Saturday, September 7, 2013

Rosh Hashanah Sermons, 5774

Audio for Day 1:

Click here  if the player doesn't work

Audio for Day 2:

Click here if the player doesn't work


Rosh Hashanah Day 1, 5774 – The New Normal

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman
            Hayom Harat Olam.  On Rosh Hashanah, the world was born.  Other festivals commemorate important dates in Jewish history, like the Exodus on Passover or the giving of the Torah on Shavuot, but Rosh Hashanah is about all of us.  And it is about our stewardship of the earth.    Today, the world was born.  Today the world is reborn

          There’s a lot I could talk about this morning.  Over the course of these Days of Awe, I’ll touch on important events that shape our lives – from the Middle East to Middle Earth – but even at a time of vast uncertainty in parts of the world, we need to think about the entire world, and the urgency, on a global scale, of saving our planet.  And there is no more Jewish message too.

            With our minds on Creation, we think of Adam, whose very name reminds us of our connection to the earth. The word Adam means earth, after all, and Adam and Adama are virtually the same word, like soul and soil.   

            A midrash states that when Adam, on the day of his creation, saw the setting of the sun and was terrified. He said, “Oy Vey! OMG. It’s because I have sinned that the world around me is becoming dark; the universe will now become again void and without form — this then is the death to which I have been sentenced from Heaven!’ So he sat up all night fasting and weeping and Eve was weeping opposite him. When dawn broke, however, he breathed a sigh of relief and said: ‘This is the usual course of the world!’

            From the very first sunset, as darkness enveloped them and Adam and Eve were only a few hours old, they experienced the first pangs of Jewish guilt in recorded history. They sensed that they had somehow let God down, that this darkness thing was somehow their fault, that they had already messed up the marvelous gift that they had been given.

            The Midrash elaborates - God leads Adam around the Garden of Eden, God says, "Look at My works. See how beautiful they are, how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil or destroy My world—for if you do, there will be no one to repair it after you."

            That’s what God tells Adam and Eve.  When giving the world’s first garden tour, they are warned:  This is a beautiful world.  But this is it.  Don’t mess this up.  Because if you do, there could come a time when that sun will not rise at the end of a cold, dark night.  And if that happens, it will not be my fault, God says, it will be yours.

            And as if to underscore that point, God creates a sign a few generations later, following the great flood of Noah.  The rainbow is the symbol of the covenant that God made with humanity; that God will never again bring about the kind of massive natural disaster that could destroy humanity.  The implied message is that we not only are the earth’s custodians – but if we break it, we own it.  If we can’t make things work on this beautiful planet, we have only ourselves to blame. 

            The midrash is a folktale of course – it tells us less about actual goings on in the long ago Garden as it teaches deep-seeded Jewish values for our time.  And the punch line is that we have messed it up. 

            That climate change is real and a product of human action, is now incontrovertible, undeniable, unquestionable, categorical, absolute, incontestable and conclusive. 

            Some facts:

·         The global sea level rose about 6.7 inches in the last century – and the rate in the last decade is nearly double what it was for the prior century.4

·         The 20 warmest years in recorded history all have occurred since 1981 – and all of the top 10 have occurred in the past dozen years.6 

·         Glaciers are retreating almost everywhere around the world — including in the Alps, Himalayas, Andes, Rockies, Alaska and Africa.10

·         Both the extent and thickness of Arctic sea ice has declined rapidly over the last several decades.9

            And there is universal agreement on this.  A survey of over 4,000 peer-reviewed papers in scientific journals has found 97.1% agreed that climate change is caused by human activity.  In a draft report just released, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate change, an international, non partisan, Nobel Prize winning panel of hundreds of scientists, states: “It is extremely likely that human influence on climate caused more than half of the observed increase in global average surface temperature from 1951 to 2010. There is high confidence that this has warmed the ocean, melted snow and ice, raised global mean sea level and changed some climate extremes in the second half of the 20th century.”
            A bipartisan consensus has been forming on this, including three mainstream Republican leaders, who wrote in an op-ed last month, “There is no longer any credible scientific debate about the basic facts: our world continues to warm... and sea level is rising.” 
            Case closed.

            This summer, as many of you know, I had the pleasure of visiting Australia and New Zealand.  Let me tell you, those two countries are very far away.  Had we flown any further, we would have been in orbit.  I’ve never been so conscious of the curvature of the earth, and how interconnected we all are.  As we flew over the boundless Pacific, I thought a lot about of things.  (There was a lot of time to think.)  I thought of those who have traversed it – everyone from Captain Cook, to the heroes of Iwo Jima and Midway, to Gilligan and the Skipper.  And I thought of that old adage about how a butterfly’s flapping its wings over there can affect the weather half a world away.

            These countries of Oceania are so lovely and unspoiled. Australia is nearly as large as the continental US, but it has the population not that much larger than metropolitan New York.  Geopolitically, isolated and remote, it’s far from the world’s big hotspots; but don’t let that fool you.  I was in, literally, a major world hotspot.  And it’s getting hotter.
            Australia boasts a sky as deep blue as it can get – in large part because right above it, the Ozone layer has an enormous hole that is, literally, the size of North America.

            The Australian school children on field trips look so sweet with their little hats. But the cuteness masks a dead serious purpose. They have to wear them when they are outside, by law.  Because of the Ozone depletion, Australia has the highest rate of skin cancer in the world, a 50% increase from 25 years ago, two or three times the rate found here.  The Ozone hole is caused primarily by chlorine from human-produced chemicals.  International agreements have reduced the amount of certain chemicals that are being produced, and the growth of the hole has been reduced for now.  It is a good lesson for us.  We can make a difference in healing the planet. But we are healing a wound that we caused.

            We visited one of the most cherished and beautiful sites on earth, the Great Barrier Reef.  Recent studies show that the alarming sea temperature rise has already had a devastating impact on the reef.   I had a chance to see the precious ecosystem there.  The most incredible array of sea life.  From the largest of the large – we saw a humpback whale, to the smallest of the small, the tiny fish nibbling at the algae.  We saw it all.  We even found Nemo.  And Nemo was glubbing for help.  The reef is slowly dying.

            This is the New Normal.  In Australia, it means that despite some of the most progressive energy policies on the planet, coral life is perishing, because we are beating our butterfly wings over here for fossil fuel.  No need to worry about the coral reefs, though.  They’ve perished before, in the ice age, and they eventually returned.  I would expect that if we destroy them again, they’ll return some day.  I’m not sure whether human life will, though, after we’ve rendered our planet no longer suitable for life.  Maybe we’ll find another planet to ravage and destroy.  Maybe Krypton is available.

            There was an earthquake when we were in New Zealand.  Studies show  that even earthquakes are exacerbated by climate change.  It was a pretty big one. But no one made much of it, because earthquakes and volcanoes are part of life over there.  In Christchurch, which still has not recovered from the devastating quake of 2011, people are living in homes where the front door doesn't close.  Their lives have literally become unhinged. That is the New Normal.  Unhinged doors in New Zealand and children wearing hats in the winter in Australia. 

           We are Adam – on that first night.  We look around and ask, “What have we done?” What is wrong with this picture?

            Strange.  Wherever I was down under, climate change came up.  Yet almost no one I asked had any idea about the crazy tornadoes and the worst-ever floods, droughts and wildfires that are in our news every day.  Few had heard about Hurricane Sandy.  In each part of the world there is a different New Normal. But the looming catastrophe of climate change affects us all.

            In the Zichronot section of the Musaf service on Rosh Hashanah, we read how God remembered Noah and his family in the ark, and we hear the refrain, “v’zacharti et briti.”  God remembers the covenant.  Long before Sinai, well before Abraham, the rainbow was the first covenant – the first time where God and humanity entered into a contractual relationship.  And it was over caring for the planet. The Great Flood was supposed to be the last time God would cause such unfathomable destruction – the last time we could pin such a thing on God.  The appearance of that rainbow marked a key moment in the human story – the instant when God turned the wheel over to us.  That was the deal. That was the brit that God pledged to remember.

            If you read the text of Genesis 9, whether you are a rabbi versed in midrash or a Bible thumping preacher who takes the passage literally, there should be no disagreement at all.  Noah’s flood was God’s doing.  But the text makes it clear as can be, that subsequent Super Storms would not be.  Run of the mill thunderstorms – OK.  They are truly what rabbis and insurance companies would call “acts of God.” 

            But not Sandy. 

            God did not flood out the New York Subways.  God did not submerge the roller coaster on the Jersey shore.  Hurricanes that follow the natural order of things, the kind we had until the mid 20th century, those are acts of God.  Mega storms that defy all historical precedent, those are on us. 

            Yes.  As outrageous as it sounds, from a Jewish theological viewpoint, we caused Sandy. We broke the earth.  We own it.  And we have to fix it.
The costs of inaction are undeniable. The lines of scientific evidence grow only stronger and more numerous. And the window of time remaining to act is growing smaller: delay could mean that global warming becomes “locked in.”

            If Adam couldn’t sleep a wink thinking he had messed it all up, because of a simple sunset, how should we feel right now?

            Not good.  And polls show that increasing numbers of Americans, from all across the political spectrum, agree.  But still, little is being done.

            Hurricane Katrina should have been it.  But somehow, it wasn’t.  The tsunamis in south Asia and Japan should have been the last straw.  When Japanese soccer balls are washing up in Washington State and motorcycles are coming ashore in British Columbia, that’s got to make us stop and think.  The ever-increasing ferocity and frequency of crippling blizzards and cataclysmic tornadoes; that should have done it.  But if that wasn’t enough, surely Sandy should have been.

            In the past, when I considered writing a Rosh Hashanah sermon about sustainability, I worried about two things.  One that it would be too political for people.  Well, Sandy changed that.  The political argument is - or at least should be - over.  And two, that climate change is irrelevant to people’s day to day lives.  “Heaven can wait. We’ve got other priorities.”

            And we always do, certainly this week.  On the High Holidays, rabbis strive to reach people where they are at – to touch them to the core, to change lives.  For so long, global warming was an abstract issue – like listening to a lecture by a by your most boring college professor – or Al Gore.  No longer.  Maybe Heaven can wait – but the earth can’t.  It matters to each of us.  It reaches to the core of our being.

            There’s a Facebook page, Hurricane Sandy’s Lost Treasures.  Check it out sometime.  You’ll find there the debris from shattered lives, page after page of framed photos, diplomas, trinkets.  The pictures look washed out, tattered and yellowed, almost as if they had been uncovered in Pompey or from the wreckage of the Titanic.  There’s a potholder dated 2002 that says, “Happy Father’s Day.  Love you, Casey.  Age 5.”  There’s a Tiffany silver spoon, dug out from where the dunes used to be. A signed basketball from the 1957 Amherst College Little Three Basketball Champs.  A wedding program found near Ortley Beach.  A plaque from a pleasure boat whose name, ironically, was “Stress Management.”

            Yes, the New Normal.  As if it’s normal and acceptable to look at revised maps and it looks like New Jersey’s coastline has gone on a diet.  In parts of Staten Island, there’s still no there there.   The New Normal carries with it the expectation that we will suffer week-long power outages at least twice a year, except for Temple Beth El, where God seems to protect us every time it happens – and even NPR took notice.  “The New Normal” is not a normal that we can accept, even as we are being told we have no choice but to accept it.

            Increasingly, when I leave my house and walk down the driveway to get the morning paper, I sense a very unfriendly world around me.  There are more and more occasions when I feel as Adam and Eve must have felt on that first night, scared and unsure, listening to the howling winds and seeing the gathering clouds and wondering what will come next.

            But for just about all of us, there was nothing scarier than Sandy.  Sandy felt like a return to primordial chaos.  But as with Elijah at Mt. Sinai, God was not in the howling winds or crashing waves but in the still small voice of compassion that beats in each of our hearts, which led to immeasurable acts of kindness, of people sharing their homes, their showers, their wi-fi – neighbors loving neighbors.  We fed and warmed and powered-up about 100 people here during Sandy.  At one point, one congregant turned to me and said, “This feels so right.  This is what a congregation is all about.  Can we do this more often?” 

            I turned to her and said, “Unfortunately, I think we will have to.”

            The Hebrew word for wind is ruach, which also means "spirit."  In Judaism, the meteorological and spiritual are deeply intertwined.  The experience of a storm is a profoundly spiritual one, even in our day.  Perhaps especially in our day, since, we can pinpoint well in advance what will happen, yet we are completely powerless to stop it.  The weather is one of the few things left that reduces us to mush in the face of its power.  It makes us realize how insignificant we really are.

            Except that we’re not. 

            We’re not insignificant here.  Because we can make a difference.  We can turn the tide, in a very literal sense.  If we each take action, some of the damage of climate change can be reversed, or at least slowed.  Roxbury Road does not have to become beachfront property.  And from a Jewish perspective, what is most important is that we can fulfill God’s call to Adam and Eve by preserving our planet and we could save lives.

            Feeling small is a cop out.  Being helpless is a crutch.  Not wanting to bother fighting for a sustainable planet because it is politically controversial for some inexplicable reason, well that is inexcusable.

            The Iroquois say that we should base our decisions on their impact on the seventh generation.  Some of you will recall the TV ad that ran back when people used to throw their litter out of the car onto the side of the road. It was powerful – as they showed a Native American standing on the side of the road and shedding a tear.  Well guess what?  It worked! People stopped littering.  Now recycling has become the New Normal. 

            There is no reason why sustainability can’t become the New Normal too.  We are now all that Native American.  The Torah states that our iniquities have an impact on the 3rd and 4th generations.  Our children will bear the burden for the decisions we make today.

            In the words of environmental activist Nigel Savage, “You could argue that the Jewish people have been thinking about sustainable energy ever since God spoke to Moses out of a bush that burned but was never consumed. Moses was perhaps the first environmentalist: He recycled his staff into a snake, got Egypt to turn off all its lights for three days, and convinced an entire nation to go on a 40-year nature hike.  The Maccabees took a small cruse of oil and stretched it out for eight miraculous nights.”

            If Moses could do it, so can we.  If the Maccabees could do it, so must we.            

            So how do we do it?

            Maybe Sheryl Sandberg can help.  You know the Facebook COO who made such a splash with her book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead

            Sandberg implored women to lean in, to confidently assert leadership, to make a difference.   Sheryl Sandberg learned about making a difference from her synagogue, where she adopted a Soviet Jewish twin at her Bat Mitzvah and her family became very involved in the cause of freeing Russian Jewry.  That twin, incidentally, is now a successful web designer in Jerusalem.

            “Lean In” is really a brilliant statement not just about the potential of women, but of the role of the Jew in the world. Passionate assertiveness is crucial among Jews and women, even if it stokes the hatred of misogynists and anti-Semites. It’s about making a difference.  When Jewish women lean in, you get heroes like the “Women of the Wall.” When they don’t, you get, well, “The Princesses from Long Island.” 
            So by leaning in, we can make a difference.  The Jew never, ever stands still.  We never accept inertia.  We never, ever, give up on the hope that we can change things that need to be changed.  We never, ever disengage. 
            But when a Jew interacts with the world, there are times when we need to lean out as well.  It’s a delicate balance.  How Jews move in prayer, back and forth, helps to remind us to live lives seeking that precious balance.  That is the Jew’s eternal challenge and task, to live in complete balance with the world around us – and with ourselves.
            With environmental sustainability, we have the same dance. We need to live in balance with nature. The Torah reflects it.  On the one hand, in Genesis 1, man and woman are commanded to dominate the earth, to conquer it and exploit its resources.  That comes right after the “be fruitful and multiply” part.  But a few verses later, Adam and Eve are instructed to care for the earth and all its creatures, to tend to them, to till the soil, to be its stewards, its custodians. 
            On the one hand, God says we should utilize natural resources, on the other; we are called to protect them.  In one verse, God seems to be handing us a flower on Earth Day and in the next God seems to be saying, “Drill, baby, drill.”  Lean in – exploit the Earth.  Lean out – protect it.  Lean in – six days of Creation – Lean out, Shabbat.
            Lean in, lean out.  Well, now, friends, the time has come for us to lean in, but not to exploit our environment.  The time has come to lean in – to save it.   The time has come to lean in BY leaning out!  That is the only way to restore that precious ecological balance. 
             We’ve got to let our planet rest – just as the Torah commands us to let the land lie fallow every seventh year.  Next year is that seventh year.  We cannot afford to wait until 5775. We have to begin now.
            There is no choice.  Hurricane Sandy was not just a wakeup call; it was our SOS, the iceberg off the bow.  And we need to save that iceberg before it becomes a snow cone.
            How astounding it is that the Torah derived its basic value of conservation, the mitzvah of Bal Tashchit, from of all things, the rules of warfare.  Deuteronomy states that when besieging a city we should not cut down trees (“for is the tree a human that you would besiege it too?”).  It’s fascinating also to witness how the rabbis broadened that law’s scope to address all sorts of gratuitous destruction in civilian life.  This mitzvah is particularly relevant as we witness all kinds of wanton ruination perpetrated in our own societies.
            The Torah got it right. The rabbis got it right. Now WE have to get it right.
            So we must live in harmony with nature – and with our own human nature, conquering that side of us that wishes to conquer all that is around us. 
            When it comes to destroying our planet, we must lean in to save it, by leaning out to live with it. To allow it to regenerate and breathe, so that we might be better able to merge the interests of Adam and Adama, of soul and soil.  
            We are doing that here, with your help. 
            And so today we dedicate our new solar panel system on the synagogue’s roof.  Before sunset yesterday, we flipped the switch and the eternal light you see before you is today is now being powered by the sun.  Imagine that!  When we lifted the first panel to the roof last July, we affixed a mezuzah to one of the doors up there, and we blessed it.  The mezuzah symbolically evokes Gods protection on our homes. We pray that this mezuzah be the symbol of our deep yearning for God’s protection of this planet that we call home.  But it is also a symbol of our desire to help God in this task, as Noah’s rainbow reminds us to do. 
            The mezuzah, like all mezuzot, contains the words of the Sh’ma, including the stark warning that if we do not heed the covenant, the weather patterns will be upset and the rains will not come in their due season.  The Sh’ma is a warning to all of us.  It establishes a direct correlation between our actions and the fate of our planet.    Sh’ma!  Listen!  Listen to the earth!  Like the blood of Abel, the earth itself is crying out.
            We flipped the switch last evening, at the outset of the holiday – Last night we bensched licht (lit candles) on the sun!  And today, as the world is reborn. Today, our eternal light is being lit by the power of the one energy resource that we do not have the wherewithal to ruin. 
            So let us say the blessing that we recite every 28 years, when, according to the Talmud, a new solar cycle begins:  repeat – Baruch….oseh ma’aseh bresheet.”
"Praised are You, God, Sovereign of the Universe, Who carries on the constantly unfolding work of Creation."
            And we say to our new system, and the sun, in the words of Isaiah 60,

קוּמִי אוֹרִי, כִּי בָא אוֹרֵךְ; וּכְבוֹד יְהוָה, עָלַיִךְ זָרָח.

            “Arise, shine for your light has dawned, the glory of God shines through you.” 
            “We pray to You O God, to grant us the inner fortitude and wisdom to nurture this planet and restore the precious balance as it was when You created it – and that Your love be actualized in our ability to reach out to those who suffer through the trials of future storms that will invariable come our way.  May we be a shelter from all storms and may Your sun’s rays energize us in body ands spirit, that we may fulfill our mission to repair the world”
            We dedicate this project in memory of Norma Mann, in the presence of her loving family.  She was a woman of unparalleled leadership and courage.  Together with her beloved Milton and inspired by her loving family, she led so effortlessly, so lovingly.  Normal loved the beauty of the world around her.  Her home, in the shadow of the studio of the man who carved Presidential faces into Mount Rushmore, is itself a reminder of how human genius is measured by our capacity to blend art and nature and to forge a sense of harmony. 
            Just beyond her garden, at the edge of her property, runs the Rippowam River.  For many years we brought babies there for conversion at this most beautiful, Eden like spot.  Norma brought a taste of Eden into our midst.  And now in her name, Temple Beth El is taking the lead – we want to enable the whole world to get back to the Garden. 
            This solar project is only the beginning of our concerted effort to make a difference in saving our planet.  Today we kick off the first Jewish C.S.A in Fairfield County – community supported agriculture is a great way to unite soul and soil, supporting local farmers, the environment and our own bodies.  Please contact our office if you are interested in getting involved.  And get your friends involved too – they don’t have to be TBE members or to be Jewish to be part of our CSA.  And our gorgeous Finkelstein mitzvah garden, a mini Garden of Eden in its own right, has been an amazing educational tool for our Hebrew School and especially our Shorashim nursery students.
            We can make a difference!  We already are. Just a few weeks after our announcement, the White House announced that it too would be going solar.  Coincidence?  I think not.
            For this congregation has chosen to align its body with the sun and our soul with the soil.  This is not merely our cause, it is the eternal light that shines from within us, body and soul.
            Let us transport ourselves as we transform our world, to the moment of Creation itself, to a world of utter and complete serenity and order, a place of exquisite color and beauty. That is still our world – and a world we can save.

            W.E.B. Du Bois wrote this prayer, with which I conclude:

            Lord of the springtime, father of flower, field and fruit, smile on us in these earnest days when the work is heavy and the toil wearisome; lift up our hearts, O God, to the things worthwhile - sunshine and night, the dripping rain, the song of the birds, books and music, and the voices of our friends. Lift up our hearts to these...and grant us Thy peace. Amen.

            My friends.  It’s getting hotter. But the sky is not falling.  There is nothing to cry about today – as long as we recall, as we must, that we do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.

            For today the world is reborn.  Hayom Harat Olam

             (Remarks by Sen. Richard Blumenthal - can be heard on audio file)

Rosh Hashanah Day 2, 5774 – The Silence of the Lamb
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

          The Torah reading for the second day of Rosh Hashanah has many dramatic moments, but I’d like to begin this morning by focusing in on one in particular.  It’s when Isaac, for the first and last time in this entire story, and one of the few recorded times in his entire life, opens his mouth and asks a question:

 וַיֹּאמֶר יִצְחָק אֶל-אַבְרָהָם אָבִיו, וַיֹּאמֶר אָבִי, וַיֹּאמֶר, הִנֶּנִּי בְנִי; וַיֹּאמֶר, הִנֵּה הָאֵשׁ וְהָעֵצִים, וְאַיֵּה הַשֶּׂה, לְעֹלָה
          Isaac said to Abraham: “Dad?”  And Abraham replied, “Here I am, my son.” And he observed, “Here is the fire and here are the branches, but where is the lamb for the offering?”
          This year, we were all Abraham.  Anyone of us who has any contact at all with children, especially young children, knows exactly what Abraham was feeling at that moment, when the most difficult question imaginable comes out of their mouths. 
          “Dad?”  Little Isaac asks us. “What happened at Newtown?”

          “What??”  We reply, unprepared for a question that we knew was coming.

          We search for an answer.  But Abraham’s response, that God will provide the lamb, won’t do in this case.  For in Newtown there were twenty lambs. Twenty Isaacs.  And not one answer.

          “Dad?”  “Mom?”  Isaac’s asking again.

          What do we tell him?  What can we tell our children about Newtown?  How do we protect the one shred of innocence that might remain?  After Newtown, can there be any innocence?  After Newtown, can there still be childhood?  Should we dress little Isaac in body armor, or place a can of mace in his Scooby Doo lunchbox? Or maybe give him a cute little gun, so he can defend himself against the military style assault weapons of the enemy.

          Have we forced all our children to abandon childhood innocence altogether, to make the leap right from the cradle to the grave – from infancy to adulthood in a single leap, like those children in medieval paintings whose faces look all too weathered from their grim lives?  In our day, we force children to ripen before their time.  We rob them of their precious innocence all too soon. 

          Isaac’s tugging at our shirt, waiting for his answer. And so are the friends of Benjamin Wheeler, Daniel Barden, Dylan Hockley, and the other 17 children of Newtown.

          Seven year old kids. How do we tell their friends?  How do we tell our kids?  How do we tell – ourselves?  Really, how do we move on from this?

          That’s what we’ve been asking ourselves all year.  But not just about Newtown.  After Newtown there was Boston – and more young victims, four dead and more than 250 injured…and more questions from little Isaac.  And one more question from eight year old Martin Richard, whose sweet smile will never stop bringing tears to our eyes.  He was the spirited third grader, an old man by Newtown standards, whose Facebook photo with the sign, “No More Hurting People,” has now been given posthumous punctuation: as he was fitted for his coffin, his motto was fitted with a question mark – and he is asking Abraham – and us.  How do we respond to Martin Richard?

          How do we respond to the classmates of Hadiya Pendleton, the 15 year old majorette who performed at the Presidential inauguration in January and days later was killed by gun violence on the streets of Chicago?

          How do we respond to Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani school girl shot at point blank range by the Taliban?  Or the 11 year old girl from Yemen who begged her parents not to force her to marry.  That plea was watched 8 million times on YouTube.  Or the estimated 220 million children around the world who are victims of child labor, particularly in Asia, depriving them of their childhood, their potential and their dignity.

          How do we respond Youmna, the girl outside Damascus featured in a video seen by the world – who, delirious from Assad’s unconscionable chemical attack, breathing rapidly and running her fingers along her face, repeated again and again, "I'm alive, I'm alive!" not yet aware that her parents and brother were dead? How do we respond to the 426 children killed in just that one chemical attack and the over one million Syrian children who have become refugees? 

          What do we say to the friends of Bart Palosz, the Greenwich High Sophomore who took his own life last week, with his family’s gun, on the first day of school?  His postings on social media were a very visible cry for help; but the bullying continued unabated. No one stopped it. Teen suicides have become all too prevalent.  One occurred at Westhill last April and we’ve had other similar cases over the past year in Stamford.  Why is it that children – our kids – always seem to be the victims?

          Children are victims everywhere. How do we respond to the 100,000 Aborigine children, many under the age of five, who were taken forcibly from their homes between 1910 and 1970, by official Australian decree? They are called the Stolen Generations.  I was shocked to read about the extent of this crime when I was there.  The government did apologize…. in 2008 – and without reparations.  But most Australians still suffer from the same collective amnesia that we saw in Germany after the war.  They can’t believe it happened, though they saw with their own eyes.  How do we protect our children?

          In the terminology that I used yesterday, do we lean in or lean out?

          Abraham was a lean out parent.  “God will provide,” was his passive response to Isaac’s question.

          But when it comes to protecting the innocence of children, we’ve got to lean in.  We can’t simply lift our arms heavenward, shrug our shoulders and say it’s God’s will.  We should take the lead, not from Abraham, but from Abraham Lincoln, who said, “No one stands so tall as when he stoops to help a child.”

          And from the matriarch Sarah.  She was the first Jewish helicopter parent.  We saw it in yesterdays Torah reading, when she insisted that her son Isaac be given a fresh start, away from the bad influences of his brother Ishmael.   Like any mother, she wanted her son to hang around with the right crowd.  So what if the wrong crowd happened to be her stepson.  She got rid of him.  She leaned in.  We can argue many aspects of the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael; but purely from the perspective of Issac’s growth, it was an incredibly chutzpahdik move… and it was the right one.

          Abraham, on the other hand, was prepared to sacrifice his son and all he could say was, “God will provide the lamb.”  

          But let’s go back to Abraham’s response to Isaac.  Maybe if we take another look at it, we can discover that Abraham was more of a “lean in” parent than we at first thought.  

          For in fact, Abraham did not tell his son, “God will provide.”  He said, Elohim yir'eh lo ha-seh l'olah - "God will see the lamb for the burnt offering."  Rather than saying God will provide, Abraham answers, "God will see." 

          And then, at the end of the story, after Isaac is spared, and a ram is sacrificed in his place, in that place on the top of Moriah. That spot that will later become the center of the spiritual universe, that will one day be Jerusalem, is renamed Adonai-Yir'eh, "on the mountain of Adonai, it will be seen."

          What will be seen? 

          Here’s my take.  What will be seen?  The lamb.  Will there really be a lamb?  No, but God will shield Isaac from the horrors of the world crumbling down around him – and he, Isaac, the child, will see – a lamb.  The most comforting thing the child of a shepherd could see.  For a child today it might be the dog.  Or a teddy bear, like all the teddy bears I saw on Boylston St in Boston and the makeshift memorial for the marathon victims. 

          There won’t BE a lamb.  Abraham never said a real lamb would be there.  In fact, a ram showed up instead.  But Isaac, in his mind, saw a lamb.  God provided that comforting transitional object, much as a parent would do.  Slowly such an object helps the child to wean himself of the pain, and to gain independence and strength to face the world again.

          By this interpretation, Abraham actually taught us how to respond to the child who asks about Newtown.   As Graham Green wrote, “Innocence is a kind of insanity.”

          The film “Life is Beautiful” demonstrated how this form of protective insanity pales in the face of the insanity of violence and cruelty around us.  In that film, a father helped his son survive a concentration camp by turning it all into a game. 

          On the website of the United States Holocaust Museum, you can see the toys improvised by children, both in the camps and hidden in basements of righteous gentiles.  I was particularly moved by a photo of tiny toy soldiers made by Jurek Orlowski out of wood scraps and, naming them after legendary heroes like Robin Hood, he and his brother played various games in the dark, flea-infested basement where they were hidden. These soldiers are each less than one inch high.  But with real Nazi soldiers stomping just outside, they provided the illusion of protection, the veneer of security and the hope for a future where children can play.  We may never know where God was while Jews perished at Auschwitz, but in that basement, God provided a lamb.

           We must cultivate that form of “insanity.”  We must restore, as it were, the silence of the lamb, the serenity of security.  We must restore for our children the illusion of innocence, even when their innocence has been so cruelly snatched from them - so that they can grow to adulthood safely and in good mental health.  So that as adults, maybe, just maybe, they will be able to clean up the mess we’ve made of their world.

          And if we do that, then that place where the lamb is seen, that holy place, will become the place of vision – the place where innocence and beauty and sanctity can still be seen, despite the horrors.  And that place, will be Jerusalem. 

          Yesterday, I stated that if Hurricane Sandy is to have any meaning, we must take that horror and transform it into a sustained, collective effort to save our planet.  Today’s message: if Sandy Hook is to have any meaning beyond the sheer horror, we must take it and transform it into a sustained effort to save our children.  To save their innocence, and to save their lives.  Sandy and Sandy Hook.  Both represent the ultimate test of our ability to take disaster, and from the ashes forge a new vision of a better society.

          In Connecticut, the common sense, bi-partisan gun reform laws passed earlier this year were a huge step in that direction.  On the other hand, Congress’s failure to follow suit was an affront to our deepest impulses to create a holy society and protect our children.  In the months following Newtown, I became very active in this cause. I rallied in Hartford, lobbied in Washington and contributed to a book on the subject. I did it because I had to do something.  For our children, for your children, I could not just sit back.  We owe it to our children not to give up this effort. 

          The rest of the world can’t believe our current state of affairs.  In Australia, the most macho country on earth (the home of Crocodile Dundee), there was a large massacre years ago, and it was the last massacre.  The government ended it – people complained – and then they stopped complaining.  Guns are heavily restricted. 

          When an Aussie college student was shot and killed in Oklahoma last month by three thugs who did it because they were bored, the front page of the Melbourne Herald showed the faces of the three perpetrators and the headline screamed, “Faces of Evil.”  Australian Deputy Prime Minister Tim Fischer called on Australian tourists to boycott the US to send a message about guns. They do not understand us. Maybe someday, that message will be received.

          It must be added that we need to handle mental health issues more proactively, and that limiting access to certain kinds of guns is not the only part of the solution.  And it’s also true that gun violence is not the only type of violence that threatens our children’s well being.  

          The book of Proverbs says, “Spare the rod, spoil the child.”  But later rabbinic authorities understood this to be excessive, this along with other outmoded laws, like the one in Deuteronomy calling upon us to punish the rebellious child by stoning him to death.  If we really did that to all rebellious children we would have no teenagers left!

          Maimonides ruled that any aggressive acts against a child that are intended to cause harm or embarrass another are forbidden (Hovel uMazik 5:1), and he interprets that verse as calling on parents to merely fake anger for the sake of the student’s character development (Deot 2:3), but to hold back from really showing it.

          Reb Nachman made it clear that we should never hit children. More recent authorities are stricter in prohibiting physical punishment.   One halachic approach calls hitting a child a violation of “Lifnei Iver” (causing another to err), because hitting the child will likely cause them to hit a parent or teacher back, and thus the child will have committed a sin (Moed Katan 17a, Kiddushin 30a).  Certainly, that child will hit back – but more likely, that will happen much later on, perhaps by hitting his own child.

          We need to protect them not only from our violent urges but from their own.

          And we must protect our kids not only from violence, but from all the excesses of our culture.  That Sam Horowitz Bar Mitzvah video that went viral a few weeks ago was, on one level, cute.  A thirteen year old being taught the lessons of life by dancing with scantily clad showgirls.  But the video is offensive – and before you say “lighten up, rabbi,” I firmly assert that I can get a joke and I am not a prude. It’s offensive because thirteen year old kids should be kids.  We have to stop molding them in our image – we have to let them stay innocent for as long as we can.  When they grow up, God will provide the showgirls.  Or the Chippendales.  For now, let them see the lambs.  There is a fine, fine line separating Hannah Montana from Miley Cyrus.  Why must we force our children to cross it?

            In the scheme of things, we adults have found much more brutal ways of robbing children of their innocence.   

          Unfortunately, Jews are not immune from forms of child abuse that have become all too prevalent among clergy and teachers of all faiths.  Distinguished careers and institutions have been stained by these horrific acts.  Almost more than the perpetrators, the stain has affected most the ones who allowed it to happen and did nothing. 
          Nothing disgusts us more than stolen innocence.  That’s why Joe Paterno will not be remembered for the 99% of his life that he did all the right things.  That’s why a neighborhood in Cleveland will forever have to live with the shame of having had girls enslaved in their midst for a decade, and they never picked up on the signals. That’s what Norman Lamm of Yeshiva University will have to contemplate every night before he sleeps, why, during his long tenure as Y.U. president (from 1976 to 2003), he knew of abuse allegations against members of his staff and elected to let the abusers quietly leave instead of reporting them to the authorities. 

          Martin Luther King’s great speech at the Lincoln Memorial was recalled last week.  But there was another speech recited that day, by a rabbi from Berlin named Joachim Prinz, president of the American Jewish Council.  He said, “Bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problems.  The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most tragic problem – is silence.” Referring to Nazi Germany, he added, “A great people, which had created a great civilization, had become a nation of silent onlookers. They remained silent in the face of hate, in the face of brutality, in the face of mass murder.  America must not become a nation of silent onlookers.”

          While predators have devoured their prey, too many have looked on silently.

          We’ve got to do a better job of protecting our children, of creating for them a sukkah of peace, filled with lambs and puppies and lollypops, a world of rainbows, a place to experience wonder, to express curiosity, to feel the warmth of kindness, to see smiles even on the faces of strangers.   To feel loved. In this horrible world, a family can’t do it alone.

          It takes a village.  It takes this village.  It takes all of us to bring the vision of the lamb to our children.  For each child belongs to all of us.  We are responsible for all of them.

          That is our guiding philosophy.  Our family programs, our Religious School, our Shorashim nursery school, which is the most nurturing place on the planet.  Every Shabbat we need to create that oasis, right here.  Every week.  And that means we need lots of you to be here.  Not just for the children – but to preserve the childlike innocence in each of us.  We need to do that.  We need to imagine, to hope and to be amazed. 

          This past year, you might recall, Israel faced an onslaught of rockets from Gaza, the likes of which it has never seen, penetrating even the airspace of Tel Aviv.  Most were intercepted by Iron Dome, thank God, but nothing can traumatize a child faster than a rocket exploding in your backyard.    

          The Israeli writer Etgar Keret (in the New Yorker) recounted how he and his wife protected their child.

          The air-raid siren catches us on the highway, driving to Grandpa Yonatan’s place, a few kilometers north of Tel Aviv. My wife, Shira, pulls over to the side of the road and we get out of the car, leaving the badminton rackets and feathered ball on the back seat. Lev holds my hand and says, “Daddy, I’m a little nervous.” He’s seven, and seven is the age when it’s not considered cool to talk about fear, so the word “nervous” is used instead. Following Home Front Command instructions, Shira lies down on the side of the road. I tell Lev that he has to lie down, too. But he keeps standing there, his small, sweaty hand clutching mine.

          “Lie down already,” Shira says, raising her voice to be heard over the blaring siren.

          “How’d you like to play a game of Pastrami Sandwich?” I ask Lev.

          “What’s that?” he asks, not letting go of my hand.

          “Mommy and I are slices of bread,” I explain, “and you’re a slice of pastrami, and we have to make a pastrami sandwich as fast as we can. Let’s go. First, you lie down on Mommy,” I say, and Lev lies down on Shira’s back and hugs her as hard as he can. I lie on top of them, pressing against the damp earth with my hands so as not to crush them.

          “This feels good,” Lev says and smiles.

          “Being the pastrami is the best,” Shira says under him.

          “Pastrami!” I yell.

          “Pastrami!” my wife yells.

          “Pastrami!” Lev yells, his voice shaky, either from excitement or fear.

          “Daddy,” Lev says, “look, there are ants crawling on Mommy.”

          “Pastrami with ants!” I yell.

          “Pastrami with ants!” my wife yells.

          “Yech!” Lev yells.

          And then we hear the boom. Loud, but far away. We stay lying one on top of the other, without
moving, for a long time. My arms are starting to hurt from carrying my weight. From the corner of my eye, I can see other drivers who’ve been lying on the highway get up and brush the dirt off their clothes. I stand up, too.

          “Lie down,” Lev tells me, “lie down, Daddy. You’re ruining the sandwich.”

          I lie down for another minute, and say, “O.K., game’s over. We won.”

          “But it’s nice,” Lev says. “Let’s stay like this a little more.”

          We stay like that a few seconds longer. Mommy on the bottom, Daddy on the top, and in the middle, Lev and a few red ants. When we finally get up, Lev asks where the rocket is. I point in the direction the explosion came from. “It sounded like it exploded not far from our house,” I say.

          “Oof,” Lev says, disappointed, “now Lahav will probably find a piece again. Yesterday, he came to school with a piece of iron from the last rocket, and it had the symbol of the company on it and the name in Arabic. Why did it have to explode so far away?”

          “Better far away than close by,” Shira says as she wipes sand and ants off her pants.

          “The best would be if it was far enough away so nothing happens to us, but close enough so I could pick up some pieces,” Lev sums up.

          “The best would be badminton on Grandpa’s lawn,” I say, and open the door to the back seat of the car.

          “Daddy,” Lev says as I’m buckling him in, “promise that if there’s another siren, you and Mommy will play Pastrami with me again.”

          “I promise,” I say, “and if it gets boring, I’ll teach you how to play Grilled Cheese.”

          “Great!” Lev says, and a second later, he adds more seriously, “but what if there aren’t any more sirens ever?”

          “I think there’ll be at least one or two more,” I reassure him.

          “And if not,” his mom adds from the front seat, “we can play without the sirens, too.”
          In 17th century London there was a man named Samuel Pepys (Peeps) whose daily journal has become an invaluable resource to social historians, giving a wonderful first-hand perspective of day to day life in this fascinating period.  Pepys caught the daily journaling bug from his father, some of whose journals are also preserved.

          There is one particular day that is recorded in each man’s journal. It was a simple father-son fishing trip.  Samuel gives great detail about the time he arose, what they ate for breakfast, the preparation of the fishing gear and bait, the trip to the fishing location, the time they spent together, what they caught, and what a wonderful day it was.

          The parallel entry in his father's journal: "Day wasted. Took the boy fishing."

          Imagine what Abraham’s and Isaac’s journals would have looked like.  We may have lots of questions about the kind of father Abraham was, but one thing is known for sure.  It says in our passage from the Torah, right after the comment about the lamb, “Vayelchu Shnayhem Yachdav.”  The two of them walked together. Abraham never left his son’s side.  That was even more important than the answer itself.

          I implore you to think of that, and to think of Samuel’s diary, whenever you have the chance to hug a child.  And not just your own child or grandchild.  One parent recently was telling me about her young child, “You know, he thinks you’re a superstar.”  (I love kids)

          That’s what we all are.  That’s what we all need to be.  So whenever a child is making a little too much of a fuss in services, don’t give the frazzled parent a menacing stare – give the child a smile.  Or better yet, candy.  OK, or fruit.  Be the superstar.  Be the lamb.  Let them feel all the love we can give – because sooner or later, we’re going to have to let them go out into a very scary world, like the “uf gozal,” the chick that leaves her nest in the popular Hebrew song.

          My nest is empty right now, with my kids on the other side of the country and the other side of the world.  But if they are watching this, they know that my helicoptering knows no bounds – and that no child is ever too old for a hug. 

          We need to keep them safe, to keep them bathed in love.  Because in the end, we have to let them go.

          Come home, Benjamin and Allison, Charlotte, Daniel, Noah, Olivia, Josephine, Ana, Dylan and the rest of our Newtown angels. Come home, Martin Richard, and maybe we’ll stop hurting people.  Come home Hadiya Pendelton and Bart Palosz.

          Come to our loving arms.  We’ll cherish your memories by dedicating ourselves to making this world a better place for children to grow, and by making this community an oasis of joy and love and acceptance for all children.

          And come home Isaac.  Come home at last.  Come to the arms of your mother Sarah, who did all she could to protect you but in the end, it was not enough.      

          Don’t worry Isaac.  We will protect you.  We pledge to protect you.  We will dedicate our lives, every ounce of our strength, to keep you safe. 

          And God will provide the lamb.

No comments: