Thursday, October 13, 2016

From Despair to Hope - Yom Kippur Morning Sermon

On Erev Rosh Hashanah, I spoke about how having a positive attitude matters in accomplishing our goals. On Rosh Hashanah morning, I spoke of what it means to be a Jew and why I am a Jew. Last night, I spoke of remembering the trials and tribulations of our ancestors along with tremendous acts of courage that enabled us to survive as a people. This morning, I will speak to you about hope. First about biblical prophecies that have inspired generations and then, about how we might envision a brighter future even amid troubling times.

This morning, we read from Chapter 29 of the Book of Deuteronomy:

10 All of you are standing today in the presence of Adonai your God—your leaders and chief men, your elders and officials, and all the other men of Israel, 11 together with your children and your wives, and the foreigners living in your camps who chop your wood and carry your water. 12 You are standing here in order to enter into a covenant with Adonai your God, a covenant Adonai is making with you this day and sealing with an oath, 13 to confirm you this day as his people, that he may be your God as he promised you and as he swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. 14 I am making this covenant with its oath, not only with you 15 who are standing here with us today in the presence of Adonai our God but also with those who are not here today.

This passage brings to mind on this traditional day of judgement the rabbinical directive, “Da lifnei mi atah omeid,” “Know before whom your stand.” These words are often written above the Holy Ark and remind us that we are not merely standing in a congregation of people, but that all of us come before God individually for judgement.

The passage from Deuteronomy serves a dual purpose. In its original context, it comes at the end of the consequences of failing to uphold the Covenant on the one hand or fulfilling them on the other. Among those curses for failing to uphold the Covenant is one that proved itself prescient in the minds of generations of Jews. It is found at the end of the previous chapter of Deuteronomy. In chapter 28, only a dozen verses earlier than today’s Torah portion, we find a description of exile:

64 Then Adonai will scatter you among all nations, from one end of the earth to the other. There you will worship other gods—gods of wood and stone, which neither you nor your ancestors have known. 65 Among those nations you will find no repose, no resting place for the sole of your foot. There Adonai will give you an anxious mind, eyes weary with longing, and a despairing heart. 66 You will live in constant suspense, filled with dread both night and day, never sure of your life.

In conjunction with the Kol Nidrei prayer from last night, the prayer of those who were forced to say “yes,” when they meant “no,” people scattered among the nations, people threatened with further exile, people living in a state of constant anxiety, how much more accurate could a description of their lives be? For most of the past two millennia, this was the life of the Jews.

This fact was not missed by Isaac ben Moses Arama who lived during the time of the Expulsion from Spain. He wrote of these words from Deuteronomy:

We may possibly find an allusion in this verse to the time when thousands of Jews would change their religion as a result of suffering and persecution. Regarding this, the Torah states “and among these nations shalt thou have no repose.” For although they would assimilate among the nations, they would not find relief thereby, since the nations would still constantly revile them and denounce them as relapsed converts as we indeed have seen in our day, when a part have perished in the flames of the inquisition, a part have fled, and yet others continue to live in fear of their lives.

For a people inclined to believe in the truth of the text already, the seeming accuracy of the vision from Deuteronomy was strong reinforcement. Not all of the texts that were seen as relevant were filled with doom and gloom, however. Somewhat in parallel to the curse from Deuteronomy that proved all too accurate for generation after generation was another textual source, the Book of Ezekiel the prophet. With the seeming accuracy of the passage from Deuteronomy, why couldn’t this passage be accurate as well?

From Ezekiel (37: 11-14, 21-22, 26-28)

11 Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ 

12 Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign God says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 Then you, my people, will know that I am Adonai, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 14 I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I Adonai have spoken, and I have done it, declares Adonai.’”

21 Say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign God says: I will take the Israelites out of the nations where they have gone. I will gather them from all around and bring them back into their own land. 22 I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel.

26 I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant. I will establish them and increase their numbers, and I will put my sanctuary among them forever. 27 My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people. 28 Then the nations will know that I Adonai make Israel holy, when my sanctuary is among them forever.’”

Looking at these two passages together, Deuteronomy and Ezekiel, it is not that difficult to understand how the creation of the modern nation of Israel could be viewed in their context. There is no messianic figure involved here. God makes the exile happen and then God affects the return from exile.

When we speak of God feeding the hungry and housing the homeless, we believe that God acts through us. Likewise, when we speak of God gathering the exiles, it is we who make Aliyah, who return from exile into the Land of Israel.

In his recent book, Future Tense, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks talks about his great-grandfather and Israel:

In 1871, my great-grandfather, Rabby Arye Leib Frumkin, left his home in Kelm, Lithuania, to go to live in Israel, following his father who had done so some twenty years earlier. One of his first acts was to begin writing a book, The History of the Sages of Jerusalem, a chronicle of the continuous Jewish presence in Jerusalem since Nachmanides arrived there in 1265 and began reconstructing the community that had been devastated during the Crusades.

In 1881, pogroms broke out in more than a hundred towns in Russia. In 1882, the notorious antisemitic May Laws were enacted, sending millions of Jews into flight to the West.

As an aside, this was the beginning of the major wave of immigration to the United States from Eastern Europe that ended after World War I. Rabbi Sacks continued:

Something happened to him [Rabbi Sacks’ grandfather] as a result of these experiences. Evidently he realized that Aliyah, going to live in Israel, was no longer a matter of pilgrimage of the few but a vital necessity for the many. He moved to one of the first agricultural settlements in the new Yishuv [the new area of settlement]. It had been settled some three or four years earlier, but the original farmers had contracted malaria and left. Some were now prepared to go back to work the land but not to live there. It was, they believed, simply too much of a hazard to health.

He led the return and built the first house there. When the settlers began to succeed in taming the land, they were attacked by local Arabs, and in 1894 he decided that it was simply too dangerous to stay, and he moved to London. Eventually, he returned and was buried there…

What fascinates me is the name the settlers gave to the village… It was set in the Yarkon Valley, and when they discovered that it was a malarial swamp, it appeared to them as a valley of trouble. But they knew the Hebrew Bible, and they recalled a verse from the prophet Hosea [2:15] in which God promised to turn the “valley of trouble” into a “gateway of hope.” That is the name they gave the village, today the sixth largest town in Israel: Petach Tikvah, the gateway of hope.

By the way, this is from the same passage in the Book of Hosea that discusses the marriage between God and Israel from which we often recite these verses during a wedding ceremony:

19 I will betroth you to me forever;
    I will betroth you in righteousness and justice,
    in love and compassion.
20 I will betroth you in faithfulness,
    and you will acknowledge Adonai.


Hope is what helped our people survive nearly two thousand years in exile, enduring great suffering.

To despair of the hope of redemption was one of the greatest of sins according to the rabbis. Our Golden Age was not one of the past, but one not yet reached. As the historian Cecil Roth once noted, “The worse external conditions grew, the more profound and deep rooted was the certainty of deliverance.”

This hope is the very same hope, the very same hope that is found in HaTikvah, the national anthem of Israel:

Od lo avdah tikvateinu, “We still have our hope!”
Hatikvah bat shnot alpayim, “The hope of two thousand years,”
Lihiyot am hofshi b’artzeinu, “To be a free people in our land,”
Eretz Ziyon, vi’rushalayim, “The land of Zion and Jerusalem.”

Hope is the true beating heart of the Jewish tradition and the Jewish people.
We know, furthermore, that it isn’t just our hope that matters. We must help those without hope find hope for us to truly live in peace.

And this morning, we see this in the words of the traditional YK morning Haftarah portion from Isaiah 58 (verses 4-12):

You cannot fast as you do today
    and expect your voice to be heard on high.
Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
    only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed
    and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
    a day acceptable to Adonai?

What is desired of us in not merely inward reflection and contemplation, not merely mourning over the sad state of our world; it is instead that we bring hope to the hopeless. That is our great task. In the words of Isaiah:

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
    and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
    and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
    and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
    and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?

Doing these things gives people hope in the midst of their despair. It brings light into their lives and just as it does for them, so too will it for us. As Isaiah tell us:

Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
    and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
    and the glory of Adonai will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and Adonai will answer;
    you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.
“If you do away with the chains of oppression,
    with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
    and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
    and your night will become like the noonday.

Hope makes one’s light rise amid the darkness so that even at the worst times, there will be light. Once we have become the people of hope, the people of light, the people whose job it is to be a “light unto the nations,” to quote from Isaiah chapter 49, then the people of Israel will be restored unto the land. Then, as we read in our Haftarah this morning:

11 Adonai will guide you always;
    he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
    and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
    like a spring whose waters never fail.
12 Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
    and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of the Breech,
    Restorer of Streets with Houses.

It is often said that the first commandment in the Torah is “Pru urvu”, “Be fruitful and multiply.” But that isn’t actually true. That commandment is the first one given after human beings were created. The very first commandment in the Torah comes at the very beginning of the creation narrative and is given to all beings, “Y’hi Or!” “Let there be light!”

This Yom Kippur, this day which recalls to mind generations of Jews past and urges us to regain the right path in our own lives, may we strive to bring light and hope into our world, through our words and our actions.

Y’hi Or! Go forth and bring light and hope into the darkness.

G’mar Chatimah Tovah! May we all be sealed in the Book of Life and Blessing for a good, happy, healthy and sweet year!

Kein Y’hi Ratson! May it be God’s will!

We Are All Jews! A Sermon for Kol Nidrei 5777

It was several months before Fannie Rosenbloom's 80th birthday, and few
people had lived a more pious life.  She regularly attended services and performed any mitzvah she could.  She never had asked God for anything.

However, Fannie had become weary of struggling to find the money to support both her tzedakah causes and her grocery bills.  So she decided for the first time in her life to ask for something for herself.

Fannie began praying each Shabbat that God allow her to win the lottery. Months went by without her prayers being fulfilled, but she waited patiently. As the High Holidays approached it became difficult for her to contain her disappointment. 

Finally, on Kol Nidre, when the ark was closed, she slowly climbed the steps of the b'imah for her honor, with the help of the Rabbi on one side and the President on the other. She was to read the prayer for the congregation, which was given her because the whole community knew of her kindness to others. Few knew of her financial plight.

Fannie stood before the microphone with her prayerbook open to recite the prayer, but instead of speaking to the congregation, she turned around to face the ark and cried out:

Gott im Himmel… (that mean’s “God in Heaven.”)  I have been a righteous woman my whole life. Every extra penny went to the pushkah every day. Every penny. I love all your creations as much as you do. 

Now beginning to weep, she implored:

After 80 years, I ask for something for myself. Something! A little thing from the maker of the universe. Make me a lottery winner!

 Her hands trembled. Her legs trembled. People thought she was about to collapse in a heap.

The room was deathly silent as the rabbi walked over and put an arm around the distraught Fannie. But before the Rabbi could say a word to her, the entire Sanctuary shook and was filled with a presence that was indescribable.

A voice, obviously that of the Almighty, came from everywhere at once, and said in an exasperated manner:

Fannie, Fannie. Sheine Fannie! Help me out a little here… Buy a ticket!

For the most part, modern western Jews are not superstitious. And if we believe that God acts in our world, affecting people’s daily lives, we generally do not believe that God would be heard speaking aloud. But if it were it to happen, Yom Kippur would be the time. This day, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, we can joke about things like this. This day is awe inspiring and full of dread. This day? Just maybe.

Tonight, we come before God with humility and sometimes in distress. In ages past, Jewish men and women who were forced to convert to other faiths while under duress, sometimes at the point of a sword, came before God to plead forgiveness. Once the Kol Nidrei prayer became a regular part of this service, long ago, perhaps 1500 years ago, this evening connected not just to our faith, but to our being.

At the same time that it focuses on our relationship with God, specifically on our oaths, the Kol Nidrei prayer reminds us annually that we are inheritors of a multi-generational struggle, that many of us owe our lives, much less our Jewish identities, to people whose lives were embittered and who came to services on the eve of Yom Kippur to plead with God for themselves and their loved ones because of strife happening in their lives.

The Kol Nidrei prayer is like a DNA marker in our service, evidence of what happened to Jewish people time and again. We can imagine ourselves as those Jews. They may have felt lonely and afraid as they walked through towns and villages before hostile eyes, heading to synagogues. Perhaps, they felt the support of other Jews. Perhaps, they felt ashamed, before God or perhaps the Jewish community, as if they were betrayers, having sworn an oath to abandon outward Jewishness, yet feeling Jewish in their kishkes, in their guts.

It is said that the Kol Nidrei prayer is the prayer of those who were forced to say, “Yes,” when they meant, “No.”

For too many others, defiance was their last act. But not always.

When I grew up, reruns of Hogan’s Heroes were among my favorite tv shows. My colleague, Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin recently wrote about the show. He said:

As I look back, it’s hard to imagine doing this kind of show, a show about Allied POWs making fun of the Nazis. But this doesn’t even take into account the cast of the show.

The part of the commandant, Colonel Klink, was played by the German Jewish refugee, Werner Klemperer, who was the son of the famous conductor, Otto Klemperer. The part of Sargeant Schultz (“I know nothing!”) was played by John Banner, a Jew born in Vienna, Austria, who lost many family members in the Holocaust. Colonel LeBeau, the handsome French officer, was played by Robert Clary, who was himself a Holocaust survivor, deported to the concentration camp at Ottmuth in 1942, and then, to Buchenwald, where he was liberated in 1945. Twelve of his immediate family members died at Auschwitz.
They all knew what happened. They were all deeply affected. Their acting, their joking, about it all was a sort of defiance. Much in the same way that the movie “The Producers” which starred one of my favorite actors, Gene Wilder, who passed away at the end of August was; lampooning the Nazis with a musical entitled, “Springtime for Hitler – A Gay Romp with Eva and Adolf at Berchtesgarten.”
There were times that the acts of defiance weren’t fantasies and they are important for us to remember.

I attended the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington DC in March. The American-Israel Public Affairs Committee is an organization that promotes the strengthening of the relationship between the United States government and Israel. Over 19,000 people attended this year and heard from many politicians, for some of us too many or too few, heard about and witnessed examples of innovative Israeli technologies such as a shock absorbing bicycle and wheel chair tire or medical advances, and heard stories from many people about why they support Israel.

When Christian politicians and ministers speak at the conference, they often reference Holy Scriptures and other religious connections. Almost always, they speak of common causes and shared values. Very few share a story like the one that Pastor Chris Edmonds of the Piney Grove Baptist Church in Maryville, TN shared with us. It was a story that his father, Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds, had written down in a diary about his experiences during the war, a story that he never shared with his family while he was alive. Pastor Edmonds discovered the diary and learned of the story while going through his father’s belongings after his death. The Pastor told us the diary recounted this story:

On January 27, 1945, his father, Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds, of the 422nd Infantry Regiment in the US Armed Forces, was taken prisoner during the Battle of the Bulge, and was imprisoned in Stalag 9-A, a POW camp near Ziegenhain, Germany. He was the highest ranking NCO in the camp. The group of Allied prisoners there included approximately two hundred Jews.

The Wehrmacht had a strict anti-Jewish policy, singling out Jewish POWs from the rest of the POW population. It was known that Jewish soldiers would be subjected to harsh treatment, treated as slave laborers with little chance of survival, or simply killed outright.

Following that policy, the commandant of the camp ordered Master Sergeant Edmonds to separate out all of the Jewish soldiers in the camp the next morning and have them report to be sent elsewhere.

In the morning, Roddie Edmonds asked that all of the American prisoners of war under his command report. When the Commandant, Major Siegmann, saw all of the POWs standing in front of their barracks, he confronted the Master Sergeant about it.

Master Sergeant Edmonds stated simply, “We are ALL Jews.”

Siegmann exclaimed: “They cannot all be Jews!”

To this Edmonds repeated: “We are all Jews, HERE!”

Commandant Siegmann took out his pistol and threatened to kill Edmonds, pointing his pistol straight at the Roddie Edmonds’ head, but the Master Sergeant did not waver. Staring down the barrel of the gun, he retorted: “According to the Geneva Convention, we only have to give our name, rank and serial number. If you shoot me, you will have to shoot all of us, and after the war you will be tried for war crimes.”

It was reported that the commandant then turned around and left the scene.

“Surely, this is an apocryphal story, a Hogan’s Heroes-like myth,” you may be saying to yourself—but it is not. Another American soldier, Paul Stern, retold this encounter to Yad Vashem. Stern, one of the Jewish POWs saved by Edmonds’ courageous action, told Yad Vashem that he was taken prisoner on December 17, 1944, during the Battle of the Bulge.

He was one of the higher ranking soldiers and, therefore, stood very close to Edmonds during the exchange with the German camp commander, which, he later recalled was conducted in English. “Although seventy years have passed,” said Stern, “I can still hear the words he said to the German Camp officer, ‘We are all Jews!’”

Lester Tanner, another Jewish soldier captured during the Battle of the Bulge, recalled the incident in detail. Tanner told Yad Vashem that they were well aware that the Germans were murdering the Jews, and that therefore they understood that the order to separate the Jews from the other POWs meant that the Jews were in great danger.

“I would estimate that there were more than one thousand Americans standing in wide formation in front of the barracks with Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds standing in front with several senior non-coms beside him, of which I was one…

There was no question in my mind, or that of Master Sergeant Edmonds, that the Germans were removing the Jewish prisoners from the general prisoner population at great risk to their survival. The US Army’s standing command to its ranking officers in POW camps is that you resist the enemy and care for the safety of your men to the greatest extent possible.
Master Sergeant Edmonds, at the risk of his immediate death, defied the Germans with the unexpected consequences [the unexpected consequences] that the Jewish prisoners were saved.”

For that act of heroism, Master Sergeant Edmonds was posthumously awarded the Yad Va Shem Medal, Israel’s highest recognition of non-Israelis who risked their lives to save Jews and is recognized as one of the Righteous Among the Nations. Of more than 26,000 “Righteous” recognized to date, Edmonds is only the fifth United States citizen, and the first American soldier, to be bestowed with this honor.

What Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds did was an act of the utmost courage. He was willing and ready to die standing up to evil and protecting the lives of others. If the world were filled with people like Roddie Edmonds, it would be a far better place. But most of us aren’t that courageous and, unfortunately, there are many examples of times when the trigger was pulled. Countless numbers of people, during the years of the Shoah alone, gave their lives for what was right and good, standing steadfast in the face of evil, and suffering the consequences.

The history of our people is highlighted by courage in the face of danger, overcoming the most difficult of challenges, and surviving, sometimes barely, sometimes in strength, for another year, for another generation, for generations to come.

Some of us lived as crypto-Jews, hidden Jews, living in danger for many years, sometimes for generations, before perhaps coming to a land in which Judaism could be practiced in safety. Some of us fled from country to country seeking safety and prosperity. Some suffered where they were and survived through their own efforts. Others survived because of people like Roddie Edmonds, the righteous among the nations, people who, though not Jewish, helped the Jews in their midst survive.

And us? On this day, we call to mind the sin of silence, the sin of indifference, the secret complicity of neutrality.

Would we have had the courage to do what Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds did?

We are reminded during Passover each year that we Jews, even us today, our souls, were there in Egypt and at other places and times throughout Jewish history.

·      We were strangers.
·      We journeyed through the wilderness.
·      We stood at Sinai.
·      We entered the Promised Land with Joshua and shed tears by the waters of Babylon.
·      We rebelled against the Romans, were tortured and killed during the Crusades and were expelled from Spain.
·      We recited the Kol Nidrei prayer from a place of deep anguish in our hearts.
·      We hid our Jewishness from those who would harm us.
·      We rejoiced when we did not have to hide.
·      We were sent to freedom on the Kindertransport.
·      We fought in the Warsaw ghetto, crawling through sewers to survive.
·      We were there in Auschwitz and Treblinka, both surviving and perishing.
·      We too stood beside and behind Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds and heard him say, “We are all Jews!” and we saw the Commandant walk away.

The last is not simply a memory written in a diary; it is part of our memory as a people, joining these other events in forming who we are.

On Yom Kippur, we are bid to atone, to perform teshuva, turning ourselves in the right direction. This night, we are reminded that staying on the Jewish path is a privilege and not simply a commandment.
Kol Nidrei is a time when we remember those in generations of the distant, and perhaps not so distant, past whose struggles and sacrifices enabled us to be here today.

Let us remember that we are inheritors of a great legacy that has inspired generation after generation and may we do our best to preserve it and enhance it for generations to come. Often we have done and continue to do so with the help of committed family members and friends.

We all are Jews!

In the words of the traditional Yom Kippur greeting, “G’mar hatimah tova!”
“May you be sealed for good in the Book of Life, Blessing, and Peace!”

Kein yehi ratson! May it be God’s will!

Monday, October 3, 2016

Rosh Hashanah Morning 5777 - Why I am a Jew

Every four years, our nation elects a President. Most years, the choice that we make between candidates is mostly, or even wholly, focused on policy differences. Too conservative, too liberal. Too focused on business. Too focused on social policies. Too hawkish, too dovish. Perhaps, we find a candidate that is “just right.” Mah nishtanah? Why is this election different from all other elections?

In some ways, it is not. The election of the President of the United States is a big deal. The results will have a profound impact on the future of our nation and in many ways on our world. We could find ourselves with a female President for the first time in our nation’s history. Or we could find ourselves with the first President who has never before held public office. Much of the discussion about the upcoming election has focused on character. Many people are more afraid of what will happen if the candidate whom they do not support in this election wins than they are hopeful about what positive changes that the candidate whom they do support might bring.

There is a joke, “I remember when Halloween was the scariest night of the year. Now, it's Election night.” For many, this year it isn’t much of a joke.

There has been more than a little discussion among rabbis about if and how to talk about the many significant issues surrounding this election cycle. No, we cannot publicly support a candidate or party. We cannot make ourselves into a living SuperPAC commercial, providing a one-sided case. Neither can we, advocates for betterment of our world, remain silent and stand idly by. So what are we to do? We must talk about what we believe. I am going to do just that this morning in the context of “What it means to be a Jew and why I am a Jew.”

In 1927, Edmond Fleg, a French Jewish writer, wrote a letter to his future grandson which he entitled, “Why I am a Jew”:

People ask me why I am a Jew. It is to you that I want to answer, little unborn grandson. When will you be old enough to listen to me?... When will you be born? Perhaps in ten years' time, perhaps in fifteen. When will you read what I am writing? In 1950 or thereabouts? In 1960? Will anybody be reading in 1960? What will the world look like then? Will the machine have killed the soul? Will the mind have created for itself a new universe? Will the problems that trouble me today mean anything to you? Will there still be Jews?

Yes, he concludes. Yes, there will be Jews. Israel will live on, because being a Jew is meaningful. He goes on to list reasons which those choosing to become Jewish in our congregation recite at their conversion ceremonies and a version of which is part of the pledge taken by our Board members at their installation:

I am a Jew because the faith of Israel demands no abdication of the mind.

I am a Jew because the faith of Israel requires all the devotion of my heart.

I am a Jew because every place where there is suffering, the Jew weeps.

I am a Jew because in every age when the cry of despair is heard, the Jew hopes.

I am a Jew because the message of Israel is the oldest and the newest.

I am a Jew because Israel’s promise is a universal promise.

I am a Jew because for Israel the world is not finished; we must yet complete it.

I am a Jew because Israel places us and the unity of humankind above nations and above Israel itself.

I am a Jew because above human beings, the image of the divine unity, Israel places the unity which is divine.

This statement still resonates with us nine decades later. But I would add more.

We Jews know that human beings can and too often do act cruelly and inhumanely toward one another. Our tradition tells us that when we find ourselves among those not acting humanely, our job is to be a mensch, to be a human being. As Hillel taught, “Bamakom sh’ein anashim, hishtadeil li-hiyot ish.”
“In a place where there are no human beings, strive to be a person.”

It is said that Jews originated the idea of the Messianic figure, a single individual or in some texts a small group human beings, who would bring about changes that set things according to the intended divine plan. In ancient times, the messiah was a kingly figure, a descendant of King David, or a priestly figure, descended from Zadok, the High Priest during the time of King David. It was hoped that this king and this High Priest would be able to restore the world as God intended it to be. To an extent, Jews are responsible for the idea that the world can be fixed. This concept, with a few modifications in theology along the way, developed into the idea of Tikkun Olam, the concept that we Jews can repair God’s creation through our actions and bring nearer the perfection that God intended.

Yet, while pursuing perfection is part of our DNA, appreciating imperfection is more challenging for us.

Shimon Peres, for whom we are in mourning this week, once said that:

The Jews greatest contribution to history is dissatisfaction. We’re a nation born to be discontented. Whatever exists, we believe can be changed for the better.

And in line with this quote, we see ourselves in the joke about the mother who buys her son two shirts. When he shows up at dinner wearing one, she says, 'What's the matter? You didn't like the other one?” and we see it in the statement by the waiter to the group of picky Jewish diners, “Is anything alright?”

We have difficulty accepting that things cannot be better than they are.

Speaking of food, we are the people who not only may complain about the quality of the food we eat, but even when the food is fantastic, we question how it was prepared, where it was before it was prepared, and how it was acquired in the first place. That is who we are. It’s our nature.

Caring for those who are ill is a big deal for us. We see ourselves right there in Henny Youngman’s one liner, “A Jewish woman had two chickens. One got sick, so the woman made chicken soup out of the other one to help the sick one get well.”

We are interfaith friendly. As the Jewish reggae star Matisyahu noted,The real reason Jews don't have more Hanukkah music is that, historically, American Jewish singer-songwriters were too busy making Christmas music. 'White Christmas,' 'Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,' 'Silver Bells' and 'The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting)' were all written by Jews.”

Stereotypes don’t work for us. We don’t accept that we or others should fit into roles. So Jews can write Christmas songs. Ralph Lauren has said, “People ask how can a Jewish kid from the Bronx do preppy clothes? Does it have to do with class and money?” His response, “It has to do with dreams.” 

And we are the people of Hillel’s dictum, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me.” We are Moses Seixas, a Jewish congregational president in Newport, Rhode Island, who wrote a letter to the first President of the United States, George Washington, checking to see if the new nation’s leadership would indeed “give to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” And we expect that our government will live up to that ideal to this very day.

We are the people who take the time at the Passover Seder to mourn the deaths of those who tried to kill us, but were killed by God in the attempt, because we are all God’s children.

And every year, during that same meal, we take time to remember that we, ourselves, were slaves, oppressed in Egypt, and that we all were strangers in another’s land. The immigrant’s story didn’t begin to resonate with us when we came into this country in the last century or two, it has been part of our narrative throughout our people’s existence.

We are diverse. We are people like Rabbi Angela Buchdahl, the rabbi of Central Synagogue in New York City, one of America’s largest and most prominent congregations, whose father is an American Jew and whose mother is a Korean Buddhist.

We see ourselves in the stories of the refuseniks and of Natan Sharansky specifically, who, for the book commemorating the life of Daniel Pearl, I am Jewish, shared this story:

I was one of the millions of new human beings in the Bolshevik experiment, which was successful far beyond its maker’s expectations. Section five in my identity papers informed me that I was a Jew, but I hadn’t a clue as to what that meant. I knew nothing of Jewish history, language, or customs, nor had I even heard of their existence…Like all Soviet Jews of my generation, I grew up rootless, unconnected, without identity…

It was through the [Six Day] war that I became aware of the Jewish state, and of the language and culture that it embodied. I was suddenly exposed to the existence of the Jewish people, to the existence of tradition and culture. I was no longer a disconnected individual in an alienating and hostile world. I was a person with identity and roots.

Identity and a sense of belonging give life strength and meaning. A person who has his Jewish identity is not enslaved. He is free even if they throw him in prison, even if they torture him.

We believe that the measure of our lives is not in our wealth or power, morals and ethics matter. Right conduct matters. Justice matters. In the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who in his response about why he is a Jew stated:

I am a Jew because our ancestors were the first to see that the world is driven by a moral purpose…The Judaic tradition shaped the moral civilization of the West, teaching for the first time that human life is sacred, that the individual may never be sacrificed for the mass, and that rich and poor, great and small, are all equal before God.

I am a Jew because, our nation, though at times it suffered the deepest poverty, never gave up on its commitment to helping the poor, or rescuing Jews from other lands, or fighting for justice for the oppressed, and did so without self-congratulation, because it was a mitzvah, because a Jew could do no less.

We are the Jews like Kerry Strug, Olympic Gymnastics Gold Medalist, who people might not think are Jewish, but are. She said:

I have heard the same question over and over since I received my gold medal in gymnastics on the Olympic podium. “You’re Jewish?” people ask in a surprised tone. Perhaps it is my appearance or the stereotype that Jews and sports don’t mix that makes my Jewish heritage so unexpected. I think about the attributes that helped me reach that podium: perseverance when faced with pain, years of patience and hope in an uncertain future, and a belief and devotion to something greater than myself. It makes it hard for me to believe that I did not look Jewish up there on the podium. In my mind, those are the attributes that have defined Jews throughout history.

And when we go to vote on election day, whether we remember the story from the Talmud, tractate Ta’anit or not, it’s essence will be part of our deliberation:

One day, a man walking down the road came upon Honi the Circle Drawer (known for performing miracles) as he was planting a carob tree.
The man asked, puzzled, “How long will it be before this tree will bear fruit?” [Perhaps, he thought that Honi would perform a miracle].
“70 years,” replied Honi.
The man asked incredulously, “And do you believe that you will be alive in another 70 years?”
Honi responded, “When I came into this world, there were carob trees with fruit ripe for picking. Just as my ancestors planted for me, so I will plant for my descendants!”

We will consider the kind of world that we hope to leave for those who come after us.

I am a Jew because of all of these things and more:

Because we believe in “Mishpat Tsedek,” “Righteous Justice,” and are commanded in the Torah to stress righteousness in our deliberation, “Tsedek, Tsedek Tirdof,” “Righteousness, Righteousness you shall pursue!”

Because we believe that no matter how we look, whom we love, how or if we pray, what language we speak…we were all created, B’tselem Elohim, in the image of the divine and that the righteous of all peoples will merit the best of the afterlife; whatever afterlife there may be.

Because in a world filled with darkness, where one need not look too far or too hard to face inhumanity and despair, not only do we shed a tear, not only do we hope, we bring light.. We can be, in the words of Isaiah, “a light unto the nations” and at our best a source of blessing for humanity, as we find in Genesis 12:3 in the blessing of Abraham, “All peoples of the earth will be blessed through you.” Through us!

Because no few of our holidays have the theme, “They tried to kill us! We survived! Let’s eat!” and, as many of you know, I like good food!

Because reading the story of the Akeidah, the Binding of Isaac, as we did this morning, we can see ourselves
·      As Abraham, following expectations and feeling tested,
·      As Isaac, affected by things out of our control and deciding whether or not to go along, or
·      As Sarah, whose entire side of the narrative, complete with extreme emotions, we must create,
·      But we cannot see ourselves in the place of the young men who, though concerned, watched Abraham and Isaac ascend the mountain, but did nothing.
·      We would not stand idly by.

I am a Jew:

Because though we may at times struggle to see how we can make a difference; we might wonder how our one vote might matter, our tradition tells us in the words of Rabbi Tarfon, “Lo aleikha hamlakhah ligmor, v’lo atah ben chorin l’hitbateil mimenah.” “It is not up to you to complete the work, but neither may you desist from it.”

Because some of us marched alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
And some of us went into Mississippi to help poor black women and men who had been kept away from the polling booths, register to vote, knowing that there was a threat of violence.
And two of us, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman died in the effort, alongside James Chaney,
Because we Jews understand that if no one speaks up, if no one stands up,
No change will come.

Because in the darkest of places and at the darkest of times, Jews made it through. In the words of Viktor Frankl, a survivor of Theresienstadt and Auschwitz, “Everything can be taken from [us] but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Because we are a people that believes the words of Theodore Hirzl, “Im tirzu, ein zo aggadah,” “If you will it, it is no dream,” because we have seen “HaTikvah al shnot alpayim,” “The two thousand year hope,” become true, our people returned to its ancestral land and a Jewish nation reborn and thrive.

Because confronted time and time again with opportunities to join the majority, to bring an end to difficulty, oppression, and great suffering, we have remained true to our beliefs.
Before Kings and Priests, before soldiers with swords or guns and mobs with torches, who all wanted us to say something else, believe something else, or simply to vanish from the face of the earth, we bravely uttered, “Shema Yisrael, Adonai eloheinu, Adonai echad!”

Or in the last words of Daniel Pearl, “I am Jewish.”

I cannot tell you how all of this will affect my votes. Not because I do not know, but because I will not advocate for candidates or parties from this pulpit. But I can tell you that it will affect them.

Perhaps, what I have said will affect your votes too, but regardless, I hope that you will be true to yourselves, to vote the principles for which you stand.

May our choices, whatever they may be, bring to us and our nation blessings and not curses. May we choose life, that we and our descendants may live a life of peace and blessing on this land.

Shanah Tovah u’metukah! Have a Happy and Sweet New Year!