten. “Do you remember him?’ the mother said to her older child, and gesturing to me. “He was at your bris.” We chatted, it was great to reconnect – and I’m glad I didn’t just cut and run,
There is something indelible about Judaism, something eternal, something that goes far beyond these shores and far beyond our lifetimes. There is no more humbling thought than that, that we are part of it and it is part of us. All we have to do to tap into that inconceivable power is to follow the advice of the prophet Micah: “And what does the Lord require of you – but to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God." 
That’s what it means to say “I am Jewish.” – at least until next week, when our dialogue continues.

Fear Itself
For the entire month before the High Holidays, Jews recite Psalm 27 during services. It’s known as the penitential psalm; although the only thing penitential about it is that we recite it during the penitential season. The psalm is not about repentance at all, but rather about how we cope with fear. The poet is having a hard time of it, in fact, and throughout the poem is trying to convince himself to believe his first verse: “Adonai is my light and salvation, whom shall I fear?” The words of this poem are echoed in the Shma Kolenu prayer on Yom Kippur: “Hear me!” “Answer me!” “Do not turn your face from me!” At the end of the psalm, the poet teeters at the edge of the abyss – “Were it possible that I were not to witness God’s goodness in the land of the living…” The sentence is left unfinished...leaving us all on that same precipice, hovering in doubt. But just in the nick of time, a final sentence is added on reassuring us that salvation will come: “Place your hope in Adonai, strengthen yourself and take courage, place your hope in Adonai.” A bravura performance by the poet, but none too convincing. We leave that psalm not entirely assured that the poet has convinced even himself that everything will be OK.

Such emotional depth and honesty are found throughout our sources, and it is part of what makes Judaism so resonant for people these days. We live in a world overflowing with insecurity, and while we may not have invented fear, no other group has had more experience at dealing with it. And since we Jews are not burdened with dogma, no one is telling us what we have to believe, we are free to express our doubts openly and not to rely on God alone to save us.
Over the years, we have developed interesting strategies to deal with what scares us. Tonight I’d like to talk about a few of them, and how we might develop our own authentically Jewish approach to confronting fear itself.
Essentially it comes down to this choice – we can run away from trepidation, or we can do something about it. To be a Jew is to do something about it – even if that something is as silly as – well – as this.
What is this? (swing a rubber chicken around my head).
Centuries ago, Jewish leaders tried to keep superstition from becoming all-powerful. They tried to minimize the popularity of rituals like the one many Jews did this morning, kapparot – the twirling of a chicken around your head, a rooster for a man, a hen for a woman. In Hebrew, the word for rooster is "gever" also means “male.” Taking it in the right hand, the hand that symbolizes kindness, you twirl it three times, saying, “This is my atonement, this is in exchange for me, this is my substitute,” “Zeh chalifoti, ze t’muroti, zeh kaparoti.” so that it might subsequently be slaughtered and become a stand in for ourselves and a scapegoat for our sins. The ritual is still popular in some circles, although it is considered far more preferable to simply donate tzedakkah to the poor than shake a live chicken, especially among vegetarians. 
So while fasting, prayer and tzedakkah are the preferred vehicles for atonement, the rabbis understood human nature – and the Jewish need to do something, anything, to confront the specter of fear. They ranted about the silliness of superstition, but they didn’t ban it. As the good book says, “Whatever works.” But do take note that even with all the hocus-pocus, there still had to be a moral dimension – it had to lead to an act of tzedakkah.
(So I’m going to pass it around – you can swing it, but only if in your mind you are making a silent pledge to donate at least the equivalent of a chicken dinner to Mazon, to Person to Person or some other charitable organization) (throw – “He always wanted to catch a fowl!”)
When you go to the Western Wall, you go through very tight security. Metal detectors, strip searches, the works. Then, as soon as you get through that, you go through the real security: An old peasant woman right out of Anatevka sitting in a chair holds out her hand, you put in a shekel, and she ties a red thread around your wrist. Mara found one of these women up closer to the wall (or I should say the woman found her…), and not wanting to take any chances, she gave the woman a dollar, and in return Mara got a whole clump of threads. These red strings, or to use the Yiddish term for ribbons, bendels, are intended to ward off the evil eye. There is no Talmudic or kabbalistic source for this practice, although some say that the dye for this thread was derived from a worm, the lowliest of life forms, and that the string is supposed to evoke humility. Modesty is hardly the first thing that comes to mind now when we think of the bendel, which has become the latest fad, seen adorning the wrists of, among others, Madonna, Britney Spears, Uma Thurmann, Demi Moore, David Beckham and Barbra Streisand (someone who’s actually Jewish!) -- it’s now gone far beyond Hollywood. They sell at boutiques for up to $40. Target recently included them in their fall catalogue. Here’s a recent ad from the Internet:
"All-Handmade Sterling Silver Bracelet with an authentic red string from Israel sewn through the chain. The Red Bendel Bracelet brings Good Luck to those who wear it, wards off evil wishers and protects us from harm. Each bracelet comes packed inside its own gift pouch with a card detailing the tradition. Size: 7". Also available in children's sizes."-- $36
And Mara got this big clump for a buck. This has the makings of a great fundraiser. But of course it’s much more serious. These folk remedies are designed to quell our fears and influence events spinning utterly out of control. They are our way of doing something, however irrational, when nothing else is working. Even the atheist prays in the foxhole, and our entire world has become a foxhole – so have a bendel. So how do you know if your bendel has real protective powers? 
Ya’akov Berg of the Kabbalah Center insisted that not any old red thread will do. He told US News and World Report that it has to blessed by mother Rachel at Rachel’s tomb, and even then, the thread’s blessing only will bear fruit if the person wearing the thread is able to avoid jealousy, gossip and other purveyors of negative energy, such as fear. 
We can see that increasingly people are looking toward the hidden secrets of religion for answers that are not otherwise apparent – hence the popularity of Kabbalah right now, and of Bible Codes and the overwhelming success of phenomena like the De Vinci Code, which I had the chance to read this past summer. (There are lots of intriguing Jewish connections there, by the way, which are fodder for a smaller group discussion if anyone is interested. An open invitation – find ten people who’ve read the book, set up an evening, and I’ll come over and we’ll talk about the Da Vinci Code.)
As a child, nothing terrified me more than thunderstorms. There were times when I would be walking home from my synagogue – about five city blocks – and a sudden storm would trap me. With no place to hide, the only thing I could do to protect myself was, paradoxically, to assume that each bolt was aiming for me and me alone. It worked – I never got hit – not even once! I assumed that if I were to suppress my fatalistic view, just once, THAT would be the time I would get struck.
That was my strategy to ward off the evil eye. Some wear red threads, some spit between their fingers and go “ptu, ptu ptu,” some don’t step on the lines in the sidewalk, and I believed that every bolt of lightning was aimed right for me. These strategies may work, but somehow we have to find a way to moderate this outburst of folk remedies before bendels start selling for thousands of dollars on the back market and Judaism suddenly becomes “ptu-daism.” It’s really beginning to go too far. 
I couldn’t believe my ears last June when I was watching the last game of the NBA Finals. Detroit was destroying L.A., but despite the lopsided evidence of supremacy, Piston coach Larry Brown was playing it as if the game were much closer. Sportscaster Al Michaels, noting Brown’s Brooklyn Jewish roots, said, "I think his mother taught him, ‘Larry, don't give yourself a Kein ayin hara.’” Of course when he said it, it came out sounding like that well-known Israeli dance specialist “Kenny Hora,” since just about everyone who uses the term has no concept of its etymology. I was imagining what the typical NBA fan was thinking – Kanahuh? The expression means “no evil eye,” – ayin is an eye and “ra” is evil. I’m no Yiddish expert myself, but it is interesting to note that the term “Kein” (“not”) means just the opposite (“yes”) in Hebrew. In Judaism there is always a little “yes, yes” in the voice, but “no, no” in the eye – the Evil Eye. In fact, “no” and “yes” are often interchangeable, all in the interest of fooling the Eye. When Jews count people, they will often say, “not one, not two, not three.” When a person wants to compliment her child, she’ll call the kid meeskeit, or “ugly one.” When things are going well, we’ll spit between our fingers and say they are going lousy, which I’m sure is what Larry Brown’s mishpocha was doing at that moment.
There is a classic Jewish joke that plays on this superstition:
A old Jewish guy was on the witness stand.
"How old are you?" asked the District Attorney.
"I am, kayn-ayn-horeh, eighty-one."
"What was that?"
"I said, I am, kayn ayn-horeh, eighty-one years old."
"Just answer the question!" yelled the D.A., "How old are you!?"
"Kayn-ayn-horeh, eighty-one," the old man replied.
The judge said, "The witness will answer the question & only the question or be held in contempt of court!"
The counsel for the defense rose and asked the judge,
"Your Honor, may I ask?" and turned towards the old man,
"Kayn ayne horeh, how old are you?"
The old man replied, "Eighty-one"

It’s not hard to explain our long-standing infatuation with the Evil Eye. The ayin ha-rah appears in many other cultures. In Arabic, it’s called the ayin harsha; the droch shuil in Scotland, mauvais oeil in France, bösen Blick in Germany, mal occhio in Italy and in ancient Rome, the oculus malus. Some folklorists believe that the evil eye belief is rooted in primate biology, where dominance and submission are shown by gazing and averting the gaze, and it relates to our dislike of staring. 
The Evil Eye was a Jewish concept long before it gained a starring role as Sauren in “Lord of the Rings.” For Jews, the Eye became a subtle substitute for the devil, an easy explanation for inexplicable calamity. It is caused by the stare of an evil person, or aroused by jealousy and malice. (If looks could kill, I’d never have survived the third grade. Mrs. Allen, bless her soul, used to give us THAT look if we dared not to write our “m”s “n”s and 3’s with flat tops. To this day, that look IS the evil eye for me).
Those likely to attract these dangerous stares are duty bound to hide their unique features, their beauty or their wealth – or their newborns. Hence the custom of covering children with dirty rags and giving them ugly names, and hence the covering of mirrors at a house of mourning and the breaking of precious glass at weddings – to distract the Eye from the bride’s beauty. Jewish law and custom are especially wary of the Eye in relation to pregnant women. The custom is widespread among the observant not to announce a pregnancy until the 5th month – in order not to arouse the Evil Eye. Why do Jews not wear the clothing or especially the shoes of the deceased? So as not to follow them to the grave – avoiding another provocation of the Evil Eye. Some will refuse to have “organ donor” listed on a driver’s license, not because of Jewish law (which mandates organ donation to save lives) but so as not to arouse the good ol’ E.E. Through the ages, Jews have gone to great length to distract the Eye from its intended victim. This has been done with the assistance of incantations, amulets (like the omnipresent ‘hamsa’), charms, and even inscribed bowls that were buried at the entrance to the home. While great rabbinic scholars were asking profound Talmudic questions in ivory-towered yeshivas, the vast majority of Jews faced one question only on a daily basis: How do we fool the Evil Eye?
Once you understand this cultural phenomenon, you understand why Jews sometimes behave so strangely. When a congregant who was soon to be visiting Israel asked me why his terrified relatives were screaming about how crazy he is and begging him not to go, I immediately thought about my own childhood battles against heavenly demons.
“Your relatives are covering themselves,” I responded. “Not legally, but emotionally. There is little they can do to control destiny and reduce the danger, except to inflate it completely out of proportion -- in order to fool the Evil Eye. We tilt the balance toward ensuring a positive result by expecting the worst.” We do this all the time. The problem arises when we begin to take this thing too seriously that it paralyzes us. Intellectually, I knew somewhere down deep that every lightning bolt wasn’t aimed at me. And I must assume that everyone who fears the possibility of terrorism when traveling anywhere, especially Israel, knows how infinitesimally minute the chances are of really being hurt.
On the other hand, we need to protect ourselves and minimize risk, and that forces us to make painful compromises. But it was Henry Kissinger who said, “I know I’m paranoid, but that doesn’t mean I ‘aint got enemies.”
And we’ve got enemies – but superstition isn’t our only tool in confronting fear. There is also this thing called courage.
As we know, terrorism has taken a most gruesome turn since the murder of Daniel Pearl. It seems almost daily now that images of beheadings are being broadcast on some Islamic web site. The purveyors of fear know that these images are much more fearsome, and random, than the killing of soldiers. In the face of this shocking intimidation, we are forced to make difficult decisions.
When I arrived in Israel last month, the official at immigration control did something I’d never seen before there. Without my asking, he offered to stamp a separate piece of paper rather than to place the Israeli stamp in my passport itself. Journalists and others who routinely travel to Arab countries have a great deal of difficulty when an Israeli stamp is there. But I would have none of it. I’m proud of the many Israeli stamps in my passport. In fact, I’d like to accumulate some more. But it did occur to me that this Israeli stamp could suddenly become some sort of scarlet letter for me in Europe if something unthinkable were to happen. And I wondered whether globe-trotting Jews like Daniel Pearl and Nicholas Berg had had Israeli stamps in their passports. Well, I checked.
Not only did Nicholas Berg have an Israeli stamp in his passport when he went to Iraq last March, but according to family sources, he brought his Tallit and Tefillin with him as well. Friends spoke of his having developed a deeper interest in his Jewish faith, one that could possibly have fed his idealistic yearning to participate in the reconstruction of Iraq. Nicholas Berg had his own way of confronting fear. Fearlessly.
It would have been easy for him to hide all traces of his Jewishness. But Berg chose not to. We all know the expression “dress for success.” Well, for an American traveling the world these days, the new catchphrase is, “dress for survival.” So this year when I went through Europe, not only did I keep my kipah safely tucked away, so as not to look too Jewish; but I also tried not to look too American. There are times when, in order to feel more secure, we will do things that make spitting ptu, ptu, ptu seem perfectly sensible by comparison.
It was the crypto-Jews of the Spanish Inquisition who made Kol Nidre what it is today. One night a year they poured out their hearts, asking God to forgive them for hiding their Jewishness every other day of the year. Well, Kol Nidre has gained new meaning for me as well this year.
My family did something rather spontaneous when we arrived in Rome after time in Israel. We found ourselves comparing everything to Israel, of course, and recalling wistfully the wonderful time we had had there. But every time we said the word “Israel” in public, we had this completely irrational sensation that the entire restaurant or subway car was looking at us. You know that feeling. It’s like the old commercial when someone said, “My broker is E F Hutton…” We wanted to talk about Israel, so we developed a strategy -- every the word Israel was going to come up we started replacing it with the word “Ireland.” As in, “You know, the falafel we had in Ireland tasted much better than this.”
"Yes, and I really miss Ireland right now. Especially the sunset over the golden walls of …ah…Dublin.” It became sort of a game for us. It was our own little secret code. So we were sitting next to a lovely couple one day at lunch while touring Pompeii and we asked where they were from and they said, “We’re from Ireland.” It threw us off completely. It made me a little ashamed of the ruse we were playing. It’s as if we were having an illicit affair with Israel. Just because the entire world seems to hate us, why should we hide? (Although, as I mentioned at a Bat Mitzvah this year for a girl with an Irish-Jewish background, the there is much that links the Irish and Jewish peoples, including the fact that both words end in “ish.”)
In his tribute to Daniel Pearl in the book “I am Jewish,” journalist Samuel Freedman addressed this eternal Jewish quandary. “When Daniel Pearl hovered in limbo,” he writes, “missing but presumably alive, his wife and colleagues and friends emphasized what a universalist he was, as if that might spare him death. Similarly, they downplayed his Jewish identity and his Israeli ancestry (a street in B’nai Brak is named for his great grandfather, one of the town’s founders), as if somehow those facts might have escaped the notice of his captors.
In death, however, the meaning of Daniel Pearl changed, or, I might say, it grew complete. He lived as a universalist, but he died inescapably a tribalist. Very little of his family history had eluded his captors.” Freedman writes, “When I heard Daniel Pearl say, “I am Jewish” I heard him seizing back from his tormentors the ability to define him. He would define himself. He would not die denying what he always upheld through life. He would steal their victory from the grave.”
Freedman wonders what he would have done in that situation. I wonder who here would have, in such a situation, said, “I am a Jew.” I wonder what I would have said. Even if Pearl’s captors ordered him to say it, he undoubtedly knew that his death was certain, so his final words were his alone to choose. It is so hard to imagine oneself in that position, dangling toward oblivion. So trapped, yet, in a strange way, with death a certitude, so free. What would I have done on Masada or Gamla or the Warsaw Ghetto? What would I have done had I been Rabbi Hanania, wrapped in a Torah scroll and burned alive by the Romans, who told his grieving disciples, the scroll is burning but I see the letters flying free? What would I have done had I been one of the teachers in that school in Russia last month – with a chance either to run away or stay behind to comfort the children? What would I have done if I were one of those two Israeli policemen who this week heroically kept a suicide bomber from attacking innocents at a hitching post in northern Jerusalem?
“Who is a Jew?” A Jew is “one who confronts unfathomable fear – and learns to overcome it.
“Kol ha-Olam Kulo Gesher Tzar Me’od” – the whole world is a very narrow bridge – v’haikar lo lefached clal….and what matters is not to fear at all.” We’ve been singing this song quite a bit these past few years. Two years ago, during the darkest days of the terror attacks on Israel, and when scud missiles from Iraq seemed inevitable, Prime Minister Sharon even quoted it from the rostrum of the Knesset. He also is said to have sung it several days later in Washington, at a meeting of Israeli embassy staff at his residence at Blair house.
The song is known to practically every Israeli. In fact, Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav is one of the most popular people in all of Israel, rather amazing, considering that he died in 1810. All over the country there are signs invoking his name and the place of his burial in a magical incantation designed to bring good luck. The Bratzlaver Hasidim are extremely and increasingly active in outreach, even though they have never found a successor to their original leader, and Nachman’s wisdom has caught on among the general public, because he spoke directly to our own fears.
The image of the narrow bridge actually comes from a much older Jewish source, the 13th or 14th century Jewish philosopher Yedayahu of Beziers, who wrote in his book Behinat Olam, "The Nature of the World":
This world is a deep, broad, angry sea and time is a shaky bridge built over wider than a human being and with no railings. And you must, whether you wish to or not, pass over this bridge daily from the moment you come into the world. When you regard its narrowness and the peril on either side of you... when you stare into the abyss of death upon your left and upon your right, will your heart be steadfast? Will your arms be strong?
What Yedayahu wrote 600 years ago still rings true today. What will we do when we stare into the abyss of hate and fear. Will we be brave or will we shrink away?
The Jewish strategy for survival in such a world is essentially the difference between living in fear and living with fear. (A Milwaukee doctor describes the difference :) Those who live in fear are completely paralyzed by that fear. Those who live in fear have CNN on in the office all day, or the weather channel during a hurricane seventeen hundred miles away. 
Those who live with fear find a place for the news somewhere on the periphery of our real world, and we are honest with our children as to the dangers, but that we don’t burden them or ourselves with our anxieties. We need to learn how to live with fear.
When amulets and the rituals of folk religion don’t calm us, and when we are having trouble facing the fear alone, there is one other choice.
“V’ha-ikar lo lefachad clal,” has a double meaning. We’ve heard one: “The essential matter is not to be afraid at all.” Clal means “at all,” but it also means “everyone together.” Clal Yisrael means “all of Israel.” The Talmud states, “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh ba zeh.” All Israel are responsible for one another. What is essential, then, is “lo le’fached,” to be unafraid, “Clal,” “by coming together with the community, by being part of the whole, by joining as One.
To be a Jew, then, is to belong.
The world is indeed a narrow bridge, and we can only cross it one at a time. A few weeks ago on Shabbat morning I demonstrated that the Unetane Tokef prayer on the High Holidays conjures up just that metaphor, as Jews parade before the throne of judgment, one at a time, on a very narrow path. In the end, we act on our own, we decide on our own, but we can conquer the fear together.
"Lo lefached!” – Don’t be afraid! “Clal,” “We are all here with you!” All of us are crossing the same narrow bridge. 
May we all cross it in safety, as we navigate the path through a dangerous world. May we confidently do whatever it takes to maintain sanity, whether it be an amulet, a red string, or of all things, prayer. May we maintain our courage and pride, even as we make the necessary compromises and adjustments. There is no need to end our service tomorrow with “Next Year in Dublin.” And most of all, may we understand that the true source of our strength is in our ability to come together to confront the fear – the fear of fear itself.

The High Ground

Today, some stories – stories of a love that obliterates all boundaries and erases all differences – a love that is in each of us. These are stories with no boundaries, but each emanates from Israel – timeless stories from a very real place of dreams.

We begin our journey in the north. I love every inch of Israel, but no place is more special for me than the Galilee region, and especially the Jezreel Valley, from Beit Alpha in the east, westward to toward the Mediterranean Coast and Mount Carmel. Nowhere on earth can one find such a combination of natural beauty and ancient history. There Deborah defeated the Canaanites on Mount Tabor, Saul succumbed to the Philistines on the slopes of Gilboa, and there the epic revolt against the Romans began. There the swamps were drained by the early Zionist pioneers, there thousands of barren acres of hillside were carpeted with greenery by the Jewish National Fund in the 1920s. And there the hills are often not hills at all, but accumulated layers of time, century upon century, civilization upon civilization, one on top of the other. At the center of it all is Megiddo, sitting on the crossroads of the ages, atop 26 layers of civilization. No wonder it is considered the place where the end of days will arrive, Armageddon. When you walk there your existence transcends a given place or time. You become one with all that has ever occurred and all that ever will.
Whenever I take a group over to Israel, I insist on going to our sister city of Afula, the largest city in that region. We did that last November on our community mission and also this past August on the Beth El family trip. And whenever I go to Afula, I must visit the absorption center at Merhavia, a kibbutz just south of Afula proper. Merhavia has been known for decades as a good place for immigrants to be nurtured into the rigors of Israeli life. Once upon a time, an American immigrant named Golda Myerson made it her first home in Eretz Yisrael. There she changed her name to Meir and became an expert on raising poultry.
But now Merhavia is a place where Ethiopian families go, and especially the children, to become introduced to Israeli life. It is not an easy transition, especially for this latest wave. For all of the approximately 50,000 Ethiopian Jews who have made it to Israel over the past two decades, that has been the case, so detached were they from modern life and the mainstream Jewish community. One woman who has made that transition successfully told our group this summer of how her people were so out of touch that they wept uncontrollably when they were told by their rescuers that the temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed. But they have adjusted beautifully. When I asked one of the children in Merhavia, a feisty pre-teen -- what he wanted to be when he grew up, he responded, without hesitation, “Prime Minister.” And why not, living in the place that Golda once called home.
At this point, there are basically no more Jews left in Ethiopia or the Sudan. While the world has only now come to recognize the depth of the genocide going on in that region of Africa, Israel long ago began rescuing people. Anyone who might ever have thought that Zionism is racism would have a great deal of difficulty explaining this color blind liberation. 
And it’s not just a matter of color blindness. There is something else that is noteworthy about the current wave of Ethiopian immigrants. 
They aren’t Jewish! 
They are a group called the Falash Mura, people who claim Jewish ancestry but were forcibly converted to Christianity by missionaries in the late 19th century. In many ways, their story parallels that of the Marranos, who hid their Jewish roots during the Spanish Inquisition. And when the Inquisition threatened to follow some of these refugees to the new world, 23 of them fled Brazil 350 years ago and landed on these American shores. Jewish history has a way of repeating itself.
So there are tens of thousands of these Falash Mura, living terribly hard lives in Africa, some having relatives in Israel, and all wanting to come to the one place in the world that promises at least the glimmer of hope a better life. And, after years of debate, Israel has opened the doors and let many thousands of them in. 
At Merhavia these Falash Mura children are learning the basics: Hebrew language, math, science, history, how to board a bus, how to turn on a television. They are also taking conversion lessons – and these are the most enthusiastic Hebrew School students I’ve ever seen. 
No one has to teach them how to smile. The children crowded around us like we were celebrities, begging to be photographed. They sang and danced for us, giving us a glimpse of their native culture. I asked their teacher why they were so happy to see us, strange people from a faraway land. What did they tell these children about us? They don’t know us from Adam. And that was exactly the point. They’ve known us since Adam. She said, “We told them that you are their uncles and aunts.” There doesn’t need to be a family resemblance for there to be family. We’ve known these children, these African Christian children, since the beginning of time. Only at that moment did our destinies intersect so that we would meet, right there, in the place all peoples call holy, in the Galilee.
Who is a Jew? A Jew is someone who is always yearning to return. Hashivenu Adonai elecha v’nashuva, hadesh yamenu k’kedem.” “Return us unto you, o God and we shall return; renew our days as of old.” We’re always returning from somewhere, and we’re always returning to someplace–a place called Israel, the real Israel and the spiritual Israel, what the rabbis called Yerushalyim shel Matah and Yerusahalyim shel Ma’alah, the “real,” earthly Jerusalem and Jerusalem “on high.” We are returning to something that we already have inside of us, a boundless wellspring of love, an eternal love, a sense of belonging, a sense of home. That is the spiritual Israel.
The feeling of being in the real Israel is indescribable. It is a feeling of returning home, even for those who have never been there before. What we do here – all the rituals of Judaism - are simply a means of enhancing that feeling of at-homeness when we are not there. This evening at the end of Yom Kippur we’ll proclaim “L’shanah haba’ah be’y’rushalyim” and that too will connect us, just as at the end of our Passover Seders. When we approach Jewish practice with love and little bit of longing, it only enhances the feeling of at-homeness… whether it be during Friday night prayers as we sing with our neighbors, or on Shabbat morning when we share insights from the timeless wisdom of the Torah, sharing sorrows and joys, much as the Tefillin on our arm or the gathered Tzitzit in our hand bind us to one to another. When we are in Israel this reservoir of love within us is filled to the brim. We drink from those life-giving waters, like that fabled goat of the short story by Nobel Prize winner S.Y Agnon.
There was a widespread legend throughout the middle ages that an underground tunnel - through which it was possible to pass in a very short time - connected the Diaspora to the land of Israel. According to the legend, there was no doubt of the tunnel's existence. Its entrance, however, was all but impossible to find. It is told of different scholars, including Rabbi Shalom Shabbazi of Yemen and Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Baghdad, that they would disappear from their homes on Friday and spend the Sabbath in Jerusalem, returning home only on Saturday night.
So, the story goes, an old man was sick, and his doctors said that he must drink goat's milk. The man purchased a goat, but one day, without warning, she disappeared. A few days later she returned, her udders filled with milk that had the flavor of paradise. The goat would repeat this strange behavior from time to time until the old man said to his son, "I want to know where the goat is disappearing."
The son tied a rope to the goat's tail, and when she began to wander, he held on to the rope and followed. They entered a cave, and after a long time, they emerged in a fertile country flowing with milk and honey. When they emerged from the cave, the youth saw lofty mountains, and hills full of the choicest fruit, and a fountain of living waters that flowed down from the mountains; and the wind wafted all manner of perfumes. The goat climbed up a tree by clutching at the ribbed leaves. Carob fruits full of honey dropped from the tree, and she ate of the carobs and drank of the garden's fountain.
When the son asked people where he was, they told him,
"You are in the land of Israel, near the city of Safed."
The youth lifted up his eyes to the heavens and said, “Blessed be the One who has brought me to the Land of Israel." He kissed the soil and sat down under the tree. He said, "I shall sit on the hill under this tree. Then I shall go home and bring my father and mother to the Land of Israel." As he was sitting and feasting his eyes on the holiness of the Land of Israel, he heard a voice proclaiming: "Come, let us go out to greet the Sabbath Queen."
And he saw men like angels, wrapped in white shawls, with boughs of myrtle in their hands, and all the houses were lit with a great many candles. He perceived that the eve of Sabbath would arrive with the darkening, and that he would not be able to return. He uprooted a reed and dipped it in gallnuts, from which the ink for the writing of the Torah scrolls is made. He took a piece of paper and wrote a letter to his father:
"From the ends of the earth, I lift up my voice in song to tell you that I have come in peace to the Land of Israel. Here I sit, close by Safed, the holy city, and I imbibe its sanctity. Do not inquire how I arrived here but hold on to this cord which is tied to the goat's tail and follow the footsteps of the goat; then your journey will be secure, and you will enter the Land of Israel."
The son fastened the note to the goat's ear, and the goat returned home by herself. When the old man saw the goat returning without his son, he was certain that his son had been killed. Realizing that the sight of the goat would always bring him painful memories of his dead son, the man slaughtered her. At that point, the note fell from the goat’s ear. But what was done, was done. The goat was dead, and the underground route to the Holy Land would remain forever secret, and the old man would forever grieve in Exile.
The scapegoat we read about in today’s Torah reading was burdened by the sins of the people and sent off from Jerusalem to die in the Wilderness as part of the Yom Kippur ritual of atonement. Agnon’s goat was sent out from the Holy Land possessing the secret to the father’s atonement – at-one-ment – with his son and his homeland. So many of Agnon’s characters hover in this no-man’s land between Exile and homecoming, mourning their lost opportunities to gain a sense of purpose in their lives. This father was too embittered, too hardened from years of struggle, stuck so much in his ways that his very soul was plugged up – the opening to restorative change was gone. We too miss many opportunities. We too kill the messenger out of our frustration at our own unfulfilled lives, and because of that we never truly hear the message. That message and that messenger take many forms; a parent’s advice (get off my back, Dad!), a bit of constructive criticism from a boss, the symptoms of your own body telling you to lay off the hard stuff, or your rabbi imploring you to lead a more enriching Jewish life, and to make pilgrimage to Israel, at least once, rather than taking that 27th cruise to the Bahamas. Today we know what that sick man did not know. We can drink of that goat’s milk, rather than toss it aside. We can replenish our sick souls, no matter where we choose to live. We can fill ourselves with an unbounded love, an infinite love, and we can return home. 
A Jerusalem story: One night last month, several families in our group decided to stay back at the hotel in Jerusalem for a relaxed dinner. We sent the kids to eat at another table, where God knows what they ordered, but it was OK, because someone else’s kid told the waitress to charge it to the room.
Just after we ordered, the maitre di came over to our table. He had heard us talking about Stamford and wanted to know if this was where we were from. We said yes. “I grew up there,” he said. We were thrilled – it always happens in Israel – I was meeting personal acquaintances all over the place—but here was a real landsman! From Stamford yet! He started rattling off the names of streets in Glenbrook, and some of his most vivid memories of sledding down one of those hills leading down to Hope Street.
So I asked which synagogue he belonged to. He didn’t. Turns out his name is Kevin Dean and he wasn’t Jewish back when he lived here. Kevin’s story enthralled us. His mother actually had been a Jew but he was brought up as a Christian. How did his life’s journey possibly take him from the snowy slopes of Hope Street to the Inbal hotel in Jerusalem? He had moved around, ending up in Los Angeles, where he decided to convert to Judaism; at that point he met a red-headed Sephardic Jew (in itself a miracle), whom he had literally dreamed about the night before. The next day they were engaged, but she would only live near her family in Israel, so they ended up in Jerusalem, supremely happy and fulfilled, and there to greet us at the Inbal.
For me it was perfect: he was from Stamford; he was Israeli, and he was Irish (see Kol Nidre’s sermon to understand why).
So in the middle of Jerusalem, there we were reunited with a total stranger, and for just a moment, the distance of 6,000 miles separating us from Hope Street was a mere snowball’s toss away. The City of Peace became the City of Hope as well. He served us delicious wine from the Golan, but what we were drinking was the milk from Agnon’s goat. I imagine that if I were to have run across the son from Agnon’s story of the goat, that is what he would sound like, so content, so at home. And at that moment, I became the goat that Kevin Dean was sending back here, back to his ancestral home, back…to you. So I’m the messenger – and it’s up to you whether you want to hear the message.
And so if I am that goat, I’ve even brought you that message, written, like the one from the story, with reed dipped in gall nuts. Most of our Torah scrolls have been sent to Israel for repair over the last two years, in memory of the Malins. And last month the final scroll was completed and our B’nai Mitzvah teens read from it at the Western Wall. And last week that Torah, the final Torah, completed its long journey and returned home to our ark. 
While in Jerusalem, our group went to Hadassah hospital, situation on the crest of one of the city’s glorious hills, overlooking Ein Kerem, and visited patients in the children’s ward. A majority of them were Arabs, including many from the territories. But there were no differences among us there. The gaze of trepidation, the tired, washed out look of a chemo patient – it’s the same whether your first language is Hebrew or Arabic. Some were too weak to speak in any language. There were no boundaries there, no borders, although only a few miles away we could see the security fence winding its way between Gilo and Bethlehem. The fence exists on the ground – but this hospital has a wing that resides in Yerushaylim shel Ma’alah, where there is no fence.
Another Galilee story: This year, for the first time ever, Israel’s national soccer championship was won by a team from an Arab village, Sachnin. As Eretz Magazine describes it, “Sachnin straddles a hill on the northern edge of the western part of Lower Galilee – some would even say it’s part of Upper Galilee. In any event, the imaginary borders between Lower and Upper and Eastern and Western Galilee are an invention of human beings who badly need order in their lives.”
Sachnin defies easy categorization. It is now actually a city, with a population of some 30,000 (it is as much to a misnomer to call Sachnin a village is it is to call Ma’aleh Adumim, with a population of over 50,000, a settlement). But Sachnin has long been denied some of the amenities that Jewish cities typically have – luxuries like, oh, streetlights, sidewalks, movie theaters or, for that matter, a soccer stadium. But by the end of the miracle championship match at Ramat Gan Stadium, they had the entire crowd (which included the entire population of Sachnin) pulling for this ragtag combination of Arabs, Jews and foreigners. The team consists of 10 Arab players, 8 Jews, a goalkeeper from Guinea, a stopper from Cameroon, a French midfielder, a Polish midfielder, and a Brazilian striker I happened to watch that championship match on satellite TV and said to myself, this may not be what Israel is right now, but I have no doubt that it is what most Israelis truly want it to be – and what Israel some day will become. After the game, Prime Minister Sharon pledged funding to build a real stadium in Sachnin, and Israelis are rooting hard for the club as it represents Israel in European championship matches this fall. 
In Sachnin there is a small square with a large block of stone standing in it. It is known as Shahid (Martyr) Square, in memory of those who were killed during the riots of March 1976 and October 2000. Several dozen meters away stands Peace Square. An olive tree with a thick, scarred trunk and green branches, planted in the center of the square, serves as a reminder of everyone’s dream. Just several dozen meters apart, and a deep chasm between them – reality here, and the vision there. The riots in 1976 were over the appropriation of farm land to be used for an IDF training zone. Because of these riots, Sachnin became a symbol of Israeli-Arab grievances, and the event, now called Land Day, is commemorated every March. But now, thanks to the soccer team, the city has become a symbol of reconciliation, of coming together, much like Hadassah hospital. 
If you go back far enough, you can find a time when Sachnin was a Jewish village. In the first century, Rabbi Yehoshua, a member of the Sanhedrin, fled the Romans from his home in Yodfat and found a haven in Sachnin. So whose Sachnin is it? It’s everyone’s. Everywhere you go in Israel you find these intersecting destinies, intertwined histories, like the entangled roots of an olive tree. 
Travel south from Sachnin, about a half hour, just past Upper Nazareth, where the Jews live, and Lower Nazareth, where the Moslems and Christians are, and cruise through the Central Galilee back to the Jezreel Valley, and there you’ll find another village nestled in a hill, the ancient town of Tzippori, which was a center of Jewish life in Roman times. The rabbis of the Mishnah lived there, and this is a place where the Jewish and pagan populations coexisted in harmony. The name of the place, which means “bird,” is said to have come from the fact that it is perched on the top of a mountain like a bird. There the days are cooler and rabbis were known to travel there from Tiberias when they fell ill. Tzippori takes the high ground. Tzippori shel Ma’alah. Within a few hundred meters, you can find the marvelously preserved ruins of a synagogue with mosaic floor containing the zodiac, which sits next to a Roman theater, which lies adjacent to a wealthy Jew’s home with portraits of Dionysus, all beneath a Crusader fortress at the top of the hill. In the Talmud, a rabbi is asked how he could possibly enter the Roman bathhouse decorated with idols of Aphrodite. The rabbi says, essentially, “Hey, I gotta take a bath. And it’s not like I’m entering Aphrodite’s place – Aphrodite entered mine!” That’s how they coexisted in ancient Tzippori. When the Arabs tried to hold this strategic location in 1948, they planted cacti along the hillside to impede the Jewish advance. Yes, in a stunning twist of irony, in order to keep the Jews from laying down roots, the Arabs of Tzipori planted gorgeous clusters of Sabra plants. So whose Tzippori is it?
A rabbi, a priest and a minister were having a conversation about how each of them could help bring some peace and harmony to the world. What would each of them be willing to sacrifice as a gesture to global unity. So the priest said, “OK, I guess we could give up our preoccupation with the Blessed Virgin.” The minister said, “Well, if it will bring true peace and harmony, we’ll give up all reference to Jesus and his uniqueness in respect to those faiths who don’t believe in him.
Then the rabbi scratched his beard for a while and finally said, “OK – but only if it could bring peace and harmony to the world…we’ll give up Yismechu in Musaf.”
Sometimes in our myopic view of the world we expect others to reach out to us without seeing the need for reciprocity. Because there appear to be so many who hate us in the world, we’ve lost some of our ability to love the many that don’t. We’ve been tainted by the hate, and in that way the haters have won. We cannot let that happen. Moslems and Christians need to prevent that from happening too, but we need to hold up our end, as they are doing in Hadassah, and in Sachnin. When Abraham was given the command “Lech Lecha,” “Go forth,” he began a journey of three faiths, not just our own. And at the end of his life, his children Isaac and Ishmael came together to bury him.
As Jews, we must reach out to the stranger, because there is something about the stranger that is part of us, as I discovered from the Falash Mura, those patients at Hadassah and Kevin Dean.
We conclude this journey right where we began, just to the west of the Jezreel Valley, twenty minutes from Merhavia, by way of Megiddo, in remarkable place called Yemin Orde. Yemin Orde is a 77 acre school and youth village housing more than 500 children from more than 22 countries. It is a place for the displaced: refugees, orphans, survivors, founded in 1953 in order to accommodate Holocaust survivors and other children during the great immigration waves of the fifties. Reflecting the current wave, at the center of the Village stands a tukul, a traditional Ethiopian structure that is used during special Ethiopian holidays that are always celebrated at Yemin Orde. Sigd, the great Ethiopian Jewish holiday, is held seven weeks after Yom Kippur. Following this period of personal repentance, in Ethiopia, Jews climb a mountain as if going up to Jerusalem, to read from religious texts. At Yemin Orde, all the children climb the hill to the village to celebrate Sigd together - a moving demonstration that there are many ways of being Jewish. 
Last November, our community mission made a stop at Yemin Orde, a place also visited each year by 8th graders from Bi-Cultural. We walked into the cafeteria and saw children of all backgrounds, Ethiopians, Russians, Argentineans, native Israeli. Hanging from the ceiling was a huge banner containing two words from that week’s Torah portion – “Lech Lecha.” These latter day Abrahams and Sarahs had in fact uprooted themselves. Lech Lecha – into the unknown, to a land of blessing. The sign was directed as much at our group as it was to them, and since I am your faithful goat, to you as well.
I stopped to chat with a man we had met, the father of Noam Leibovitz, a seven year old
girl from the youth village who had been killed by a terrorist sniper the previous June. Noam’s father works at Yemin Orde, and the school was devastated by the loss. The man has become a symbol of the inner strength of all the children, these children of Israel. And he shared with us a song, one that has become sort of an unofficial theme song at Yemin Orde, a song that they include in their Havdalah service every week.

The melody is the one that we have become familiar with, the haunting Bratzlaver niggun to Gesher Tzar Meod. Only they’ve changed the words. Instead of it saying that the whole world is a narrow bridge, the Yemin Orde version says: Kol haolam kulo gesher day rachav, v’haikar le’ehov chinam. 
The bridge is not narrow anymore, it is wide, superhighway wide, as wide as the 8-lane Cross Israel Highway where Noam Liebowitz was killed. The bridge is wide, as we step together young and old, from the four corners of the earth. The bridge is so wide. V’ha-ikar – what is essential, le’ehov chinam, what is essential – is to love freely and unconditionally
And that, in the end is the answer to our question. What does it mean to say “I am Jewish?” To be a Jew is to have the courage to traverse the narrowest of bridges on the highest of mountain passes – but then, to find it within our hearts widen that bridge, through the power of our convictions and the depth of our capacity to love.
To be a Jew is to act, because we can, to be humble, because we should, to confront fear and look the Evil Eye straight in the eye, because we dare, and to love, unconditionally, all people of all backgrounds, all over the world, because we must.
We are those children in Merchavia and Yemin Orde. We are those patients at Hadassah, and we are those soccer players of B’nai Sachnin. We are the rabbis of Tzippori and that waiter at the Inbal. And we are that old man who killed the goat, the one little two-zuzim goat that could have changed the world. We are that man, coarsened by years of cynicism anger and self-hatred, our soul’s arteries hardened by the cholesterol of time. But we are also the son. We exist in Exile, but we can taste the milk and the honey. We can fly to Israel, with or without a plane. 
And we can dwell in the place where there are no bounds, where true atonement is reached. That is where we truly become one – with our people, with our families, with ourselves, with our history, with our future – and with all of the children of God.

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