Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Rosh Hashanah Sermons 5779

Rosh Hashanah Sermons

Rosh Hashanah Day 1: "Call Me Ishmael"

Rosh Hashanah Day 2: "A Few Good Words"

Rosh Hashanah Day 1 5779   “Call Me Ishmael”
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

I often talk about my father, in particular lately of his legacy of being a mensch.  But his greatest gift to me might have been the Hammerman sense of humor.  With his 40th yahrzeit is coming up in a few months, I thought I’d attempt to tell what might have been his favorite joke.  I’ve never told it before.  And it’s about me. So I’ll tell it as if he were telling it.

One day, we got a frantic call from Josh’s kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Hamburger, to come in for a meeting.  We come in and she say, “Cantor and Mrs. Hammerman, we have a problem. Every time when we pledge allegiance to the flag, I instruct the children to put their hands over their heart, and little Joshua puts his hand here (on my rear end).  I don't know what to do.”

So we went home and asked him why and he said, “Well, whenever those sisterhood ladies come up to me, they give me little pinch there and say, “Bless his little heart.” 

Three things:

1)    It never happened.
2)    That little joke might be seen as problematic on a number of levels today. It’s possible that if I had done that during the pledge today, Mrs. Hamburger would have had me arrested, or I could have had the sisterhood ladies arrested. 
3)    But what remains true, then and now, is that we ache to recapture the precious innocence of childhood.

 “Once upon a time, there was a boy. He lived in a village that no longer exists, in a house that no longer exists, on the edge of a field that no longer exists, where everything was discovered, and everything was possible.  A stick could be a sword, a pebble could be a diamond, a tree, a castle. Once upon a time, there was a boy who lived in a house across the field, from a girl who no longer exists. They made up a thousand games. She was queen and he was king. In the autumn light her hair shone like a crown. They collected the world in small handfuls, and when the sky grew dark, they parted with leaves in their hair.”

This passage is from Nicole Krauss’s, “This History of Love.”

There’s been a lot of victims over this very difficult year, many of them children.  But the greatest victim may have been childhood itself.

We tried everything to save it. Disney brought back “Winnie the Pooh.”  Here at Beth El, we enhanced our young families program.  On Purim, I dressed up as Professor Dumbledore. 

But we were swimming upstream, against a forbidding tide.  The world seemed to be conspiring to destroy childhood.  Toys ‘R Us closed its doors this year, following in the footsteps of FAO Schwarz three years ago.  That’s our world today – even the world of toys has found its way onto the danger list.

Today there are 2.2 billion children in the world.  Nearly two billion of these live in developing countries, the clear majority in desperate need of healthcare, water, food and education. “Save the Children” estimates that 1.2 billion children face at least one of the three greatest threats, poverty, conflict or discrimination against girls.  More than 153 million children live in countries characterized by all three of those.  But here even in the richest country in the world, childhood is under siege. 

That should matter to us.

A midrash asks:

“Why do young children commence the study of Torah with the Book of Leviticus, and not with the Book of Genesis? Surely it is because young children are pure, and the korbanot (offerings) are pure; so let the pure come and engage in the study of the pure.”

 “Therefore, when the children study, “God says, “I consider it as if they are bringing Me the offerings of old.  Though the Temple was destroyed, and offerings are not brought there anymore, were it not for the children learning about the sacrificial laws, the world would not stand.”

If not for the innocence of children, the rabbis are telling us, civilization would be unsustainable.

So let’s talk about Ishmael, one of the main subjects of today’s Torah reading.  The other is Isaac.  Two kids.  Isaac is the key to the future of the Jewish people.

But what of Ishmael?  He’s a prop, really.  Just a plot device to show us how much Abraham and Sarah wanted a kid, so much that Sarah offered Abraham her handmaid Hagar so he could have a kid with her – the world’s first Handmaid’s Tale.  But Sarah had second thoughts, so Hagar was sent away when she was pregnant, then she came back and Ishmael was born, and then, once he grew to adolescence, Ishmael and Hagar were sent away again.  But at the moment of their greatest despair, God saved them.

Now in the version of the story found in the Quran, Ishmael is actually the favored child.   But in our Torah, with the plot clearly centered around Sarah and Isaac, the question is, why are Hagar and Ishmael treated with such sympathy by God?

And not just God.  The Torah itself makes it impossible for us NOT to feel more sympathy for Hagar and Ishmael than for Sarah and Isaac.  For one thing, Hagar shows emotion as Ishmael is suffering, calling out, “Let me not look upon the death of the child.”

וַתֵּשֶׁב מִנֶּגֶד, וַתִּשָּׂא אֶת-קֹלָהּ וַתֵּבְךְּ.

“And she sat over against him, and lifted up her voice, and wept.”

Compare that with tomorrow’s selection, the Binding of Isaac.  No crying here.  The Akeda reads like an AP report just come over the wire, narrated by Sargent Joe Friday.  No emotions – nothing evocative. No tears. Just the facts, Ma’am.

And then, responding to Hagar’s cries, וַיִּשְׁמַע אֱלֹהִים, אֶת-קוֹל הַנַּעַר

God hears the voice of the boy.

So we have two stories, back to back – one is deeply emotive, and the other not in the least. The Torah is taking us by the hand as if to say, “Yes, Isaac is ultimately favored, but here, have sympathy for the other one,  for Ishmael.

God hears the boy’s cry.  And indeed, the name Ishmael means “God will hear.” 

God hears the cry of the outsider, the wanderer, the loner, the Other, the child.   God understands that without setting this example that children’s innocence must be defended, nothing else will matter.   Civilization will be unsustainable.

 In “Moby Dick,” Ishmael’s a minor character, no one cares much about him – we barely hear his name again in the entire book.  But he is the narrator, and his survival is key.  Had Ishmael died, and he survived miraculously, the whole story would have been left untold.  And the Torah seems to be saying that had the biblical Ishmael been allowed to die in that desert, the rest of the story would have been rendered meaningless. 

For what is the purpose of this enterprise called humanity, if no one hears the cry of a child?  

And we have learned this year, that if we can we can give the child a small fighter’s chance, that child will fight. 

And live.  And bear witness to the sins of their parents, while simultaneously bearing the weight of their hopes.  And as we have seen this year, children are up to this task – because they are so incredibly resilient.

So how do we save childhood?  By hearing the cry of every Ishmael out there – not just our own, not just those of our tribe.  All of them.

I’ve done a lot of traveling recently.  To Israel, as well as parts of Asia.  These trips gave me a renewed appreciation for the rich cultural diversity of our world, yet ultimately how similar we all are.  I put together a photo montage of children from around the world and have shared it with you (click for online album).  You cannot look into the faces of those children without feeling a heightened sense of responsibility – as well as hope for the future. 

What did I see in these places?  I saw love of neighbor – and a deep respect for ancestors.  I saw a desire for peace and for bread on the table.  But most of all, I saw resilience.

I was stunned by the spirit of the Vietnamese.  We cruised up the Mekong Delta, in a very unswift boat, where I could imagine the horrors of a generation ago.  But the defoliated forests have now grown back and the people there love Americans. The grandchildren of the War have moved on – even as Agent Orange still afflicts many of them.  Saigon – most still call it Saigon – and Hanoi look like any western city, with every American fast food chain imaginable – McDonald’s, Burger King, and of course, KFC, which makes sense, since Colonel Sanders is a dead ringer for Ho Chi Minh.

In my hotel, the bathtub was an American Standard.  I knew for sure that this was not “your father’s Vietnam” when I was sitting in the lounge in the Saigon Intercontinental Hotel and the guy at the piano began playing “Sounds of Silence.”

I braced myself for a medley of American songs from the Vietnam era, half expecting the next one to be “Teach the Children” by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.

“And you, of tender years,
Can't know the fears that your elders grew by.”

The kids in Vietnam have no idea about their elder’s fears. No longer are they running naked, screaming from the burning effects of Napalm on their clothing, like that nine year old girl photographed in June of 1972.  They are playing in the parks and riding carefree on the handlebars of their parents’ motorcycles.  Their parents and grandparents have somehow restored and safeguarded their innocence.

Even that 9 year old Napalm victim, her pain immortalized in that Pulitzer Prize winning photo, one of most searing images of the 20th century – has managed to overcome it.  Kim Phúc endured seventeen surgeries and wasn’t able to move properly for a decade.  For a while she was used as a propaganda tool by the Vietnamese government. But eventually, she married and gained political asylum in Canada during a refueling stop in Gander, Newfoundland, of all places.  She had come from FAR away.  In 1997 she established the first Kim Phúc Foundation in the U.S., with the aim of providing medical and psychological assistance to child victims of war.

She told NPR in 2008, “Forgiveness made me free from hatred. I still have many scars on my body and severe pain most days but my heart is cleansed. Napalm is very powerful, but faith, forgiveness, and love are much more powerful. We would not have war at all if everyone could learn how to live with true love, hope, and forgiveness. If that little girl in the picture can do it, ask yourself: Can you?”

She may call herself Kim Phúc , but I call her Ishmael.

As our trip continued, we flew over what used to be called the DMZ, but this time in a passenger jet, not a B52, and when we landed, I just looked around and said, “I’m in Hanoi!”  Back in the day, only Jane Fonda came here.  Jane Fonda and John McCain (of blessed memory).  So we asked our guide to make an unscheduled stop at the so-called Hanoi Hilton, the prison where McCain withstood his five and a half  years of captivity and torture, which robbed him of his youth, though never his resolve.  We also saw the spot by the lake where he was captured, and I came away with a deepened appreciation for this true American hero, the heroism of every soldier –the unspeakable and avoidable tragedy of that war – and the visionary inspiration of McCain and John Kerry for paving the road to peace with Vietnam in the 1990s.  And so now Vietnam has Starbucks and American Standard bathroom fixtures, no Toys ‘R Us but a Lego store – and who exactly won this war?

            And now, fifty years after the infamous Tet Offensive, we Jews are entering the year, tav shin ayin, tet.  The letter Tet equals nine in Hebrew. Tet is the first letter of the word “Tov.”  Good – and the letter has become synonymous with that word.  During the war, the Tet Offensive was devastating for both sides.  But now, in this year of the transformed Tet, when we look at Vietnam, we can say “Tov!  “Good.”  Childhood has been restored here.

In Cambodia, we visited a school in Phnom Penh called the PSE Center, which was set up by French citizens back at the time of the city’s liberation from the Khmer Rouge.  Around two million people were murdered during the genocide of the Killing Fields; nearly half the population of the country, by some estimates.  No one emerged unscarred.  Many children were brainwashed and conscripted.  Others were killed.  After Pol Pot left, multitudes of  children were orphaned and destitute, eating out of piles of garbage.  So this school was created out of those ruins. 

And now, a generation later, it serves thousands of at-risk kids from all over the country, street children, school dropouts, abused or orphaned kids.  While it's been four decades since the Killing Fields, the parents of these children still face massive post-traumatic stress, along with physical injuries – not to mention that many are still being killed by unexploded mines – a third of the victims children.  The nightmare will not go away.  Yet somehow, the children are pulling through.  Somehow in this beautiful but godforsaken land, the children smile and the children play.

            And in the middle of that school, a sign quotes the 1924  Geneva Declaration of the Rights of the Child, one of the most lasting legacies of the League of Nations.  Yes, it tells us, children have rights: To have food when hungry and to be nursed when sick; to have shelter and relief in times of stress, to be taught a trade, to be able to grow both materially and spiritually and to live without exploitation.  That’s all in there.  As the declaration states, “Humanity is obligated to give every child the best that it has.”  And in this little corner of Phnom Penh, that’s happening.  

            Yes, as the Midrash tells us, it is the innocence of children that sustains the world.
            And children are resilient, the world over. 

Call them Ishmael.

And we must hear their cry. 

A dozen boys and their football coach in Thailand were trapped in a labyrinth of submerged caverns and crevices.  They were exploring the caves when a sudden storm flooded the entire area, and they were entombed for nine days before being discovered.  With precision training and expert divers, the rescue was meticulously planned. 

The boys were hungry.  They were dehydrated. It had been two weeks.   But they were in good spirits when they were found, demonstrating remarkable resilience.

            We were in Thailand on the day when the boys were rescued.  There was great joy – but more relief than celebration.  No ticker tape parades or trips to Disneyland.   What did these boys do to celebrate their survival?  How about nine days in a Buddhist monastery, a tradition in Thailand for those who experience adversity.  This step was intended to be a "spiritual cleansing" for the group, and to fulfill a promise to remember the diver who had died.

One of the boy’s grandfathers told the BBC. "It's like they died but now have been reborn."

Just like the Midrash: So let the pure come and engage in the study of the pure.

In purifying themselves, those boys purified us. The Thais were amazed that the world cared so much about the plight of their kids.  We cared because instinctively we knew that this was a crucial crossroads for civilization.  Childhood innocence itself was trapped in that cave.  If we could care about these kids, maybe other Ishmaels would also be heard. We had to save those kids.  And when they were saved, we all felt cleansed.

 Despite the contributions of the rescuers, the boys themselves were the real heroes of this story.  And here as well,  it is the children themselves who are saving childhood – and giving us hope. 

Call them Ishmael.

By all measures, the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland Florida should have spent Valentine’s Day at parties or at the mall – but instead they either spent it sheltered in place – or at the morgue.  But in the seven months since that mass shooting that took seventeen precious lives, the Parkland students have cried out and organized, lobbied relentlessly, and spoken truth to power in a manner that has changed everything about the issue of gun violence.  Just five weeks after the shooting, there were 800 “March for our Lives” events that brought out an estimated 800,000 marchers, including a large crowd right here in Stamford, led by Alyssa Goldberg, one of our own TBE high school students.  Our neighbor Paul Simon showed up to play “Sounds of Silence.”  Much better than the guy at the piano bar in Siagon.  But the teens organized the whole thing.

Call them Ishmael!

Those kids in Thailand saved us with their purity of faith, those teens in Parkland with their purity of action.  Some cynics labeled the Parkland kids snowflakes, as if to say that they were overly sensitive and coddled.  But snowflakes have a strange habit of turning into snowballs, rolling down the highway.  If those amazing kids are snowflakes, then God grant us an avalanche of them.

You know, we adults can't even imagine what it’s like to be a child these days.  Think about the horrific revelations that have come out regarding the Catholic church.  A thousand children in Pennsylvania; so many crimes, so many cover ups.  In the Jewish community as well, new cases have been uncovered.  In Chennai India this year, a group of eighteen men took turns raping an 11-year-old girl.  And it was covered up!

And we were struck dumb at the news two weeks ago of nine year old, Jamel Myers, who came out to his classmates in Denver, and then was bullied into submission until he took his own life. The kids at school told this little child to kill himself, and he did. 

“Call me Ishmael,” they all cry. 

I saw the film “Eighth Grade” – and I’m someone who spends a lot of time around 8th graders.  And I was stunned by a lot of it – perhaps most of all by the banality of school shooter drills. 

But those Parkland kids hopped on the bus and just said, “We’re going to do something about it.” And they have.  Their toughness astounds me.  It comforts me.

And it is a summons to all of us.

Every day, on average, seven children and teens die from gun violence (according to the Brady Campaign). 

What have we done to stop that bloodshed?

Teen suicide is soaring; up over 70 percent for the ten-year period ending in 2016, says the CDC.  The more kids rely on social media over face-to-face contact, the more isolated they feel.

What have we done to hear the cries of Ishmael?

Kids live in a world of bullying and domestic abuse, and their world is getting more inhospitable all the time.  They are hearing adult role models speak in increasingly uncivil terms and that filters back to the schoolyard.  Their world is spinning out of control.
All our kids are crying out, “Call me Ishmael!”

This summer, Americans have been obsessed with the late Fred Rogers.  We need a little more Mister Rogers in our neighborhood.  Rogers said, “Knowing that we can be loved exactly as we are gives us all the best opportunity for growing into the healthiest of people.”

Rogers was a Presbyterian minister who believed that all people are created in the image of God, proclaiming that all children deserved to be loved unconditionally.  Some criticized his approach, claiming that it’s bad for kids to be showered with too much unearned love, because they come to feel entitled, and to expect life to reward them for just showing up, you know, with so-called “participation trophies.”  And then these kids become the soft underbelly of society, unprepared for this brutish, uncaring world. 

I’m not worried about a trophy.  They say ninety percent of life is just showing up, so I’m not worried about rewarding participation.  Come to services on Shabbat and I’ll give you a trophy!  I’m not worried about a trophy.

I’m worried about atrophy. 

Atrophy of the heart. 
Atrophy of principle. 
Atrophy of compassion. 
Atrophy of truth.   
Atrophy of love.
Atrophy of our ability to be outraged.
Atrophy of our ability to hear the cry of Ishmael.

That cry from the wilderness, that cry of Ishmael, is also the cry of the canary – the canary in the coal mine – that cave in Thailand was that dark place and those boys were the canaries. 

From Thailand to Parkland, we hear the words of Jeremiah 31:20, which are echoed in the prayers of the Rosh Hashanah Musaf service:

הֲבֵן יַקִּיר לִי אֶפְרַיִם, אִם יֶלֶד שַׁעֲשֻׁעִים

“Is not Ephraim My dear son, My precious child, whom I remember fondly…? So, My heart reaches out to him, and I always feel compassion for him, declares Adonai.” 

Our children deserve love – and they deserve to be left a better world than we found it.  Not a world of not a world of cynicism, corruption and brutality.  Not a world of prejudice, anti-Semitism racism and hate.  Not a world of blood and soil.

If we let down our children – there will be no one else left to let down.

            And one more thing:

            We cannot allow ourselves to be a country where authorities rip children from the arms of their parents.  God heard Ishmael’s cry, because he was the Other.  And we hear the cry of those who have risked life and limb for the faint hope of asylum in an America that is failing to live up to her promise.  The Huddled Masses still yearn to breathe free.   The Zero Tolerance policy at the border is a stain on all that it means to be an American. 

They thought no one would notice.

They thought no one would care.

But we heard the cry of Ishmael.

And it is not just at the border, but in cities and towns across this land where people who have contributed to their communities for decades are being picked up like yesterday’s garbage and taken from their children. 

I think of Armando Rojas, the beloved custodian of our sister congregation Bet Torah in Mt. Kisco, just up the road.  Armando worked there for 20 of his 30 years in this country before being detained by ICE a few months ago. Despite the congregation’s advocacy efforts on his behalf, Armando was deported to Mexico without a chance to gather his belongings or even say goodbye to his wife and young children. He was left at the border with no money, cell phone, or ID.

It's happened right here in Stamford.  Several months ago, I stood vigil with other community leaders in front of a house where authorities were threatening to come and deport a woman who has lived in this country since 1992.  Miriam Martinez, originally from Guatemala, is married with two children, Alison and Brianna.  Brianna has Juvenile Diabetes and is entering 8th grade.  Miriam was about to be deported, leaving Brianna in a life-threatening situation.  Thanks to a community that came to her aid, a judge granted her a stay.  That assistance was coordinated in large part by Catalina Horak, Executive Director of Building 1 Community – who is here today.   And so are Miriam and Brianna and Alison.

Miriam’s next court appearance is next week, and I pray that her stay will be extended indefinitely.  But Miriam, if you need me down at your house to protect you, I will be there at a moment’s notice – even on Yom Kippur.

All over the world, children are constantly being separated from their parents.  Not just here. In lots of places, and it’s been happening for a long time.  But now?  Here? In 2018?  Thirty-seven hundred children were taken from their parents at the border.  Systematically.  Callously.  Underhandedly.  

And we are responsible.  The shame is on us.

What civilized nation does this? 

What nation that values the well-being of a child does this?

What kind of America IS this?

And what kind of Jews are we if we stand for this?

Call them Ishmael!

This year I looked at the world through the eyes of children. I saw a different story, a story of hope and resilience and innocence reclaimed.  I saw it in their faces. 

It is those kids who give me hope, the kids in Cambodia and Vietnam and Israel and India, and those teens from Thailand to Parkland, and right here.  Ishmael, the child, the Other, the outcast, is hearing our cry – and Ishmael is taking action.  Ishmael is leading the way.  Ishmael is saving us.

The League of Nations’ Declaration of the Rights of the Child did not die with the League of Nations.  The United Nations adopted it in 1948, then again in 1959 and in 1989, the Convention on the Rights of the Child was approved.  One of the signers of the original 1924 document was none other than Janusz Korczac, the Fred Rogers of his time, the great advocate for the care of children, who put his ideas into practice in the Warsaw Ghetto, choosing to accompany his orphans to a death that he could have escaped.

Janusz Korczak memorial at Yad Vashem

Korczak wrote, “Children are not the people of tomorrow, but are people of today. They have a right to be taken seriously, and to be treated with tenderness and respect. They should be allowed to grow into whoever they were meant to be. 'The unknown person' inside of them is our hope for the future.” 

And so, I am hopeful.  We’ve tried our best to destroy childhood – but those kids have reclaimed it on their own.  We Napalmed a little girl in Vietnam and she has forgiven us.  We could not save Janusz Korczak’s orphans but Miriam Martinez’s children are safe at least for now.

We’ve saved them from the caves and we’ve saved them from the cages.

 We’ve let so many children down, but God hears the child’s cry. 

And God will answer that cry again in just a couple of months – because in November, FAO Schwarz will be reopening its doors in Manhattan. 

May the Schwarz be with us!

Welcome to our world of toys!

They’re calling it, “the Return to Wonder.”  And not a moment too soon.  I’m ready to jump on that huge piano, like Tom Hanks in “Big.”  Fire up the imagination, turn those pebbles into diamonds and those trees into castles.  The House at Pooh Corner is open for business again!

And the parched boy takes a huge gulp of God-given water and rises from his rocky bed of despair; he looks around the world and proclaims proudly to his weeping mother Hagar and for all to hear:

“I am Ishmael!”

 And I am loved.”


Rosh Hashanah Day 2 5779   “A Few Good Words”

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

When our group was in Israel this past summer, we heard from people representing a wide variety of viewpoints, including a Muslim Imam, who welcomed us to his mosque in Haifa and an Orthodox rabbi in Jerusalem who promotes pluralism.  We also had an impromptu encounter with Prince William at the Kotel.  But most unforgettable of all was the visit at our hotel in Jerusalem, late on Shabbat afternoon, by a Palestinian peace activist from Ramallah.  His name is Issam Sa’ad.
Issam grew up in Gaza and rarely saw a Jew who wasn’t in a uniform – he was taught to hate Jews, and he was an excellent learner.    But he needed money, so he took his seething resentment with him to Tel Aviv, where he found a job as a day laborer in an upscale restaurant near the beach.  He was originally just working in the kitchen, but he wanted to make more money, so he taught himself to read and write in Hebrew in just a few days and asked the owner for a chance to wait on tables.  As a joke, the owner let him service a few tables late one night, figuring he would fall flat on his face and that would be it.  But to his surprise, Issam did a great job, holding his own with his rudimentary Hebrew.  And with his family scrounging for every scrap of food back in Gaza, you can imagine how his resentment toward Jews only intensified when he got an up-close look at the bohemian, lifestyle of the upscale Tel Avivians filling his tables.
But now something was different.  He was talking with them, with the few words of Hebrew that he had learned.  And they were talking with him. 
Just a few good words – and that was enough to change everything.
One day, an older woman sat at one of his tables - and this woman was different.  She showed a keen interest in Issam.  Her words were gentle and kind - and Jews weren’t supposed to be kind.  This confused Issam – it went against everything he had been taught about Jews.  A few days later she came back and brought him a piece of cake.
Aha!  He got it now.  She was trying to poison him!  So, he threw the cake into the garbage.
But the woman didn’t give up.  She continued to bring him food – and then clothing as well - and their friendship started to blossom. 
She really cared for him.  Issam talked about her tearfully, before our group that day, saying that she hugged him the way a mother hugs her child.  He was young and consumed by confusion, self-pity and hate, in his late teens or early twenties - and had never been hugged like that before.  He had many siblings and grew up in a house where he was never hugged at all.  And his outlook began to change.  If this one Jew could be so kind, might there be others?
As tensions between the Israelis and Palestinians escalated, Issam was no longer allowed to travel from Gaza to the restaurant to work – another casualty of the eternal conflict.  A curfew was imposed. One night, there were reports of rockets fired from Gaza to a target near where the Israeli woman lived, so he wanted to go out and use the pay phone to see if she was ok.  He had memorized her phone number.  His family told him he was crazy, that if he went out after curfew, he might never come back.   But he worried about the woman, his new friend, so he went anyway.
He called her up and they were overjoyed to hear each other’s voices.  It turns out she was as worried about him as he was about her.  But after a few minutes, Issam was approached by Israeli soldiers who put a bag over his face and hit him in the head with the end of a rifle.
 He was taken to a prison, where he spent the next couple of days.  No charges, blood on his head, just waiting.  Finally, he was brought into a room and told he was going to plead guilty to one of several crimes he did not commit, including throwing rocks and attacking soldiers.  He refused.  
So the soldiers brought in a senior officer who asked what he was doing out after curfew.  Issam explained the situation and gave the officer the woman’s name and phone number.
The officer left the room to verify the story.
A short while later, the officer returned to Isaam’s holding cell, noticeably upset, and this time alone. It was just the two of them.  He carried with him a cup of tea for Issam and a wet rag and wiped the wound on Isaam’s head.  Isaam was allowed to go home.
The woman had saved him – perhaps at some risk to herself. She could have denied knowing him and washed her hands of his fate.  But she didn’t.
If you’ve seen or read Les Miserables - which I have, about a hundred times – then you recall that key instant when a bishop saves Jean Valjean from prison by giving him two silver candlesticks that Valjean had stolen from him, but that act of grace comes with a stipulation:

But remember this, my brother

See in this some higher plan

You must use this precious silver

To become an honest man
This was Isaam Sa’ad’s Jean Valjean moment.
This human connection forged between a Palestinian man and an Israeli woman, two former enemies by accident of birth, took Issam out of the clutches of potential radicalization and turned him into a warrior for peace.  His hatred had just melted away.  
And truth be told, just as that woman in Tel Aviv melted Issam’s heart with kind words, so did Issam melt ours.  That Shabbat in Jerusalem was for all of us, a Jean Valjean moment. We bonded with a man who grew up hating us, long before he ever met us.

Issam Sa’ad is now Director of the Palestine Dialogue Center (PDC).  For the past twenty years, he has been coordinating and directing coexistence initiatives and peace dialogue between Palestinians and Israelis.  He’s organized numerous conferences all over the world, including the US.  PDC has conducted seminars attended by hundreds of Palestinian leaders as well as other workshops, meetings and discussions. Issam has created safe spaces for dialogue for hundreds of Israeli and Palestinian children.  And as their Wikipedia page states, the PDC is strongly committed to the principle of dialogue as the method of dealing with all issues. 
You will see almost no coverage about him in the media.  His presence online is virtually nil.  He collects donations the old-fashioned way, through word of mouth.  This man risks his life every day to bring Israeli and Palestinian children together so that they can learn about how much they have in common. 
So, if someone asks you if it’s hard to bring peace between Arabs and Jews, tell them it's a piece of cake.
One piece of cake did it.  That, and a few good words.
A few good words can change a life.  And one transformed life can change many lives. And many changed lives can change the world.  Issam is living proof of that, and our group was so fortunate to meet him.  And, but for one kind Israeli woman who brought him dessert, his life and the lives of many others, would be very different – and who knows how many of the people that he has touched might otherwise have been killed – or killed others.
I’ve been speaking about how this is the Hebrew year Tav Shin Ayin Tet – 5779 – and that the Hebrew letter Tet stands for “Tov,” which means to be good and kind.  My charge to all of us is that we dedicate ourselves being extra good this year – that this be a year for a personal “Tet Offensive.”  An offensive of kindness, and that begins with a good word – a Milah tova. 
We need to talk – and listen – sensitively, constructively, with full awareness of the impact of our words.  We need to be mindful speakers.
Here’s an easy test of how mindfully we communicate.  Can you recall the first words you spoke this morning?
I can.  And they were:  “Do you want to go out?” “Good girl….”
It’s pretty much the first thing I say every day, to Chloe.
Earlier this year, scientists at the University of York demonstrated that the way we speak to our canine friends is important in relationship-building between pet and owner, similar to the way that 'baby-talk' is to bonding between a baby and an adult.  Even with dogs, words matter.
Speaking of animals, last June, we lost one of the greatest communicators ever to walk this earth.  Greater than Churchill or Edward R. Murrow.  Greater even than Oprah Winfrey.  I’m speaking of course of Koko, the gorilla who had a vocabulary of 2,000 words of English, nearly ten times that of your average 3-year old - and her tenderness showed people how loving a gorilla can be.
Koko made famous friends like Fred Rogers and Robin Williams.  She used her sign language skills to communicate with them.  But could she really communicate on a human level?  When Koko watched a sad movie, her eyes watered. When Koko’s friend, a kitten, was killed by a car, Koko reacted unambiguously. “Bad, sad, bad,” she signed, shoulders hunched. “Frown, cry, frown.” She really did seem to be frowning, and she really did seem to be weeping.  And the world cried with her.
Ultimately, we don’t know how much Koko understood.  But there are so many moments when I look at Chloe and say, “she gets me.”
In today’s Torah reading, describing the binding of Isaac, the animals have no problem communicating with people.  It’s the people who have the problems.  The donkeys know exactly what they’re doing.  The ram seems to know exactly what his role is in this historic drama.  Sort of like those Ibex our group saw at En Gedi this summer, who crossed the road in front of our bus precisely at the “Ibex Crossing” sign.

The animals get it - but the people and God– that’s another story entirely.  God tells Abraham to slay his favorite son, the one he loves, Isaac.  God’s so specific in describing who Abraham is supposed to kill – but then forgets to add the two most important words to the end of this command: “JUST KIDDING.”
Abraham and Isaac hardly speak to each other along this journey, when finally, Isaac asks where the is the lamb for the sacrifice.  Abraham just replies, “God will provide,” deftly avoiding the subject.  They never speak again – even as Isaac lies there, ready to be slain.  As for Sarah, Abraham never tells her a thing.  And then, the next thing we know, she’s dead. 
This is a very tragic story, one where death can be seen as a function of failed communications.
So how can we make our words healing words?  How can we speak the language of blessing?  How can we all become more like Koko and Issam Sa’ad?
It was an angel who stayed Abraham’s hand as he held the knife over Isaac.  We need to allow our better angels to emerge during this year of Tet. 
At a time when America is being torn by toxic talk, we need to be soothed by Lincoln’s words at his first inauguration: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
As historian Jon Meacham’s bestselling book, “The Soul of America: The Battle for our Better Angels,” discusses, America has often faced challenges such as the ones we face today; but every time the better angels of our nature have come through to affirm that ours is a society that is kind, compassionate, welcoming, caring and hopeful.  And it begins with the words that we utter.
Jewish mystics have reflected on how we can speak healing words, the language of blessing – as a spiritual practice.
Nachmanides wrote about the need for gentle speech, about turning conversations into blessings.  And when you think of it, we have the perfect vehicle for that – the Hebrew word “shalom,” which means hello and goodbye – and peace.  So, when you are saying farewell to someone, you are also granting them a blessing, wishing them peace.
We need to recapture the language of blessing in all that we say.
This past year, we ran a terrific series of conversations here on Israel, produced by the Hartman Institute, and no hot button was left un-pushed.  We came out of it having heard multiple narratives, and it brought us all closer, to Israel and to one another.  This past year, we also brought Danny Gordis and Peter Beinart here to have a similar kind of conversation, since their views are so different regarding Israel.  We provided a safe space and it was a spectacular evening.  These are conversations that even many Israelis can’t have anymore – as was evidenced by Beinart’s recent rude interrogation at Ben Gurion airport.
Yossi Klein Halevi, who was part of that Hartman series, his just written an excellent book designed to promote dialogue, called “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor.”  I’ll be leading a discussion of that book for the Jewish Historical Society.  It’s a series of letters written to an imaginary neighbor living just over the ridge from Yossi’s home on French Hill, in Jerusalem. He makes the case for Israel unapologetically, but in language so sensitive that it invites his neighbor into dialogue.  He’s even has offered a free copy of his book in Arabic to anyone who wants it.  It’s one of the better efforts to promote dialogue that I have seen in recent years.
His seventh letter is entitled, appropriately for Rosh Hashanah, “Isaac and Ishmael,” and in it, Klein Halevi speaks of the multiple narratives of today’s Torah reading, the climax of which takes place on Mount Moriah.  The chapter discusses what Jews misunderstand about Islam and what Muslims misunderstand about Jews.  For instance, Muslims need to know that there is no Israeli government plot to blow up the Al Aksa Mosque.  In fact, the Jewish belief is that at the end of days, the Temple Mount will be a place of prayer for all peoples, not exclusively Jews. “Ki bayti bet tefilla yikaray l’chol amim.” says Isaiah, “For My house shall be a house of worship for all peoples.”
And on the other hand, Klein Halevi states, Jews need to appreciate the depth of the Muslim connection to Al Aksa.  We typically scoff, saying, “Well, it’s “only” the third holiest place in Islam – as if holiness can be quantified.  It’s holy.  It’s a big deal.
Peace is about mutual respect, and that begins with hearing the narrative of the Other.  Klein-Halevi goes on to tell his partner in fictitious dialogue, “We must recognize the ways in which we are, for each other, the embodiments of our greatest fears... My side needs to stop reinforcing the Muslim trauma of colonialism, and your side, the Jewish trauma of destruction.”
What he’s saying holds true for any relationship, as much in a marriage, for instance, as in political dialogue.  We’ve gotta stop pushing people’s buttons.
He then adds that the two faiths contain resources to help us live in peace and dignity as neighbors. He looks at how Jewish sources view Ishmael – and through him, the Arab and Muslim peoples – as violent and coarse, but also as the recipient of divine blessings.  Meanwhile, while the Quran considers Jews sinners and ingrates, we are also called a “People of the Book,” and therefore are deserving of respect.  We can begin a dialogue right there.
Years ago, Klein Halevi befriended a Sufi sheikh – they were drawn together by the deep curiosity that they shared about the other’s faith.  The sheikh once quoted to him a powerful verse from the Quran, “Behold…we have created you out of male and female and made you into nations and tribes so that you might come to know one another.”
It doesn't say “to kill one another,” but to KNOW one another.  And as for the sibling rivalry between Abraham’s two sons, the sheikh said this:  “What was Ishmael’s greatness?  What was Isaac’s greatness?  That they accepted God’s will.  Don’t focus on the conflicting details but on the unifying message in the two narratives.”
 There are other differences between how Muslims and Jews understand the Bible.  When God says he’s going to destroy Sodom, the biblical Abraham challenges God in an act of extreme chutzpah.  In the Quran, Abraham quickly acquiesces to God’s will.  Klein Halevi says that both models are important – the Holy Chutzpah of the Torah’s Abraham and the Wise Surrender of the Quran’s Ibrahim.  Each faith has known both the importance of surrender to the divine will and rigorous questioning of God’s ways.  Each has had great men and women of quiet faith, as well as scientists and philosophers that have transformed humanity.  Perhaps, he concludes, we can restore each other to balance.  Perhaps we need both the Muslim prayer mat and the Jewish study hall, the chutzpah and the surrender.
And indeed, at the end of the Abraham story, Isaac and Ishmael do come together and reconcile – as they bury their father in the Cave of Machpelah, Hebron. Their place of reconciliation has become a place of such strife today.
            We need to hear multiple narratives on many fronts, not just regarding Israel.  When I was in Vietnam, I was forced to confront a narrative about the war that was not so comfortable to hear.  I began taking notes for this sermon, in fact, while in a boat on the Mekong Delta during a brief but intense monsoon-like burst of rain.   In my mind’s eye I thought of that famous photo of American soldiers wading through these same muddy waters during the pouring rain, holding their guns over their heads and wondering where the next ambush would come from.  But for the Vietnamese, their greatest fear was that the defoliated rainforests alongside the river would never grow back.
It’s important to note that while there are often multiple narratives to hear – in many cases there is only one truth.  That’s why God gave us reason, to properly evaluate empirical evidence. 
At the Hanoi Hilton they show a video of American POWs supposedly having the time of their lives.  It reminded me of the Nazis’ cinematic depiction of Terezin as a Czechoslovakian Club Med.  We know that John McCain was tortured.  The man couldn’t comb his own hair.  That propaganda film is bogus.  So while we should always be listening for multiple narratives, we should also never equivocate about truth when we've found it.  Yes, truth IS truth, after all.
This year, Philip Roth died, and in his life, he presented narratives that were not always popular for American Jews, but we needed to hear them.  The very same week as Roth’s passing, Michael Chabon, picked up the Rothian baton and delivered a very controversial speech at the commencement ceremonies at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles.  I don’t have time to quote from it here but highly recommend that you read it – and I will link to it in the transcript of this sermon.
We need to understand why one of the great American Jewish novelists of his generation feels so alienated from the Judaism of his parents.  For he is not alone.  We need healing words to reach out to those who are have felt alienated from the mainstream Jewish community, whether about Israel, American politics, interfaith marriage, anything.  Whoever has felt left out needs to be heard.
Along those lines, we have been chosen to be one of a dozen congregations nationwide in this year’s cohort for Interfaith Inclusion Leadership Initiative, hoping to learn ways we can more sensitively address the needs of nontraditional families
            I’ve learned, for instance, that even calling an interfaith family “interfaith” may be insulting.  Why should we make presumptions?  Even the term non-Jew is negative and often a conversation stopper.  There are many degrees of those who may not be Jewish by traditional standards but see themselves as being within the Jewish orbit.  Some are now using the term “Jewish-adjacent.”  Interesting.
            Krista Tippett, host of the popular public radio program called “On Being,” has come up with a list of guidelines as to how civil conversations can take place on hot button issues.  The Six Grounding Virtues of the Civil Conversations are:
1)    Words That Matter - use “words that shimmer” — words with power that convey real truths.
2)    Generous Listening -  which is about connection more than observing. Real listening is powered by curiosity. It involves vulnerability — a willingness to be surprised, to let go of assumptions and take in ambiguity.  It is never in “gotcha” mode. The generous listener wants to understand the humanity behind the words of the other, and patiently summons one’s own best self and one’s own most generous words and questions.
3)    Adventurous Civility -  Civility, in our world of change, is about creating new possibilities for living forward while being different and even continuing to hold profound disagreement. 
4)    Humility - a companion to curiosity, surprise, and delight. Spiritual humility is not about getting small. It is about encouraging others to be big. It is not about debasing oneself, but about approaching everything and everyone with a readiness to be surprised and delighted.
5)    Patience, which is not to be mistaken for meekness. It can be the fruit of a full-on reckoning with reality — a commitment to move through the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. A spiritual view of time is a long view of time — seasonal and cyclical, resistant to the illusion of time as a bully, time as a matter of deadlines. Human transformation takes time — longer than we want it to — but it is what is necessary for social transformation. A long, patient view of time will replenish our sense of our capacities and our hope for the world.  And…
6)     Hospitality, a bridge to all the great virtues. You don’t have to love or forgive or feel compassion to extend hospitality. But it’s more than an invitation. It is the creation of an inviting, trustworthy space. It creates the intention, the spirit, and the boundaries for what is possible.
Nine centuries ago, Maimonides provided a roadmap for dialogue.  He spoke of both the content and tone of proper speech, saying that a Torah scholar should not shriek while speaking, greet everyone cheerfully and judge everyone in a favorable light, never shaming a person in public.  No interrupting, the Rambam adds.  Give the benefit of the doubt, love peace and pursue it. 

Maimonides also was a great advocate for silence, which he called a safeguard for wisdom, and for not obsessing with our own needs.  He quotes Ecclesiastes in saying, “The words of the wise are heard in tranquility.”  He was a big advocate for honesty.  He also said, “It is forbidden to deceive people,” and he gave the example of someone who invites a colleague over for dinner at a time when the colleague can’t possibly make it.  He disdained hypocrisy, mockery, and excessive frivolity. 

And so, as we enter this year of Tet, of Tov, of goodness, let our words be healing words.  Use only a milah tova, a good and kind word.  We all need to learn how better to listen and to convey love in our language.  And we need to show, in all that we say and do, that… Hate has no home here.

And it never will.

Rabbi Moshe Cordorvero stated, “You should never speak ill of any human or any animal, or any creature of God.”  We were taught the exact same lesson by Koko the gorilla.  I will try to be more mindful of my words as I enter this year.  If I call someone a dog, that creature will always have four legs.  It might be Chloe. 

…Or Chloe’s new brother.

Yes, just a few days ago, we drove to upstate New York, and there we met a five-week-old back ball of poodle puppy fur.

A year and a half after Crosby’s passing, it’s time to fill that void with new life.  Chloe didn’t join us in this visit, but I figured out just the strategy to soften the blow when her new brother comes home.  You see, there’s one thing Chloe loves almost as much as her family – and that’s hallah.  For her, hallah is like a piece of cake.  Like the cake that melted the hardened heart of Issam Sa’ad. 

And when we met our new puppy, we taught him his first good word, a milah tova – his name.  Casey.

He’s only got 1,999 words to go to catch up to Koko the gorilla.

And then I taught him two more kind words.

“Kelev Tov.”  “Good boy.”

And he is truly a good boy.

May this new year bring peace and healing to everyone, to the House of Israel, to the American people, and to the world.

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