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!

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