Wednesday, October 2, 2019

High Holiday Sermons, 5780

5780 High Holidays Sermons

Audio for first day sermon (also found at this website)

Audio for the second day sermon (also found at this website)

Audio for Kol Nidre sermon (also found at this website)

Audio for Yom Kippur sermon (also found at this website)

Reimagining Tribalism
Rosh Hashanah Day 1, 5780

Morris Cohen is on his deathbed.  He is with his nurse, his wife, his daughter and 2 sons, and knows the end is near.  So he says to them:  "Bernie, I want you to take the Beverly Hills houses."

"Sybil, take the apartments over in Los Angeles Plaza."

"Hymie, I want you to take the offices over in City Center."

"Sarah, my dear wife, please take all the residential buildings downtown."

The nurse is just blown away by all this, and as Morris slips away, she says to the wife, "Mrs. Cohen, your husband must have been such a hard-working man to have accumulated all this property.

Sarah replies, "Property husband has a seltzer route."

If you stop to think about it for a minute, this joke is not so funny.  For one thing, the nurse exposes her anti-Semitic biases by assuming for sure that Morris Cohen is a billionaire real estate magnate.  But actually the joke’s on me, because it turns out the nurse is president of the Beverly Hills chapter of Hadassah. 

The nurse is, in fact, a Member of the Tribe.

What does it mean to be a member of the tribe?  Well, for one thing, only a true member of the tribe would laugh at that joke.  Anyone else would be wondering what the word “shmoperty” means.

So if you laughed, you are an MOT.

But is that a good thing?  Isn’t tribalism precisely what is destroying our society now? 

True, it’s nice to be among family.  I think it’s safe to say that we have a comfort level here today in being surrounded by so many Jews, as well as those who are “Jewish-adjacent.”  I mean, isn’t it just a little comforting to know that the man sitting next to you was probably circumcised?

Tribalism used to be about belonging.  It used to be about that home where, to paraphrase Robert Frost, when there is nowhere else to go they have to let you in.  Author Brene Brown says there’s a difference between belonging and simply fitting in.  Fitting in is when we are obsessed with what we should or shouldn’t talk about or how we should properly dress.  But true belonging shouldn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.   And “being who you are” feels especially comfortable when you your group share essentially the same story and similar values.

In Hebrew the word tribe is shevet and it has within it the verb shev – settle. C’mon in.   Set a spell.  Put your feet up.  That’s what a tribe should be – a family writ large. The word shevet also means a shepherd’s staff. We see it in the 23rd Psalm:

 שִׁבְטְךָ וּמִשְׁעַנְתֶּךָהֵמָּה יְנַחֲמֻנִי Your rod and your staff they comfort me. 

It’s about the comfort of the collective, the passion of peoplehood and faith in a shepherd who will keep us together and not lead us down the wrong path.

 But now “tribe” has become a dirty word.

Cosmopolitan did a survey recently, asking younger readers what they fear the most heading into 2020.  First was the fear of next year’s election results.  Second was the fear of losing reproductive rights.  And third?  That the polarization between parties will only increase due to “propaganda and tribalism.”

In the Atlantic a headline reads, “Is the Constitution Threatened by Tribalism?”\

Jim Mattis writes in his new book, “What concerns me most as a military man is not our external adversaries; it is our internal divisiveness. We are dividing into hostile tribes cheering against each other, fueled by emotion and a mutual disdain that jeopardizes our future, instead of rediscovering our common ground and finding solutions.  All Americans need to recognize that our democracy is an experiment—and one that can be reversed….Tribalism must not be allowed to destroy our experiment.”

In a speech in 2015, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin voiced concern for the future of Israeli identity, which is becoming subsumed by four separate groups split along what he called “tribal” lines — Arab, ultra-Orthodox, national religious and secular. 

The same can now be said of America, where our tribal formations are called, in a strange homage to our agrarian past, silos.  Silos are dangerous, because scary things like mold spores and gasses from spoiling grain can get in there – and then there are missile silos, which are harmful to children and other living things.  Tribalism is toxic. 

And among the different varieties of tribalism, the most toxic is “moral tribalism,” where people willfully suspending their values and good judgment in service to political solidarity.  Yes, to give up your independent moral conscience to cling to the herd, that kind of tribalism is very dangerous. We need to say no to group-think.

The Jewish people have never been so tribally divided. As Professor Donniel Hartman put it, “Jewish peoplehood today is threatened by the intensity and depth of our disagreements…and the polarizing way in which we conduct ourselves toward those with whom we disagree…. It is increasing alienation from each other, from Judaism, and from Israel.”

 That old joke about “two Jews, three opinions” can now be changed to “Two Jews, and they’re not talking to each other.” 

But is that what it means when we speak so proudly of being Members of the Tribe?  Letty Cottin Pogrebin thinks we can build on the “positive aspects of tribalism—the power of solidarity in service of activism, the simple pleasure of belonging to and identifying with a particular group…to advance not just the group’s self-interest but its broader life-enhancing goals.”

And that’s precisely where we need to go.  We need to lead the way in redefining what group identity means.  We don’t want to give up Jewish peoplehood, which cuts to the core of who we are and the story we have to share.  But we need to show the world how being tribal means shifting from a mentality of “us versus them” to a more expansive, inclusive, nurturing model – a model that leads us to the place where, ultimately, the “them” cease to be othered, and there’s only us.

The Talmud teaches not only to think expansively, but to care expansively, saying:

Anyone who is able to protest against wrong in their house and does not do so, is responsible for the transgressions of their house. If they are able to protest against the wrong committed in their city and they do not protest, they are responsible for the transgressions of their city. If they are able to protest against the wrong committed in the world and they do not protest, they are responsible for the transgressions of the world. (Shabbat 54b).

That’s why it is mistaken to accuse Jews of dual loyalty.  We can love more than one country at a time, because ultimately, we care for all of humanity.  Loyalty never ends with one’s own tribe.  It only begins there.

At the end of the day, there’s no “us and them.”  There’s only an ever expanding “us.”

How do we get the world to buy into that? 

We can start by unifying our own tribes.  Unfortunately, the last time the twelve tribes tried to unify, it didn’t end well.  King David’s empire was ripped apart only one generation after reaching the height of its glory. The ten northern tribes split from the two tribes down south, driven away by their own ambition. Jerusalem ceased being the nation’s capital for the northerners, and the two sides adopted different names, styles of worship, and alliances. Ultimately both Israel and Judah suffered destruction and dispersion.

 Despite that checkered history, our sources provide some real inspiration.  The chauvinism of some parts of the Bible is emphatically refuted by no less than the prophet Isaiah, who insists (in chapter 56) that groups that had been previously rejected, like illegitimate children and resident aliens, must be brought into the fold.  “Even them will I bring to my holy mountain,” the prophet declares, “and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings shall be acceptable on my altar…

כִּי בֵיתִי, בֵּית-תְּפִלָּה יִקָּרֵא לְכָל-הָעַמִּים.

…for my house shall called a house of prayer for all peoples.”

For Jews, inclusion has been our calling.  True, Groucho Marx once said he would never want to belong to a country club that would accept him as a member – but that’s not what we are about.  The Jewish world of the biblical Ruth’s time had no qualms about including a poor, widowed, homeless Moabite.  Ruth was the first example of what we now call keruv, outreach to interfaith or intertribal families.  It is noteworthy that Ruth became the great grandmother of King David.  That is the point of the entire book.  Since the messiah will come from the line of David, that means that when the messiah comes someday, and then takes a few moments from getting lions and lambs to lie down together in order to spit into a test tube and send a DNA sample to “23 and Me,” it will come back as 10 percent Moabite.  THAT’s Jewish tribalism. We are a tribe of mutts.  You might recall that my sample came back with one percent Native American.

Keruv is one of the great success stories of American Jewry.  When earlier this year Rafi Peretz, an Orthodox rabbi who was, incredibly, chosen as Israel’s education minister, likened intermarriage among diaspora Jews to 'second Holocaust,' he didn’t get that memo.  Among Americans age 65 and older who have just one Jewish parent, 25 percent consider themselves to be Jewish.  By contrast, among adults under 30 with one Jewish parent, two thirds consider themselves to be Jewish – and a vast majority of them feel very welcomed by Jewish communities.  That doesn’t sound like a second Holocaust to me.  It sounds like a revolution.  A generation ago, parents would fear that their interfaith or interracial grandchildren would never be accepted by the Jewish community.  That question is hardly asked anymore – at least not here at Temple Beth El.  These children of have not been kicked off the island.  It’s been a resounding success story – and because of this, the Jewish population of America has actually been growing.  But Rafi Peretz still is stuck in “second Holocaust” mode. 

Jews are themselves divided into many sub-tribes, but thanks to Netflix, Amazon and HBO, we’ve gotten to know our tribal clans very well.  In The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, we got to observe the strange tribal rituals like a summer in the Catskills, land of unlimited tomato juice.  In Shtisel, we got to see how the ultra-Orthodox in Jerusalem are, down deep, very much like us.  In Fauda, Israeli and Palestinian tribal loyalty sweeps people into a vicious cycle of retaliation, a theme echoed in the magnificent HBO series Our Boys; and there’s also the recent film Tel Aviv on Fire, where Israelis and Palestinians show their common humanity by obsessing over the same soap opera.  It reminds me of when I spent my rabbinical school year in Jerusalem, and everyone – from the Israeli bus driver to the Arab merchant in the shuk – they all wanted to know the same thing: Who shot J.R.?  I was a season ahead of them, so I knew.  But I wasn’t telling.

Our tribal big tent is not without boundaries – some do deserve to be voted off the island.  I’m looking at you, Bernie Madoff and Harvey Weinstein!  Jeffrey Epstein will now have to answer to a higher authority.  But our big tent does need to be expansive enough to include people as diverse as Stephen Miller and Bernie Sanders.  And that’s a pretty wide split!  One gesticulates wildly and has crazy ideas…and the other is Bernie Sanders.  Or Stephen Miller.  I’ll leave the punchline to you. A first of its kind, completely bipartisan joke.

 Miller’s great grandmother escaped pogroms in Belarus in 1903 and found a safe haven here in America.  Sanders’ father came from Galicia and his maternal grandparents came from Poland and Russia.   So Miller and Sanders share that – which means they also share the fact that had their forbears stayed put, they would have been killed in the Holocaust.   Their stories have a lot in common.  We have a lot in common.  And thank God America was open to fleeing Jewish refugees when their ancestors came.  The Jewish tent is wide indeed.

The lesson learned from biblical times is that tribalism cannot be about ethnicity, or blood and soil, but about embracing those who are beyond the boundaries of the tribe. 

And some will still hate us.  Lots will.  They’ll malign us with code words like  “internationalists” because our love for humanity knows no national boundaries, and they’ll call us “cosmopolitan” because we read polls from Cosmopolitan magazine.  And some will claim to defend us, when they are really using us to attack their political enemies.  Memo to those who use us in that way.  Please stop.  Israel is too important to become a wedge issue.

But regardless, we need to continue to reach out, with tenacity and hope, because we just might be the world’s last best hope.

Today, for the first time in history, American Jews are flocking to High Holidays services while residing in a country where Jews have been murdered at prayer in their synagogues.  Since we sounded the final shofar last Yom Kippur, dozen Jews were murdered at prayer, in Pittsburgh, and Poway, by white supremacists bearing semi-automatic weapons.  This past year was marked by the Pittsburgh and Poway pogroms, along with a jarring increase in the number and brazenness of anti-Semitic attacks.  Our safety can no longer be taken for granted.

And it kills me, metaphorically speaking, that for each of us today, coming to synagogue now must be seen as an act of courage.  It kills me, metaphorically speaking, that we have had to undergo active shooter training and that this past summer that became our best attended adult ed program.  It kills me, metaphorically speaking, that I have to carry around this panic button.; that we have now become used to the idea of looking for the exits whenever we come into a room.  It kills me that we have to live in fear.  It kills me, metaphorically speaking, that somewhere in this country right now, someone possibly is thinking about attacking Jews on our holiest of days.  It kills me to think that somewhere in America right now, such an attack may well be occurring.

To be sure, we are not the only targets of hate, but we have the honor of being despised by the extreme right and the extreme left – by extremists who happen to be Muslim and extremists who happen to be Christian and extremists who happen to be secular.  We are, in fact, the glue that brings the far right and far left together.  Jeremy Corbyn, the Ayatolla Khameini, Louis Farrakhan and David Duke don’t have much in common, except that they all hate us and they think the Holocaust never happened.  If they were ever stuck in an elevator together, that’s what they would talk about.

There’s a wonderful word: intersectionality.  It’s based on the idea that victimized groups share common visions and experiences, and that much can be gained if they band together.  Well, we are so victimized that we can’t even get into the club of victims.  Maybe Groucho Marx was right!

Apparently having a dozen of our people murdered at prayer doesn’t make the cut. 

It’s somewhat ironic, because the essence of Torah IS intersectionality. We are the people of the intersection.  Abraham and Sarah’s tent was situated at the Bulls Head of Beer Sheva. Right at the intersection. You couldn’t go from Long Ridge to High Ridge without going through that tent.  We Jews cross all cultures and have deep empathy with those who are persecuted.  Fifty percent of Israeli Jews are Jews of color, with Sephardic roots.  This summer in Israel racial tensions boiled over in tragic ways with the small community of Ethiopian Jews, but despite the setbacks, one overwhelming fact remains: the only ships that have ever taken Africans to the Jewish state were not slave ships; in fact, they were ships that brought our Ethiopian tribe from slavery to freedom. 

To be Jewish is to be part of the most diverse 3,500 year old people on earth.  And not just in this life, but as the Talmud teaches, “the righteous of all peoples have a share in the World to Come.” 

We are diverse ‘cuz we’ve been dispersed!

Unlike many who have distorted the purpose of intersectionality, Torah teaches that we should not use our victimhood as a tool to lash out, but rather as a common language with by which we reach out in love.  Because if any tribe in this world understands what it means to be a victim and has embraced the cause of the underdog, it’s us. We know how it feels to face the premeditated violence of the purveyors of hate. 

Each of the recent white supremacist massacres has been designed to terrify people and to pit religious and ethnic tribes against one another. Latinos in El Paso, Muslims in Christchurch, African Americans in Charleston; Sikhs in Wisconsin. And Jews in Pittsburgh and Poway.

Deborah Lipstadt, the great Holocaust historian, released a book this summer called “Antisemitism: Here and Now.”  You would think that a book with this title would be a real downer, but the book ends on an upbeat note, focusing on the need for Jews to balance the “oy” with the “joy,” to focus less on the horrific acts perpetrated by haters but by how communities have rallied around the victims. Pittsburgh Jews felt that love, particularly from Muslim groups in the area. If the white supremacists’ goals have been to instigate tribal warfare between religious and ethnic groups, they’ve failed miserably.  And to underscore that point, and to show our solidarity with our brothers and sisters. 

Today we dedicate a tree that was planted a few days ago in our Matthew Klein Memorial Garden in memory of the victims of Tree of Life.  This Japanese Maple is same tree that is growing in on the grounds of the Tree of Life synagogue.  Like the Torah itself, may it be a tree of life to all who look upon it.  May we be inspired by the memory of our martyrs to live lives of purpose and promote the triumph of life over the forces of death.

We will not succumb to the hate!  This past year, the old post-Holocaust mantra, “Never Again!” created in the 1970s by the Meir Kahane’s Jewish Defense League as a call to racist vengeance, was usurped by young Jews who established “Never Again Action” to defend those facing deportation.  Meanwhile, in Israel, too, one clear message of the recent election was the decisive rejection of the Kahanist Otzma party. 

“Never again,”  Jews everywhere are declaring, will racist vitriol be allowed to infect the Jewish soul.

In July, xenophobia in this country hit a new low with race-based attacks that included the charge that several people of color – elected representatives – should go back where they came from. When I heard that, I immediately thought about a rabbi who lived 2,000 years ago, a man named Akavya ben Mahalalel.

In Pirke Avot 3:1, Akvaya gave perhaps the best Jewish comeback ever to the misguided, hateful call to, “Go back where you came from!” 

He said: “Reflect upon three things and you will not come to sin.

Know from where you came and where you are going and before whom you are destined to give account and reckoning.

From where have you come? מֵאַיִן בָּאתָ –from a putrid drop. מִטִּפָּה סְרוּחָה.

Where are you going?–to the place of dust, worm, and maggot.

Before whom are you destined to give account and reckoning?–before the Holy One, blessed be God.”

So if anyone tells you to go back where you came from, you can share with them Rabbi Akavya’s earthy observation of our humble beginnings.

Akavya ben Mahalalel understood that as different as we are we’re all the same.  So did another great member of the tribe, Emma Lazarus.  Her ancestors were among those who fled the Inquisition.  She lived a privileged life, and she gave back.  Her activism was inspired when she heard of the suffering of her fellow Jews in the pogroms starting in 1881, and she worked for the welfare of immigrants.  Lazarus wrote “New Colossus” in 1883, at a time when Jews faced a sudden wave of pogroms and the floodgates to the New World were opening. She wrote it to raise consciousness, and to raise money for the construction of the Statue of Liberty. And her immortal words, her Jewish words, will always remain there.

She loved her fellow Jews, she loved America, she loved freedom and she loved the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. There was no “us and them.”  There was only us.  Emma Lazarus makes me proud to be a Jew.

And here’s another great example of tribal outreach, one you’ve likely never heard of: Matthew Stevenson. Matthew was the only Orthodox Jew at a small Florida liberal arts college. Each Friday, Matthew carried a hallah and a kiddush cup to the small table of his dorm.  Sometimes there were 10 people seated at the table: one gay, one black, one Hispanic, two Jewish, several female.  One week he invited a most unlikely guest to his Shabbat dinner: Derek Black, a notorious White Supremacist whose father founded Stormfront,  and whose godfather was David Duke.  Matthew Stevenson’s Shabbat dinners changed everything for Derek, who eventually disavowed the white nationalist movement, acknowledging the harm that it caused.  His story is the subject of the best-selling book Rising Out of Hatred by Eli Saslow.  I read the book this summer and it moved me tremendously.

Derek Black had written on Stormfront a few years earlier, “Jews are the cause of all the world’s strife and misery.”  But as time went by, he thought about the friends he made during those weekly Shabbat dinners and realized that, “In no reality” was he “the person at the table who’s been discriminated against.”  And then he went abroad to study medieval history in Germany, and “his studies revealed a more nuanced Middle Ages then he had read about on Stormfront. If European whites were really a genetically superior race, than why had Europe lagged so far behind Islamic culture in technology, art and science for much of the Middle Ages?  If the races were really better off segregated, then why had one of the greatest medieval territories been al-Andalus in Muslim controlled Spain, where Christians, Jews, and Muslims live together in all shades of brown, combining to make advancements in art, philosophy, and architecture?”

Derek came to understand that white supremacism is wrong.  And his salvation was triggered when a Jew reached out across the tribal divide and said – to a mortal enemy – Shabbat Shalom.

There’s only us.

For two years, a small group of Palestinians and Israelis had been meeting in a small room – young men between the ages of 18 and 25.  A regular attendee of this coexistence conversation was Dvir Sorek, an 18 year old Yeshiva student, whose grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, had been murdered in the Second Intifada. He was a very gentle person who loved to tend to his garden.  Two months ago, on August 7, he went to Jerusalem to buy presents for his teachers at the end of the school year – he bought the latest book by renowned author David Grossman, with the title, Life Plays with Me. 

Dvir never got to give Grossman’s book to his teacher.  He was seized at a bus stop near Efrat and murdered by a Palestinian terrorist. 

That same author, David Grossman, wrote recently that, “we cannot truly escape the influence of places like “…the Middle East, where a few countries are crumbling into tribal components that mercilessly slaughter each other.”

We cannot turn off the world.  We cannot escape it.  We must confront it.

But we Jews can confront it from a place of love.  We are the tribe of Emma Lazarus and Matthew Stevenson, Akavya ben Mahalalel, and Ruth the Moabite and the prophet Isaiah.  And we are the tribe of Dvir Sorek, may his sweet memory be blessed.  And we are tribe of our brothers and sisters at the Tree of Life, and Poway and – radiating outward – El Paso and Dayton and Gilroy and Charleston and Orlando and Christchurch and Oak Creek, and Charlottesville and San Bernardino.  We reach out in all directions, and we welcome the Other into our expansive tent.

In First Samuel chapter 19, verse 20, we read, “And Saul sent messengers to arrest David; and when they saw the company of the prophets prophesying, and Samuel standing as head over them, the spirit of God came upon the messengers of Saul, and they also prophesied.”

  וַיִּשְׁלַח שָׁאוּל מַלְאָכִים, לָקַחַת אֶת-דָּוִד, וַיַּרְא אֶת-לַהֲקַת הַנְּבִיאִים נִבְּאִים, וּשְׁמוּאֵל עֹמֵד נִצָּב עֲלֵיהֶם; וַתְּהִי עַל-מַלְאֲכֵי שָׁאוּל, רוּחַ אֱלֹהִים, וַיִּתְנַבְּאוּ, גַּם-הֵמָּה.

Saul’s messengers – his henchmen – came to harm David, but they were so taken by the pure, tender faith displayed by Samuel that these thugs instantly melted into angels of mercy.  

The word mal’ach means both messenger and angel here.  The transformation from one to the other was Derek Black-like; and there are more Derek Blacks out there, and more like those Palestinians who met with Dvir Sorek and mourn his loss.  Haters are gonna hate, but love supersedes hate.

If you take the numerical value of each letter of that verse, using the Kabbalistic tool of gematria, the sum total – which occurs for no other verse in the Bible – equals 5,780.  And that is the year we have just entered. 5780.

This is the year.  This is the critical moment.  For every Derek Black who was saved there are thousands more signing on to groups like Stormfront. Lonely, alienated people everywhere are easy pray for haters online. People who are being sucked into repugnant false prophecies or paranoid conspiracy theories or empty promises, must be countered by our manifestos of love.  

My friends, make no bones about it – this is going to be a very tense year, a divisive year, but also a very dynamic year.  People who have not been receptive to outreach just might become less rigid.  No matter where you fall on the political spectrum, this is the year to stand up to those who would divide the nation and the world into warring tribes.  What Jews were charged to do at Sinai—to have conscience, to be pillars of morality, to be a nation of priests—and what Jews were charged by Isaiah, to be a “light unto the nations”— has taken on an added urgency after Pittsburgh – and even more urgent yet in an America that is as bitterly divided as it has been since the Civil War.

This is the year to redefine what it means to be a tribe and for the Jewish people to lead the charge, to proclaim resoundingly unto our nation and our world:

There is no “us and them.”  There is only “us.”  May we treat everyone – and each of us – as an honorary, if not official, Member of the Tribe.


An Israeli artist depicts the current 12 Tribes of Israel (click for website)Ultra-Orthodox, Israeli Arabs, Ashkenazi, Mizrahim, settlers, American Jews, Ethiopians, Russians, LGBTQ, the young, the veterans and refugees (click on photo to enlarge)

          Holy Ground
Rosh Hashanah Day 2, 5780
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

Yesterday I talked about the need to have a more expansive definition of tribalism. 

Today, I want to focus on expanding our notion of holiness not in regard to tribe but in regard to place, not the “who” but the “where.”

So what makes a place holy?  God is everywhere, but there is a hint in today’s reading as to where in particular holiness might be found. 

For thousands of years, the holiest place for Jews has been said to be the very spot where one of the Bible’s most infamous, shocking acts occurred, the one described in today’s Torah portion, Abraham’s near murder of his son, Isaac. Later legends countered that narrative with stories of selfless fraternal love taking place on that exact spot; but the tip of Abraham’s knife remains at the heart of Mount Moriah’s power. God commands Abraham to offer up Isaac – not simply as a sacrifice, but an olah, a special kind of sacrifice where the animal was completely devoured by flames – totally consumed - up in smoke. In the original Greek translation of the Torah known as the Septuagint, composed in Alexandria in the second century BCE, the translation of the word olah is holocauston – in early English Bibles the olah is in fact called the Holocaust offering.

And the term resonates.  In the Nazi Holocaust, one third of the Jewish people was murdered. If Abraham had succeeded in his deed, the yield of Jewish victims would have been one hundred percent. The entire Jewish future would have been wiped out with one swipe of the knife.  The first cut would have been the deepest.

But it was also on that very spot of devastation that God was seen for the first time. After the incident is over, the location of Isaac’s binding is renamed Adonai Yir’eh, “The Place Where God is Seen.” And it was on that very spot that the Temple was later built.  And then destroyed.  And rebuilt.  And destroyed again.

This summer in Jerusalem, a controversial new excavation opened, a Roman style road leading from the pool of Siloam in David’s City right up to the entrance to the Temple Mount.  It’s called the Pilgrim’s Road because 2000 years ago, Jews would purify themselves in that pool before making the ascent to the temple to offer their sacrifices.  So Jews can now walk along those very same steps that our ancestors walked, and soon, in true Disney fashion, we’ll be able to take a cable car to get to it.  Anshel Pfeffer wrote in Ha’aretz that “The Pilgrims' Road" is incredible. “Walking up those cool limestone steps, flanked by the remains of entrances to ancient shops and homes along the way, you can, for the first time, without any reconstruction or visual aid, really picture what Jerusalem looked like in the last decades of the Second Temple.”

Archeologists found a set of stairs in the middle of the road alongside one of the ancient shops. But the staircase doesn’t go anywhere. It ends in a platform. A similar set of stairs has been uncovered in Rome, where it was used as something like a Hyde Park-style Speakers’ Corner.  Basically, this was a place where people could make announcements and deliver speeches to the pilgrims as they climbed the road to the Temple.  Think of the scene in Monty Python’s “Life of Brian,” where all the prophets and soothsayers are speaking.

The archeologists found beside the stairs the burned remains of a male palm tree, one that doesn’t give fruit. Why would there be a non-fruit producing tree right there on the road? To provide shade for the speakers.

So the flavor of ancient Jerusalem really comes to life.  One can easily imagine how, on these ancient stones, the biblical prophets delivered revolutionary messages of peace, freedom, and justice. But the charred remains also remind us that this place was consumed in flame.  On this path, people inhaled their final, smoke-filled gasps of air. 

And along the pilgrimage path, the archeologists found something amazing.  A torn bit of garment with a small pomegranate-shaped bell attached.  It perfectly matches the description of the garment of a Kohen, a priest, and we can imagine him running from the Roman soldiers, engulfed by the flames, so that his robe was torn in the tumult during the last moments of the second temple era in the year 70. The wearer of that robe breathed the final breaths of Jewish independence for 2,000 years.

This scene helps to define for us what makes a place holy.  The calamity and the flames.  The commerce and the conversation, the politics and the passion.  The place where the peril is greatest is also the place of greatest sanctity.  The place that burns with destruction also burns with the flames of hope.  Mount Moriah, for that reason remains for us the very essence of a sacred space.

In Jerusalem, there is a palpable sense of holiness, and that is because Jews, Christians and Muslims all share it.  The pilgrim’s path itself was shared.  It was a Roman Road, after all, used by Romans long after the Jews were exiled; and today it is located deep beneath the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan.

Jerusalem is holy because it has been captured and recaptured 44 times, but also because it is shared, despite the efforts of tribes to slice and dice it. It is not owned.  Holy places are holy because they are places of love and coexistence, and not only of flaming destruction – often at the same time.

The writer Sarah Tuttle Singer, who spent a year living in the Old City and wrote a great book about it, Jerusalem Drawn and Quartered, tells this beautiful story of a kitten trapped in a pipe between the sixth and seventh stations of the cross of the Via Dolorosa.  A group of Palestinian men, sweating and smoking, is huddled around a drainpipe. One has a hammer. There’s a nun too — one of the Little Sisters of Jesus — and she’s praying. A Muslim cleric, who I recognize from Lion’s Gate, stands to the side, his face is stricken.

There’s a guy waving his arms, directing traffic and yelling at the guy with the hammer. “A little harder! No, not there! Hit the part that’s lower! Yes, that’s right! Give the man some space!”

 “What’s going on?” I ask him. 

“There’s a kitten trapped in the pipe,” he tells me. “Just a baby. We can hear him meowing.” He puts his hand on the guy hammering the pipe. “Stop. Let’s see if it’s still alive.”

Three big men with their shirt collars unbuttoned, hair poking through and gold chains around their necks, put their ears against the pipe. One of them is the same guy who shouted at Lion’s Gate: “We will liberate Aqsa with blood and fire!”

This time, his tone is different. “The kitten is alive,” he says. “Praise God!”

“Praise the Lord!” one of the pilgrims replies.  

A group of Russian pilgrims stops and begins to sing. The nun crosses herself again. The guy from Guatemala with the guitar plays something loud and festive. The screw on the pipe comes loose... The man who’d been shouting about blood and fire cups his hands gently underneath the space in the pipe and takes out the tiny kitten. It’s gray like soot and not much bigger than a chicken egg. Its eyes are closed, not because of dust or dirt or out of fear, but because it’s only a few days old. It sneezes. 

“We can’t just leave him,” someone says. “He’ll die.”

 “May I hold him?” I ask.

The man I saw yelling at the riots places him softly, almost reverently, in my arms. “Be careful,” he tells me in Hebrew. “Watch his neck.”

I cuddle it.

“I have an idea,” I say.  As I caress this tiny little creature, I call a friend in Jerusalem who has about a million cats.

The friend gives her the number of the Cat Lady in the Jewish Quarter.

The Cat Lady is well known. When the British first brought cats to Jerusalem during the Mandate years, the cats took the whole “be fruitful and multiply” thing very seriously. Jerusalem is now overrun with cats. Many are hungry and most have no home. Bracha — the Cat Lady — wants to change that, so she sets traps for cats all over the Old City and takes them to be fixed. Then she releases them where she found them. She cares for the sick ones until they’re healthy.

 “Well?” one of the men asks.

After a prolonged conversation, the Cat Lady agrees to take the kitten in.

“I know a woman who can take him,” Sarah tells one of the Muslim men. “She’s in the Jewish Quarter.”

“Oh, the Cat Lady? We know about her.”

The sweating, smoking men line up one by one to pet the kitten. The pilgrims too. The nun says a prayer. A few kids from the Muslim Quarter have come, too, and everyone wants to touch the tiny creature. 

Cradling the fragile little survivor, I hurry down Via Dolorosa and turn right onto Al-Wad street — the street that connects Damascus Gate to the Western Wall, the street where Via Dolorosa intersects, the street where everything comes together. 

The Old City is densely packed. People live right on top of one another and, yes, they often buy their milk and eggs and bread from the same places. But the worlds of the Old City are divided too. 

On this Sunday, this tiny kitten has been a bridge between those worlds — between the blonde Swedish tourists, the guys from the Muslim Quarter, the yeshiva students, the border police, the Waqf guard, the praying pilgrims, the dude with the guitar, the laughing children, the priest, the imam, the rabbi.

First, people see the kitten. Then, they see one another. 

That thought hits me in a flash, and I feel warm all over.

The kitten purrs and nuzzles against me.

I stop hurrying. As I walk more slowly down the street, people from all faiths and walks of life approach me to touch the gentle, innocent creature in my arms. Only minutes before, its situation was dark and uncertain, with apparently no way out.

 “Where did you find the kitten?” a border policeman asks.

“He was rescued by some guys in the Muslim Quarter,” I tell him.

“Where are you taking him?” a Muslim-Palestinian kid asks.

“I’m taking him to the Jewish Quarter.”
As I reach my destination, tears are streaming down my face. In the epicenter of everything that makes up the Old City -— where tension thrums, where the pieces all seem broken, where we lose perspective on how life could and should be, and where we tumble against one another without ever really connecting — some days we need a miracle to keep us going.

And some days we just get really, really lucky — and we get one.

And on some days, Jerusalem lives up to being every bit the model of a holy place.

I’ve seen both sides of Jerusalem.  There is no holier place, no more fragile place, no more beautiful place.

But our Torah reading today only speaks of the Temple Mount as a place where God appears. It is not called holy ground.  There is another model that the Torah gives us – of a place that is even holier than Jerusalem.

The first and only time that the Hebrew Bible uses the expression “holy ground,” is in describing another place, one located nowhere near Jerusalem. It is at the burning bush, at the foot of Mount Sinai, where God first appears to Moses. 

The burning bush, like Moriah, was on fire..  But everything else about it is different. It’s not in the land of Israel – the midrash, which teaches us that God can be anywhere.  And the bush is a lowly object, which, as the midrash states, indicates that God can be in anything – even the lowest of the low (and that the Torah that was given there belongs to everyone, not just one nation). But what makes the bush most different is that the fire does not consume it. 

And at that spot, God tells Moses,
  וַיֹּאמֶר, אַל-תִּקְרַב הֲלֹם; שַׁל-נְעָלֶיךָ, מֵעַל רַגְלֶיךָ--כִּי הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה עוֹמֵד עָלָיו, אַדְמַת-קֹדֶשׁ הוּא

“This is holy ground,” and then God instructs Moses to do something quite strange, to mark that place, to demonstrate his recognition of the spot’s sanctity – to take off his shoes.

In the Bible, removing the shoes signifies departing the everyday and entering a very different space.  Without moving an inch while observing the bush, the simple act of taking off shoes changed everything for Moses, enabling him to fully grasp the power of that place.  In synagogues, churches, mosques and temples all over the world, especially in Asia, where they do humility very well, people always take off their shoes before entering.  In traditional synagogues, the Cohanim do that before blessing the people, and not only that, but the Levites wash their feet for them.  It’s quite powerful.  Just a few weeks ago, a bat mitzvah girl asked me if she could take off her shoes before she started her haftarah.  I said sure.  She said it would make her less fidgety – and I thought, it will work for this sermon, so it was a win-win.  She was not the first barefoot bat mitzvah here.

When Abraham Joshua Heschel marched in Selma, he said that his feet were praying.  But when we take off our shoes, our feet are doing even more.  They are listening. 

Did you know that elephants can hear through their feet.  While their trumpeting may be heard a good distance away, elephants can also communicate in a low rumble that can travel as far as six miles.

How do they do this?  "Seismic waves travel from their toenails to the ear via bone conduction, or through sensory receptors in the foot similar to ones found in the trunk.  It’s a long way from the elephant’s toe to the ear.  When an elephant is stomping, it’s not only to warn those in the vicinity, but also to alert members of the heard many miles away.

 "It's believed that elephants can hear storms as much as 100 to 150 miles (160 to 240 kilometers) away," Michael Garstang, a meteorologist at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, told National Geographic.

We even have an expression for this in English – to put your ear to the ground.  It was a common expression in the Old West.  People literally did just that – and it helped them to hear bison, cattle, horses, or trains approaching.  So God is telling Moses, take a good look at this bush, hear it’s flames… but don’t just listen with your ears – listen with your feet.  Here the deeper tones, the more distant cries, the cries of your enslaved brothers and sisters so far away.  According to Google Maps it’s about 150 miles from Mount Sinai to what is now the Suez Canal.  In a holy place, you can hear that far  – with your ear to the ground – and with your shoes off.

So my friends, I’m now going to make a suggestion. 

We’re  going to try some deep listening.  Take off your shoes.  Take off your shoes and listen with your feet.  Really, take them off.  Wiggle your toes a little.  Get used to the novelty – unusual here but the norm in 75 percent of houses of worship in the world.  So let’s focus all our senses on our feet - except maybe the sense of smell.   Let’s listen deeply with our feet. 

We can hear much more than meets the eye.  Or ear.

Feel the rumble of the Roman chariots in Jerusalem, with the soldiers slaying innocents right and left.   Feel the hot flames of the burning temple.

Listen to those flames with your feet – and listen to Josephus, the first century historian who wrote about it:

Through the roar of the flames streaming far and wide, the groans of the falling victims were heard; such was the height of the hill and the magnitude of the blazing pile that the entire city seemed to be ablaze; and the noise - nothing more deafening and frightening could be imagined.  (see complete transcript, from The Jewish War)

Let us hear the cry from out of depths of the flames.

            Stand barefoot before the mountains of shoes at Auschwitz or Majdanek, the shoes that were left behind, the last witnesses of the conflagration.

Stand barefoot on the other side of the Seine, facing Île de la Cité.  The smoke from the burning spire of Notre Dame is stifling, but you can’t take your eyes off of it.  Feel the rumble of medieval ramparts falling, of priceless artwork melting, of a roof collapsing.

The church is burning. 

A church is burning
The flames rise higher
Like hands that are praying, aglow in the sky
Like hands that are praying, the fire is saying,
"You can burn down my churches but I shall be free."

Paul Simon wrote that song about black churches set aflame in the south in the 60s.  This year, in 2019, three African-American churches in one single Louisiana parish burned in a single ten day span. Can you feel it?  Can you hear the flames, with your feet?  And a mosque burned in New Haven last spring, and other across the country in acts of hate, inspired by the White Supremacist who killed so many Muslims at prayer in New Zealand. And a synagogue in Duluth, Minnesota last month.

A church is burning.

And so is the Amazon Rainforest.  Can you feel that flame?  Can you understand that one out of every five breaths you take is courtesy of oxygen provided by the Amazon rain forest?

Vanessa Barbara in the New York Times, writes:

From the outside, the Amazon is a massive, undistinguished canopy of trees, but once you’re inside it, it is indeed a “monumental universe,” in the words of the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. It has a strikingly layered structure: The soil lies beneath an entanglement of roots, mosses and decomposing leaves; pale trunks appear and disappear as they climb up into the lush foliage. The tallest trees can reach up to 200 feet, almost the height of the towers of Notre-Dame. And now it is their turn to burn….

The Amazon is often described as the Earth’s “lungs,” producing 20 percent of our atmosphere’s oxygen.  I stood there a couple of years ago and I also saw Yellowstone burning.  I could feel the rumble of the flames.  It felt like a beating heart.

And yet, what hurts most is high cathedrals of terrestrial biodiversity, burning to the ground; all those layers of 100-year-old chestnut trees, vines, rubber trees, palm trees, banana plants, orchids, passion fruit flowers; the macaws, toucans, sloths, jaguars, anacondas and ants that called them home. All the thirsty armadillos. A monumental universe….

Holy places burning, everywhere we turn.

The earth is burning.

Israel is burning too.  Ha’aretz asked a number of specialists what Israel will look like in a few decades if the current pace of climate abuse continues unabated.

“I’m happy I won’t be alive,” says Baruch Rinkevich, a marine biologist at Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research.  “After us, the deluge, as the saying goes. People don’t fully understand what we’re talking about here. They think about melting icebergs and polar bears who won’t have a home. They don’t understand that everything is expected to change: the air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we drink, the landscapes we see, the oceans, the seasons, the daily routine, the quality of life. Our children will have to adapt or become extinct. They will have to dress differently, behave differently, live differently. That’s not for me. I’m happy I won’t be here.” 

Most climate scientists agree that it is still possible to curb global warming and they are insistently marketing that promise to the public and decision makers as well. But make no mistake: The warming of planet Earth is reversible only in the sense that it can be slowed down by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. And even if tomorrow morning we shut down all the coal-driven power stations, idle all the cars and go back to the Stone Age – the planet will continue to get hotter.  The UN report released last week underscored the emergency that we are facing right now.

Best estimates indicate that we’ve got about a decade to get this right.

On this 50th anniversary of Woodstock, we’ve got to get ourselves back to the Garden.  But Paradise has been lost.  Paradise, California was home to about 26,800 people, before the most devastating forest fire in California’s history destroyed the peaceful community.  After the fire did its total damage, 90 percent of the people were gone. Nine of every 10 homes were destroyed.

Feel that heat coming through the floor.  Hear Tamra Fisher, fleeing her home in her car, frantically texting her sister, Cindy. “Answer me!!” Tamra texted again. “It’s raining ash and bark.”  But the power is out.  The cell towers too.  Her sister can’t be reached. Later, Cindy spotted her home in aerial footage of Paradise on the local news. Her above ground swimming pool was unmistakable. Nearly everything else had burned into a ghostly black smudge.

And the earth is burning.

Paradise is burning.

Es brent…It is Burning" is a Yiddish poem–song written in 1936 by Mordechai Gebirtig. The Yad Vashem website states, “The song became a prophetic song of the impending Holocaust, describing the burning of the Jewish shtetl. The poet calls upon the Jews not to stand idly by, but to be proactive and put out the fire that is consuming their precious town. They should extinguish the fire and demonstrate to the world that they can take care of themselves.”

It is burning, brothers, it is burning
Our poor little town, a pity, burns;
The tongues of fire have already
Swallowed the entire town.
Everything surrounding it is burning,
And you stand around
While our town burns. 

Es brent!  The shtetl is burning.  Paradise is burning.  The church, the mosque and the synagogue are burning.  Mount Moriah is burning.  The temple is burning.  We can hear them all with the souls of our soles.  The bush is burning.  The world is burning - and we are being consumed.

So what can we do?  We can’t stand around.  Had people heeded the warning of the song Es Brent in 1936, who knows how many lives could have been saved.

The burning bush is the only place that is specifically called holy ground precisely because it is not in the land of Israel and the fire did not consume it.  God prefers bushes that aren’t consumed and holiness extends way beyond the boundaries of our holy city and holy land.  It’s a message to us, to hear and to heed – to hear the flames, to feel the scorched earth with our bare feet.   With our shoes off, we can focus more on the impact of our footprint, our carbon footprint.  We must heed the warning – and not to stand around, Moses, but to pick up your staff and get the heck back to Egypt, 150 elephant miles away – to hear their cries, for there is much work to do.
And that work is starting.  Israel, which led the way in drip irrigation decades ago to make the desert bloom, is now the world leader in desalination of water.  We’ve been planting trees there religiously, and tree planting is one way to save the earth.  China has just undergone a project to plant 200 million trees over the next 40 years.  That will help.  It is so fitting that our holy land has become a focus for the salvation of our holy planet.

Yesterday, I spoke of how as a group, a tribe, we need to expand the concept of “us and them” until there is only us.  Today I expand on that to suggest that our sense of holy place needs to radiate out from Mount Moriah to include Mount Sinai and ultimately the entire planet. And if you care about our tribe, if you care about Israel, you’ll do something about climate change.  Our love for that golden land radiates outward, expanding into a love for all of humanity, and all the earth.

John Muir wrote: “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin…This grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere; the dew is never dried all at once; a shower is forever falling; vapor is ever rising. Eternal sunrise, eternal dawn and gloaming, on sea and continents and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls.”

The earth is the Lord’s, says the Psalm.  It is all holy.  Es Brent!  But it burns! But God willing, if we put our ears to the ground and hear the cry of the ground itself, the bush, and the rest of the planet, will not be consumed.


Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

Kol Nidre 5780

The Power of One

Last week, you’ll recall that I focused on the power of group identity, of being part of a tribe.  Tonight, we focus on having the courage to stand apart.  And because this topic is so important, I’ve taken the liberty of providing lecture notes See source packet here.

So let’s start with photo #1 in your packets.  I first saw this picture during my first trip to Berlin, when visiting the “Topography of Terror,” a museum located in the former headquarters of the SS.  It mesmerized me.  In depicting the courage of one against many, that iconic photo is equaled perhaps only by #4 – the man in front of the line of tanks in Tienanmen Square in 1989.

Now there were many acts of courage during the Holocaust.  At the Emmys last month, supporting actress winner Alex Borstein talked about her grandmother, who was in line to be shot into a pit by the SS.   She asked a guard "what happens if I step out of line?" and he responded "I don't have the heart to shoot you, but somebody will" – she stepped out and then no one shot her. "So step out of line, ladies," Borstein told the audience. "Step out of line!"  It takes courage to step out of line, but for Borstein’s grandmother, staying in line meant death was certain. 

The man in this photo was not motivated by a survival instinct, nor by altruism.  He wasn’t hiding anyone in his attic or employing a thousand condemned Jews in his factory.  It was a different kind of bravery that he demonstrated.  All he was doing was not raising his arm in the Nazi salute. 

But when you look at everyone around him – just look.  This was a huge rally.   And this photo was taken in 1936, by which time the disease of Nazism had spread to the entire country. Hitler’s power had been consolidated.  The free press was no more.  Same with the independent judiciary.  There were no opposition parties.  The Reichstag was destroyed.  All the political enemies had been murdered or placed into concentration camps.  The mentally ill were being euthanized.  In a flash, democracy had yielded to a police state. Germany had become the fulfillment of George Orwell’s vision in 1984: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.”

 It’s almost inconceivable that an ordinary citizen would have had the courage to protest Hitler so brazenly.

That time had passed.  They had already rushed passed the “first they came for the socialists and I did not speak out” part of Pastor Martin Niemöller’s famous dictum – which he penned in hindsight after the war.  They had already come for the trade unionists, and he did not speak out— because he was not a trade unionist.  Then they came for the Jews, and he did not speak out—because he was not a Jew.  “Then they came for me,” he wrote “—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

But without the benefit of hindsight, without knowing about the crimes that were yet to be committed; the guy in the photo just saw what was happening right then and there and he dared to protest it.

Oh, and one other thing.  Hitler was speaking at the time this photo was taken.  And so I wondered how someone could have the chutzpah to do that – to defy Hitler to his face.  What would lead to an act of such audacity – an act that was, incidentally, illegal.  The sieg heil salute was mandatory for all German citizens as a demonstration of loyalty to the Führer, his party, and his nation.  And the three were indistinguishable.

So I did some research. Okay, I checked Wikipedia.  Turns out the guy was probably someone named August Landmesser.  (There are some who claim, with solid evidence, that it was a guy named Gustav Wegert, but Landmesser’s story fits better into this sermon, so therefore it was him).

Landmesser joined the Nazi party in 1931, hoping it would help him get a job.  But in 1935, two years after Hitler’s rise to power, he became engaged to Irma Eckler, a Jewish woman, and he was expelled from the party. They registered to be married in Hamburg, but the Nuremberg Laws, which had just been enacted, made their union illegal.  On October 29, 1935, their daughter, Ingrid, was born. The photo was taken just a few months after that, so August’s refusal to raise his arm could have been a protest against the discriminatory policies of a racist state – or maybe it was just a gut response from an aggrieved husband and father.

One year after that photo was taken, Landmesser and Eckler tried to flee to Denmark but were apprehended at the border. She was again pregnant, and he was charged and found guilty of "dishonoring the race." The couple continued their relationship, until he was arrested again and sentenced to two and a half years in a concentration camp.  He later died in battle in Croatia in 1944 and two years before that, it is believed that Irma was among the 14,000 to be killed at Bernburg Euthanasia Centre.

So the guy who had the temerity to stand up to Hitler paid a steep price.  But his children kept fighting to restore the honor of their parents.  Their marriage was recognized retroactively by the Senate of Hamburg in the summer of 1951, and when the photo of the rally came to light in 1991, Landmesser became a phenomenon.  So in other words, after his death, August Landmesser’s life improved tremendously.

How hard is it, to be the only one to fold your arms when everyone is saluting?  How much does one have to believe in the justice of a cause to deliberately break the law?  How unjust does a law have to be for it to be deliberately broken?  And how low does a society have to sink before there is only one person, one among thousands, willing to take the risks and stand up for what is right?

These are very important questions for our day, for Jews and for everyone. And this is not merely for people from one political silo.  It’s for everyone.  Last week I spoke about how we need to redefine tribalism, to expand the concept so that there is no “us and them,” only us.  This evening I go one step further.  We need to understand tribalism in such an expansive way that it leaves room for the autonomous individual to stand alone, to temporarily separate from the tribe if need be, so as to not acquiesce to a tribe run amok.  We need to allow room for what Abraham Joshua Heschel called spiritual audacity.

Heschel drew his inspiration from the Hebrew Prophets.  Two fantastic examples can be found in the haftarot of Yom Kippur.  There is Jonah, whose solitude drove him to the depths of despair, but who gained the courage to rise from those depths and stand up to the sinful city of Nineveh, inspiring them to repent.

And Isaiah, who stood up the temple aristocracy, and decried the hypocrisy of ostentatious sacrifice and mindless fasting.  “Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the fetters of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?

The prophets understood that they answered to a higher authority.  Heschel writes, “To us a single act of injustice--cheating in business, exploitation of the poor--is slight; to the prophets, a disaster. To us, injustice is injurious to the welfare of the people; to the prophets it is a deathblow to existence: to us, an episode; to them, a catastrophe, a threat to the world.” 

Heschel asked the same question about the ancient world that so many ask to this day – I excerpt from source #4 in your packets. 

Why were so few voices raised…in protest against the ruthlessness of man?  Why are human beings so obsequious, ready to kill and ready to die at the call of kings and chieftains? Perhaps, Heschel suggests,  it is because they worship might” – rather than right. 

When you study the Hebrew prophets, some key questions jump out at you:

Why would anyone want to be a prophet in such a society?  How is it possible that there were so many?  And how was it possible that they weren’t immediately arrested, exiled or killed?  No other nation but Israel saw anything like this.  No other nation’s monarch had to suffer the barbs of so severe a critic without entertaining the option of eliminating him. 

I mean, think of the prophet Nathan, who told King David to his face that he would lose a child because of his murderous, adulterous affair with Bathsheba.  I mean, talk about being the bearer of bad tidings.  He was employed by the king's court but at the same time he was a one man check and balance.  Nathan was federal judge, independent press and government whistleblower all rolled into one.  But did David have Nathan immediately executed for his impertinence – or simply fired, at the very least?  No. Look at source #3, from the book of Samuel.

וַיֹּאמֶר דָּוִד אֶל-נָתָןחָטָאתִי לַיהוָה;  And David said unto Nathan: 'I have sinned against the LORD.'
And then Nathan told the king וַיֹּאמֶר נָתָן אֶל-דָּוִדגַּם-יְהוָה הֶעֱבִיר חַטָּאתְךָ--לֹא תָמוּת. The Lord has also removed your sin, you shall not die.”

David surrenders in utter devastation and pleads for forgiveness.  Imagine that happening anywhere else.  Imagine Richard Nixon beseeching Daniel Ellsberg to forgive him – or Ronald Reagan begging forgiveness from Sam Donaldson.  Or Bill Clinton prostrating himself before Newt Gingrich. 

But in our sacred texts, only Nathan, as God’s agent, has the power to remove the stain of punishment from King David.  And that story, of David’s submission to the will of the prophet, inspired the penitential prayers of Yom Kippur.  David is confronted by the prophet and –  in his moment of truth – he sees himself in the mirror and takes responsibility for his sin.  In Psalm 51 David cries out to Nathan:

 אַל-תַּשְׁלִיכֵנִי מִלְּפָנֶיךָ;    וְרוּחַ קָדְשְׁךָאַל-תִּקַּח מִמֶּנִּ 

Cast me not away from Thy presence; and take not Thy holy spirit from me.

We’ll hear David’s plea chanted in a few moments, but this time in the first person plural, in the Sh’ma Kolenu prayer.

But the question remains, how is it possible that David could have such respect for one two-bit critic, when David had all the power of the state at his disposal?

Listen – if you comb through all of history, you can probably find other examples where a system of governance had built into it the idea that it is good for someone to step out of line to condemn the king – without bearing the risk of getting killed for it.  I know…we can call it, “checks and balances.”

Nah, it will never fly. 

Well, thanks in large part to James Madison, it has in this country, thus far.

But the biblical model wasn’t simply so unique in ancient times simply because of the king’s acquiescence.  Abraham Joshua Heschel asks how could the people endure this kind of defiance of the ruler?  Time after time, the solitary voice of the prophet stood out against the entire power structure.  And remember, in those days, there were no body cameras to record abuses.  There was no New York Times or Washington Post to run to with the story.  The prophets were the whistleblowers, judicial reviewers and the independent media, all rolled into one.

They stood alone.  Like August Landmesser. 

And not only were they tolerated, they were welcomed.  Granted, there are extra-biblical sources, both Jewish and Christian, that speak of Isaiah being sawed in half by King Menasseh, and Ezekiel, Jeremiah and Micah were assassinated, but otherwise, not bad.  And that’s because, embedded at the very core of the Jewish message, is the belief that we answer to a higher authority.  That’s what makes us different.  That’s what makes us a nation of prophets.  And oftentimes, that’s what makes us so hated by others, especially autocrats, but, at the same time, so able to live with ourselves.

Judaism is inherently counter cultural, subversive and self-correcting.  We don’t own the media.  But many great journalists happen to be Jewish because, what other religion places inquiry as so fundamental a value, that the first Jewish ritual a child performs is to ask a question – four of them, in fact?  We ask questions. we demand the highest standards of justice and we do not compromise when it comes to opposing the abuse of power.  That is non-negotiable.  There is no new normal.  This is our old normal, our always normal and it is our only normal.

Jewish sources emphasize the need to think for ourselves. Look at the verse from Exodus 23, and the two commentaries that follow it, sources 5 and 6.  “Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil.”  That’s in the Torah, folks. 

What does that verse mean?  In most cases, it should be noted, Jewish law was determined democratically – in other words, if a majority of rabbis ruled one way, that way was usually followed.   But Rashi understood that verse as a stern warning that a majority, even a super majority, is not automatically right.  We need to avoid a herd mentality, especially where there is demagoguery afoot. 

In source #6, Rambam goes even further in explaining this verse from Exodus.  A judge in a capital punishment case cannot simply parrot the conclusion of a colleague.  You can’t just go along with the crowd.  You can’t say, “I’ll have what she’s having.”  You have to weigh all of the evidence yourself, without giving any consideration to what another judge has ruled. 

The Book of Exodus states that when the Israelites received the Torah they said “na’a’seh v’nishma,” often translated as “We will obey and then we will understand.” But the word “na’a’seh” connotes active engagement, not blind obedience.  In our age of bots and fake news, the verse needs to be better understood as, “We will grapple with each word to assess its validity, and then we will understand.” Each of us needs to be that pain in the butt who is always commenting “Are you sure this is true?”on social media, even under articles shared by people we love.

On all sides of the political spectrum, the time has long since passed for blindly sharing or retweeting without first being sure that the source is reputable.  We need to be the ones to ask, all the time, is this true?  Na’aseh V’Nishma.  We will scrutinize and then understand.

Real news follows a rigid system of journalistic ethics, with an iron clad commitment to truth and accuracy, independence, fairness, and accountability, and an understanding that words have the power to both harm and heal.  The Society of Professional Journalists has an official Code of Ethics, (click here to see it). 

But even if something has been shared a gazillion times, we need to have the courage to ask questions and assert the Power of One. 

And if you find yourself at a political rally or march this coming year, and things start to get heated, as they will, and a chant starts up that you find to be morally repugnant, like the chant of “send her back” in Greensboro this past summer, find a way to stand up for what is right.  Even if you are afraid to shush people up, simply fold your arms like August Landmesser.  Someone will capture it in a photograph, and the world will know.

The Torah is teaching us that the majority may rule, but it cannot trample.  Even if it’s 99-1, according to source 8.  Again and again in our sources, we see rabbis reminding us to hold ourselves and our society to the highest standards.  The Torah believes in the Power of One, the primacy of justice, and speaking truth to power.

Since we may have been distracted lately by the goings on in our country, you may not be aware that in Israel, Prime Minister Netanyahu will likely be indicted within weeks, and he could go to jail, like Prime Minister Olmert and President Katzav before him.  Israeli jails could have minyans with all political leaders who have done time, like Aharon Abuhatzira, Aryeh DeriTzachi HanegbiAvigdor LiebermanYitzhak Mordechai, and others. 

One might think that a Prime Minister under indictment would be a national disgrace – what we call a Shanda.  But I’m proud of it.  Now I am no great defender of Netanyahu, and the crimes we are talking about are serious.   But these are crimes that in other societies might easily be overlooked.  I mean, the kind of corruption that Israeli politicians are routinely going to jail for would be what Vladimir Putin calls, “Tuesday.”

We answer to a higher authority.  Yes, it’s embarrassing to have corrupt leaders, but it’s a badge of honor to have courageous attorney generals like Avichai Mandelblit, a Netanyahu appointee, stand up to power and withstand the most inordinate pressure, including character assassination and physical threats, in order to do his job. 

Isaiah would be proud of Mandelblit. It’s not a national Shanda to have corrupt leaders, it’s a national Shanda when corrupt leaders get away with it.  Any nation can have kings and emperors.  We have Jeremiah.  We have Nathan.  We are the people of Mike Wallace and Philip Roth and Arthur Miller and Boris Pasternak. We are the people of Carl Bernstein and “Deep Throat” Mark Felt. Actually, Felt,  the great Watergate whistleblower, was not Jewish, but the Watergate tapes disclosed that Nixon was suspicious of him and asked H.R. Haldeman, "Is he a Catholic?" Haldeman replied that Felt, who was of Irish descent, was Jewish, and Nixon, replied: "It could be the Jewish thing. I don't know. It's always a possibility."

Yes, it’s nice to know that to Richard Nixon, Jews were a “thing.”  We are thing that speaks stands up to corruption.  We are a “thing” that believes in the Power of One.

Take Natan Sharansky, who stood up to the entire Soviet system.  He withstood the inhuman conditions of solitary confinement in the Gulag, and, as you can see in source number 9, when he was freed and crossed he Gleinike Bridge in Berlin, the famous Bridge of Spies, on February 11, 1986, even then he defied his tormentors.  The KGB  told him to walk in a straight line, and he walked in a zig zag.   It was one man against the entire Soviet system.  And he brought it down.  And on our Europe trip this summer, we’ll be visiting the Bridge of Spies in Berlin, right near Wannsee. 

Sometimes standing up to power means standing up to God.  Abraham modeled that when arguing over the fate of the people of Sodom.  And oftentimes it means breaking the law.

We may not have invented civil disobedience, but we sure have had a lot of practice.  In ancient Mesopotamia, child sacrifice was the law of the land.  We answered to a higher authority. Rome was a hotbed of political assassination and rampant cruelty.  We answered to a higher authority.  In ancient Babylonia, an eye for an eye was literally the law of the land.  We answered to a higher authority, stipulating that compensation for bodily injury should be monetary.  In Spain, the Inquisition was the law of the land and the practice of Judaism was forbidden.  We answered to a higher authority and practiced our religion in secret.  In South Africa, apartheid was the law of the land, and Jews like Helen Suzman had the audacity to protest, answering to a higher authority.  In the US, slavery was the law of the land.  A number of noted Jewish abolitionists answered the call.  Women were not given the vote until our country was nearly a century and a half old.  Many Jewish women were central to the suffrage movement.   When segregation and voter discrimination were the law of the land, throughout the civil rights movement, time after time, Jews answered the call.

We answered to a higher authority

Adam Serwer recently wrote in  The Atlantic after seeing photos of lynchings in the U.S.  He wrote that “it’s not the burned, mutilated bodies that stuck with (him).” It’s the faces of some people in the crowd.”   He saw a picture of the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Indiana in 1930, in which a white man can be seen grinning at the camera as he tenderly holds the hand of his wife or girlfriend.  It’s photo #3 in your packet.  You can see the dangling legs of one of the victims in the background. 

Let that sink in for a moment. 

This was not uncommon.  Back in the day, not too long ago, lynchings were veritable happy hours in some communities.  Look at that guy’s face.  It doesn’t look like an execution.  It looks like they are hanging out at Arnold’s Drive-In with Richie and the Fonz.  But a man is swinging from a tree a few feet away.  Two, in fact. This is not Hamburg or Munich of the 1930s.  It’s not even the deep south.  It’s Marion, Indiana, on the same latitude as New York City, and just 147 miles away from Gary, Indiana, my home sweet home.

Where is the August Landmesser in this photo?

In the photos of the Nazis marching in Charlottesville, I’d have loved to have seen one August Landmesser.  Just one, putting down his torch and folding his arms.  Just one.

I’m not greedy.  Abraham asked for ten righteous people in Sodom.  In Charlottesville, I’d have loved to see just one good person on that side.

Where was August Landmesser?

Where are Nathan or Isaiah or Jeremiah in those photos?  And if we had been there, would that person have been us?  Would we have had the courage to stand alone?  Or would we not have wanted to risk being labeled a traitor, a spy or an enemy of the people?

It is hard to stand up.  So we need to look to our glorious history for inspiration and strength. 

To the Maccabees, whose patriarch Mattathias stood in the town square and shouted, “Whoever is for the Lord follow me!” 

To Elijah who singlehandedly took on 450 priests of Baal on Mount Carmel.

To Nachmanides, the Ramban, who in 1267 was forced by King Aragon of Spain to debate a Jewish apostate on the merits of Judaism vs. Christianity. The king, a pious Catholic, thought that if he could convince the greatest rabbi of the veracity of Christianity the rest of the Jews would follow and he would have his ticket to heaven.  But Nachmanides insisted that it be a fair fight, and standing with the weight of the world on his shoulders before the entire power structure of Christian Spain, he won!

His prize?  A week later he was deemed a heretic and was exiled. 

Source 11 speaks of how, in January 1944, a group of heroes blew the whistle on the State Department’s foot dragging in letting in Jewish refugees, and as result, Washington did an about face, which resulted in saving 200,000 potential victims of the Holocaust.  Some of these whistle-blower heroes were Jewish, some not.  But they all had the courage to recognize the Power of One and to stand up for a better world.

There is one more source that I want to share, photo #2.  You’ve likely heard of Greta  Thunberg, the 16 year old crusader for global action on Climate Change.   This photo was taken in August 2018, before Greta was internationally famous, as she sat alone outside the Swedish Parliament.  This was the first school climate strike. In all, she skipped school to protest at Parliament 25 times, to little effect and lots of ridicule. 

No one has ever looked more alone in a photo than she does here. 

But in just one year, Greta created a wave that is changing the whole world.  Last month, Greta, who used to call herself the invisible girl, came to America on a solar powered boat and presided over a world-wide school strike that brought millions of students out of their classrooms and onto the streets. “Oceans are rising and so are we,” read the sign that 13-year-old Martha Lickman carried through London.

On Rosh Hashana, I made the case that we need to expand the idea of tribe to include all of humanity.  But in truth, sometimes the greatest thing one can do for one’s tribe, one’s city, one’s country or the entire world, is to rise up and stand alone.  The rabbinic sage Ben Azzai (Avot 4:2) said, “Do not despise any person, and do not discriminate against anything,   

שֶׁאֵין לְךָ אָדָם שֶׁאֵין לוֹ שָׁעָה וְאֵין לְךָ דָבָר שֶׁאֵין לוֹ מָקוֹם

 …for there is no person that has not his hourand there is no thing that has not its place.”  

Greta – whose name is an anagram for GREAT – is having her hour right now.

As we enter a new year, it’s time for each of us to look into the mirror and ask, has the time come for that person, that prophet Nathan, that Greta Thunberg, that Natan Sharansky, to be me?  Is each of us prepared to be the one to step out of line, or simply to fold our arms when everyone else is saluting?

When she was 11, Greta Thunberg stopped eating. She stopped growing.  She spoke only to family, and, at school, only to one teacher, suffering from severe depression.

“Before, my own world was very big,” she recalled recently. “I was all alone.”

“Is the alone-world still there?” a reporter asked.

“Yes,” she readily replied. “But it’s getting smaller.” 

When you are willing to stand for principle, you will rarely be alone for long.

“Let no one be discouraged by the belief that there is nothing one person can do against the enormous array of the world’s ills, misery, ignorance and violence.  Few will have the greatness to bend history, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events. And in the total of all those acts will be written the history of a generation.  It is from numberless, diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a person stands up for an ideal or acts to improve the lot of others or strikes out against injustice, he or she sends a tiny ripple of hope. Crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples can build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

There is no better way for us to bring our community, our nation and our world together than by pledging to have the courage to stand alone.

“No man is an island,” said Amos Oz, the great Israeli writer who died this year. “But everyone is a peninsula.”  Yes, we are inextricably connected to our neighbors on the mainland, to our tribe. But ultimately, each of us must face the ocean alone.

But as we face that ocean, just as Jonah as looked out over Jaffa port before embarking on his perilous journey, or like David as he stared into the abyss of Nathan’s accusatory stare, recognizing the enormity of his sin, we know that we are heirs to a glorious tradition that prizes courage over corruption, pursues justice to the ends of the earth, and celebrates the Power of One.

                                               Yom Kippur Day 5780
                                                Letting Go of Shame

Pearl and Lilly, two elderly ladies in a senior’s residence in Miami, were enjoying the sunshine on a bench outside their residence.

This was their daily ritual on every sunny day for the past 18 years, chatting and enjoying each other's friendship.

One day Pearl turned to Lilly and said: "Please don't be angry with me, bubbaleh, but I am embarrassed after all these years. What is your name? I am trying to remember, but I just can't."

Lilly stared at her friend, looking very distressed, said nothing for two full minutes, and finally said, "How soon do you have to know?"

As with so many Jewish jokes, that joke makes us want to laugh and cry at the same time.  Having dealt only too recently with these things on a personal basis, I know that there’s nothing funny about dementia.  But I don’t think the main point of that joke is to be funny.  It’s to help us deal with our brokenness in a manner that allows for a chuckle or two, so that we can relieve the tension and go on – otherwise the pain might be just too great.

Today I want to talk about that brokenness, and how we might let go of the sense of shame that casts such a shadow over our lives, along with its subsidiary, Jewish guilt, which we can trace to its two most basic components: A) our parents and B) our parents.

So let me tell you about the one moment of my year that I cannot let go of.  It was the moment I let go of my mother’s hand for the final time.
I last saw her at the Jewish home on Wednesday, October 24, almost exactly one year ago, and the day before she died.  It was a pretty normal day.  I spent an uneventful hour with her that morning.  Her quality of life had not been great for some time.  But she still seemed to find pleasure in two things – my visits, and chocolate. 

She smiled, as she almost always did, when I came in.  And she opened her mouth wide when I fed her half a Yodel.  I enjoyed the other half.  She rarely talked during her final few years– it was just too difficult to force the words out – so I would typically do most of the talking, maybe play some classical music or show her family photos on my iPad. She always listened attentively when I mentioned the names of family members – especially her grandchildren - so she could remember them.  She watched my mouth closely as I said each name and then repeat them.  That was her way of holding onto life. And she held on relentlessly.

And when I got up to leave, on that final day that I didn’t realize was going to be the final day, she grabbed hold of my wrist and held it tightly.   And the words came flying out with a force that she always reserved for that moment when I would get up to leave – and she called out, “Don’t go!”

My mom rarely put two words together during the course of a visit.  But when I got up to leave, suddenly the words would come to her.  “Don’t go.”  She did that all the time – and she did it that last time. And I freed up my wrist, because I had to get back to the bar mitzvah lessons and the dogs and the phone calls and other people’s yahrzeits and the food shopping and email and… whatever. 

No, I’m not blaming you!  It’s life.

I had to leave.  So I let go then – and I can’t let go of that letting-go now.

The rational side of me knows that I did so much for my mom, and that she appreciated it.  Before her health declined, she always ended visits by thanking me for coming.  For a year before I brought her down here, I drove up to Boston every other week, and she was grateful for that. 

And when she died, she passed quickly and without warning.  She just let go of life, just as I had let go.  And when I got the shocking call at 3:30 on that fateful Thursday, I felt myself crying out, in her voice, “Don’t go!” 

It’s almost cheapening it to use a cliché like “Jewish guilt” to describe what I felt then, and still do today; it seems far deeper, this sense of powerlessness to help when she needed it most, a sense of abandonment while abandoning, of prayers unanswered, of aloneness and loneliness, of inadequacy and invisibility, of not being God and of being all too human. 

It doesn’t stop with parents and children.  When I receive a phone call about a congregant who has died, that feeling often comes back – what more could I have done? 

When I’m sitting with someone who has just gotten bad news from a doctor, I struggle for the right words.  What can I possibly say?  That sense of helplessness, of being unable to respond to the need.

Al Tashlichaynu l’et zikna– we read in the Sh’ma Kolenu prayer – Do not cast us off in our old age.  Really it is saying, do not let us go.  Al taazveinu! Do not abandon us.  Al tirchak mimenu! Do not distance yourself from us!

That sense of alienation and abandonment is a curse of modernity, but the sages felt it many centuries ago when they wrote this prayer.  We feel so alone, so powerless, so humbled, and so guilty at having had to leave our parents behind, to let go of them.

This intergenerational angst is complicated by an old rabbinic concept known as Yeridat ha-dorot (ירידת הדורות), meaning literally "the decline of the generations."  Each generation is considered a lesser facsimile of its predecessor.  Like a xerox of a xerox.

So not only do we feel guilty at having abandoned our parents, we also feel like we can’t live up to their idealized image – as well as their expectations of us; and sometimes Judaism seems to stack the deck against us.  We live in a perpetual state of inadequacy.  We carry the burden of our parents’ accomplishments because we can’t measure up to them.  In rabbinical school, my classmates and I were taught to see the prior generations of rabbis as greater than our own teachers – our teachers themselves bought into that - and we were reminded constantly that we reside at the very bottom of the totem pole.  The farther we get from receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai, the more our ability to know what God wants of us, diminishes.

Yeridat ha-dorot affects everyone.  The Talmud even calls Sarah the matriarch a monkey compared to her ancestor, Eve. 

A Hasidic tale speaks of how the Baal Shem Tov would go to a special place on Rosh Hashanah, light a fire in a special way, say a special prayer, and the whole world would be blessed.  In the next generation they knew the location and how to light the fire, but they forgot the prayer.  The next generation knew the location but forgot everything else. So they just stood there and said, “Whatever the Baal Shem Tov achieved here, we should achieve.” 

Today we’ve even forgotten the location.  So what do we do?  We tell the story.

This is where Jewish guilt comes from.  This concept of Yeridat ha-dorot makes us all feel like imposters.  How could we ever be as worthy as they were – they were the Greatest Generation.

This idea has seeped into the general culture.  We call it the imposter syndrome, which was coined in 1978 by two American psychologists, (Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes).  It’s that nagging feeling that we’re not good enough, that we don’t belong, that we don’t deserve that job, that promotion, that book deal, that significant other, that seat at the table.” 

 “Even after writing eleven books and winning several prestigious awards, Maya Angelou couldn’t escape the nagging doubt that she hadn’t really earned her accomplishments. Albert Einstein experienced something similar: he described himself as an “involuntary swindler” whose work didn’t deserve as much attention as it had received.”
That’s what Elizabeth Cox reminds us in her Ted Talk.  She says that everyone is susceptible to a phenomenon known as pluralistic ignorance, where we each doubt ourselves privately, but believe we’re alone in thinking that way because no one else voices their doubts. Intense feelings of imposterism can prevent people from sharing great ideas or applying for jobs and programs where they’d excel.

Think about it.  The greatest novel ever written quite possibly never saw the light of day because its author may have felt like a sham and tossed it.  Kafka didn’t want anything of his to be published posthumously.  Thankfully his agent didn’t listen. 

Like Kafka and his greatest literary creation Gregor Samsa, we all feel that we are in some manner unworthy.  This is an age where it is almost impossible to distinguish between an imposter and the real thing, and even when we can, sometimes we respect the former more than the latter.  “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV.”  Actors routinely are confused by people who think they are the roles that they play, which is almost never the case, though I have hopes that Morgan Freeman might actually turn out to be God.

This summer’s sleeper hit “Yesterday” put its finger on the zeitgeist. By some inexplicable act of nature, all of humanity was afflicted with a very selective amnesia, causing people to forget random things, like Harry Potter, cigarettes and everything about the Beatles.  Except basically for this one guy, an average Joe named Jack Malik, who begins to sing Beatles songs as if they are his own and is hailed as a musical genius.

One reviewer (Tim Grierson) wrote, “No matter how successful you are, you never outrun imposter syndrome — that sinking feeling that you’re just a fraud and that, eventually, the world will find out. It’s a condition that afflicts everyone, even geniuses. “Part of me suspects I’m a loser,” John Lennon once said, “and part of me thinks I’m God Almighty.” His former bandmate Paul McCartney has long held onto a similar insecurity, admitting in 2015, “I never really felt like, ‘Oh, I did good.’ Nobody does.”

If the Beatles faced such doubts, what hope do the rest of us have?”

And if the Beatles harbored such doubts, how about the guy who actually was impersonating the Beatles!  We should hate Jack – but we come to sympathize with him.  We recoil alongside him when his marketers try to change the title of one number from “Hey Jude” to “Hey Dude.”  in the end, when he takes responsibility for his ruse, the faker becomes our hero.

Yes, we’re all fakes.  We’re all not “good enough.”  But we’re just good enough to come clean about it – and to forgive our friends and ourselves our imperfections and lift everyone from their shame.

For most of us, imposter syndrome is curable, once we realize that it afflicts everyone, that we are not alone.  Sure, we’ve forgotten how the Baal Shem Tov lit the fire and said the prayer, and we’ve even forgotten where he went.  But we haven’t forgotten how to tell the story.  And sometimes telling the story is good enough.  We are the people of the story!  And if we are insignificant in comparison to our ancestors, we are standing on their shoulders.  We should see them as lifting us up rather than crushing us to the floor. 

The medieval Kabbalists disagreed with Yeridat ha-Dorot. In their mind, with each successive generation, we build on the mystical wisdom of the past to have greater insights, and we therefore come closer to God. Deepening inquiry broadens the knowledge of Torah, which draws down higher levels of divine illumination. 

Rabbinic sources present us with another antidote to Yeridat ha-dorot.  It’s called svara.  It’s the power to overturn ancient ideas when there is a moral urgency. 

Here’s an example:

Two rabbis are walking down the road, late on a Friday afternoon. An obviously poor, elderly woman approaches them with a chicken in her hand. “Rabbis,” she asks, “is this chicken kosher? I’ve just bought it, but I’m worried that it may not be.”

The first rabbi examines the chicken very carefully, then hands it back to the woman and answers, “Yes, absolutely. This chicken is definitely kosher. Good Shabbes!”

After the woman leaves, the second rabbi, incredulous, says to the first: “You know as well as I do that that chicken wasn’t kosher! It was obviously treif! How can you be so makil (lenient) about kashrut?!” The first rabbi responds, “I’m not lenient about kashrut. I’m stringent about love for my fellow Jew!”

Here the moral intuition – svara – supersedes even the wisdom of our ancestors.  We’re not pale imitations of our teachers’ and parents.  We’re not frauds. In fact, we are exalted. We are the real deal.  But only when we lift up our neighbor.

“The day I learned the word “svara,” my universe changed, writes Rabbi Benay Lappe, founder of SVARA: A Traditionally Radical Yeshiva in Chicago, and a recipient of the 2016 Covenant Award for excellence in Jewish education. “I was already a rabbi when I learned that there was a Jewish word that implored us to trust our life experiences, our deepest convictions about who we are and how we think the world should be, even if the Torah says something different. I realized that “svara” was the name for that inner voice I had listened to when I came out as a teen in the 1970s, the voice that told me that love is love and that love is good, and that we must live out our truth, even at great cost. Why had they never taught me this word in Hebrew school — or even rabbinical school?”

But svara is being taught now.  We can rise above our own feelings of inadequacy by loving more and shaming less.

The first people who felt shame were Adam and Eve.  It was the first emotion they felt, in fact, after they ate the forbidden fruit.  They saw their nakedness and were embarrassed.  And what does God do?  On their way out of Eden, God says, “wait a minute” and gives them some parting gifts:

וַיַּעַשׂ יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים לְאָדָם וּלְאִשְׁתּוֹ, כָּתְנוֹת עוֹר--וַיַּלְבִּשֵׁם. 

And the LORD God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them. 

God dressed them.  God did not want them to feel shame.  Interestingly, the Hebrew word for shame is Busha.  The Hebrew word for to dress is lil-BOSH.  By dressing them, by enabling Adam and Eve to cover their imperfections, God recognizes that shame paralyzes us. Shame isolates us. Shame convinces us that we are unworthy.  Shame goes beyond simple generational guilt.

But our embarrassment prods us into the realization that shame need not be a permanent state – that we can, in fact, change things by recognizing that we are not alone.

Abraham Joshua Heschel put it this way, in discussing Yom Kippur: “We are all failures.  At least one day of the year we should recognize it.  … The root of any religious faith is a sense of embarrassment, of inadequacy.  It would be a great calamity for humanity if the sense of embarrassment disappeared….  Those who have no embarrassment remain sterile.  He then adds that “the meaning of sin has disappeared from Jewish consciousness in America.”

So shame, for lack of a better term, is good.

And where better to feel embarrassment than right here, in a synagogue?   There’s even a term for it: Jewbarrassment, which is defined as “That uncomfortable moment when you come across something Jewish that you don’t understand or don’t know how to pronounce, but you think you should. Can lead to nervous laughter, shortness of breath, loss of interest in/anxiety about anything Jewish.”

Up here on this bima over the past year, someone was reciting the blessing over the washing of hands, as we do when we are about to eat (sorry), and he inadvertently conflated that blessing with the one at the seder for eating matzah.  So instead of saying, baruch ata adonai…asher kidshanu bmizvotav vtizvanu al netilat Yadayim. …he concluded the blessing “al achilat Yadayim.” Literally he thanked God for the mitzvah of eating our hands. 

I giggled for a moment when it happened because of my great and unmatched wisdom, but then I was sobered by two realizations:

First, that no one else in the room was laughing, or even smirking – just a little – which told me that no one in a packed room knew Hebrew well enough to get the joke.  That was sobering – and we American Jews need to address our Jewish literacy problem.

But the second thing I realized is how courageous it was for this person to come up here – to overcome the Jewbarrassment, to get out his safe zone in order to live a more fully Jewish life, in order to praise God and fully participate.

In David Sedaris’s best seller, “Me Talk Pretty Some Day,” he discusses how hard it was for him to move to Paris because of the language barrier.

“My fear and discomfort crept beyond the borders of the classroom and accompanied me out onto the wide boulevards,” he writes. “Stopping for a coffee, asking directions, depositing money in my bank account: these things were out of the question, as they involved having to speak….I was convinced that everything I said was wrong. When the phone rang, I ignored it. If someone asked me a question, I pretended to be deaf. I knew my fear was getting the best of me when I started wondering why they don’t sell cuts of meat in vending machines. My only comfort was the knowledge that I was not alone.”

We all know the discomfort of feeling like an outsider – of being a “them.”  I’ve spent lots of time in Israel, but although I have a good grasp of Hebrew, foreign languages don’t come naturally to me.  And to add to my insecurity, over there many Israelis make fun of American accents just like we make fun of foreign accents back here.  It’s humbling when you know you don’t talk pretty.  Because of my experiences in Israel I don’t make fun of foreign accents anymore.  I’ve been there. And don’t get me started about my experiences in France!

It’s not easy to talk in a foreign language, and even harder to pray.  Even in English prayer feels like a foreign language.  That’s why I have tremendous admiration for our Torah readers and service leaders who get up here and overcome that fear – that fear of Jew-miliation. 

So when that person recited the blessing over the eating of the hands, I had a choice. I could have corrected him.  But instead I thought to myself, “Ani Medaber Yafeh.” “Me talk pretty.” And I thought of the story of the poor woman and the chicken.  This was a case of svara if there ever was one, of being less stringent about blessings and more about people’s shame.  And I never mentioned the gaffe to anyone, so that the person would never feel embarrassed…  Until I mentioned it just now in front of 1500 people.

But no one here should ever be afraid to try Jewish things on for size.  Here is where it’s okay to pray pretty.  Judaism, like life, is all trial and error, with the emphasis on the error. 

And that, my friends, is the central message of Yom Kippur.

Judaism, like life, is all trial and error, with the emphasis on the error. 

It’s natural to be Jewbarrassed from time to time, but no one, neither Jew nor non-Jew, has the right to tell any of you that you are a bad Jew, an ignorant Jew, or – may I add – a disloyal Jew.  No one has that right.

Heschel makes an important point.  Spiritual growth begins with the sense of inadequacy, guilt and shame that we cultivate on Yom Kippur.  Hasidism teaches that when a righteous person – a tzaddik - moves from one level of holiness to another he can only go higher if he first falls from his prior rung.  The reason for this is stated in Ecclesiastes 2:13 – כִּיתְרוֹן הָאוֹרמִן-הַחֹשֶׁךְ. “Greater light comes from darkness.”  It is out of our experience of darkness that one can reach expanded light.  Our setbacks lead to wisdom – in fact, without setbacks, there can be no wisdom.  So, if you are sitting here praying for a perfect, hunky-dory year, you’re also praying for a year of spiritual stagnation.   Good luck with that!

But we can’t take this humiliation thing too far.  Maimonides states that his commentary to the Mishna: (Avot 2:18)

אם ידמה האדם עצמו פחות - לא תהיה חמורה בעיניו פחיתות שיעשה

If one has a base view of oneself, one will readily do base things.

As Rabbi Simcha Bunam of Pzhysha once said to his students: "Everyone must have two pockets, so that he can reach into the one or the other, according to his needs. In his right pocket are to be the words: 'For my sake was the world created,' and in his left: 'I am but dust and ashes.' "

So, the goal is not to continually punch ourselves in the gut, but to establish a balance of self-deprecation and self-esteem, so that in the end, we are better able to love our neighbor AND ourselves.

The Yom Kippur journey is a controlled environment, taking us from guilt and shame –upwards to renewal and hope.  That’s how this day works – we descend to the depths and then, exhausted but restored, and we rise in the end to the sound of the shofar, the call of renewal. 

And then we eat.

So, now let’s start our ascent.  

If we look closely at the liturgy of the penitential section of the Yom Kippur liturgy, we can see that when it comes to parents and children, it’s complicated.  Right before the Ashamnu prayer, that prior paragraph states plainly: “Our God and God of our ancestors, we are neither so insolent nor so obstinate as to claim in Your presence that we are righteous, without sin; “Aval anachnu V’Avotaynu v’Imotaynu Hatanu.”  “For we, like our ancestors who came before us, have sinned.” (This added phrase did not appear in our prior machzor - there's a longstanding debate about the matter).

They sinned too!  And we are bearing the burden of their sins, as well as their accomplishments.  That would seem overwhelming, but in fact it is –empowering.  It’s based on a verse in the book of Nehemiah, where the people specifically confessed not just their own sins but the sins of their ancestors too.  This is just so profound.  Because we know our parents weren’t perfect.  They weren’t the Greatest Generation after all!  And they bequeathed us a lot of baggage.  Emotional baggage. Sometimes burdens that crossed the line of being abusive.  They made mistakes. 

But we can make it right, not only for us, but, if they deserve it, we can make it right by them too.

Although most of us were brought up to believe that our grandparents were somehow kinder, tougher, more principled and less materialistic.  But let me tell you something about nostalgia:

It ‘aint what it used to be.

True, Thomas Jefferson might have been a better writer than me – but he had slaves. Was he more moral than any of us?

Moses might have been a better teacher, but he killed a guy. 

I let go of my mother’s arm, but I didn’t let go of her legacy.  I took it on, just as I took on my father’s when he died. 

How liberating it is to know that our parents and grandparents sinned too.  And they perceived themselves to be imposters too.  And life crushed them too - and shook their faith to the core, just like with us.  And they struggled and thrashed against the dying of the light.  Our parents did all these things.  And then, despite all their fears and failings, they had us. 

And we can make it better.

And through our teshuvah, our soul searching, maybe we can break the destructive patterns that we’ve inherited so that we need not burden the future with their sins or our own.  Remember, the Thirteen Attributes of Divine Mercy, another part of the penitential liturgy, includes the line Poked Avon Avot – who visits the sins of the ancestors unto future generations. Tirzah Firestone, in her new book, Wounds into Wisdom—Healing Intergenerational Jewish Trauma, creatively translates that divine attribute as “The mind of the universe observes the wounds of parents as they ripple down to their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren… unto the fourth generation.

So, we rise from shame and guilt by paying it forward with teshuvah. Heschel commented that when the Torah says, “Honor your parents,” that obligation is not on the children but on the parents, to behave in such a way so that their children will honor them.

As we try to deal with the sins of prior generations, the key is to look forward, with the goal of healing wounds.  We should consider that, as we also address some of the great generational traumas of our society too, including the legacy of the Holocaust and institutional racism.  We won’t fully redress these sins by ourselves, but we will lay the foundation for our children to.  Our children are pretty angry at my generation right now, for leaving them a world far messier than we found it.

So let’s grapple with our parents’ shame, as well as our own.

Our very lives are at stake.  The future of our civilization is at stake.  We’ve got to make things right – for our parents and our children.  While on Rosh Hashanah, I asked that we think expansively about tribes.  Today, we reach out not merely horizontally to all those living now, but vertically, to those who came before us and those in generations to come. 

When I was in college, I once brought mother a journal as a gift, and unbeknownst to me, she jotted down reflections through the years, including reflections from many of the lectures she loved to attend or trips she loved to take.  While going through her possessions, I found it and it was a great source of comfort during the period of mourning.

In 1988, she wrote: “Two wrongs don’t make a right, but three lefts do.” 

"God gave us memory so we could have roses in December."

"As one gets older, one values every day."

"To be born a Jew is an accident.  To live as a Jew is an achievement."

1989: “Unhappiness is the hunger to get.  Happiness is the hunger to give.”  Elsewhere: “Turn your wounds into wisdom.” Another aphorism: “I like being Jewish. It’s the best way I know of being human.”  And then, after an enjoyable celebration of her birthday, she wrote, of her family:

“You were all the best thing that ever happened to me.”

Finally, 1988, my second year here: “I spent Yom Kippur at Josh and Mara’s.  I was pleased and proud that Josh speaks out when injustice occurs.”  

I included several of the pages from her journal in an online album dedicated to my mother that I created right after her passing.

We live in a perpetual state of shame. And we live with the power to redeem.  We redeem our parents and they redeem us.  We bear the burden of their sins, just as they bore ours. 

Slowly, I feel myself grasping her hand; and this time I don’t let go.

This time, we can’t let go.

For our parents and our children need us.  We need one another.  Everyone in this room.  We need one another.  We need one another to navigate our path through the shame and embarrassment of simply being human.

We need to get past those feelings of shame and inadequacy that hold us back.  If we’ve sinned, and we all have, then let’s recognize it, own it and move on.  We have no time to waste.

For this is our moment to love one another.

            This is our moment to be alive.

No comments: