Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Rosh Hashanah Sermons, 5769

Rosh Hashanah Day 1 5769:
Power to the Peoplehood

L’Shanah tova. Today we unveil our new logo. The design was developed by a local artist and refined by a number of our leaders and various impromptu focus groups – including some bar mitzvah students coming through my office. Over these next ten days, I’m going to share the story of this banner, what it is, what it says about who we are and what we wish to be. By the last shofar’s sounding at Neilah, I hope we’ll all be able to understand its symbolism and come closer to living by its vision.

But first, we have to ask the question: Why have a banner at all? Why do we need identity?
Imagine a world without identity, without banners and flags and logos. What a blissful world it would be. Imagine that world… no wars between breakaway republics that we’ve never heard of, threatening to pull the entire world into a giant conflagration. Bosnia and Chechnia and all those obscure places with the weird names, like Southern Ossetia or Ossetia or Fredonia - WHATEVER. Imagine that world.

I feel a John Lennon song coming on…

It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace.

Oh, God, no religion. Wouldn’t that be great! I’d be out of a job! But, hey, a small tradeoff for no religious wars. The State Department estimates that 70-80 percent of the world’s conflicts are based on religion. No Bin Laden, no Iranian apocalyptic fantasies, no Hamas, no Hizbullah. No intolerance. No PROBLEM!

John Lennon’s “Imagine” was chosen by Rolling Stone in 2004 as the third greatest song of all time. That great Lennonist, Jimmy Carter, once said, "In many countries around the world… you hear John Lennon's song 'Imagine' used almost equally with national anthems.”
But you didn’t hear it on the victor’s stand at the Olympics.

Imagine no Olympics. No national anthems, no flags, no teary-eyed American gymnast pixies to root for - or teary-eyed Chinese 12 year old pixies. Imagine representing one’s country being such a big thing that it reduces even Kobe Bryant to tears.

On the other hand, Imagine having nothing worth living for, nothing worth dying for – nothing worth praying for. Imagine having no home, no place where you belong, no place to return to when your life has fallen apart, when you’ve gotten a horrible report from the doctor or you’ve lost your job, or your investments are suddenly worthless or a loved one has suddenly died. For many people here today, the unimaginable has become the routine. I turned on CNN yesterday afternoon and saw an ad for a bank that had ceased to exist in the morning! We’re worried – all of us – but we’re here. We’re home. Imagine not having that. Imagine being cast adrift. Imagine a world without identity.

Imagine if this year’s extraordinary, election campaign had nothing to do with identity politics, with glass ceilings and racial barriers. Of course we should vote for the best candidate without regard to race, gender or religion, but it matters deeply to us that a major party chose an African American to be its candidate for president and that a woman nearly won that same nomination. And now a woman has been chosen as vice presidential nominee by the other party in no small part because she is a woman. Identity matters.

Incidentally, some have asked me what Jews would have done had Joe Lieberman been selected as Republican VP nominee. I suggested that we would have done what Jews always do when Joe is on the ticket: vote for Pat Buchanan and Ralph Nader.

Identity politics has its limits… and it can get pretty ludicrous at times. There are some who have questioned whether Barack Obama is African American because of his mixed racial background and because his personal ancestors never endured slavery in this country. Stephen Colbert suggested that Obama might want to voluntarily enslave himself for a few days to get beyond that one.

Imagine being a Jew without Israel at the core of our identity. On this Rosh Hashanah, Jews everywhere are praying for Israel. We always pray for Israel. But this year, how can we not look over at that flag without some trepidation. Israel has faced many threats in its brief existence, but none is greater than the prospect of Iran attaining nuclear weapons – a grave danger to the entire world. With all the crucial issues that we face in this election year, and there are many, nothing is more important than preventing a nuclear Iran. Nothing. For Israel, for the world, for the economy, for freedom, for energy policy – you name it. And I am convinced that both presidential candidates understand that.

Imagine not caring for Israel. Imagine there being no Israel on the front lines against extremism. Imagine no Israel to make 200,000 Jewish young adults suddenly go limp at the knees on their Birthright Israel programs, melting at the sudden realization that this place that they’ve never before seen - is home. I see it also on our Beth El Israel trips, the next of which will be God willing next summer. People’s lives are transformed instantly. Imagine what these young adults on Birthright are experiencing, the sudden emergence of identity, going in an instant from being outsiders to insiders, from Jason Bourne to born again.

Imagine having no identity. The world would be a far less beautiful and less interesting place to be. Identity is what gives meaning to our lives; it is what connects us to our past and to our future. It gives us a home base, a warm place that we can always call home, a place that will never reject us.

Now, imagine a world where Jews willingly give up their Jewish identity, preferring to blend in and not be noticed. Remember the Huguenots? Historian Jonathan Sarna points out that at one time there were far more members of this French reformed church in America than Jews. But they failed to maintain their distinctive culture, readily assimilating into the vanilla masses - and now a group with a proud history is no more. Imagine that happening to us. Imagine Jews becoming vanilla – or any flavor other than Rocky Road.

One could make the case that Jews invented identity. We certainly invented the secret identity. It is said that the root of all fear comes from denying who you really are. And we Jews have had lots of reason to be afraid.

This was the summer of the Superhero. There were the exploits of Michael Phelps, of course, but it was felt most at the Multiplex – or as we call it, the Cineplex – where we had the Hulk, Iron Man, Hancock, Batman, and my personal favorite, the Zohan, able to leap tall stacks of hummos in a single bound.

It’s no secret that this entire genre was invented by American Jews, looking for a new type of hero to inspire us during World War 2. But what is most uniquely Jewish about the Superhero is not the deep moral ambivalence of Batman or the Zohan’s wanting to make his parents proud. It’s the secret identity, the overwhelming desire to hide who they truly are.

This summer I traveled to Spain, a place where, for centuries, Jews perfected the art of hiding who they really are. I saw places where hundreds of crypto-Jews, or Marranos – swine – as the Spanish called them, were burned at the stake. I had a wonderful, most civilized spread of tapas at the beautiful Plaza Mayor in Madrid’s historic center - hundreds of tables lining a grand arcaded courtyard – and all I could think about (aside from the gorgeous weather and reminding the waiter, “no ham”) was what took place in that exact spot three centuries before in 1680, on the exact same date that we were there, June 30. The Spanish decided to celebrate the marriage of the young Carlos the Second with Marie Louise d’Orleans and what better way to do that than with an auto-de-fe. Dozens were executed that night. Those who refused to confess their sin of maintaining a secret Jewish identity were burned alive at the stake. The ones who confessed were the lucky ones. They were granted pardon; then, as a special favor they were killed first with a lance through the heart before their bodies were burned at the stake.

And I sat there sipping my sangria (not thinking about the fact that the word sangria means blood) feeling great to be on vacation with my family - but just a little bit uneasy about it all.
Jews have long had secret identities, and the conversos were legendary for holding on to them for generations. There are only 50,000 Jews remaining in Spain. But there are hundreds of thousands of Jewish ghosts.
Many Spaniards suspect that they have some Jewish ancestry. It is said that even the word “Iberia,” the original name for Spain, comes from the word Hebrew, Ivri – the one who crosses over. The Jews crossed over to Spain from north Africa, much like Abraham, the first one called Ivri, crossed over to his new world. And then, in 1492, hundreds of thousands reversed that journey following the Expulsion, leaving the Iberian Peninsula for worlds unknown, some even crossing the ocean with Columbus.

I felt a combination of anger, sadness and pride, connecting with those long-lost victims. And I realized that I was not alone. Because I was there, so too, were they.

Jewish identity has made a stunning comeback recently, in large part because Birthright Israel has changed the landscape dramatically. Ten years ago, only about 1,500 young Jewish adults under age 26 visited Israel each year. This year alone that number is going to be 42,000. It has also changed the language of the conversation. When Jews are asked why they remain Jewish, the term peoplehood now keeps coming up. It’s not about religion per se, or ethnicity or nostalgia or guilt or Kabbalah. It’s about a profound connection. It’s about identity.

Natan Sharansky, the great modern hero and former refusenik, recently wrote a book called “Defending Identity.” He was inspired when he attended a mass gathering of Birthright Israel participants in Jerusalem: thousands of young Jews gathered together, arms locked and singing, ironically, “Imagine.” He openly wondered how they could sing of a world where there will be “nothing to kill for, a brotherhood of man.” As he wrote, “But a brotherhood without actual brothers, with no one committed to anyone else or to a way of life, is nothing but empty air.”

According to Sharansky, identity is such a powerful force because it opens a world of meaning larger than physical and material life. He feels that westerners have made the mistake of ignoring identity as we stumble into regional conflicts, including those in Iraq and the former Soviet Union, and that we neglect identity at our own peril. “To the fundamentalists, the West seems shorn of any clear identity, atomized, with each individual living for the day, in pursuit of purely egoistic, materialistic goals.” They see “a society unwilling to make sacrifices for a cause bigger than the self” and they view this as a glaring weakness that can be exploited.

He admits that making the case for identity is much more difficult than making one for democracy and freedom, especially with all the identity-provoked carnage that we see daily on TV. But, he claims, identity is also a crucial force for good. Sharansky asserts that he could never have survived nine years of solitary confinement back in the USSR if he hadn’t been fighting two crusades at the same time: for human rights on the one hand and for Soviet Jewry on the other. For him, freedom and identity went hand in hand. All his friends begged him to choose one, for he could not win both battles. But he clung to both. He never betrayed Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn, yet at the same time, he survived only by clinging to his tattered book of Psalms and dreaming of joining his wife Avital in Jerusalem. Jewish peoplehood saved his life even as the quest for human rights emboldened his soul – and he in turn helped to bring down the Soviet Union through the powerful union of his two great causes.

Yes, identity can lead to extremism, but the suppression of identity becomes the first task of all repressive regimes, as we’ve seen this year from the Chinese, whose brutal repression of the Tibetans only confirms what we learned a quarter century ago in Leningrad and Moscow: even a small, powerless people can threaten an empire, simply by refusing to disappear.

For Sharansky, Jewish identity is inexorably connected to religious ritual. There is a famous story of Napoleon who, when he came to a small Jewish shtetl in Eastern Europe, saw how the people were weeping on Tisha B’Av. When he asked why, he was told that three thousand years before, the temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed on that day. Napoleon was quoted as saying, “A people who still weeps over the destruction of their culture three thousand years ago will endure forever.”

And Sharansky relates the anecdote of the Palestinian terrorist who, when speaking to an Israeli journalist about the time he spent in prison, described the moment when he was convinced that Israel would be destroyed – when he saw an Israeli guard eating bread on Passover. The guard was quoted as saying, “I feel no obligation to events that took place over 2,000 years ago. I have no connection to that.”

The terrorist at that moment became convinced that the nation he was opposing had “no connection to its roots.” Indeed he was proven correct when the government was all too willing to give up Jerusalem in negotiations.

For most of the past four millennia, there was little distinction between Jewish identity and rituals, texts and ethics - what we would call religion. But a change occurred in the 19th century, when peoplehood became a Jewish response to the likes of Darwin and Freud. No longer did being Jewish mean measuring up to practices that many considered passé superstitions. Instead, being Jewish placed one demand only on the Jew: an unconditional and positive attachment to the Jewish people, a deep pride in our history and multifaceted culture. Later, the Holocaust and creation of Israel gave Jews an easy way into Jewish identification and an easy out from having to deal with the troubling religious questions brought about by the murder of the 6 million.

The great early 20th century philosopher Franz Rosenzweig spoke of Judaism having its own version of a trinity: God, Torah and the people Israel. By mid century, with the establishment of a Jewish state, peoplehood had become by far the most important of the three.

In the words spoken by the late Paul Newman (of blessed memory) in his most important Jewish role, the secular Ari Ben Canaan in the film “Exodus,” speaking to his Presbyterian friend Kitty, who felt that all differences between people are made up:

Don't ever believe it.
People are different.
They have a right to be different. They like to be different.
It's no good pretending the differences don't exist, they do. They have to be recognized and respected.

Newman, born of a Jewish father, described himself as Jewish, stating that, "it's more of a challenge." He got that right!

In postwar America, peoplehood was championed by Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan. He went on to found the Reconstructionist Movement, but Kaplan’s ideas came right out of the Conservative movement, which has always focused on peoplehood, and in fact, our movement embraced Zionism long before Orthodoxy and Reform did.

Kaplan felt that the Jewish people are a civilization, favoring that over the notion of Judaism as a religion. “Paradoxical as it may sound,” Kaplan suggested, “the spiritual regeneration of the Jewish people demands that religion cease to be its sole preoccupation.”

I think a lot of people here are agreeing.

There’s the story of Goldstein who is running late for an important meeting. It seems like the entire borough of Manhattan is waiting for the same taxi and he could not afford to be late. So he’s standing there, desperate as eve; he’s a secular guy but in his desperation he whispers a prayer: “Dear Lord, if you find me a taxi, I’ll keep kosher, I’ll wear tefillin, I’ll double my gift to the synagogue appeal, and go to shul every shabbos and yontif.” Seconds later, out of nowhere, a bright yellow cab pulls up – right in front him. As he is stepping into it, Goldstein says: “You know what God, forget it. I found a taxi on my own.”

I wish I had a shekel for every time I sit with a family before a funeral and they tell me that the deceased was not religious but fiercely proud to be a Jew. For a long time I asked myself, without religion, how could they hold onto that fierce pride?

It is said that there only two things that will keep a Jew from coming to shul: bad weather… and good weather – but most also have no question as to the fact that they are Jews.

A decade ago, I thought that Jewishness was dead and that only Judaism would remain. I bemoaned how so many clung to nostalgia and ethnicity – “Lox and Bagels Jews,” I called them - while shunning the deepest values of our tradition, the religious values. I predicted that, given the skyrocketing pace of assimilation and the fact that Dunkin Donuts was now making bagels, those Jews who clung only to ethnicity and nostalgia as their reason for being Jewish would soon disappear. I smugly assumed that the death knell had rung for Jewish ethnicity the moment I heard them playing Hava Nagila on the Musak at K-Mart.

Well, I was wrong – sort of. It’s not that we’ve clung to Hava Nagilla and guilt as the foundations of Jewish identity. But it’s not religion either, at least in the traditional sense. We’ve found touchstones for identity in far far-flung places as exotic Jewish communities like the Abayudaya of Uganda, the Cochin and Bene Israel of India, the Igbo of Nigeria - and of course the Ethiopians, none of whom have any idea what a bagel is.

We no longer have a monopoly on bagels anymore, but we do bageling. According to blogger Jessica Levine Kupferberg, “The Bagel Theory stands for the principle that we Jews, regardless of how observant or affiliated we are, have a powerful need to connect with one another. To that end, we find ways to "bagel" each other -- basically, to "out" ourselves to fellow Jews.”

Kupferberg first noticed it in college when a formerly unknown student leaned over during a particularly boring lecture and said, "This class is as boring as my Zayde's seder."

I get bageled all the time, especially as I became more comfortable wearing my kippah in public places. I still don’t wear it everywhere – no I didn’t wear it in Plaza Mayor - but I find that the kippah, which has almost no religious significance, has become seen as a badge of pride, the perfect symbol of peoplehood.

So, as Kupferberg suggests, the next time a sweaty stranger at the gym says to you, "I haven't been this thirsty since Yom Kippur," smile. You've just been bageled -- adding another link in the Jewish circle of connection.

And so, albeit with some concerns, I emphatically acknowledge the power of identity.
It is the power of identity that pulls us here today– even if we don’t pray, even if we’ve forgotten how – it is identity that measures us, that defines us, that shakes us when we hear that madman from Iran deny the Holocaust, that gets us to shell out all those bucks for day school and Jewish camp, for trips to Israel and donations to federation – and to belong to a synagogue – and to take that first step on that ladder that we see before us.

It is identity that enables us to fight that most modern of diseases, anomie, a sense of alienation resulting from the breakdown of group ties and cultural affiliation, which leads to depression, loneliness, criminality and rising suicide rates.

Yes, identity has been proven to give children the deep roots they need to grow and a loving community can be the wind beneath their wings.

Yes, it has been shown that it can reduce dependence on drugs and alcohol, which is why by the way that you will never stop hearing me scream about the need for strong youth groups here. I fully believe that USY has saved the lives of some of our kids – maybe even my own – simply by shielding them from some of the social alternatives that tempt our high school students.

Identity is essential. Identity is powerful - but is identity enough?

Is it enough to have a flag that we are willing to die for - without having ideals that we can live for?

Earlier I spoke about super heroes. I left one of this summer’s epic stories off the list: the NBA Finals. As the Boston Celtics sailed toward the championship, they were buoyed by a Zulu word loosely translated as “I am because we are.” Umbutu.

I am because we are.

But what are we? We’re tribal - but are we merely a tribe? Is all that we have in common a few millennia of suffering and lox and bagels? Do we need to voluntarily enslave ourselves to Egyptians in order to appreciate the Jewish experience? Do we need to wake up every morning saying, “Thank God for making me a Jew, because billions of people around the world want me dead while maniacs like Ahmadinejad are being feted at the UN.”

Being Jewish is something that many are born into, but it must be more than that – it must be something that we willingly embrace, something new and amazing, something that touches the deepest, least accessible fibers of our being.

Peoplehood is one important and powerful leg of the stool, but it needs the other two legs of God and Torah or it will not stand.

Being Jewish must be more than something we are born into – it must be something that we give birth to – that renews us as we renew it, every year, every moment, every day.

You, who are here today, you have made that choice to cast your lot with the Jewish people. And by the way, I include those who are not themselves Jewish. Because you are here – you’ve cast your lot with us. That’s what matters. You’ve chosen to walk with us on this ladder. You’re in.
We’ve locked the doors.

But for all of us, identification alone is not enough. Identity requires that we have a desire to learn, to engage, to understand just why our civilization has thrived for so long and enriched the world in so many ways.

Don’t just be a SURVIVING Jew. Be a STRIVING Jew!

Be a climber – not a social climber, but a spiritual one. These are hard times for many – and this year will be very, very challenging. Now more than ever, we need to look inward, look deeper, seeking connection, seeking meaning, seeking wisdom, realizing that life is a miracle and that no matter what happens to our 401K, we will persevere - and that we are here for one another, together. THAT’s what it means to be a Jew – and to be one here.

Come to services during the year, not out of guilt or obligation, but because you want to take that little compartment of life that we call Jewish and nurture it into a world view, a vision, a guide for your whole life.

Resolve to learn Hebrew. Jewish identity, to be complete, requires some feel for the Jewish language.

Resolve to learn Jewish history and ethics– take one of the many classes we are offering, including our “Judaism for Everyone” course that is a prerequisite for those who want to enter our next adult bar/bat mitzvah track.

Join our caring committees – take on a new mitzvah, like visiting the sick or feeding the hungry. Take a new look at prayer – struggle with it and find meaning in it. Bring some appreciation for the sanctity of food into your lives by exploring kashrut.

Climb that ladder! What matters is not where you end up, but that you start the climb.
So that, in short, is why we need to have an emblem, an identity, one that points us to a deeper purpose for our coming together, one that celebrates our group-ness, that proclaims that the whole can be greater than the sum of the parts.

THIS whole is greater. This hall is filled with the people on this banner: young, old and everything in between. We need to be proud of who we are – as Jews and as Americans – and as members of this sacred community of Beth El.

And that’s why Sharansky was wrong about “Imagine.” It was perfectly OK for the Birthright Israel participants to sing about a world where differences won’t matter. That is the dream! It’s just that we’ve now learned that the way to get there is a “long and winding road” – and it is one that can only be reached, paradoxically, by highlighting and celebrating those differences.
Yes it is amazing that we have an African American presidential nominee and a woman running for Vice President. Yes, the country will be a different place next January 20, no matter who wins.

An ancient Greek philosopher wrote, “First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do.” Today, we celebrate who we are. Tomorrow we begin discussing what we must do.

Because only once we celebrate what makes us distinct, can we truly reach out to our neighbor who is different.

Each of us has a different blessing to share. Each family has a different gift to give. Each tribe has a different song to sing. And each nation has a beautiful flag to wave.

As Americans, we need to celebrate the breakthroughs that have made this political year like none other.

And as Jews, we have so much to offer the world – we should celebrate just how special we are.

And then, we need to roll up our sleeves, reach out our hand, find that first rung, and begin to climb the ladder.

Which is exactly what we will do – tomorrow.

Rosh Hashanah Day 2 5769
The Shadings of Dawn

Yesterday I spoke about the importance of identity – in particular, Jewish identity. As we return to our ladder logo, I want to begin to focus in what makes for a Jewish identity, for these are the qualities embodied by our emblem.

Let’s begin with inclusiveness, diversity and pluralism: Looking at the banner, I’m going to demonstrate those qualities in three different ways: through the people, the colors of light and the rungs of the ladder.

First, look at the people up there on the logo, a diverse bunch if there ever was one. Men, women, young, old, some in a tallit, some not. This one is in a wheelchair. This one has walks with a cane. You see this one? From Ethiopia. This one is not Jewish, but chooses to cast his lot with us by raising his children in a Jewish home. This one? He’s a pain in the neck. But he’s climbing too. We are all together.

In truth, it’s hard to see really who these people are. Not only is the artwork somewhat abstract, but it’s also reflective of the time of day when Jacob awoke from his famous dream. And that’s where the colors come in.

We recall that Jacob had this dream while he was on his way out of the country – escaping his very angry brother Esau. Jacob had never been away from home. In fact, his father had never been away from home. For the first time in two generations, someone was going to need a passport.

Jacob was the student headed for college. The soldier headed for a tour of duty. The groom on the night before his wedding. He was scared. He hadn’t had a great family history and he was going out to meet the extended family in a foreign country.

So he put a rock under his head, lay down and had his dream. According to the midrash, some of the angels who made their appearance on the ladder were designated to accompany him on his journey, to protect him. While others would stay in the Land to welcome him back when he returned. He awoke from his dream and was amazed. He said, “My God! This place is awesome – a gateway to heaven… and he called the place Beth El.”

Jacob awoke at dawn, a time of both great promise and great uncertainty. We can see that in the colors of the sun’s rays in the logo. The world looks so beautiful at dawn – in part because we can’t see things too clearly. It is a time of great tenderness and reconnection. Our masks are not yet on. Our voices are a little raspy at dawn… we speak with a softness (at least when we’re not trying to get the kids up on a school day) and we walk a little more gingerly, wobbly.

There is an uncertainty to the lights of dawn that is also true of dusk. It’s interesting that Jewish days begin not at midnight, when it is pitch dark, but at dusk, when things are very fuzzy. The Hebrew word for evening is erev, which comes from the word meaning mixture. And the Hebrew word for morning is boker, which comes from the word meaning to break through – it is the time when the sun’s rays break through the darkness. Both evening and morning are seen as dynamic processes – mixtures, shades, a nexus between past and future, but one that is never static, constantly shifting, a moving target.
It’s sort of like the truth.

Yet at those moments of least clarity, astronomically speaking, Jewish tradition seems to be saying that we have greater access to what is really true. We pray not at midnight or noon, but at dawn and dusk. Our days don’t so much begin and end, as dissolve from one to the next. And morning doesn’t begin with a bright blue sky but with a sliver of light breaking through. That’s when Jacob awoke and realized what he had dreamed and when he looked around and was amazed, awestruck – and when he sensed that God was in this place – it was indeed a House of God, a Beit El.

Tradition tells us that we can begin to say the morning prayers when it is just light enough to see the face of the person in front of us.

We can see the faces here on our banner, but, just as at dawn, though not so clearly, as they are bathed in those may beautiful shadings of light. But what we CAN see clearly are those tightly clasped hands – brothers and sisters, ascending together, arm and arm as we climb toward the sky. The destination of this ascent means less than the togetherness found on the way. That love IS the destination. Home is the journey. By the time we get there – where “there” is will not matter. IT’S THE JOURNEY THAT MATTERS – and what matters most is that we help one another to ascend; all that matters is love and kindness.

The Torah really helps us to understand that truth is as richly nuanced as those lights of dawn. Let’s look more closely at Jacob’s family relationships to illustrate that idea, and compare them to Abraham’s family as described in the Torah readings of yesterday and today. This exploration has a contemporary urgency, since these biblical characters, Jacob and Esau, Isaac and Ishmael, have so long been associated with Jews, Moslems and Christians. In drawing these lessons, I’m inspired by the scholarship of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the trailblazing chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth.

So let’s look at five different ways we can understand these two sibling rivalry stories. Five different shadings that we can explor,e one explanation for each rung of our ladder. And when taken collectively, each will help to crystallize that vision of inclusiveness and pluralism that is our community’s vision.

Level one: Looking at the plain, surface meaning of the text, we’ve got two identical stories, where pairs of sons are born - Ishamel and Isaac to Abraham, and Jacob and Esau to Isaac - and in each case the younger becomes the dominant child and the elder is sent away. The spurned child is portrayed as being less than deserving of the number one spot, at the very least, and downright evil at worst. Simple enough. That’s our bottom rung.

But let’s move up a rung and look at things from a second perspective. Let’s look at each story from the point of view of the father. In both cases, with Abraham and Isaac, the father defends the rights of the eldest child. Abraham did not want Ishmael to be sent away. He loved him – and Isaac favored Esau.

From this perspective, the text is telling us two things: first, that maybe, just maybe, Ishmael and Esau weren’t so evil after all. There is a counter narrative here, running alongside the established truths of the first interpretation.

Second, we learn from this that dads always get it wrong. At least these dads did. Abraham’s parental judgment was less than ideal, but compare him to Isaac! Just about every parental decision that Isaac made was the wrong one. From beginning to end. This is our patriarch? He sets his kids up for failure – he loves Esau best. Why? No, because he hunts and cooks up delicious venison. He can’t even tell his kids apart at the most important moment of their lives. Isaac is blind, literally and figuratively.

But when we consider that Abraham’s primary purpose in life was to be a father, nothing more and nothing less – his very name means “father of nations” – and that Isaac’s most significant role was to bless Jacob, this counter narrative begins to puzzle us and disorient us. What is the Torah doing here?

Maybe the Torah isn’t just giving us a pilot episode of the series “Father Knows Worst.” Maybe father does know best. Just maybe. Maybe Ishmael and Esau were more worthy. Maybe it’s better to hunt like Esau than to be an intellectual like Jacob. Maybe this Ward Cleaver - Red State perspective supersedes the more feminist Blue State Bible of the Rebecca and Sarah supporters. Maybe. Just maybe.

I’ll bet you didn’t know that there is a Blue State Bible and a Red State bible. But the Bible here is a blend, with a healthy dose of each. (Though I still have a problem with the hunting).
Let’s move up to the third rung and look at the world from there: A third perspective shows us that the counter narrative goes beyond the father’s point of view. In fact, in the portion read yesterday, the Torah itself makes it impossible for us NOT to be sympathetic to Hagar and Ishmael. She is chased away, with her child and the lad is near death. The expressions used here are filled with emotion.

“For she said: 'Let me not look upon the death of the child.' And she sat over against him, and lifted up her voice, and wept.”

Hagar weeps. Compare that with today’s selection, the Akeda – just one chapter later. Look for the word “bocheh” there. You won’t find anyone crying. The Akeda reads like an AP report just come over the wire. Dry – no emotions – nothing evocative. No tears. Abraham is told to kill his son and the dialogue sounds like an infomercial.
So we have two stories, back to back – one is deeply emotive, and the other not in the least. The Torah is taking us by the hand as if to say, “Have sympathy for that one – for Ishmael – not for Isaac, for Hagar, and not for Abraham.”

Skip ahead a generation and again, the tears come from the least likely source: Esau. He cried to his father, “Have you got one blessing left for me???” The rabbis had to completely rewrite this story in Midrash to cast Esau in a less sympathetic light. So now we are even more puzzled. Why is the Torah sending us such mixed messages?

We move ahead to perspective four, our fourth rung. Let’s look at the final act: How do these stories end? When Abraham dies – and by the way, it was the most serene death ever – he was one happy dude when he died – Six more kids, a slew of grandchildren. Got a new wife, got a new life and the family’s fine. He gave everything to Isaac, great dad that he was, but at least before he kicked everyone else out, which he did, he gave them all presents. But the big picture we see at Abraham’s death is of Isaac and Ishmael standing together at their father’s grave. And one generation later, when all is said and done, the last time we see Jacob and Esau together, they are embracing.

Again, the Torah seems to sending us down a different track. Everything we thought we knew about these relationships is that things ended badly. It’s like finding out that Haman was in fact a great philanthropist, or the Wicked Witch was actually good. We expect the worst, but here all we see in the text is a happy ending. Of course dad has to be gone for that to happen; but it happens. Reconciliation happens.

In each case, beneath the Torah narrative there is a counter narrative running in the exact opposite direction from what we’ve been led to believe. In each case, the conflict that seems to be created by the story is simultaneously being resolved by the same story. No wonder the ladder’s rungs take us on a zigzag path. No wonder the lights of dawn are so murky.

A fifth reading of these stories calls upon us to look at them in the most challenging way imaginable: through the eyes of the Other, from the perspectives of Moslem and Christian commentaries. Galatians calls the Jews the children of Ishmael, not Isaac. Romans calls the Christians the heirs of Jacob, while the Jews are the heirs of Esau. Our Midrash, of course, says just the opposite. For Moslems, Ishmael is the chosen son, Isaac the rejected one. In the Koran, the victim of the Akeda is Ishmael.

Jonathan Sacks calls this disconnect the root of the theological poison that has existed between the three Abrahamic groups for so many centuries.

If only we all could appreciate the brilliance of the Torah in utilizing a literary device almost unbelievable in its subtlety. The texts that we have seen as the root of the problem are – in fact - the key to the solution.

For in the Torah, at the end of the tale, there is reconciliation.

In the Torah, the father loves the rejected child – so the child is not really rejected. No child is left behind.

The Torah allows us to look at life through the eyes of the rejected one – we can hear his cry, feel his tears. The Torah gives us a sampling of what it is like to be…. The Other.

The fundamentalist never gets beyond the first rung. The staunch traditionalist never gets beyond the second. The one who sees things only from the perspective of one faith tradition will never make it to the fifth level, and it’s too bad, because the view there is spectacular. But at Beth El, our ascent is limitless and it is inclusive. We go all the way to the top. That is why we are hosting the seminary presidents of the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform movements in a historic roundtable dialogue, right here in November. And then December’s Synaplex will be devoted to interfaith conversation.

Sacks explains that in Greek philosophy, truth is a system; In the Bible, truth is a story. And that story is continually unfolding, like the world at dawn, as faces come into view and as we move from rung to rung. Things will eventually become clearer, but in the meantime, many layers of truth become known to us, like the many shades of red that turn to yellow and turn to green and turn to blue.

One could say that the climbers of the ladder in our logo aren’t merely the members of this Beth El, but the original one, the Beth El of Jacob. The people who are ascending are in fact those who are the descendants – those who descend from both Jacob AND Esau – and we climb together toward the new dawn, toward a new understanding of what it would be like to coexist in harmony.

Yesterday was about affirming identity. Today is about how we can transcend identity to come together.

First, we affirm, THEN we transcend.

We learn how to love by loving our own. In my home I love one woman, two children, two dogs and one baseball team; therefore I can learn to love all people, all animals… and one baseball team.

The particular leads to the universal.

As Rabbi Brad Hirschfield writes in his new book, “You Don’t Have to be Wrong for Me to Be Right,” “Ultimately we share the same ancestors, the same beginning, and we are all on this journey together.”

Yesterday John Lennon; today, Paul McCartney:
Four decades ago, the Israeli government invited and then disinvited the Beatles at the height of their popularity, out of the fear that the British band might corrupt Israeli youth. Those were the days when Israel was insular, unsure of its own cultural roots. They didn’t even introduce television until after the 6 Day War. Who knows, they were so narrow minded they probably thought the Beatles were anti-Semitic for singing songs like “Hey Jew” or adding an 8th day to the week (which really thows off Shabbat).
No matter - last week, Paul McCartney at long last performed a concert in Tel Aviv. Imagine – Imagine an Israel so secure in its own identity that it can encourage its youth to reach out and be part of the world.

It would be nice if I could end this sermon right here, and have us walk off, hand in hand, into the sunrise. But unfortunately, I must tell you the story of a certain Israeli woman who was converted to Judaism 15 years ago by Rabbi Hayim Druckman, a respected Orthodox rabbinic leader. Let’s call her Rebecca. So Rebecca married Boaz and they had two kids. The kids were brought up Jewish and Israeli.

Last year, the couple decided to divorce. Everything went amicably, and they went thought the rabbinic courts, which you have to do in Israel. But during the process one of the judges decided to look into Rebecca’s observance pattern since her conversion. Displeased with what he discovered, he revoked Rebecca’s conversion. It was declared null and void, which automatically meant that her children were not Jewish either. The judge in fact, ruled that ALL the conversions signed by that particular court were null and void because the court was headed by heretics and criminals.

That was last year, and since then, things have spiraled beyond belief. Never before have we seen such a thing where conversions are revoked. It’s unheard of.

And Hayim Druckman is no fly-by-night rabbi. He heads a yeshiva; he’s been in the Knesset. He’s headed the country’s education system. But, horror of horrors, he wears a knitted yarmulke, meaning he is modern Orthodox – too modern for the High Rabbinical Court.

This ruling effectively invalidated thousands of conversions, throwing the Jewish world into a tizzy last spring. At a time when hundreds of thousands of Russian immigrants have questionable Jewish identities and are waiting to convert, we’re going the wrong way!

The dark side of identity politics is when it leads to a xenophobia that not only refuses to shake the hand of our non Jewish neighbor, but also casts aside those who want to be Jewish.
It’s in this atmosphere that my niece Luz tried to get married this summer. I described her plight in my blog dispatches this summer, so I won’t go into detail here. Suffice to say that because of a halakhic technicality for which there were lenient options, the Israeli rabbinate refused to perform her marriage. Unfortunately, Luz made made her appeals at the precise time that the same rabbinate was reversing the conversions of Rabbi Druckman. In fact, they even tried to re-open the books on Luz’s conversion in infancy, but were unable to find any grounds to revoke it.

The wedding went on as scheduled, and as I wrote to you, it came off beautifully - and the couple found a Masorti rabbi to perform it. Our movement in Israel is reaping the benefits of the rabbinate’s short sightedness. Because the rabbinate controls matters of personal status, weddings like Luz’s won’t be recognized by the state until the couples have a civil ceremony done in another country. It’s ironic indeed. Luz and Shlomi will be recognized as being legally married in Israel when they get married in Cyprus, Prague or maybe even here in Connecticut.

We are our own worst enemies. Who needs Ahmadinijad?

In Genesis 28, Jacob awoke from his dream and realized that it was a vision of God – God was actually here, AND WHO KNEW? What an awesome place this is! Jacob exclaimed. I thought it was just a hillside with a bunch of rocks, but it is actually a GATEWAY to HEAVEN. And he named the place Beth El, the Home of Holiness, God’s Place…”but the name of the place at first had been called… LUZ.”

So here’s how I can now interpret that verse:

Jacob was himself about to turn his back on the Land of Israel. He was headed into a self imposed Exile. But at the moment of his departure he saw the potential of that place to be an example for good throughout the world, a haven of harmony. Where once Jews victimized fellow Jews, where once there was the predicament of Luz, there could someday be the dream of a universal Beit El.
That is our dream of what the State of Israel can be for the Jewish people.

But what of here? How can we build our own stairway to heaven? By throwing open our arms here on earth. By being inclusive. Historian Jonathan Sarna estimates that the number of Jews in American that are not recognized by some movements as being Jewish could easily exceed six figures. And then there are many who marry into Jewish families who are not themselves Jewish. And then there are many who have no family connection to the Jewish community but gravitate in our direction because our way of life has so much to offer our post modern world. All are welcome to join us as we climbing our stairway to heaven. There’s plenty of room on the ladder for everyone who wants to be here, whatever their official identity may be.

The world of identity is a very complex one these days. Hey, Michelle Obama’s cousin is a rabbi.
And John McCain’s rabbi is our senator. Who knew!

The book of Ecclesiastes says, “There is a time to cast aside and a time to gather stones together.”

This is a time when we need to be gathering stones and not casting aside. Gathering stones is precisely what Jacob did at his Beth El.

At a time when Israelis and American Jews alike are looking for a Judaism they can believe in, one that accepts rather than rejects, we have to make our impact on the Jewish world.

And at a time when polls show that 44% of Americans do not have a relationship with a single Jew, we need to make our impact on American life.

And at a time when so many in the world would prefer to cast rather than collect stones – and in many cases, cast them at us – we need to make our impact on the world.

So this Rosh Hashanah, it comes down to two things: yesterday’s message: know what team you are on. Today’s message: love the other team too. Albert Einstein called it a matter of “widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
You may have heard about that girls’ softball team in Oregon and the home run heard round the world. Last April, Central Washington University played Western Oregon in a key game with an NCAA playoff bid at stake. Here is the rest of the story, as detailed in the sports pages of the Oregonian:

Central desperately needed the game to keep its postseason hopes alive.

Western Oregon's 5-foot-2-inch right fielder came up to bat with two runners on base in the second inning. Sara Tucholsky's game was off to a rough start. A group of about eight guys sitting behind the right field fence had been heckling her.

At the plate, Tucholsky concentrated on ignoring the wise guys. She took strike one. And then the senior did something she had never done before -- even in batting practice. The career .153 hitter smashed the next pitch over the center field fence for an apparent three-run home run.

The exuberant former high school point guard sprinted to first. As she reached the bag, she looked up to watch the ball clear the fence and missed first base. Six feet past the bag, she stopped abruptly to return and touch it. But something gave in her right knee; she collapsed on the base path.

Tucholsky, to the horror of teammates and spectators, crawled through the dirt and the pain back to first.

Western coach Pam Knox rushed onto the field and talked to the umpires near the pitcher's mound. The umpires said Knox could place a substitute runner at first. Tucholsky would be credited with a single and two RBIs, but her home run would be erased.

"The umpires said a player cannot be assisted by their team around the bases," Knox said. "But it is her only home run in four years. She is going to kill me if we sub and take it away. But at same time I was concerned for her. I didn't know what to do. . . .
"That is when Mallory stepped in."

Mallory Holtman is the greatest softball player in Central Washington history. Normally when the conference's all-time home run leader steps up to the plate, Pam Knox and other conference coaches grimace.

But on senior day, the first baseman volunteered a simple, selfless solution to her opponents' dilemma: What if the Central Washington players carried Tucholsky around the bases?
The umpires said nothing in the rule book precluded help from the opposition. Holtman asked her teammate junior shortstop and honors program student Liz Wallace of Florence, Mont., to lend a hand. The teammates walked over and picked up Tucholsky and resumed the home-run walk, pausing at each base to allow Tucholsky to touch the bag with her uninjured leg.

"We started laughing when we touched second base," Holtman said. "I said, 'I wonder what this must look like to other people.' "

Holtman got her answer when they arrived at home plate. She looked up and saw the entire Western Oregon team in tears.

"My whole team was crying," Tucholsky said. "Everybody in the stands was crying. My coach was crying. It touched a lot of people."

Even the hecklers in right field quieted for a half-inning before resuming their tirade at the outfielder who replaced Tucholsky.

Lyrics of an old John Denver song come to mind:

"Writing on the tapestry of all there is to see
So many ways and oh so many things
Rejoicing in the differences, there's no one just like me
Yet as different as we are we're still the same”

May this New Year be a year of love and reconciliation for all peoples - and all people. May we be firm in our identity and love for the Jewish people, and may we be able to reach out to our neighbors from that place of strength and security.

The task ahead is daunting. The work is indispensable. And we can’t outsource it to any other nation, any other people.

It is time for us to begin climbing.

Hand in hand.

Rung by rung.


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