Saturday, May 27, 2017

Take A Census - Everyone Matters

“Take a census.” With those words, this week’s Torah portion, BaMidbar, and the Book of Numbers as a whole begin.

“Take a census.” Count all of the people.
It is said in a quote that is often, but questionably, attributed to Joseph Stalin that, “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.” No matter its origin, there is more than a grain of truth in that statement.

When we deal with millions of deaths, like we do when we discuss the Shoah, it is difficult to conceptualize the numbers and certainly to connect. Learning stories of individuals, as opposed to a sweeping narrative of an entire conflict, becomes important. Those stories are what humanize the numbers.

This is one of the primary reasons why people are given a passport, a name and a story, when they tour the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC. It is also the reason that Steven Spielberg colorized the dress of a young girl in Schindler’s List. In the movie, a wide array of violence occurring in the background to dozens of people shown on the screen, much less to the many tens of thousands of people who lived in the ghetto, doesn’t have the impact of seeing a single girl in a red dress walking down the middle of the street amid the violence and chaos going on around her.

Hearing that tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people have died in the Syrian Civil War is difficult to conceptualize in a way that makes it seem real. I remember as a child being awed by the crowd at the Cardinals’ baseball games. 45,000 people. Let’s round up to 50,000.

Roughly, ten times that number have died in Syria. Eighty times that, maybe more, four million people or so, are refugees. Can you picture 80 stadiums full of people in your head at the same time?

Rwanda, would require multiplying our stadium by sixteen.

The Shoah? 120 times the largest crowd that I could reasonably imagine as a unit and that only includes the Jewish victims, six million.
Moreover, that crowd at Busch Stadium? I didn’t count it. I experienced it. I heard it. I saw the sheer mass of humanity and was told it was 45,000. Families watching the game together, the diehard fans wearing everything Cardinals, the hawkers selling food and drink, shouting above the din, the roar of the crowd as the ball flies toward the outfield wall, the sigh as it goes just foul. That is how I conceive of 50,000 people. I can more or less comprehend that number, envision what that number of people would be like, as an experience. But 120 of those? Not for a moment. Realistically, not even a small fraction of that 120. How can I multiply an experience?

“Take a census,” we are told. Numbers. Large numbers. Tens of thousands here and thousands there.

When we watch the news, especially the most difficult stories, we’re often simply given statistics. In 2004, a Tsunami struck Southeast Asia. Approximately a quarter of a million people died. Five stadiums full, spread over the shorelines of a number of nations. Hard to imagine that scale

Sometimes, the numbers are all we’re told. Another shooting happened. Sometimes, they tell us the skin color of the victim. Sometimes an age. Usually, they give us a name. Rarely, are we given more, a story.

When things like the terrorist attack in Manchester, England occur, at first, we’re simply given casualty figures, cold stark statistics. So many dead. So many injured.
And then, used to seeing and hearing stories like that, we often tune out.

The names, faces, and the stories come to us too late to help us truly feel what we should feel. We get angry at hearing or seeing the numbers, but we don’t feel the numbers. We’re angry at the idea of the numbers, “more,” “so many,” and then we move on.

We watch the new episode of our favorite sitcom or perhaps the latest episode of our favorite reality TV show, depicting some other reality, some artificially created alternative reality, the stories of others.

When we see our reality depicted on the news, how quickly do we respond to the news? “Again!” “Another one!” “When will it stop???” Shootings, terrorist attacks, even genocides. “Never again!” And then we change the channel. Statistics.

Yes, many of the stories of survivors of the Shoah are similar to one another. The stories blur together—if you try to learn them all together. It is important to learn individual stories.

You may remember Peter Pintus, the former Assistant to the Rabbi of the Temple. Here’s a part of his story. Peter Pintus grew up a Reform Jew in Berlin, the son of a wealthy industrialist Jewish father and a Christian mother. On Krystalnacht, his father rode the subway train all night, staying safe. Eventually, both Peter and his father were arrested. Peter served in a work camp in a salt mine and was one of only a handful of survivors of the camp, having escaped into the woods on the last day of the camps existence, when the power to the fence was turned off. Eventually, he came to Iowa, became a part of the Jewish community and this congregation. And he shared his story with countless people over the years.

Each story is unique. Each person is more than a number. That is especially true when remembering the Shoah and the fact that so many people were treated as if they were merely a number, a number often tattooed on their arms.

“Take a census,” we are told. Not just the numbers, know the stories.

If I told you that 22 people were killed in Manchester, England the other night, you might well compare that number to some other event. How many died in Paris? How many are dying in Syria? How many died in Egypt today? How many this year in Chicago?

But if I told you about individuals, the numbers wouldn’t matter. Each life is precious. One, each one, matters. Our tradition says that each life is as the entire world. We do not mourn statistics. We mourn for people.

The news showed pictures of a young girl wearing an oversized police jacket that almost reached her feet being hugged by a policewoman as she stood outside the arena. It was cold outside. Millie Kiss, age 12, survived. Her mother, Michelle did not.

Several victims were parents waiting to drive their children home from the concert. Marcin and Angelika Klis both in their early 40s as well as Polish immigrants to England, and Alison Howe, 45, and Lisa Lees, 47, were all there to pick up their daughters.
Saffie Roussos was attending the concert with her older sister and mother, both of whom were injured by shrapnel and are being treated in hospitals. Saffie was 8 years old.

I could go on, but I think you get the point. Without these stories, we only have a number, 22. And these aren’t even the full stories, just snippets of who they were.

Our Torah portion commands, “Take a census.” But don’t just count, adding one to the next. Every individual’s story matters. If every individual matters, if each story matters, we matter—you matter—I matter.

That is the bigger lesson of the Jewish tradition. Every individual matters. Every person is important. We are not just Numbers.

Each of us is created in the image of God.
Each holy.
Each a universe.

Every person matters.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

"We are not enemies, but friends." A prayer for the Iowa Senate.

Prayer for Iowa State Senate – Presidents’ Birthday Week
February 16, 2017

It is an honor to be with you all this morning, to speak in this august chamber and among so many friends, members of both political parties, whom I know to care deeply about their constituents and about the present and future well-being of the State of Iowa.

O God, today, we find ourselves often defined by our differences and those things that divide us, sometimes with a heated passion, [As exemplified by the ongoing debate in this very chamber.] May we recall during this Presidents’ Day week, the words spoken by President Abraham Lincoln as he closed his First Inaugural Address, “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies.”

O God, may partisan division pale in our minds and hearts in the face of the need to address the needs of the people of our state, especially the urgent needs of those who are suffering and vulnerable. As our tradition teaches us, when we consider how to solve problems that go well beyond our personal ability to resolve, “It is not up to each of us individually to complete the task, but neither can we avoid doing the work.” Let none suffer because we did not do what we could do to help.

Too often, today, we are divided by identities and focused on our differences. Many see the world as “us” vs. “them” and anxiety increases. In this context, let us recall the words of reassurance offered by George Washington in response to an inquiry by the Jewish President of the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island wondering how his minority community would be treated by the new government:

It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

May all work for the betterment of our communities, our state, and our nation together.

God, I ask you today to bless the members of the Iowa Senate, to bless the people of our state, and of our nation.

Scatter light and not darkness upon us, grant us the wisdom to see the best paths forward and the courage to take them. Then will blessings flow forth from us and we will make our world a better place for all of your children; a place of prosperity, happiness, and Shalom, of peace and well-being. 

And let us say, Amen.

Friday, November 11, 2016

The Interrupted Journey

This week’s Torah portion begins our narrative, not the narrative of creation, not the narrative of humanity, but the narrative of our extended family. In Lekh-Lekha, we first meet Abraham, back when he was called Abram. What we first learn about Abram is that he was one of three sons of a man named Terach. His family was from Ur. Abram was married to Sarai. And Sarai had conceived no children. She was barren.

Terach begins to move his whole clan with the intention of going from Ur to Canaan, but, along the way, the family stopped in Haran and built a life there, acquiring more servants, animals, and other wealth. Then Terach died and the family simply remained there.

It was a journey interrupted and largely forgotten by the tradition. It was Terach, not Abram, who began the journey. Terach, not Abram, got up and left and took everyone with him from Ur. In fact, it is potentially the case that Abram, as head of the family, decided to remain settled where he was because, unlike his father, Abram was uncertain as to which direction the family should be led. That is the context in which Abram hears “Lekh Lekha.”

The unspoken questions to which God responded were perhaps ones in Abram’s mind.

“Which way should we go? What should we do now?”

And God responded:

“Get up and go.”

“From where?” Abram might have thought, “From my tent?”

“From your land, from the place of your birth.”

I am already no longer there. Shall we live here? In Haran, where my father died?

“From the house of your father.”

“Ok. To where then?”

“To the land that I will show you!”

“What will I find there? What will become of us, if we go there?”

“I will make you into a great nation,
    and I will bless you.
I will make your name great,
    and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
    and whoever curses you I will curse.
And all peoples on earth
    will be blessed through you.

“This change will bring blessing. Of course, we will go!”

Nothing like having the Torah portion, this week of all weeks, talk about God making our nation great.

Not everyone among Abram’s number must have felt that, at the end of their journey, in an unknown distant place, there would be blessings and not curses waiting for them. To suggest that not everyone in America is confident that the direction of our national journey today is toward increased blessing is an understatement. There is much fear, anxiety, and, among no few, even despair.

On this Veteran’s Day, I thought of the founding of our nation. I considered how its founders would feel about the events of our day. On July 15, 1777, President George Washington wrote a letter to General Philip Schuyler regarding the fall of Fort Ticonderoga and the difficult circumstances the nation faced during the ongoing war for independence. Washington wrote:

We should never despair, our Situation before has been unpromising and has changed for the better, so I trust, it will again.
If new difficulties arise, we must only put forth new Exertions and proportion our Efforts to the exigency of the times.

In my own words:

When we face difficulties and challenges in our lives, we need to work harder to overcome them. If the difficulty is great, so must our efforts. We do not have the ability to live in different times. We live today, where we are. Our sole choice is how we respond to what is required of us here and now.

To quote the most appropriate Jewish maxim for times when we are faced with daunting challenges that we cannot fully resolve on our own; in the words of Rabbi Tarfon, “It is not up to you to complete the work, but neither may you avoid doing it.” And in the words of the US Holocaust Memorial and Museum’s motto, “What you do matters.”

I know that many here and around our nation are anxious, even fearful, about the future tonight. There is much uncertainty and discontent, so much anger and hate, far, far too much. And we are focused on the hatred.

Many of us, forget the fact that the vast majority of people in this country and the overwhelming majority of those who voted for each candidate, each candidate, are good people. For some of us, the election did not go our way. We have made political opponents into hated enemies. But good people can disagree with one another and still care for one another. We live in this country together, in our communities together, and we are stronger when we can act together. That isn’t a goal. It is a truth. For no few of us, achieving the goals that we would like our nation to achieve will be more difficult today than they might have been. The journey toward those goals—especially toward the day when we will at last be able to hear, “Madam President” while not watching a TV show—is now one delayed.

The journey toward our longed for Promised Land was interrupted. The one whom was thought to lead us there was unable to do so. The movement paused with us remaining in Haran instead reaching Canaan.

Perhaps, alternatively, we’re in Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee on April 3rd, 1968 listening to the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s last address, given the day before his death:
If I were standing at the beginning of time, with the possibility of taking a kind of general and panoramic view of the whole of human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, "Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?" I would take my mental flight by Egypt and I would watch God's children in their magnificent trek from the dark dungeons of Egypt through, or rather across the Red Sea, through the wilderness on toward the Promised Land. And in spite of its magnificence, I wouldn't stop there.
I would move on by Greece and take my mind to Mount Olympus. And I would see Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Euripides and Aristophanes assembled around the Parthenon. And I would watch them around the Parthenon as they discussed the great and eternal issues of reality. But I wouldn't stop there.

I would go on, even to the great heyday of the Roman Empire. And I would see developments around there, through various emperors and leaders. But I wouldn't stop there.
I would even come up to the day of the Renaissance, and get a quick picture of all that the Renaissance did for the cultural and aesthetic life of man. But I wouldn't stop there.
I would even go by the way that the man for whom I am named had his habitat. And I would watch Martin Luther as he tacked his ninety-five theses on the door at the church of Wittenberg. But I wouldn't stop there.
I would come on up even to 1863, and watch a vacillating President by the name of Abraham Lincoln finally come to the conclusion that he had to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. But I wouldn't stop there.

I would even come up to the early thirties, and see a man grappling with the problems of the bankruptcy of his nation. And come with an eloquent cry that we have nothing to fear but "fear itself." But I wouldn't stop there.
Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty, and say, "If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the 20th century, I will be happy."
Now that's a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around. That's a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding…
Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop.
And I don't mind.
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!
Friends, we live in a great nation, but it is not as great as it can be today. One candidate, the one who won the election, pledged to make it great again. Yet, my friends, making our nation great is our job, not his. And that greatness is not just as great as it has been at some point in the past, even if we agree with what that means, but as great as it can become.
Our job is to be there standing up for all of those who are persecuted, to end bigotry and discrimination, to bring comfort to all those who are suffering, to the hungry, to the homeless, to the fallen and to the hopeless. It is to stand alongside those of every race, ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation and bring light and hope into their lives, not just to live up to Isaiah’s vision that we Jews may be a light unto the nations, but to join with others in making our nation a light unto the nations, a beacon light of freedom and hope for all peoples.
And that light must not only shine into the alleyways of our cities, but into the impoverished homes in our countryside and one shuttered factory small towns.
This would be true no matter who won the election this week. The task of making our nation and our world the best they can be is ours, not someone else’s, not the job of someone who won an election or even of every one who won elections. It is our job and we cannot keep from doing it, no matter how daunting it appears.

Lekh lekha! Lekhi Lakh! It’s time to get up and move. Move from a place of despair, hopelessness, anger, sorrow and hatred. To a place of caring, a place of tolerance and understanding of different points of view, to hope and to love. Let us bring light, and not shade, into our world.

If we can do that, we will bring blessings into our lives and into the lives of those who encounter us, and along the way help those blessings spread across our nation.

And we shall be a blessing.

Shabbat Shalom.


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.

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!