Author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch•Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi - Wisdom for Untethered Times." Winner of the Rockower Award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism and 2019 Religion News Association Award for Excellence in Commentary. Musings of a rabbi, journalist, father, husband, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and self-proclaimed mensch, taken from essays, columns, sermons and thin air. Writes regularly in the New York Jewish Week and Times of Israel.
Wednesday, September 28, 2022
Rosh Hashanah Sermons 5783
In This Moment
Here are the video and text of my two sermons from Rosh Hashanah. Feel free to share. Enjoy, and may you be sealed for a good, sweet year.
Our Break the Glass Moment
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman
Rosh Hashanah Day One, 2022
Two old friends meet on the street. They haven’t seen each other in quite some time. One says to the other – I’m running to catch a train, but tell me, in one word, how are you doing?
“Great!” Says the other.
The first one says, “So many years and just one word? I know I’m running late, but tell me, just one more word – tell me in two words how you are doing.”
The other one replies, “NOT great.”
It's been that kind of year. Great - and not great. On the “not great” side, calamity on top of calamity. Threats to our safety, our freedom, our democracy, our privacy. All of this as our planet continues to melt inexorably. Throw in Ukraine, refugees and immigration, economic insecurity, crime, racism, antisemitism, gun violence and hate. Oh yes, and let’s not forget a pandemic that refuses to go away.
Some have described this as a “break glass moment.”
But before I pull any fire alarms, let me share a second anecdote, this one a true story. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once entered his class of rabbinical students at JTS and proclaimed – “I saw a miracle this morning! I saw a miracle this morning!”
“Rabbi,” his students asked, “What was the miracle?”
“The sun came up!”
Today I’d like to make a case… For the blessings embedded within the curse. You know, for Jews, it only takes a simple word, just one word, “the,” to take a break glass moment and turn it into a break the glass moment. Just one word can turn a five-alarm fire into a jubilant wedding dance. From break glass to break theglass.
One word can change everything….Or how about just switching two letters.
Today we begin the Hebrew year Tav-shin-peh-gimmel. 5783. The Hebrew verb using peh and gimmel,La’foog, means to disappear, to evaporate, to become numb, to grow faint – and to expire. Yep. It’s as if the Jewish calendar read all the polls about consumer confidence and said:
“Do we have a year for you!”
OK. But here’s something interesting about those letters. If you reverse the peh and the gimmel you get the word gaf - or agaf – whichrefers to a bird’s wing.
In the Torah, there are lots of curses. But the Bible teaches us how to turn those curses into blessings, to turn darkness into dawn, the bitter into sweet. We can take that peh-gimmel, the two letters representing this year, and reverse the curse simply by reversing the letters. And in doing so, we rise from curse to blessing, from despair to hope.
For if we’ve read our Emily Dickenson, We know that wings can take flight and that hope is “the thing with feathers…
… That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -
Yes, this bird sings, and she never stops singing, rain or shine, calm or tempest-tossed in a storm; it warms us, it carries us, and it croons within us. We just need to reverse the letters and we’ll find that the solution is embedded in the problem.
Hope is that thing with wings.
And that, in a nutshell, is my message today. We seem to be accursed everywhere we turn. But despite that, we need to look for the blessing. And the curse can become the source of blessing. Like the underbrush of a forest fire, from where new saplings sprout. Where disaster strikes, where darkness seems most endemic, there are always sparks of light.
To paraphraseRebecca Solnit, the future is dark, but the darkness is as much of the womb as of the grave. Both places are dark. But in the deepest darkness, there is a future.
This year, we’ve literally peered into Black Holes and have seen incredible light. Through the new James Webb space telescope, we can look back 13 billion years – nearly all the way back to the Big Bang, to Creation. As we turn our gaze forward, we are looking back to the very beginnings of the universe – all the way back to “Let there be light!”
And we can see, way out in the constellation Pegasus, five galaxies that appear to be touching each other, engaged in a cosmic dance. It’s called Stephan’s Quintet, first discovered over a century ago, but Webb has shown us details never before seen. One of those five galaxies includes a spot that is particularly bright, which, the experts say, is from material becoming super-hot as it falls into a gargantuan black hole at the center of that galaxy. The brightest light flowing into the deepest darkness. What makes that light so bright is in fact that contrast to the darkness as it is pulled into the void by a gravity-force so great that we can barely imagine it. But we can see it. We can see through the extended eye of the James Webb, this incredible dance, a star raging against the dying of the light.
We recognize this eternal dance in our prayers - at night: “Golel Or Mipnay Hosheck, v’hoshech mipnay Or.” “Who rolls light from darkness and darkness from light.” The Hebrew word gal means waves. So, the rabbis imagined light waves many centuries before anyone spoke of electromagnetic radiation. The word evening, ma’ariv, comes from the word for “mixture.” Light and darkness always mixing, rolling dynamically in a cosmic dance.
The interplay of darkness and light is also played out in the areas of history and morality. This is second nature to the Jew. We know all about the ebbs and flows of history. But we also know that in Judaism, we have the power to change things for the better, to stack the deck in favor of kindness, to shorten the ebbs and lengthen the flows – and it is incumbent upon us to try. That is how we differ from some other faiths, where acceptance of suffering is all there is. But we Jews, - we endure, we persevere, and we overcome.
Deuteronomy states that we have the choice between the blessing and the curse.The Talmud adds that whoever witnesses the miracle of a sunrise or a sunset and does not say a blessing might as well be dead - is wasting that gift of a new day. That’s what Heschel meant. This year, the Webb telescope has reminded us that we don’t need an electromagnetic telescope to see a miracle and count blessings every morning. The sunrise is a blessing, but only if we harness its energy and reduce our carbon footprint. Our agricultural bounty is a blessing, but only if we use it to feed the hungry. Our sexuality is a blessing, but only if it is used to ennoble and never to subjugate. Our mind is a blessing, but only if knowledge is synthesized with a yearning for justice and a predisposition for kindness. And our democracy is a blessing – if we can keep it.
We believe in the ultimate victory of hope. But we need to earn it.
The great Israeli writer Amos Oz related this parable: If you see a burning fire, you have choices. One choice is to bring a bucket of water and throw it on the fire. And if you don’t have a bucket, bring a glass. And if you don’t have a glass, use a teaspoon, and everyone has a teaspoon. And yes, I know a teaspoon is little and the fire is huge, but there are millions of us and each one of us has a teaspoon.”
We Jews are so committed to believing in hope that our national anthem is called, “The Hope,” even though Hatikva sounds like Old Man River meets the Volga Boatmen - at a funeral, and it always makes us cry. The lyrics are fine, but they really should have hired the Beach Boys to write the music.
Really… Our national anthem is bipolar. On the one hand it concludes with a crescendo of hope of a free Jewish nation centered in Jerusalem. On the other hand, the song was written in – and by a composer from… Ukraine.
Jerusalem and Ukraine. Lots happened this year in both places. Lots of blessings, and lots of curses. In both places, rays of hope have burst forth from the deepest darkness. The very same place! First, Jerusalem.
This past summer,the oldest written textever found in Jerusalem was revealed – it was discovered in David’s City, near the Gihon Spring, just below the Temple Mount. It’s so old that it predates any Israelite presence at all. It’s over 33 centuries old, from a Canaanite temple. A slab carved into the bedrock. The proto-Canaanite inscription consists of 20 words and 63 letters. The oldest inscription ever discovered in the holiest place on earth! An astounding find...
And what does it say?
Curse the mayor!
Seriously. It’s a litany of curses directed against the ruling authority in the city.
Here’s what it says. Literally:
“Cursed, cursed, you will surely die!
Cursed, cursed, you will surely die!
Governor of the city, you will surely die.
Cursed, you will surely die.
Cursed, you will surely die.
Cursed, you will surely die.”
Who knew that they had Alex Jones back then!
My point is that nothing has changed. Three thousand years. This channeling of wrath for political gain. The negativity. This anger! Nothing life-affirming in this first inscription. No “We come in peace.” No “Proclaim liberty throughout the land.” No!
Curses, hatred and revenge. It hasn’t changed. And it’s so disappointing.
Can you imagine 3,000 years from now and they’re sifting through the remnants of our civilization and the first example of writing that they’ll come across is a bumper sticker saying something about a guy named Brandon?
So, “not great.” But the ray of light, the blessing is not so much what the inscription says, but where it was found. It was found almost in the exact spot where, within a few generations, David’s troops would conquer the city, near that same Gihon Spring. Without the Gihon Spring, there is no Jerusalem, no City of Peace. The Hebrew word Giha means “gushing forth” and that spring gushed forth 600,000 cubic meters of water a year– If you’ve walked through Hezekiah’s tunnel, you know how deep the water flows – and how refreshingly cold it is. And how dark it is. Try walking through without a flashlight! And at the end of the tunnel they discovered another ancient dedication – another inscription – but this one not a curse, but a blessing, thanking the stonecutters for their superhuman effort to bring water up to the parched city and save it from an Assyrian siege. From the curse, comes a blessing. Same spot, a few centuries later. And now, to complete the circle 33 centuries later, the Jewish state is bringing the technology of desalination and drip irrigation to a parched world. From a spring of curses, a wellspring of blessing.
But there was an even more spectacular find revealed this year. This time up in Samaria, on Mount Ebal, near Shechem – or modern-day Nablus. A stunning discovery from the Late Bronze Age. An ancient Israelite inscription on a folded lead tablet, just about the size of a postage stamp. It contains what is believed by some researchers to be the earliest written references to God – our God – Adonai - the one from all these prayers we’ve been doing today. The tablet is 3,200 years old. 3,200 years!
And what does this ancient inscription say?
Cursed, cursed, cursed – cursed by the God YHW.
You will die cursed.
Cursed you will surely die.
Cursed by YHW – cursed, cursed, cursed.
Really? Really? There you go again. You can’t help yourself, ancient priestly pundit. Spewing all this negativity – only this time you’re bringing God into it.
It’s so disappointing. I mean, if our prayers today were so filled with anger, we would probably get better attendance. But it’s embarrassing. The oldest mention of God. Couldn’t the archeologists have discovered a love letter? A birthday card? A parking ticket. Anything! Why this obsession with curses? Why this instinctive anger? Why did ancient Jerusalem and Samaria have to sound like your annoying uncle at Thanksgiving dinner – or the bleachers at Fenway Park? (Once again, your rabbi – from Boston!)
Well, it’s because, if you turn to Deuteronomy, Mount Ebal is right there – it’s where an ancient ceremony of the blessings and curses took place. This inscription in fact proves that it really took place and that it took place there. It’s right out of the Torah. And that’s amazing. And here’s the thing: there were blessings recited too. But they were recited across the way on another mountain, Mt. Gerizim. So, on Mount Ebal they found only half the story. Just the bad half. But across the valley, just waiting to be found, there’s a box of blessings somewhere waiting to be discovered someday.
There were curses AND there were blessings. And – the people got to choose. They got to choose what kind of life they would live. A life of blessing or a life of curses.
We’ve been pelted with curses. Everywhere we turn. But we can choose blessing. Not even the Supreme Court can take away that choice. The Torah is telling us that.
We are the Jewish people. Ours is the brilliance of Psalm 30, exclaiming that weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the dawn. We convinced the non-Jewish prophet Bilaam, who came to curse us, to bless us instead. In Nehemiah 13, it says, וַיַּהֲפֹ֧ךְ אֱלֹהֵ֛ינוּ הַקְּלָלָ֖ה לִבְרָכָֽה׃ – God turns a curse into a blessing. Precisely; and,echoing the ideas of Yitz Greenberg, I believe that since the Holocaust, God has handed that role over to us. And we are prepared to take on this role. We are committed to never giving in to despair. We taught the world how to turn lemons into lemonade.
Not only that: We INVENTED lemonade. Well, sort of.
Since you asked: Lemonade is first mentioned in a fragment found in the Cairo Geniza, a treasure trove of medieval documents found in the attic of the Ben Ezra Synagogue. Egypt is so incredibly dry, so these documents were remarkably preserved, and this became one of the most valuable excavations in Jewish history.
Food historian Clifford Wright states that the earliest written evidence of lemonade comes from that Geniza collection. “The trade in lemon juice was quite considerable by 1104. We know from records of the medieval Jewish community in Cairo from the tenth through 13th centuries, that bottles of lemon juice were made with lots of sugar and consumed locally and exported.”
So we figured out how to take lemons and make lemonade. And that makes sense. For what is lemonade but a liquified Hillel Sandwich? It’s a haroset / maror smoothie.
So, Jews taught the world how to make lemonade – and many centuries earlier, we brought lemons into our worship. Come back here in two weeks on Sukkot and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Incidentally, etrogs are not from the lemon family. Lemons are from the etrog family. These bumpy bitter and colorful fruits are as sour as all heck. But as bitter as they taste, that’s how sweet they smell.
Out of the bitterness of exile came the seeds, literally, of a redemption to take place in Jerusalem.
But Jerusalem is one of two Jewish centers where I mentioned that we can see so keenly the blessing emerging from within the curse. The other is the place where Hatikva was written - Ukraine. Because of the genocidal war imposed on that nation by Vladimir Putin, Ukraine has truly become the black hole of Europe, its glorious cities pulverized mercilessly, its citizens slaughtered, innocent people in their homes, at work, shopping, children in their classrooms – something we’ve been cursed with over here too. We mourn for all Ukrainians. We support them. And we love them.
But Ukraine is also where Shalom Aleichem lived and where Tevya complained about his horse. It was the birthplace of Hasidism, the Baal Shem Tov, and Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev. Some of the leading lights of modern Jewish history camefrom there, like Bialik and Jabotinsky and Ben Gurion and Golda Meir and Sharansky. And Shai Agnon, the only Nobel Prize winner for literature who wrote primarily in Hebrew. More recently, Jews who were born there include Vladimir Horowitz, Simon Wiesenthal, Isaac Stern, Alexander Vindman, and last but not least, Mila Kunis. She raised $34 million for Ukraine this year. Now that’s a friend with benefits!
So, this country that Putin is trying to destroy is easily among the most cursed places Jewish history and among the most blessed. We see both sides. This year we’ve been reminded of that at places like the Babyn Yar ravine, in Kiev, which Putin struck deliberately.
But Ukraine also contains sites that can bring us hope at a time like this. There’s a place called Korolivka, in Podolia, in southwestern Ukraine. Its once thriving Jewish community is lost to time, with overturned gravestones still unrepaired in the dilapidated cemetery. Even in its heyday it was accursed, being the birthplace of the false messiah Jacob Frank and his heretical movement. There is a large cave on the outskirts of town whose subterranean passages form the shape of an enormous letter alef (map is from “The Books of Jacob” by Olga Tokarczuk)– which is the first letter in the Hebrew word for “cursed,” the word invoked at Mount Ebal. But the Ukrainians call it the “Cave of Optimism.” And during the Holocaust, 38 Jews hid in that cave and survived for 344 days. Kabbalists believe the subterranean pathways of cave lead directly to the land of Israel, an idea that SY Agnon, the Nobel Prize winner who was born just 30 miles away, picked up on in his famous Fable of the Goat.
We can find hope and light in the darkest of places. Like Korolivka.
And then there is Uman.
Uman is almost exactly in the middle of Ukraine, halfway from Kiev to Odessa north and south and from the Donetsk to Lviv, east and west. Reb Nachman of Bratzlav is buried there, and Rosh Hashanah is traditionally a time of pilgrimage to that grave. Thousands visit every year. Except this year. That’s because Uman has itself been targeted by Putin’s missiles, and the Ukrainian and Israeli governments have implored Jews not to go. It was hit on day one of the war, as if Putin knew in his warped logic that to “denazify” his foe, he needed to strike at its Jewish heart first. Putin has done what Covid could not. He has shut down Uman on Rosh Hashanah. Except that he hasn’t. Today, thousands of Jews are dancing there.
And that is because Uman, Nachman and Rosh Hashanah lie at the very core of the Ukrainian and Jewish refusal to succumb to despair. That sage, that place and this day come together in the leap of faith that we all must take. Even if Jews are being discouraged from traveling there, the pilgrimage is happening right here – because I’m telling the story.
And it was Nachman’s last Rosh Hashanah in this world. He knew it, but no one wanted to believe it. He wasn't even 40 years old, suffering from tuberculosis. Normally, he would begin preparing for his Rosh Hashanah talk the first morning of the holiday. He would start speaking late in the afternoon and go on well into the evening of the second day. But on this Rosh Hashanah his disease caught up with him and he began coughing up blood. Night came, and still was coughing violently. Hundreds of people were waiting in the synagogue, hoping and praying that he would come to give his lesson.
At last, he arrived. He was extremely weak. He sat for some time, and then he started in a very low voice. It was against all the laws of nature that he would be able to finish. The crush from the crowd was tremendous. Several people fainted. Still, somehow, he continued. He spoke about the future: how the whole world will be filled with the knowledge of God, and all will see that everything is under God’s Providence, that everything is miraculous. The whole of creation will sing a new song of love and kindness... It was his last Rosh Hashanah lesson, his last lesson ever. Near the end of his talk, he stated to everyone there:
"No matter from what city you come, my followers should return home and say: "Whoever believes in God should come to Rebbe Nachman for Rosh Hashanah."
Now thank God I don’t have tuberculosis, though I did just have Covid. And I’ve still got one more Rosh Hashanah to go with you. But I can feel a little bit of what Nachman must have been feeling that day, 212 years ago today. Pouring every ounce of breath he had left into one final message.
And Nachman revealed his secret of happiness. You see, he said, an old traditionhas it that there is a certain part of our anatomy, a small bone that rests at the base of the skull. The sages believed that while the rest of the body slowly decomposes after death, this bone does not; and it is from this tiny bone, called the Luz, that resurrection will begin when the Messiah comes. It is completely indestructible. In the Midrash it’s written that when Rabbi Joshua Ben Hananiah tried to break it with an anvil and a hammer, the anvil split, and the hammer was smashed to pieces.
The dying Nachman said to his followers. “Focus on your Luz,” he implored – “Focus on that small piece of you that is indestructible, that essence of yourself that no sin or misfortune can erase. Bind yourself to it. Concentrate on it. Allow it to gladden you and make you happy. Then, even if you find yourself in the deepest, darkest pit without the slightest trace of hope or light - still, you will always find your way out.”
Thornton Wilder wrote something very similar in Our Town:
“We all know that something is eternal. And it ‘aint houses and it ‘aint names and it ‘aint earth and it ‘aint even the stars…. Everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings…. There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being.”
Yes, there is a little piece of each of us that is indestructible. That spark of divinity. The God Particle. Whatever you want to call it. No one can defeat it. Not Putin. Not cynicism. Not Covid. Not the Supreme Court. Not death itself.
Reb Nachman implored his followers in that very same town, in that very same Ukrainian town that Putin tried to smash, on Rosh Hashanah, as he faced his own death at the cruel age of 40.
And he said this:
“Lo tit’ya-esh,” he said – Assur l’hit’ya-esh”
‘It is forbidden to despair”.For there is no such thing as despair! (What he actually said in Yiddish was: Kein yiush iz gor nit fahr-handin!)”. According to the chronicler of this speech, he drew out these words “Kein yiush…,” and witnesses claim he said those words “emphatically and with very amazing and awesome depth, in order to instruct and hint to each and every person throughout the generations not to despair under any circumstances, no matter what happens to them.”
He spoke those words, in other words, not to the people in that room but to generations yet to come. He was speaking to us. And he was speaking to the people in Ukraine today, and to Jews around the world. And to the direct descendants of those in the room, most of whom would perish in the Holocaust.
‘And remember,” he advised: “Things can go from the very worst to the very best…in just the blink of an eye.’” He said this from the darkest place imaginable.
His break glass moment because a break THE glass moment. At the darkest time, we must recall that the indestructible force is inside each of us.
Did I mention that Ukraine has a Jewish president?
- Did I mention that Volodymyr Zelensky is undoubtedly one of the great Jewish heroes since Judah Maccabee?
- And did I mention that they have a Jewish president whose image is already being carved out alongside the great statesmen of our time? Churchill, Mandela, Gandhi, Ben Gurion and Zelensky. Just give him the Nobel Prize already. And to top it off, last week he met Barbara Streisand, whose grandfather came from Ukraine.
And did I mention that this little country forced to take on what was considered a global superpower in a battle that would determine to a great degree, whether the power balance would shift toward democracy or autocracy. They haven’t won yet. But six months ago, who would have expected such results. The free world has come together, led by our president and Congress, in a bipartisan manner, and the NATO countries. Putin’s Anschluss has become his Afghanistan.
All led by this heroic Jewish Ukrainian who would not leave his people. He had no secret. He told the world as the enemy closed in, “This may be the last time you see me alive.” On March 3, he called upon the Jewish people to join him in his fight – specifically calling out the Russian missile attacks on Babyn Yar and Uman. He added: I am now addressing all the Jews of the world – can’t you see what is happening? Therefore, it is very important that now millions of Jews around the world won’t be silent. Nazism is born in silence. Therefore, shout about the killings of civilians. Shout about the killings of Ukrainians.”
And we have. And we will. We’ll all shout. We’ll bring our teaspoons to the fight. We’ll raise our voices. We understand what this battle is all about.
And through it all, we have rediscovered that unbreakable part of all of us –that Nachman called the Luz. That source of indestructibility is closer than you could ever imagine.
In chapter 28 of Genesis, Jacob is on his way out of the land after fooling his father into giving him the blessing – blessing that seems now more like a curse. He stops for the night, using a stone as a pillow. A stone supporting the back of his head – supporting the base of his skull – at a place where we would dream that famous dream, where God assures him that no matter how bad things seem, he will return and he will prevail. And the name of the place? Luz.
Except that when Jacob realizes how sacred this place is, he changes the name from Luz to…. Beth El.
You want to access that source of hope and inspiration? That Luz bone that could never be destroyed - not by Putin, not by Hitler, not by every antisemite in history. Not even by our own folly. You don’t need to make pilgrimage to Uman on Rosh Hashanah. You don’t need to sink into a deep dark cave in Korolivka or a scalding mountain in Samaria or wade in the cool springs of Jerusalem. You can access it right here.
And by here I don’t just mean in this sanctuary – though it’s nice to be here. It can be accessed through Torah – through learning, through prayer, through tzedakah. Through Jewish connection. Through converting curse into blessing and hope into action.
In the end, that’s how the curse becomes a blessing. As Václav Havel said, “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something is worth doing no matter how it turns out.” In that way, hope is the Luz. Hope is indestructible. Hope is that part of us that can never be snuffed out.
We can’t avoid a world full of curses, not 30 centuries ago and not today. But we can choose blessing. It is in our control to make that choice. It is in our power. We can forge a better world where AR 15s don’t threaten our children in their classrooms or our neighbors at the supermarket. We can defeat the virulent forms of authoritarianism and those conspiracy theories that threaten every ounce of goodness and civility that God calls upon us to choose. We can forge a better world for the sick and feeble, and those threatened with hate or discrimination. We can choose to rid our world of the pestilence of pandemic, and we can choose to rid our world of evil dictators who commit genocide on their neighbors and toss missiles on crowded theaters and rape children.
Our task is to choose blessing. It is in our control to make that choice. It is in our power.
For we know that in the most accursed place in Jewish history there is a Cave of Optimism. And Ukraine has a Jewish president. And black holes somehow shine the brightest.
The National Library of Israel’s Rare Items Collection contains a special booklet of poems and stories written by children in the city of Kharkiv ahead of the Passover holiday in the year 1920. I’ve already mentioned that this was a, horrific time for Jews.
But at the same time, in 1920, a group of Jewish schoolchildren in Kharkiv composed a booklet of poems written in a clear and elegant Hebrew, which was still in its infancy as a revived language. Their nightmares can hold up a mirror to Kharkiv today, a city mainly destroyed, and now at ground zero of the struggle to defeat the greatest evil of our times.
We need to take that imaginative leap of faith. In our current Game of Thrones, we declare victory for Malchay hamelachim – the Sovereign of Sovereigns, over all earthy imposters. Those who live to command have been remanded back toward their borders. Order has been restored. Winter is over. Our break glass moment has become a breaktheglass moment.
That Torah came to us from Kharkiv – a decimated, liberated city of hope, now the site of Putin’s greatest folly, may his name be forever cursed.
History has taught us that would-be autocrats who think they have unchecked power will always, always overstep and stumble into a fatal error of hubris. And nearly always, on the other side, they will be thwarted by the moral courage and humility of the Jew. Putin, who saw the Soviet Union crumble under Sharansky, should have known better than to doubt Zelensky.
And in Uman, there are signs of hope, even as it remains officially closed for this year. We know the birds will return – for hope is the thing with feathers. Our pain will begethealing. Assur l’hit’ya-esh” Never give up! Our mourning will turn to dancing. And joy will come with the dawn.
Dear Gen Z (and Millennials)
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman
Rosh Hashanah, Day 2, 5783
Dear Gen Z – and, uh, Millennials too.
First of all, I apologize for lumping the two of you together. I know full well that Gen Z, meaning those 65 million Americans born between 1997 and 2012, would not want to be caught dead being lumped together with their – I believe the word is cheugy (CHEW-gy) elders, the 72 million American Millennials born roughly between 1981 and 1996. I understand that cheugy, in Gen Z speak, means out of step and trying too hardto sound like someone they aren’t, which is precisely what I’m doing right now; but also what I thought about my elders, until I started reading about all the heroic things they did in World War 2. I really came to admire and love them in the end, but when I was young, I thought they were cheugy too, only I called them “square” and “fuddy duddy.”
So, as a proud, late blooming Boomer, representing about 71 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964 - yes, we’ve just been passed numerically by the Millennials, I think it’s time for a heart to heart. And yes, I know I’m leaving Gen X out of this right now, but between you and me, when your claim to fame is grunge music and Alex P. Keaton, I mean really… Nothing happened during Gen X. But in all fairness, for the purpose of this conversation, Gen X and Boomers can be lumped together too. You know, once I’m done, I really think it might be a good idea to just lump us all together.
So, let’s put all the stereotypes aside. Put all that aside. We’ve got to talk. Not as representatives of generations but as fellow human beings and fellow Jews.
So, you may have heard that I’ve now got 7 High Holiday sermons left before I move on to whatever comes next. I hear rabbis go to this farm where all they do is sit around all day, study Torah and eat knishes. But wherever I’ll be, know that I’ll always be around for you. As they say, “Your childhood rabbi is your rabbi for life.” I’m not sure who said that – I think I made it up. But that’s why we need to talk now. No time to waste.
I know how hard it is to be a young Jew in America right now. Three quarters of Americans feel we are going in the wrong direction. Freedom and democracy are declining dramatically almost everywhere we look. Women have lost the basic human right to control their own bodies – and oh, the planet may be uninhabitable in another generation or so.
And all of that has led, inevitably, to the highest rates of antisemitism in this country since the 1930s, because it’s one of history’s most sure bets that when the going gets tough…everybody blames the Jews.
A rabbi and his congregants were taken hostage by a gunman in Texas in January. This year! Last year, 2021, was the highest year on record for antisemitic incidents in the U.S. according to theADL. It’s scary to be a Jew these days. It’s scary to be a supporter of Israel. And to top it off, at the time when we most need to come together in unity, Israelis and American Jews seem to be like Mars and Venus, going in opposite directions politically, culturally and religiously. And within American Jewry, it’s almost as polarized.
It's enough to make us want to throw up our hands and walk away. Why would anyone want to be part of this not so exclusive club called the Jewish people?
I’m here to tell you why. It is special. It is a gift to be a Jew. And we should declare it to the world and to ourselves just how special it is – and just how proud we are.
But I look out at you and wonder whether you are feeling the same way. I know you and know how great you felt when you left here. You were on top of the world. You all got to climb Mount Sinai. But I know it’s different out there now.
This year the original Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati closed down its campus. And that’s because there’s beena 37 percent decline in the number of Reform rabbinical students. Why? Among Jews in the 18-49 age category —
Fewer feel a connection to the broader Jewish people.
But I also know that there are some nice things happening with our younger cohorts. For one thing, you’ve taught us how to be color blind and nonbinary and how to be radically welcoming. And you are fearless too.
In 2019, one of our incredible young adults, Nathaniel Harrison, gave a Bar Mitzvah talk describing the courage it took for his very diverse youth hockey team to ward off racism and antisemitism directed toward him his teammates. As a Jew of color, Nate’s experienced hate from all directions – and he has helped me to see the world through his eyes.
Well, this summer, Nate took part in the 21st Maccabiah in Israel. I know it was such a thrill for him and for other TBE’ers too, like Adam Satz too. Nathaniel’s team won a silver medal in ice hockey – and he had no problem entrusting his prize to his rabbi for the New Year.
What an amazing symbol of the connection our congregation has to Israel and the Jewish people. The “New Jew” that Herzl envisioned. A Jew who had shaken off the shackles of the shtetl and had returned to the land – to athletics, to proudly defend ourselves.
But also, to revel in our diversity. You, our Millennials and Gen Z – can lead teach us all about diversity. And pride.
While preparing a recent CNN special on antisemitism, Dana Bashdiscussedher apprehension when her preteen son asked her if he could wear a Star of David necklace in public. Deborah Lipstadt, the U.S. State Department’s special envoy on antisemitism, was interviewed in the special - and also mentioned that she wears a Star of David as she works.
So, Bash said, “My young son showing the world that he is Jewish made me nervous because I knew that antisemitism is on the rise in America.” But she later concluded after working on the special, “It turns out that normalizing the practice of and pride in Judaism is one of the antidotes to prejudice — something that my young son understood innately.”
It’s that kind of pride that we need to show. It’s not always easy. But you guys have it in your DNA. You are amazingly courageous. And that’s all I’m looking for. You know that your rabbi accepts you unconditionally, no matter what you believe, who you marry, if ypu marry, what pronouns you use, how you pray or what you eat – or even which baseball team you follow. But if you are ashamed to be a Jew, that hurts. I feel that one is on me.
We need to talk about being a proud Jew and a proud Zionist. This is too important to get caught up in that generational stuff and all the other schmutz. All the other confusion that gets in the way – the mixed feelings - the ambivalence that many Jews have.
So let’s get started with this basic question that I’m so often asked: Why bother with this Jewish thing? What does it mean to be Jewish?
I’ve spent the better part of my life looking for the magical answer that would tie together all the strands of Jewish experience, sort of a unified string theory -- with tzitzis. That journey took me, ironically, to the words of someone not himself Jewish: Bill Clinton. Several years ago, as he began a worldwide book tour, the former president sat down for an interview with Dan Rather on “60 Minutes.” In the most enduring moment of that interview, Rather asked Clinton why he did what he did in his reckless relationship with Monica Lewinsky.
The former president’s response was telling. Why did he do it?
“Because I could.”
He then added that this is "the worst possible reason ... I think that's just about the most morally indefensible reason that anybody could have for doing anything." And that’s true.
But he did it – because he could. I don’t want to single out Clinton as the only one who has abused power, or the only one who abused power and got impeached, for that matter. But this is a theme that runs through our society, people with power exercising it arbitrarily, simply for the sake of reveling in that power.
Vladimir Putin is a much better example. His genocidal crimes against Ukraine are only beginning to be documented. Russian forces in occupied territories have tortured and murdered civilians, arrested and deported hundreds of thousands of people, destroyed theaters, museums, schools, hospitals. Oh, and his warmup act was subverting democracy all over the world. Why? Because he could.
But you don’t need to be a dictator to become a super-empowered sociopathic mass murderer these days. All you need is a car, enough gas to drive 300 miles from Binghamton to Buffalo, a social media account, a Bushmaster XM-15 – easy to get one of those - and a manifesto loaded with the trifecta of hate: racism, white supremacism, and antisemitism. Andyou head to the Tops grocery storeto kill 10 Black people, because you can.
In the 19th century, Lord Acton wrote, “Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
But that’s not what Judaism says. Judaism says that power ennobles. But only if that power is utilized to ennoble others. Power is a gift, our tradition teaches, but only if we use it wisely. And with the advent of Zionism, Jews have made the conscious choice of power and morality over victimhood and self-pity. Zionism is a gift. Two thousand years in the waiting. But only if we use it wisely.
To be a Jew is to ennoble the world - because we can. To feed the hungry - because we can. To assist victims who are half a world away - because we can. We may or may not be a chosen people, but we are, in the words of Michael Medved,a “choosing people.” To be Jewish is an act of will – we exercise our will, not arbitrarily. To be Jewish is to choose the hard way – to dream up the impossible, and then to fulfill it.
We’re the ones who tackle racism and hate head on. While Christians and Muslims spent most of the Middle Ages building fences and re-drawing borders, Jews were constantly traversing them, carrying the best that every culture could offer. We traveled the world spreading a message of peace and justice, because we had to - we kept getting kicked out of every darned country.
And then we built a Jewish state - because no one else would take us in. No one. Including this place. Land that I love.
So that’s what it means to be Jewish. And that’s why the world needs us now more than ever. And that’s why you need to be proud. And that’s also why we need a Jewish state.
This month we marked the 125th anniversary of the first Zionist Congress, forged by Theodore Herzl, the giant who dreamed the dream of a Jewish state and then willed it into reality. His dream began with a nightmare. He attended the infamous Dreyfus trial in Paris and realized that European Jewry was in deep trouble. He was right. A half century later, two thirds of Europe’s Jews would be murdered. But he dreamed that in half a century he could forge a Jewish state, and he set out to get that done.
Herzl was not a heavyweight Jewish thinker. He knew no Hebrew, had only a superficial knowledge of religious tradition. Herzl was something of an embarrassment. He was completely assimilated.
But Herzl foresaw the destruction of European Jewry and he decided to do something about it.
So one reason why the world needs proud Jews – it’s because our tradition believes that power can be ennobling.
We also believe that power can be humbling – and humility itself can be ennobling.
I’ll tell you what I mean by sharing the story of a very special Israeli song.
I came of age at a time when Israel’s existence could never be taken for granted. The weeks prior to the 1967 war felt like the potential lead up to another Holocaust. And in the early days of the Yom Kippur War in 1973, Israel nearly lost everything.
But all that changed with the invasion of Lebanon in June of 1982. It was Israel’s first war of choice. Suddenly Israel was no longer David, but Goliath. I was in Jerusalem when that war broke out, finishing my year of rabbinical school there. Those final few days before I left, I got to experience what it was like to be in Israel during war time. It was scary and sobering. The Palestinian rockets couldn’t reach Jerusalem, where I lived, but sirens still sounded, the cafes and streets were suddenly empty, and everywhere you could see reserves in uniform running to catch rides to their bases. When Israel is at war, the whole country is at war.
I left just a few days into the war, when it appeared that Israel was just going to establish a buffer zone about forty miles from the border, so that the PLO would not be able to reach the Galilee with their Katyusha rockets. The terror would stop, and presumably negotiations would bring about a longer cease fire.
The wounds of the ’73 Yom Kippur War were still fresh, so no one was taking anything for granted. And that was the Israel of my formative years. That was the Israel that was stamped on my soul. This precious jewel, so fragile, so filled with life and spirit, so desirous of peace and tired of being attacked. The 2,000-year-old dream come true. I was leaving, but I knew I’d be back, and nothing would keep me away.
The day before I was scheduled to leave, the Israeli army reached that 40-mile mark, the stated objective of Operation Peace for Galilee. I was 24 and a half years old. I was you. I was impressionable but not cheugy. And that was the day Ariel Sharon decided to keep going to Beirut. That was the day they opted for regime change.
A great military success became, overnight, a moral and strategic catastrophe, and Israel has been paying the price ever since. It was a huge mistake. One that led to the cataclysm of Sabra and Shatila, where hundreds of refugees were massacred – not by Israeli soldiers, but on our watch, and ultimately to the vacuum that led to Hezbullah being on Israel’s border now. Menachem Begin – who had achieved peace with Egypt, left office in shame after Lebanon – a broken man.
Traveling through Europe that summer on a Eurail pass, everywhere I went, there were anti-Israel protests, some of them quite intimidating and violent. I couldn’t understand how this could happen, so soon after the Holocaust, how people could embrace a group that espoused terrorism, that indiscriminately had only recently killed school children at Ma’alot and the athletes in Munich. But there I was in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and they were taking to the streets to deny my people the one little plot of land we had ever called home. How?
Amos Oz, inA Tale of Love and Darkness, writes, When my father was a young man in Vilna, every wall in Europe said, "Jews go home to Palestine." Fifty years later, when he went back to Europe on a visit, the walls all screamed, "Jews get out of Palestine.”
That’s exactly how I felt that summer of 1982. And I know that’s not exactly the same thing you experience. But it still goes on, this unrelenting disdain for the other, and this hate is, for lack of a better term,intersectional. So, the guy who kills Blacks in Buffalo writes about hating the Jews. The ones who attack Latinos in El Pasoand Muslims in Christchurch and Heather Heyer in Charlottesville - they hate us too. Some promote racist concepts like replacement theory and eugenics that Hitler used to target us. Some blame George Soros for so called globalism – that is a code word for antisemitism. Show me someone who demonizes Soros – and I’ll show you a Jew hater. Anyone who denies the Holocaust or even questions it. That’s antisemitism. Anyone who even hints that the Jewish people do not have the right to a state of their own – antisemitism. Some hate Jews and others act on that hatred, by aiming their weapons at us - in Jewish population hubs like Highland Park, Squirrel Hill, Overland Park, Jersey City, Williamsburg and Colleyville.
It’s all the same hate. Same virus. Different variant.
Yet Jews, for some reason, are called victimizers even when we are the victims. Many who should join forces with us attack us. Fully one third of Jewish students experienced antisemitism on campus this past year. At Harvard and Columbia and the University of Vermont and so many other places, again and again – and then, when a Jewish student at SUNY Binghamton named Cassie Blotner, established a support group to combat sexual violence against women, she was kicked out of her own group because she professed to be a proud Zionist. She was defending the victim but was shamed and called a colonizer. That is shameful.
Of course, Palestinians deserve basic rights. But it’s complicated; Jews are also indigenous to that land. We are a religion, but we are also a people with a proud history and a precious legacy of deeply embedded values of peace and justice to share with the world. Ours is an ennobling voice. How dare anyone try to rob Cassie Blotner of that voice? To tell her that she’s not allowed to defend women who have been victimized simply because she stands with proud Jewish women like Hannah Senesh, Golda Meir, or Betty Friedan, who found her way back to a Judaism that she had rebelled against.
"I hereby affirm my own right as a Jewish American feminist to make chicken soup," she declared, "even though I sometimes take it out of a can."
And if anyone wants to mess with Cassie Blotner because she’s a proud Zionist, they’ll have to take on Ruth Westheimer first. Before she became a sex therapist, she was a Haganah sniper. All you need to know aboutDr. Ruth is that, orphaned after the Holocaust, she moved to Palestine and learned all about life on a pile of hay on a Kibbutz. And her first love was a boy named Putz. You don’t get more Zionist than that!
But back to my story about the first Lebanon War. One of Israel’s great poets and songwriters, Ehud Manor, was furious about the war; what it did to innocent Palestinians in Sabra and Shatila, but also what it did to the Israeli soldiers themselves. Those soldiers had to bear the brunt of decisions made by people whom they trusted, whom they were sworn to obey. Those decisions placed those soldiers in the midst of a moral quagmire. So, he wrote a song.
Manor actually wrote that song as a belated response to the killing of his younger brother a few years earlier, during another futile battle, the War of Attrition along the Suez Canal between Israel and Egypt just after the Six Day War.
Manor later told an interviewer, “For many years I have been walking with a very strong sense of protest, that there was such a callous disregard for human life. They put our soldiers on the line of the canal in front of incessant shelling by the Egyptians, and they helplessly absorbed the blows.”
Manor was very mad at his leaders; but he loved his country. And so, he wrote his most beloved song,En Li Eretz Acheret.
He wrote Chai, for God’s sake, which was a winner at Eurovision, and, O-My-God,Ba-Shanah ha-Ba'ah the most optimistic, hopeful song ever written! Od Tireh, Od Tireh, Kama Tov Yihye – you’ll see, you’ll see, how good it will be – next year, next year, next year. While “Ba’Shana Ha’Ba’a” has a hopeful and nostalgic note to it, “Ein Li Eretz Acheret” is all fire and flame.
And that is the one he is most loved for. And this song, with its bone rattling pain and even shame – combined with an unbreakable, almost mystical love for the culture, the language and the soul of his people and his country – that’s the one that Israelis call a patriotic standard. There is no issue about self-criticism. No problem with grappling with Lebanon War and it’s stained history – this song would be probably banned if it were sung in Florida.
But that song gained power over time, and like so many of our prayers and great poems, gained meaning and resonance through shared national experience. In November of 1995, after the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin that same song was chanted on streetcorners where the Israeli youth lit candles. They called them thecandle generation.
While our Millennial generation of the ‘90s was busy asking their parents for Beanie Babies and Tickle Me Elmo, Israeli youth were lighting candles on street corners and singing Ehud Manor’s song. They agonized over how things could go so wrong, how their beloved country could generate such hate – and zealots like Yigal Amir, dark souls who killed with such impunity.
And all we could do, as Israel buried its beloved leader and then endured a horrific string of bus bombings and other attacks, was say, from afar, “Shalom, chaver.”
And THAT is the song brought out twice by Nancy Pelosi, first after January 6and then again after the Dobbs decision this past June. Her favorite Israeli song turned out to be about America too. And now, that song unites November 1995 and January 2021; it brings together the War of Attrition and the War on Abortion. These are the words that could capture the tears of Peres and Pelosi.
We have no other country. We will not stay silent when our country has gone astray. And we shall prevail. But we will always be proud, and it will always be our country.
Am I tempted to abandon America because it is increasingly slouching toward authoritarian rule? No way! Because there are people in this country who hate me simply because I’m a Jew? What else is new?
And am I going to give up on Israel, the first homeland the Jews have had in 2,000 years, because Israel too is flirting with anti-democratic leanings and policies? No way! Ein li Eretz Aheret. Were I Hungarian I would be angry as hell at what Victor Orban has done to that country – and I would fight to change it. Same thing if I were Russian, or Turkish, or Nicaraguan. Omygod, the courage of that Russian journalist, Marina Ovsyannikova, who jumped in front of the camera on the news in Moscow to dare to tell the truth. The courage of Iranian women and Russian protesters right now.
We Jews, and we Americans have it easy in comparison. We need to have that same courage – to be proud and to stand up for the ideals of our country.
Leonard Cohen felt strongly about his connection to the Jewish people. An interesting footnote to that. He disagreed with John Lennon’s song “Imagine.” He couldn’t imagine a world with no religion, with no Jewish people. “Only nationalism produces art,” Leonard Cohen said. The only culture worth anything comes from loyalty to a language, a group, a place, and that a world without these differences would be unbearable.
As philosopher David Hartman wrote, “I am a “we” before I become an “I.” “I” surfaces only after it has appropriated fully the sense of “we.”
I think there is room for both Lennon and Leonard – a world where each person and each group can be celebrated for their unique gifts – we can celebrate without having to dominate. We can celebrate ourselves, but only with humility.
Power ennobles. But so does humility. That’s why I’m proud to be a Jew – not so much “because I can” but “because I can’t.” I can’t fix everything. I can’t wipe away the tragic errors. It takes hard work to love the Jewish people. But it’s worth it.
My ancestor was a wandering Aramean who became a slave in Egypt, the lowest of the low – we began as slaves! And we were delivered into freedom and covenant as we all stood at Sinai. And we stood together as well, at the Gates of Auschwitz. And Munich. And Babi Yar. And Jerusalem. That is the beginning of my story – our story.
At the opening ceremony of this summer’s Maccabiah, a popular Israeli singer Chanan Ben Ari, sang one of his recent hits, Cholem k’mo Yosef.And I dream, I dream like Joseph…”
I dream like Joseph. I fight like Deborah. I speak out like Esther. Like Moses. Like Ruth. Like Dr Ruth. I am all of them. I live at 31 Connollystraße, where the Munich Olympic athletes were attacked. I live at Mila 18, where the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was planned. I am Herzl, watching Dreyfus on trial in Paris. I sing Psalms with David. I dream like Joseph.
Being Jewish is who we are, 24/7. Being Jewish is not what we do from 4-6 when we pick up from Hebrew School. Being Jewish does not end with Bar/Bat Mitzvah. We eat Jewish, we sleep Jewish, we kvetch Jewish, we cry Jewish, we laugh Jewish – we especially laugh Jewish - we ask questions Jewish – and lots of them – we protest Jewish. We care Jewish and we love Jewish. And we do this this despite the haters. And in some ways because of them – to defy them – to defeat them – we do Jewish all the more.
And although I think I’m the one who invented the termJew-ish, I have some bad news. There is no “Jew-ish”. If you are half Jewish or Jewish-adjacent, or otherwise ambivalent about your identity, that is precisely what makes you a full-fledged Jew. To be a Jew IS to be ambivalent. If you have doubts about what it all means – You’re a Jew.
You can be ambivalent and proud all at the same time. And chew bubblegum too. That’s a Boomer reference. Google it.
You know, sometimes, it’s easier to get to know ourselves when we are seen from the perspective of someone on the outside looking in. I am very lucky. I get to see that all the time, because I work with students for conversion. If every Jew could spend just a half hour talking about Judaism with a Jew by choice, it would change your whole perspective.
Just a few weeks ago, a young woman named Ashley became a Jew by Choice. She loves everything about being a Jew. When she finished the process, she was glowing. I ask every candidate to write a short essay.
Here’s some of what she wrote:
“Most people are born into a religion and that is that. No questioning, no rejection, just blind acceptance. I have been lucky enough to truly experience both Catholicism and Judaism, then make the choice of which is right for me and my future family. While falling in love has been the catalyst for this choice, it is up to me to continue my beliefs and after experiencing the sense of community and positivity I’ve found in Judaism, it’s easy for me to actively choose to be Jewish from this point in my life forward.
When I first broached the topic of conversion with my family, they naturally had questions. What do Jewish people believe? What holidays will you celebrate? What about Christmas? In answering these questions and more, both my family and I have learned there are a lot of similarities between the way I was raised and what Judaism brings to the table, including a similar moral compass, a focus on family and striving to be a good person in every facet of life. We also discovered there are a number of differences – integrating contemporary societal values with religion, room for interpretation of the faith, and innate positivity. Through these differences, I’ve found that Judaism allows me to focus on some of the most important qualities in myself and encourages me to better my relationship with the world at large.
One of the most appealing aspects of Judaism for me is the focus on integrating modern societal values into the faith and the room that is left for learning and questioning. My life is exceedingly different from those of the people who wrote the Torah, but I think it’s beautiful that generations of people have been able to glean what they need from a text that was not written with our current circumstances in mind. In that sense, I think it was truly written to be reinterpreted for each reader. That same sentiment is expressed in how Judaism continues to reevaluate and consider views on topics like women’s reproductive rights and marriage equality. I find solace in knowing that my religion takes an informed, nuanced stance on modern matters and will always take the time and allow for healthy evaluation and questioning.”
Did you hear that? Ashley praised Judaism for its “innate positivity!” And you know what? She’s right. It’s a glass half full religion – for a glass half empty people. She’s helping us to fill the other half of the glass.
Last weekend, Ashley married Evan Ganz and today we welcome them back home to Beth El for the first time as a married couple. Ashley, if you can take a little time out from your honeymoon, I’m wondering if you are free to give the sermon on Yom Kippur.
These are my Millennials. My Gen Zs. My “kids”. Proud Jews.
And so, Gen Z and Millennials, I’m not going to claim for you that things are perfect, in Israel, in America, for the Jewish people everywhere. Our two homelands are linked by the same songs, Ein Li Eretz Acheret and B’Shanah Haba’ah. The joy and the sadness, the hope and the hopelessness – that quickly reverts back to hope. And as we bring in a new year, we hope that this year, this year, how good it will be.
But this is a time where you need to stand tall and proud. To stand as one, saying, “With an aching body, with a hungry heart, here is my home.”
And to know three things: 1) To be a Jew is ennobling. 2) To be a Jew is humbling. And 3) Your rabbi will always be here for you.
My God bless you and keep you and may you forever be proud to be a Jew.