Rosh Hashanah Day One"Shehechianu: Connecting the Dots"
Monday, April 29, 2013
High Holidays Sermons 5761:"Shehechianu: Connecting the Dots"
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman
What an extraordinary sight this is; to look around and see all of us right here, all of us, in some way or another, part of this family of faith; all of us, no matter where we are on our lifes' journey, no matter what arbitrary labels define us, all of us, coming from the four corners of the globe, from Jewish backgrounds and non-Jewish, from secular homes and observant ones, all of us, who are here are one family. We are here, we have survived another year, and we are renewed.
What an extraordinary time this is, what an unbelievable year this has been. The whole world ushered in a new millennium together in an astonishing display of global outreach and celebration. This was a year when Israel finally left Lebanon and came ever closer to the goal of true peace with all her neighbors. This was the year when the Pope slipped a note into the Kotel, and sought anguished reconciliation at Yad Vashem. This was the year when the human genome was decoded and new planets discovered; when reality programming became the rage of TV while virtual reality supplanted it in the rest of our culture. This was the year when children began to read again, thanks to Harry Potter, and, most amazingly, when Jewish children could begin to dream, for the first time, of growing up to be President.
Imagine that! My grandmother would never have believed it! Nor would my fourth grade teacher, who, undoubtedly like most of yours, told the class that anyone of us could grow up some day to be President, knowing that such was not really the case. But now it is.
And what prayer did Joseph Lieberman recite in English when he got the call from Al Gore, and what did he recite again on the stage in Nashville when accepting the invitation publicly? It was that all-purpose prayer for those reaching important milestones, the Shehechianu.
Praised are You, Adonai our Source, who has revived us, sustained us and brought us to this moment in time. Shehechiyanu, V'kiyemanu, V'higiyanu laz'man hazeh.
It is hard to imagine how Lieberman must have felt at that moment that he was nominated to the highest office to be held by a Jew of faith since the biblical Joseph became vice-Pharaoh. It is hard - and yet it is very easy - because all we have to do to understand how he felt, is to recall how each of us felt the last time we said Shehechianu for something.
There are prayers, and then there is the Shehechianu. For Jews, no matter what our background, only the Sh'ma and possibly the Kaddish are more universally-known than than this liturgical gem. It is prayer imbued with history and laden with positive Jewish teachings about the value of life and seizing the moment. It helps us to appreciate every small gift we receive, from a new article of clothing, to a first fruit, to a new baby, and to see it all as a gift from God. It is what we say when we kiss the soil of Israel for the first time, and the cheek of our grandchild at her Bat Mitzvah. This prayer is filled with more emotion than a hundred Olympiads, and more tears than a hundred hours of Olympic coverage on NBC.
So, in this the year of Shehechianu, that prayer will from the framework for these High Holidays talks. Last year it was the bagel; this year it's the b'racha. With each sermon we'll focus on a different word: today, "Shehechianu," tomorrow, "V'kiyemanu," Kol Nidre Night, "V'higianu" and finally on Yom Kippur morning, "Laz'man hazeh."
There's something very odd and seemingly self-contradictory about this prayer in Jewish practice. Here is a blessing that is supposed to be recited only on very special occasions or when doing something for the first time, and yet we do it so darn often. On the High Holidays it almost gets ridiculous. We say it when we light the candles on Rosh Hashanah, both nights, and when we say the Kiddush, both nights, here and at home; we say it when we eat a new fruit and wear new clothing, which is customary on this holiday. We say it when we blow the shofar, we say it after Kol Nidre and when lighting candles before Yom Kippur. So we say over a dozen Shehechianus on these ten days alone, and that doesn't even count those that we recite for reaching our individual milestones. Halacha enjoins us to recite Shehechianu for all types of milestones, from the birth of a child to receiving good news, to buying a new car, even the appreciation of ones investments. The 16th century law code known as the Shulchan Aruch says that the blessing can be done at the moment of purchase, rather than having to wait to actually use the item, because it is a natural outpouring of the "joy of the heart," to acquiring something new. If we really took this to heart, we would actually be reciting more prayers at the Stamford Town Center than we do here. And the floor of the stock exchange would routinely echo with more joyous davening than Friday afternoon at the Kotel.
But don't get me wrong. Shehechianu is not about acquisition and ownership. It's not that we are exalting possession. Shehechianu is all about the joy of newness. New things, new people, new seasons, new epochs. Newness. Because newness implies renewal. And renewal implies revival. And revival implies the triumph of life over death. Every moment worthy of a Shehechianu is a moment framed in eternity.
A blessing, any blessing, is a celebration of the here and now. The word "b'racha," shares etymological roots with the word "braycha," which in Hebrew means a pool of water. And how is a blessing like a swimming pool? Because when we jump in, we really awaken. The shock of the cold and wet brings radical awareness. Our nerves tingle. We suddenly become completely aware of parts of us that we hadn't noticed in days. Then, the survival instinct takes hold. Our arms and legs act urgently to get us to the surface. Breathing is no longer taken for granted. And the water transforms us, refreshes us. Jumping into a pool, we feel fully alive. And that ubiquitous word for life, "Chai," forms the root of the word Shehechianu.
Lieberman's moment was a triumph of life over death, for him, for Hadassah's family most overtly, for the Jewish people, and for America. It was the purest Shehechianu moment we Jews have had since the establishment of Israel in 1948. And we've been blessed with many. But for our people to have emerged from the ashes of the Shoah to the brink of having one of our own in the second highest office of the most powerful nation in the world, is the stuff of pure miracle. It's not a question of a Jew's rising to power, but of increasing the capacity of Jews to bring sanctity, Kedusha, to the world. The Liebermans have often used the word Tikkun - a Kabalistic term meaning world repair - in describing their mission. In a sense, we can now say, "Dayenu. Mission accomplished." A shattered world of half a century ago has come together miraculously, and the shattered Jewish soul has been mended. The fact that he is an observant Jew, one who understands the need to find a divine purpose and grounding to his moral choices, has mended our people all the more. It has mended America too, as with this move our nation has begun to break down the barriers of anti-Semitism and racism, and distance itself all the more from the original sin of slavery and Jim Crow, and the stench of recent Washington scandals. Win or lose in November, Lieberman's ascent has marked for all Americans a season of renewal, a Shehechianu moment.
A Shehechiyanu moment is much like a Kodak moment. When we snap a photo, we are trying to freeze an instant of sublime happiness in time, so that we can retrieve it later on when we need to reconnect to our truest selves. The Shehechianu, like a photo, captures those priceless moments, but unlike a photo, it also connects each moment to the bigger picture. It links all the pictures together in the album, and every album to the eternal web of life.
I can recall saying Shehechianu so many times this past year; each holiday, each Bar and Bat Mitzvah here, each conversion I presided over, each one a step, each moment priceless. And I recall saying Shehechianu here last Rosh Hashanah, and the one before that, and the one before that. The milestone marker becomes the link -- the link back to when my father and mother used to say it while I was growing up, and my grandparents before them.
This prayer helps us to connect the dots of our lives, and thereby to connect our lives to the lives of those around us, those who preceded us, and those who will follow us.
What are some of our peak Shehechianu moments? I asked that question in our last bulletin and got a number of beautiful responses, a few of which I'll be sharing with you on these High Holidays. This one from Barbara Brafman:
"This particular prayer has, for a very long time been quite personal for me. For me the joy of life comes from the everyday moments. Each year when I sit down for the Seder at my stepbrother's table and recite Shechechianu, I recall my beloved stepfather and I am thankful that once again we have reached the season in good health and can experience the joy of being together to re-experience the exodus. But in addition to the holiday events, I frequently recite the Shehechianu for very ordinary occurrences, like seeing the first crocus of spring, tasting that first wonderful peach of the summer season, sitting on my patio looking at my garden, going to Fenway Park with my son Jason, making the first fire in the fireplace in the fall, looking out of my house at first beautiful snowfall of the winter season. After the loss of several very close friends in the last few years, I say Shehechianu with joy in just being alive, healthy and able to reach each season, each event with my loving family and "almost family" friends. For me this prayer means thanking God for being alive, noticing the change of the seasons, and appreciating the life we were given."
Rabbi Lawrence Kushner shows us how the dots of our lives are often connected in amazing ways, in this story of an encounter he had years ago when he was a rabbinical student. He was spending a cold, wintry Shabbat with his mentor, the revered scholar and now Stamford resident Eugene Borowitz, at Borowitz' former home on Long Island. Late that afternoon, they were walking in the driven snow and vanishing sunlight, with the teacher looking like Polish Rebbe in his big fur coat, when the teacher joked, "Here we are, Larry, crossing the frozen River Vistula." Flash forward about a quarter of a century, and Rabbi Kushner arrives early to teach a class at Hebrew Union College in New York. It is another cold winter's day, with the wind-chill turning the canyons of Manhattan into tundra. And Rabbi Borowitz walks through the door, again wearing an ankle-length fur coat and Russian hat. Seeing him there with the fur hat brings it all back to Kushner, and he reminds his teacher about the River Vistula. To which the mentor responds with a smile and without missing a beat, says, "And the only reason I said it then was so that we could share this sweet memory now."
Kushner calls this a new type of deja-vu, not the feeling that we've been there before, but the even stranger sensation of, for at least a moment, understanding why we were there in the first place. Zaddok HaKohen of Lublin, a Hasidic master taught that "the first premise of faith is to believe that there is no such thing as happenstance. Every detail, small or great, they are all from the Holy One."
I was thinking of the Kushner story a few days before Lieberman was given the nod, when Al Gore's short list was published. When I saw that list of about five names, I had one of those moments. Things suddenly became clear. I had a flash of understanding - for an instant I could connect the dots of history. I understood that Joe was going to be the one -- that he would be the one not simply because he was the best qualified and because the country is ready for a Jewish candidate, but because history had been leading to just this moment, just this possibility. Everything suddenly made sense; Lieberman's relationship with Clinton going back to the Yale days, his first race for the Senate when he had to run to the right of Lowell Weicker, his support of the Gulf War, even the whole sordid Lewinsky thing, everything was leading to this moment, making Lieberman the only logical choice for Gore, not in spite of his being an observant Jew, but because he is an observant Jew. Am I saying that the Lewinsky scandal happened because God was setting things up to have a Jewish vice president? Not at all - I don't pretend to know God's ways. What is happening is much more subtle, much more mysterious. What I am saying is that the Lieberman nomination throws the whole Lewinsky scandal into a different light. Because the direct consequence of a scandal that exposed the American Jewish experience at its worst, reeking in materialism, post-Bat Mitzvah drop-out-ism and reckless, uncontrolled lust, directly facilitated the rise of the exact opposite, the best of the American Jewish experience, fully assimilated into the upper echelons of American government, yet fully committed to living a meaningful Jewish life, a man who is now a role model for the ages, for all Jews and all Americans.
Lieberman broke the glass huppah for all minorities, and he might have saved the Supreme Court from the religious right and thereby saved our precious freedoms of choice and privacy, while at the same time bringing religion to a new, more mature place in the fabric of American public life. All this, and without Lewinsky 98, there would have been no Lieberman 2000. For months we wondered why the President, Ken Starr and Congress were putting us all through the torture of impeachment and a trial. Now we know. It was so the Republicans could run on a platform of morality, linking Gore to the sins of Clinton, thus forcing the Democrats to nominate Joe Lieberman to become the first Jewish Vice President. Shehechianu has a little of the "Outer Limits" melody to it, doesn't it? How in the world did things end up this way? All we can do is shake our heads in wonder, enjoy the ride, and try to connect the dots.
And we know that this is not yet the end. Who knows where it will lead? Maybe we will now be treated to a new form of reality television. Forget "Survivor," and tune into a show called "Reviver," or in Hebrew, "Shehechianu," where the goal isn't to out-maneuver the others and manipulate them to suit our Machiavellian ends, but instead to build a community together around common goals and shared love. At the end of each episode a new person is invited onto the island. And with each bubbling new face appearing on the horizon, the entire cast recites Shehechiyanu, thanking God for each encounter with a new human being. Who knows where this Lieberman thing will lead us?
When we manage a glimpse of the big picture from time to time, it helps us to enjoy the ride. Because we realize that history is going somewhere, that our actions do have meaning, that our lives do have a purpose. When we see the present moment as the nexus of all that has happened in the past and all that will happen in the future, and when we live to be fully present in the here and now, it is as if we are present at the Creation itself. Hayom harat Olam. Today it all begins. No wonder both the Torah and Haftorah readings on the first day of Rosh Hashanah deal with children being born. And in a sense we all are born today, and we are giving birth to the future.
I had another cause for a Shehechianu this summer. A few days before Lieberman received his call from Al Gore, I received from Fed Ex a white envelope that contained the first copy of my first book. If there was ever a Shehechianu moment, this was it. (Now as you know, I am not one for shameless self promotion, and I never would try to capitalize on the opportunity for crass commercialization before a captive audience of nearly 2,000 of my closest friends and I wouldn't think of taking this opportunity to remind you that I'll be signing copies this coming Thursday evening at 7:30 at the JCC in an event co sponsored by the JCC, our congregation and the Council of Churches and Synagogues - wouldn't think of it!)
But as I was saying Shehechianu on the publication of "thelordismyshepherd.com," I couldn't help but think of all the teachers, friends and life experiences that led to this new creation; how everything in my life seemed to be leading to that instant. Even the bad times - even the times when I seriously considered abandoning not only this project, but my writing altogether, they all played a role in this moment of renewal. I learned how the act of writing a book makes you vulnerable in ways that I could not have imagined. At one point during this past year, the project appeared to have hit a dead end. I abandoned all hope of this hard work coming to fruition and could feel a bereavement process setting in. I had reached, it seemed, the end of a life-long dream. I had nowhere to turn but inward, not wishing to discuss this with all but a few close friends and family. It was one of the few times in my very fortunate life that I've ever experienced suffering. There is pain and there is suffering. We all experience pain, all the time, and we confront it, usually successfully, although often by denial, and it ofte leads to anger or depression. Suffering occurs when you try to confront pain and all you get is more pain, and when all it leads to is hopelessness. We all have our times of. There are moments for all of us, when no matter where you look all you see is emptiness and death. It was a difficult year in many respects.
So when I opened that book for the first time, it was a moment of revival, the resurrection of lost hope; whether it puts my children through college is irrelevant (mostly). Whether it si the first of many is not the point. It exists. It's imprint us upon the world. And I am more fully alive for it. So as I opened it, my life flashed before my eyes, much as it does for those who are at death's door, reminding me why the moment before death is the ultimate Shehechianu moment. We are never more alive than when we are most aware of life's fragility, because we see that big picture, we can connect the dots, and out of the ultimate chaos comes the ultimate order and serenity. Therefore, in today's haftorah., Hannah, in her moment of extremis, can only say, in utter astonishment, "Adonai Me'mit U'mechayeh," "It is God who brings death and revives."
For the most part, when we are not living life on that edge, we drift. When we allow days and nights to run into each other like wet ink on a white page, we lose the dots, we don't make the connections. It is a spiritual death - and we are all on the danger list. Shehechianu helps us to gain our bearings again. It puts us right back on the edge - its' reference to revival makes us all the more acutely aware of our mortality. From that moment of revival, that utterance of Shehechiyanu, emerges the seed of new life.
Which brings me one more exquisite statement of faith, a Shehechiyanu moment shared with us by our own Pamela Cohn Allen:
"Every day, and at many moments, I recite a Shehechianu. A particularly meaningful one, though, was this past spring. Throughout the previous year, filled with such struggle, mental and physical pain, I had held as a beacon - spring in Israel'. If only God would give me the strength, that was my goal. I had learned, as an immediate instinct after being diagnosed with cancer, not to plan. But at some point, as my strength started to build up, I cherished the goal of being in Israel during the spring. At the end of March, Scott and I sat at the Friday night table of my sister in Jerusalem, with her beloved family. We held hands, and hearts, and with quiet, overbrimming joy, recited the Shehechianu."
And so today, from the depth of our souls, we breathe in life and exhale a prayer, Shehechianu: For the Jewish people reborn in our ancient land. Shehechianu, for Joe Lieberman and his family. Shehechianu, for Larry Kushner and his mentor, for Barbara and Pamela, for the pope's visit to Jerusalem, for the Israeli soldier leaving Lebanon, for you, for me, for everyone who is truly alive, for everyone who rejoices in this wonderful, astonishing ride of life. Shehechianu, V'kiyemanu, V'higiyanu lazman hazeh.
V'Kiyemanu: Taking a Stand
Please rise. Please be seated.
Doesn't it feel like that's all we're ever doing at services, especially on the High Holidays? Sit - stand - sit - stand. It can drive you crazy. You likely have noticed that I'm not one for the majestic rabbinical wave of the arms (show); I've never liked it. So I usually don't do it. Now it's fine for us all to sing in one voice at times - it sounds beautiful and gives us strength. But even then, some of us automatically harmonize (for better for worse). So even in our unity there is diversity. But why in the world would we want everyone to stand and sit on command? Since when do Jews do anything on command? It reminds me of that joke about the Yeshiva rowing team; appropriate for this last day of the Olympics. They couldn't win a single race. So they sent a spy to scout out the Yale team. The spy came back and said, "I finally figured it out. It's amazing. You see, we got it reversed. We're supposed to have eight guys rowing and one guy barking out the orders!"
Sure we should stand when the ark is open, but not because the rabbi signals it, but rather because we are literally leaping to our feet at the joy of embracing the Torah. And when we stand, each of us does it on her own, in his own way. The physical act of standing up requires so many things to happen, between our brain, our arms and legs -- our vocal chords too (so we can say "oy" while we do it) -- but most of all, standing up is an act of will and courage. And when we do it as an act of will, we feel good about it, even when our feet are tired. That why it is so powerful when we stand to say Kaddish for a loved one, especially when everyone does not stand around us. It as an act of pure resoluteness, expressing the desire to testify, to take the stand, on behalf of a departed love one, to say to the world that yes, this life did matter and yes, through me and in God, my loved one lives on. Taking a stand is what enhances life. We never feel so alive as when we are willing to stand up for what we believe in. Not when the rabbi tells us. Not even when the Torah tells us. But when the still small voice of conscience summons our brains and arms and legs and "oys," to rise.
The word after Shehechianu is "Kiyemanu." And what does it mean? Kum, in Hebrew means "stand." V'kiyemanu? "And who helped us to stand." An act of revival, Shehechianu, is therefore elevated into an act of affirmation with "Kiyemanu." Revival is part one. Affirmation is level two. How alive we become when we stand alone on the peak of the mountain, having toppled the walls of doubt and fear on the way, recognizing that death is lurking and that nothing else matters but living with integrity. V'kiyemanu means more than to stand. It means to be willing to stand up to anything or anyone - even God.
Today's Torah portion is framed in Abraham's standing and sitting. In verse 3, Abraham doesn't just set out for the place where he was to sacrifice Isaac. The text says, "Vayakam vayelech," First he stood up, then he went. Abraham's response to this supreme challenge was to stand up to it, to come to the plate, unlike Jonah, who chose to flee his destiny. And at the end of the story, after all the fateful events have transpired, the account concludes with the words, "Vayeshev Avraham Biv'er Sheva." "And Abraham settled, literally sat down, in Beersheba. Life goes back to normal. As it does for all of us when the battle us over, when a challenge has been met. Normal, yet forever transformed. So the Akeda story is framed in standing and sitting - and what transpires in the middle is one of the most courageous stands of all time.
We all know the story - or we think we know. Abraham is about to slay Isaac, following what he thinks is God's command, when an angel calls out to him from heaven, telling Abraham not to lay a hand on the child. So Abraham obeys, sees a ram caught in the thicket, then offers the ram instead of his son, and the place is renamed, "Adonai Yireh," meaning "on the mount of the Lord there is vision," or, in a translation found in the soon-to-be-published Conservative Torah commentary, "the high point where I saw God."
I believe that the high point where Abraham saw God was a height he himself scaled, not one God pulled him up to. For that angel calling down to Abraham from the heavens, I read to be the still small voice of Abraham's own conscience saying, "What in the world am I doing with this knife? God can't possibly want me to do this. What am I doing here? NO, THIS IS WRONG."
And he throws down the knife, releases his son and looks up and sees the ram. He stands up, finally, to the false God he had himself created, and recognizes that God's true intent is coming through to him from his own conscience. And therefore, the place was named Adonai Yireh, "On the mount of the Lord, there is vision." There is vision - and there is integrity.
Now the place where Abraham took that stand happened to be Mount Moriah, the Temple Mount, the epicenter of world politics to this day. We hope that from that place in our own time a vision of peace will shine forth. But the lesson of "V'kiyemanu" has implications also for those of us who live far from that sacred mountain.
For that still small voice of conscience does not exist in a vacuum. A conscience is like a muscle; it needs constantly to be exercised and trained. The training comes in many forms; for Jews, primarily study, prayer, and deeds of kindness. Teshuvah, tefilla, tzedakkah. All of these things. And the more we do them, the more we grapple with the tough questions the sages have been grappling with for centuries, the stronger that muscle becomes. The word g'milut hasadim, means acts of love, but the verb "gamal" really means "to render." "G'milut hasidim' would therefore be "acts which cause or awaken love." When repeated, certainly they cause love in another; perhaps even more importantly, they awaken love in us.
Abraham was one of the greatest tzaddikim of all time, all the more amazing because he could do all this without ever reading the guidebook. So when the final test came, that still small voice of conscience had been honed just enough to save him at the last minute. We need to exercise that muscle as well. We can't count on our being good for a few days to inoculate us for the entire year. And we need to understand the central role that religion plays in making us into good people.
Now there are some very good people around who don't happen to study Torah, come to pray at synagogue or do lots of acts of kindness. But I equate them to a great Olympic athlete who can win the marathon without training. There are people who are so innately good that they can do that. I'm not one of them. I need to exercise the muscle of conscience, to stand and sit, here, often. Now I know that there are also people who are corrupt even though they are ritually observant Jews. They are like the Olympic athlete who trains rigorously for an event for four years, only to ruin it by going out drinking on the night before the big race. It happens; but these are exceptions to the rule. I can only tell you that I am absolutely sure that Jewish study, prayer and ritual, all three, have helped me to become a better person. They have given me the moral strength to take a stand. They are the keys to my own integrity.
They have also given Senator Lieberman the strength to take stands that often have been unpopular. His growing legend is indicated by the joke going around that the Senator is so charitable that he donates every penny he earns to Hadassah. But in all seriousness, if we listen closely, we can hear the still small voice of menschlichkite in every word he utters. We can trace many of his votes to the values that Jews everywhere have been taught from the cradle. And that is religion's proper place in the public square.
Kiyemanu doesn't just mean to stand. It means to establish. The first amendment protects us from the establishment of a state religion. It protects us from coercion by the government. It does not protect us from the still small voice of conscience. Nor should it. As Lieberman properly said at that church in Detroit, the Constitution does not guarantee us freedom from religion. It protects us from religious coercion, to be sure. But not from religious influence on a politician's worldview. He didn't say that atheists can't be moral. He didn't say that the wall of separation should come down. He was talking about a very different wall, that firm religious foundation that he gained from his parents, his rabbi and teachers, and from you who were his neighbors growing up, but most of all from his life-long encounter with Torah and its commandments: these are the influences that guide him. And America is ready for this. Everyone, it seems, but the Jews.
It is an incredible paradox. One that we could see coming a mile away. Lieberman has revolutionized the politics-religion equation here in a manner that Ehud Barak is now trying to do in Israel. Finally, in both countries, God is no longer the exclusive property of right wing fundamentalists. And this is not only good politics, but good for our world. You don't have to be a Christian evangelical to rant about the dangers of violent children's programming. Other issues where the moral high ground had previously been ceded to the fundamentalists are now becoming fodder for Talmudic-style discussions that rarely yield black and white answers. The addition of a particularly Jewish voice to this dialogue has helped the rest of America to see what Jews have known all along, that morality has many shades of gray. Most Americans live in the gray. Most fundamentalists do not. In this way, Judaism is now making a contribution to this country in a manner that is unprecedented. And the country is responding. The online magazine Salon recently ran a terrific long story on the complex Jewish view on abortion. Matt Drudge is running articles about the proper observance of Tisha B'Av. Don Imus is asking about Jewish concerns regarding intermarriage. George W. Bush wishes Larry King a happy Rosh Hashanah. Somebody pinch me!
Lieberman has liberated God to become a shade of gray too. As much as he speaks of God openly, he never claims to know God's will or to have a privileged relationship with the Almighty. Religion is being presented in a positive, non-threatening way. If he can continue to pull this off, and if Barak can pull off his current civil reforms over in Israel, both politicians, win or lose, will have made a contribution that will last far longer than one election campaign.
So what are we to make of Abe Foxman's public condemnation? It's easy to be cynical, and think that he was looking to make an example of someone and Lieberman was the safest target. Or one might speculate that the ADL can only thrive financially in an atmosphere where Jews feel that there is an external threat out there, and here was this meshugenah Lieberman proving to all of us that we have indeed nothing to fear but fear itself. Or one might try to psychoanalyze and assume that Foxman, like many establishment American Jews, is more comfortable in the old model of synagogue-state separation, where rabbis and religious Jews stayed in the background and the secular organization machers made all the big decisions. That world simply doesn't exist anymore, as I will discuss on Yom Kippur.
But I choose to take Foxman at his word. He did, after all, take a stand, a difficult stand, so somewhere in his soul, I believe that he thought that still small voice was telling him that Lieberman had really gone too far. In fact, however, Lieberman never even got close to the line. But the line is shifting, and the world is changing, and the ADL and others need to recognize this and adjust. The American people, in expressing such enthusiasm for the first traditional Jew ever to be on a major party ticket, are telling us that just as you don't have to be Jewish to appreciate rye bread, but it helps, you also don't have to be religious to be a great public servant -- but it helps.
Robert Parham, the executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics, has come up with seven guidelines for evaluating the role of religion in politics. They are an excellent starter for any discussion of the role of religion in the public square.
First, because our society is pluralistic, we would do well to recognize that public expression of faith might make some people uncomfortable, and we should be sensitive to that. Second, many Americans mistakenly believe faith is exclusively a private matter. We need to speak in favor of faith having a public dimension. Third, politicians need to be judicious so as not to use religion for political ends, and we all need to be equally vigilant in watching for it. Fourth, the Bible is not a blueprint for public policy. We must discern the difference between politicians who articulate religious values that shape public policy and those who insist their religious values become public policy. Fifth, the platitudes of faith are no substitute for the meaty debates about public policy. We should insist that our politicians debate the issues. Sixth, we should always favor a sturdy wall separating church from state. And seventh, morally upright politicians might still support public policies that are unjust. And vice versa. We must separate the messenger from the message -- we've had a lot of practice doing that in recent years.
Charles Haynes, an advocate of First Amendment rights, put it this way: "The conviction of the latter part of the 20th century that religion was a private matter was an anomaly. The question for the 21st century is how we can make sure it comes back into public life in ways that strengthen the nation and not tear it apart." The Aspen Institute recently pulled together a dialogue of pro-life and pro-choice advocates, with surprisingly positive results. One participant commented, "From our own experience, we are convinced that religious voices brought together in dialogue to locate common ground can serve the deepest public good."
The rest of America is ready to welcome religion more openly into the public square. Are we? Will it be Lieberman or will it be Foxman? It's time to take a stand - and to lift our sights to the peak of the mount of the Lord, where there is vision. Behar Adonai Yireh.
Two more "Kiyemanu" moments to share: In his classic autobiography appropriately titled, "Fear No Evil," Natan Sharansky details his nine years of solitary confinement in a Soviet prison. It is hard to imagine how he could summon the moral strength to endure the constant torture and resist the pressure to confess to a crime he did not commit. One imagines those Jews imprisoned in Iran right now going through the same thing - and they are in our prayers. At one point, inexplicably, Sharansky was allowed to receive a birthday gift from his family, his tiny black book of psalms. Although he struggled to read the Hebrew of these ancient poems, but he sensed their spirit and felt both the joy and suffering of King David. These words lifted him above the mundane and directed him toward the Eternal. Grounded in the firm foundation of an unbreakable faith, he was able to stand up to a global superpower. The superpower is now gone; and the individual, little Natan Sharansky, is still alive and well (and still making life miserable for those in power).
Recently I was part of a group of thirty-plus rabbis, representing the full spectrum of North American Jewry, who traveled to Prague. As part of the trip we went to pay respects to the victims of Terezin, the infamous concentration camp located an hour's drive from the Czech capital. At the end of a long and emotional tour of the camp, the guide brought us to a site only recently discovered, a small synagogue hidden in the basement of a bakery. It was an oasis of holiness in the midst of hell, never defiled by the Nazis, a place where the condemned could utter ancient prayers and dare to hope.
On the walls are Hebrew liturgical inscriptions, two of which absolutely floored me. One says, "Know before whom you stand" ("Da lifnay mi ata omed"), a verse found in synagogues everywhere, but one that took on a whole new meaning in that place; for on the other side of that wall stood the S.S. guards. But they knew in their hearts that the One before whom they really stood was God, a sovereign whose very existence they had every reason to doubt. In spite of it all, they believed. And while they stood in prayer, they rose in opposition to the evil taking place around them.
And like Abraham's mountain, that cellar became a source of vision. On the front wall of the makeshift synagogue is inscribed a verse from the Amida, "May our eyes be able to envision Your return to Zion in mercy." "Vtechezenah aynaynu b'shuvcha l'tziyon b'rachamim. " "Hazon" in Hebrew means "vision" and that word is embedded in the inscribed verse. Note that the prayer doesn't ask that the people themselves be whisked to Zion. The Jews of Terezin were not so quixotic as to imagine that they themselves would ever see the spectacular sunrise over Jerusalem. They didn't pray for their own return to Zion - but for God's - just as Abraham must also have prayed for God's return to that very same spot, when all seemed lost up on Moriah. Hidden away for a moment of sanity amidst the madness, the Jews of Terezin had the audacity to pray that God and the Jewish people survive the Holocaust, even though they knew that they themselves most likely would not. They not only saw the light at the end of the darkest tunnel in human history, they shined it toward a distant future that no sane person could possibly have imagined, a future that certainly would not include them.
We were in tears. Spontaneously we davened the afternoon service, although very few of us had prayer books. It didn't matter. The prayers were calling out to us from those walls. It suddenly didn't matter that there was no Mechitza separating the men from the woman or whether the language was gender-neutral. Nothing mattered but that we were Jews, of all denominations, praying together, the living fulfillment of their vision.
Then I read aloud two selections from that classic collection of children's poetry written in Terezin, "I Never Saw Another Butterfly," and I felt like a pilgrim on the steps of the ancient Temple on Mount Moriah, reciting psalms. The poems were all about the joy of being alive.
If these residents of hell could find the vision to see butterflies and pray for God's renewal, how dare we allow ourselves to become mired in cynicism and negativity! The words of the prophets were written on these subterranean walls:
"May our eyes be able to envision."
It is from our faith that we gain the strength to stand up and shout "this is wrong" in the face of evil. It is from our sacred texts that we gain the courage to endure even the harshest of trials. And it is from our ritual practices and our prayers, that we build up the moral muscle to hear that still small voice of truth.
So how will each of us stand up as a Jew this coming year? What mitzvot will we add to our lives to strengthen that muscle? An hour of study each day? Increased attendance at morning minyan and Shabbat services? Building a Sukkah at your home for the very first time, as a large number here are now planning to do? Through acts of tzedakkah and kindness - helping us to reinvigorate Beth El Cares? Volunteering in our gift shop? Helping us to create community on our Shabbaton? Or, as is the case for some of our kids yesterday, by standing up in protest when your soccer league schedules a championship game on a Jewish holiday?
Each new step we take will be very difficult. But on this closing day of the Olympics, we heed the words of the Olympic creed, "&the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well."
We are so fortunate to be living in a time where spiritual Olympians can set an example for all of us to follow, people like Sharansky, those Jews of Terezin and now, our own Joe Lieberman, who, whether or not you agree with his politics, is fast becoming a Jewish role model for the ages. They all followed the strict training regimen established by Abraham, a program that reached its apex on the heights not of Olympus, but Moriah.
And with each step we take, with each time we show the will to stand up for our beliefs and Jewish values, we will feel those moral muscles beginning to grow, faster, higher and stronger than ever before, we will be far better able to hear the still small voice of conscience, and all of this will renew our lives. Shehechianu V'kiyemanu Amen.
When I was growing up, I was weird. I liked Hebrew School. There was one teacher especially that I loved – Miss Lapidus in fifth grade, who made Judaism so real that it jumped out of the textbook. And she introduced me to Annie Haggerty. Now Annie Haggerty was not a person, at least not her Annie Haggerty. It was a code -- a secret code that Miss Lapidus taught the class. This is how it worked. Whenever Miss Lapidus took a long trip, she would call home to her parents to tell them that she had arrived safely. But, in those days before the 500-minute cell phone packages, she would call home collect, only she would say that she was placing a call to Annie Haggerty. Her mom, who was not named Annie Haggerty, would refuse the charges and hang up, but she would know that her daughter had arrived safely. Why? Because the Hebrew translation of Annie Haggerty is "I’ve arrived safely," or "Ani Higati."
I think of Annie Haggerty when I think of the word "V’higiyanu." that third leg of the Shehechianu prayer. Last week we discussed the first two, Shehechianu, revival, and Kiyemanu, standing up to a challenge; tonight, Higiyanu, safe arrival. As we reach another Kol Nidre, Higiyanu has the feel of having landed at the end of a long plane ride. On United. In the rain. At last! We’re here. And we know that our arrival had little to do with us.
I had a Kiyemanu moment last summer when Mara and I were flying back to Newark from a friend’s wedding in Chicago. The plane was taxiing to the runway for takeoff and it suddenly stopped. Why? We were told that a series of strong thunderstorms were passing through New Jersey and they wanted to wait until they had cleared. So there we were, in Chicago, waiting in a hot plane for an hour and a half for a storm to clear an airport nearly half a continent away. Even before that, the flight had been delayed nearly two hours because of storms in Houston, where it had originated. Of course everyone whipped out his or her cell phones and frantically called home, probably to ask for Annie Haggerty’s brother, Lou Haggerty, (Lo higati) which means, "I didn’t arrive yet." From the worried looks on their faces, I think half of the passengers had seen "The Perfect Storm," the previous evening and weren’t too keen on traveling as it was.
Neither was I. I was glad to wait at that airport, rather than land in a severe thunderstorm. Then something occurred to me. If the flight had landed from Houston on time, it would likely have taken off to Newark on time, and we would have arrived in New Jersey just as those storms were at their worst. And they were bad, as we later discovered. So the best thing that could have happened for me that night was to have been delayed those three and a half hours, thanks to a cold front in Houston, a place I have never been to.
Sometimes you just have to wonder who is controlling that big air traffic tower in the sky. Like most people, I often delude myself into believing that I have true control over my life. Just to knock me back to reality, I try to squeeze most of my appointments into my little calendar diary. And it gets rather, shall we say, messy. That’s OK, because it helps me to remember that, in the end, I have almost nothing to do with arranging my schedule. Every day, we are all on that runway in Chicago. We are on that fishing boat heading back to Gloucester. We are Jonah in the belly of the fish. We are my sister and teenage niece, closing their eyes and saying the traditional wayfarer’s prayer, "Tefillat Ha-derech," every time they drive back from Jerusalem to their home on the West Bank, especially this past terrible week. We all pray that a benevolent hand is guiding us because we have no idea what we’ll see around the bend and when our calendar diary will run out of days.
But that’s the beauty of it. In a sense, Higiyanu is antithesis of Kiyemanu. Kiyemanu is what we can control, what we can and must stand up to in order to feel fully alive. Higiyanu is what we cannot control. It’s that out of breath feeling when we pick up the phone after planting both feet, at last, on terra firma, hearing your loved ones voice and saying, "ani higati." In truth, the Shehechianu Prayer, is the Jewish cousin of the Serenity Prayer, written by the great theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in 1926: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference."
And, in some small way, we have this sense, this instinctive, gnawing sense that God has brought us here. That if we have arrived, it is because we were meant to have arrived. And if not, it’s because we were not. And we’ll never know why. And we’ll never lose that feeling of helplessness, but we’ll never lose the sense of wonder either.
A young congregant wrote me of her "Shehechianu" experience this past year, also airline related. "Never has prayer entered my life before in such a profound way as when I almost lost my father last year. I received a phone call late in the night from my mother hysterically crying, telling me that the plane that my father was on en route to Alaska was diverted because he was bleeding internally. She said that she was on the next flight to Anchorage and I was left to man the fort back home and stick by my grandmother. I did not say the Shehechianu per se, but I did talk to God constantly. We were all fortunate to have an angel in Delta airlines who stayed with my dad as he had his stomach pumped and escorted him to the hospital. And prayer served me well, as my father returned after receiving transfusions for the blood he lost."
Higiyanu is all about survival and what we do with it. It’s about people and it’s about their stories, and how they all really are our stories. I told one such story this year when I was giving a charge to a Bat Mitzvah here. On that same Shabbat, a Bat Mitzvah student named Rachel Tursky was giving this d’var Torah at her synagogue just out side of, where else, Chicago, just five months after her father had died from chronic alcoholism. Here is what she said:
"My portion speaks of how the Nazerites didn’t drink alcohol. In school this past year, seventh grade, we learned a great deal about the ill effects of chemical dependency. Individuals from the community came to talk to us and we were taught to say "no." Lamentably, children of other generations, like my parents, were not as lucky to have this type of education. As a result, my dad passed away in December from such a problem. This had a major impact on my life. From this experience, I have learned many things, one of which is that when you choose to make a harmful decision, you are not the only victim. Everyone around you is affected.
This year has been especially difficult, because my dad was basically the one who pushed me to do my studies. In spite of the loss of my dad however, I decided to devote myself to something that means a lot to me – my bat mitzvah. The synagogue has become almost like a second home to me.
As result of my experiences, I have come to understand that everyone walks down their own path of life. Some people have a dark, thorny, cold road and others have a peaceful one with beautiful trees, sprouting plants and the wonders of nature surrounding them. But what I have discovered is that, no matter what your path might look like, nobody can choose it for you. You plant your own flowers, you make your own sun or rain and when you get to the part of the path where there is more than one way to turn, you have to choose. Life is a rich, lush, beautiful experience that is given to you. Not everything in life is in your control, but only you can decide whether or not you will let your negative circumstances overcome you. Life is for living, Don’t take it for granted."
This from a 13 year old who became all too wise, all too soon.
We’re all on journeys, all of us, all wandering through the forest, looking for the way out; and like that classic Hasidic story tells us, the way out is look together, marking every arrival with a Higiyanu. Like the rafters in an overnight camp cabin, the world is full of the graffiti that we leave behind, each step of the way proclaiming, Annie Haggerty, I was here. I made it this far.
When we look at life this way, cruelty becomes almost incomprehensible. Because we see that we’re all interconnected. I think that’s one of the secrets to the extraordinary success of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." Contestants are tied into a studio audience full of strangers, sending out lifelines and getting a response. If the mapping of the genome taught us anything this year, it confirmed a fundamental Jewish principle, taken from Mishna Sanhedrin, that we all have the same ancestry, although each of us is also utterly unique. And when we realize that we are all on the same boat, and that that boat is the Andrea Gail, all those little differences that seemed so important suddenly aren’t anymore.
I discovered this year that I have an alter ego, a person that I’ve never met. His name, believe it or not, is Joshua Hammer. And we have lived virtually the same life; it’s eerie. We are almost exactly the same age, although we grew up in different cities; we both went to Ivy League schools at the same time, though he went to an inferior one. He opted for a career in journalism at a time that I was in journalism school. He spent several months in Israel during the exact year that I was there while in rabbinical school and had many of the same experiences and encounters that I had. And he wrote a book about how his very secular and rebellious brother became observant and moved to Muncie. My sister followed a similar path, though she ended up in Mitzpeh Yericho. My sister and his brother even lived in the same quaint Jerusalem neighborhood of Nachlaot, at the very time he and I were there. We could well have passed each other at the pita place on the corner. I could have written basically the exact same book.
His book, "Chosen by God" came out about a year ago. I enjoyed it. But I haven’t gotten to the weirdest part yet. When my book first came out, I proudly clicked onto Amazon.com to revel in my immortality, and lo and behold, the book was there, but the author was listed as Joshua Hammer! I emailed my publisher frantically and then started combing other book sites on the Web. Barnes and Noble? Joshua Hammer. Borders? Joshua Hammer. Finally this matter was cleared up, but then, three weeks later, out of the blue, back at Amazon it was Hammer Time again. This time both names were there: we were listed as co-authors, side by side, Hammerman and Hammer. Now I wouldn’t have minded this co-authorship thing so much if the other guy’s name had been Stephen King. But this was getting ridiculous. I was beginning to wonder who I really am, when, as I was writing this part of this sermon, and I kid you not, Ethan walked into the room, looked over my shoulder and asked, "Who is Joshua Hammer? Is he the same as you?"
And yes, he is the same as me. He ended up at Newsweek, where I might have gone, had I chosen another path. And I ended up on this pulpit tonight. At one point in his book, Hammer bemoans the fact that while his brother had the choice to become ultra-Orthodox, his brother’s kids did not, so insulated are they from the secular world. But as you read on you find, ironically, that it is Joshua Hammer who never had the choice. His father had pledged, "As long as there’s anti-Semitism in the world, I’m going to identify myself as Jewish; but I’m not going to force anything on my children." And he was true to his words. Hammer adds, "By the time I began to prepare for my Bar Mitzvah, in the spring of 1970… I found myself growing bored with the services and felt little connection to God." Religion didn’t figure highly in our childhoods," he adds, but "family fragmentation did." So he had no real choice either. He was offered plastic Judaism, a lifeless, empty shell of the real thing, and, like the vast majority of his generation, he rejected it.
My Bar Mitzvah was also in early 1970, but I loved Hebrew School because I was lucky enough to be brought up in a Jewish home filled with warmth, song and joy, and I had a Hebrew teacher who could enchant me with secret codes and Annie Haggerty.
Sadly, all too many have had the Jewish upbringing of Joshua Hammer and not enough were as fortunate as I was. Nonetheless, no matter what our background, we are all writing about the same searches; we are all on essentially the same journey. And we all end up as Hammer and Hammerman did, on the same street in Jerusalem and on the same page at Amazon, side-by-side, co-authors in a book not yet fully written. He rediscovered the religion that I never lost. In the end, both of us can say, "Ani Higati." All parallel universes ultimately converge.
This summer I finally saw the film "Keeping the Faith." It was a big hit last spring, but I never got to see it then, even though it seemed like everyone and his brother was asking me if I had. This is your basic Hollywood tragi-comedy-rabbi-and-priest-fall-for-the-same-non-Jewish goddess-and-feel-lots-of-guilt kind of movie, and I looked forward to seeing it before these High Holidays, because, after a little prodding, I actually promised one of our Gen X ers that I would speak about it. I got a little nervous when August rolled around and it hadn’t come out on video yet. So I called Blockbuster. And I found out that it would be coming out on video on October 10. Yes, the day AFTER Yom Kippur. So I was faced with three choices. 1) Find a bootleg copy – not an option. 2) Move tonight’s sermon to Sukkot. Or 3) Break my promise.
And then a miracle occurred – talk about "Keeping the Faith." I was staying in a hotel one night in late August, and "Keeping the Faith," was playing on the in-house pay per view. Did I mention where this hotel was? Of course – Chicago, where I went for my friend’s wedding before the plane got stuck. So I got to see the movie, including the famous gospel choir Ein Kelohenu scene, that I would just love to see reenacted here.
Although the film had flaws, which I won’t dwell on now – and no rabbi on this planet is as cool as the Ben Stiller character – nor should we strive to be. But it was nice to see a rabbi not portrayed as a shlub, I suppose. I liked the film, mainly, for one particular reason: the characters were all engaged in serious religious searching; each of them was on a journey. All of them were Joshua Hammers, no matter what their faith, and I understood that people of this lost generation are actively seeking a way back – back to something they never really had. All the old answers were not good enough for them. Life, they discovered, isn’t about career, ambition and greed, and being Jewish is not about blind ethnic loyalty. It’s all about keeping faith – faith in friends and family, even when they betray you; faith in religious leaders, even when they fail, and the understanding that falling in love is only the first step when two people come together; the next step is just as important – it’s being able to find a common faith-path to forge together through life.
Suddenly, religion is being taken seriously again. And that’s good news, because when it is not presented in superficial, plastic ways, Judaism can’t help but shine in the marketplace of ideas. It’s intriguing that by the end of "Keeping the Faith," it is clear that the female character is taking classes toward a possible conversion to Judaism, although it’s not discussed openly between her and her rabbi boyfriend. The producers evidently didn’t want to offend either Christians or Jews, so they fudged it. It’s amazing: in this age of Oprah, when every other intimate fact about people’s lives is being discussed openly almost to the point of nausia, and every speck of naval lint has been exposed; when it comes to religious conversion, suddenly Hollywood gets as shy as a 12 year old at a school dance. The subject never came up, and it would have been nice to see this taboo broken here.
For as we enter the new century and the New Year, what is overwhelmingly clear is this: All Jews are now Jews by choice. If I happened to have been born Jewish, brought up in a warm, spiritually nourishing home and synagogue and taught the right values, when I leave home, I have the have the right to say, "V’higiyanu." All the factors not in my control have brought me to a place where I now have the power to bring holiness into the world. But I still have to do the "Kiyemanu" part on my own. I still have to stand up and choose my life’s path. For some, like Joshua Hammer, the path is more circuitous, for others, like Rachel Tursky, it is exceedingly tragic, and for others, like the characters in "Keeping the Faith," the path suddenly shifts course dramatically with the earthquake of falling in love. But we’re all on it, and it all comes down to that curious mixture of will and serendipity, Kiyemanu V’higiyanu.
And that is why, in the end, there are no solid lines that divide us, no degrees of separation. Our spiritual identities are like shifting sands, constantly changing. But we share two basic facts: we all chose to be here tonight, and we all were lucky enough to survive to be here tonight. We are all on the same page, despite our differences. In this room alone, we’ve got Jews, half Jews, quarter Jews, lapsed Jews, returning Jews, recovering Jews, born again Jews, gay Jews, straight Jews, Asian Jews, African Jews, Russian Jews, not yet Jews and non-Jews. It’s darn confusing, but if we try to focus on the differences, we miss the big picture. We’re all asking the same questions: Why am I here – and what am I going to do about it? When we look at that map of the genome, we find that all human beings are almost 100% the same. That’s why we must be inclusive. That’s why we must extend a hand to everyone who comes across our path, everyone who chooses to cast their lot with us, including non-Jewish spouses who have made the tremendous gesture of committing to raise their children in a Jewish home. That’s why everyone who comes through these doors must be greeted with the love and embrace that befits all those created in God’s image.
And that’s why, when we are lucky enough to reach a milestone like Yom Kippur and to be alive, it is best to sit a while and look around, hug our neighbor, pray for our future and give thanks to God. After all, we’re all here. We’ve arrived. Higiyanu. And that is why, following the completion of this sermon, I’m going to spend some time doing just that.
Throughout the year, I often speak from and sit in the congregation. Why should tonight be any different? Mah Nishtanah a halila ha-zeh? As I have tried to demonstrate so often, a rabbi is no more than a fellow traveler on this path, not some monarch prodding you from above. So now I’ll come down. And together we’ll thank God and humbly ask for forgiveness. If I happen to walk past and someone in your row who is at our Yom Kippur services for the first time, please let me know, so I can personally welcome them. For we have made it this far.
The plane from Chicago has dodged the storm and we have landed. We know not why we’ve been given the privilege of life. But we have arrived, we and Annie Haggerty, and by God we are not going to waste this gift of arrival. Shehechianu, V’kiyemanu, V’higiyanu – AMEN
Z’man Hazeh: Jewish Americans
Before reciting the Amidah, it is customary to take three steps backward and then forward, a gesture that came from the ancient protocol of approaching a king. It also is a way of carving out sacred space in which we can encounter God. But we are also carving out a place for ourselves in sacred time. At the beginning of the Amida, we invoke our ancestors, from the most distant past. At the end, when we also take steps, we pray for the future – that there be peace for all of us and all Israel. So we step backwards, to our remotest past, and forwards, towards the most hopeful future. And where do we end up? Anchored in the present moment. The here and now. We live in between. Between war and peace, vision and reality, hope and despair. The present is framed by all of these, by all that was and all that will yet be. We yearn and anguish for then, but here and now is where we live. The Shehechianu blessing points us toward a keen sensitivity of being fully alive in the here and now, with it’s final words, "Laz’man hazeh."
And what does it mean to live in "Z’man ha’zeh?" It means to be able to balance the vision and reality, to live without illusions, but with faith. That is also what it means to be a Jew. But if we take a closer look at Z’man ha’zeh, the here and now, we find that these are times of transformation for Jews in this country. I’d like to take some time this morning sorting out where we stand, ba’zman hazeh, and then we can then address the more significant questions of why be Jewish and what our people can now contribute to the world.
The change is best reflected in what we are now being called. Last millenium we were American Jews. This millennium, we are Jewish Americans. And there is a big difference.
I’ll illustrate this with another true Shehechianu story:
A young private named Winneger was with the US Army as it marched through
Europe at the end of World War Two. His unit was assigned a village with orders to secure the town. Winneger was on patrol one night when he saw a figure running through a field just outside the village. He shouted, "Halt or I'll shoot!" The figure ducked behind a tree. Winneger waited and eventually the figure came out and figuring that the soldier was gone, he went to a spot near a large tree and started to dig. Winneger snuck up on this figure and captured him. To his surprise he found that it was a young boy. An ornate menorah had fallen from the boy's hands in the scuffle. Winneger picked up the menorah and the boy grabbed it back saying, "Give it to me, it's mine!" The soldier realized that the boy was Jewish, for he was too. And he then learned that the boy had suffered in a Concentration Camp, had been forced to watch the shooting of his father, had lost track of his mother and had become mistrustful of all people. In the weeks that followed, Winneger took the boy, whose name was David, under his wing, offered David the chance to return to New York City with him, and eventually adopted him.
Winneger was active in the New York Jewish community and a friend of his was
the curator of the Jewish museum. When he saw the menorah, he told David it was very valuable and historic. He offered David $50,000 for it. But David refused the offer, saying that it had been in the family for over 200 years and that it was not for sale. When Hanukkah came, David and Winneger lit the menorah in the window of their home in New York City. David went upstairs to study. There was a knock on the door and Winneger went to answer. It was a woman with a strong German accent who said that she had been walking down the street when she saw the menorah in the window, and that she had had one like that in her family and had never seen any other like it. Could she come and take a closer look? Winneger invited her in and said he had a son who could tell her more about it. He called David down to talk to the woman - and that is how David was reunited with his mother.
In this story we go from Shehechianu, David’s miracle of survival, to Kiyemanu, the willful act of pure love by Winneger in adopting David, by David in not selling the menorah, and by both in placing that menorah in the window; to Higiyanu, the sheer, miraculous happenstance that brought David’s mother past that house on that night. And we end up "Baz’man hezeh," at this time, a time when we Jews need not bury our Judaism any more – but rather we can shine the light of the menorah from the window with pride, without fear of repression and ridicule.
Look how far we have come! On April 29, 1945, unrepentant to the end, Hitler wrote in his last will and testament, "Most of all, I enjoin the government and people to uphold the race laws to the limit and to resist mercilessly the poisoner of all nations, International Jewry."
If there is a hell, I hope it is wired for cable so that all the notorious anti-Semites of yore might be chained to a sofa around a large screen TV and forced to watch C-Span, all day, so that they can see round the clock, full coverage of the reception Joe Lieberman is getting at all his campaign stops, especially from believing Christians.
Imagine. In just a blink of the historical eye, we’ve gone from being the devil incarnate to being a prime spiritual role model for the world. We’ve gone from being sneered at as the conspiratorial "International Jewry," to being admired as, "Jewish Americans." When that phrase began to be used frequently over the summer, I think most Jews were shocked. We’ve always been, in our own eyes, American Jews, not the other way around. Whenever we’ve seen "Jewish American" used it was normally followed by a pejorative term like "princess." No more.
Timothy Noah, a columnist for Slate, was as confused as the rest of us, when Lieberman used the term. He then began to notice that people in the media seemed consciously to be avoiding the term "Jew." One minute he hears Paula Zahn talking about considering a Jewish American candidate on the merits, the next it’s Chris Matthews on "Hardball" using the term, then George Stephanopolis on ABC and Perri Peltz on CNN. Wherever he turned, there it was, "Jewish Americans." So why this change in terminology, almost overnight?
According to Deborah Dash Moore, a religion professor, it’s a cyclical thing, and just as with African American, it signals a desire to return to roots. It also sounds softer and less in-your-face than the term American Jew. It’s a kinder, gentler way of looking at ourselves.
Arthur Goren, professor of American Jewish history at Columbia, prefers "American Jew" because he thinks it is more inclusive, implying that you can be a Jew without having anything to do with religion. But the word "Jewish" implies faith, as in, "I am a Jew of the Jewish faith." He thinks Lieberman calls himself a Jewish American to underscore that he is no mere member of an ethnic group, but a believer in God.
Indeed. The ascent of this term "Jewish American" marks the end to the era of secular ethnicity in the American Jewish world. It had been on its deathwatch for quite some time. But now it clearly is dead, and it’s got a lot of Jews scared and confused, at a time when we should be bursting with pride and purpose.
And, to no surprise, its got Jews fighting each other. Samuel Freedman’s well-publicized new book, Jew Vs. Jew, brings us to some all-too-familiar flash points: the conversion issue, the "Who is a Jew " controversy, the impact of feminism, the rise of Orthodox neighborhoods in formerly secular Jewish suburbs. He concludes that what he calls the "Orthodox model" has triumphed; this is not to say that the Orthodox themselves have prevailed, or that that denomination will alone survive on these shores; but rather that the portion of American Jewry that will flourish in the future is the portion that has accepted the central premise of Orthodoxy, that religion defines Jewish identity, which by the way, also characterizes Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform. As I see it, the real war that has been going on is one of self-definition, not between Orthodox and non-Orthodox, but rather between American Jews and Jewish Americans – and the Jewish Americans have won. Freedman writes, "From the time massive Jewish immigration to America began in the late 19th century, religious Jews feared that the new land would undermine faith. Instead, we see now, it undermined faithlessness."
So, bazman hazeh, we see surveys showing that while ritual observance has increased slightly over the last half century, ethnic identification has plummeted in almost every measurable way, from affinity with Israel to membership in Jewish institutions to friendships with fellow Jews. Only religion is enabling Jews to feel Jewish and motivating them to raise Jewish children and grandchildren. Guilt and chicken soup don’t do it anymore. This has created a different kind of dividing line, between a core of American Jewry oriented around religion and a periphery clinging to the eroding elements of ethnicity, drifting ever further away.
We often read about these fault lines: core and periphery, Orthodox and secular, religious and ethnic. But we live in a real world in the here and now, where the lines aren’t drawn so clearly. People shift swiftly from the periphery to the core, and vice versa, and religion means different things to people at various points in their lives. This comes through clearly in a new survey of Jewish Americans done by Bethamie Horowitz of Brandeis. Freedman fails to take into account this fluidity, as well as the massive impact of the Internet on bringing people back to greater Jewish literacy and attachment to community. I know, for instance, that the Jewish Outreach Institute, which has a web site appealing primarily to interfaith families who feel shunned by synagogues, routinely gets 300 visits a day. This organization has done incredible outreach work, and I am proud that we will have its founder, Egon Mayer, as our scholar in residence this spring. Yes, we’re losing Jews, lots of them. But others are finding their way back. It’s a two way street. But the way they are finding to come back – let’s make this clear – is through religion. That’s the only form of Jewish identification that sticks.
And then there’s the Lieberman factor. Last week I spoke of his impact on religion in the public square; well aside from saving America from the religious right, I think our man Joe just might be able to save American Jewry from itself. Why? Not because he’s Orthodox, but because he isn’t. Matt Drudge squawked when he heard that Joe was drinking water on Tisha B’Av on a 100-degree day in Atlanta. There’s been some muted complaining about Lieberman’s compassionate but inaccurate statements about intermarriage. He probably should stay away from sticky religious matters, since he is not running for vice-Rabbi; but for the most part, even right wing rabbis have given him an incredible amount of slack on this, because, although he isn’t truly orthodox, he is the best thing to happen to the image of Orthodoxy since the invention of the knitted kipah. Last week the New York Times editorialized on how the boundaries of Jewish law itself are being stretched by unprecedented questions that are now facing us. Do you answer the hotline on Shabbat if Putin is calling? Of course you do. So he has already had a liberalizing impact on Orthodoxy; meanwhile, liberal rabbis love him because he transcends all the labels.
And so, on the first Shabbat following the Democratic convention, while Gore was steaming down the Mississippi, Joe and Hadassah walked a mile and a half from the Radisson hotel to a Conservative shul in LaCrosse Wisconsin, Congregation Sons of Israel, the only synagogue in town. He talked to neighbors all along the route as they stepped outside their houses, most likely just a little bit surprised. And then he went in to the synagogue and all the reporters and cameras waited outside. "The Sabbath’s a private time for his faith and his family," said Lieberman’s press secretary. And the news story ended with the assertion that regardless of the cost of his not campaigning one day every week, Americans will respect this clear display of commitment to religion above political ambition. And: a side benefit. Where on Friday, Lieberman’s voice had been raw and hoarse, on Sunday, when he rejoined Gore in Moline, his voice was back to normal.
With stories like that one beginning to proliferate in the media, Senator Lieberman has reminded American Jews just how wonderful it can be to be a Jewish American. And he has done it in a pluralistic way. He has shown us how to be inclusive, while still strongly affirming faith, how to embrace change and globalism while at the same time drawing strength from traditional practices. His walking on Shabbat makes him a role model for commitment, his walking to a Conservative shul makes him a role model for pluralism, and his drinking a little water on Tisha B’Av makes him a role model for moderation and compromise.
We Jews have a unique opportunity to teach the world all these things, about faith and tradition, outreach and love, pluralism and compromise. It’s true, the ethnic era is over, that’s behind us. That is why it is so essential that the American synagogue is being transformed into something so compelling that even the most jaded secularist might find spiritual sustenance here. We’ll have the chance to strengthen our own communal bonds at our Congregational Shabbaton at Holiday Hills this coming January. There we’ll share time together, eat, laugh, play, think, talk, pray, sing, all generations, from the youngest to the oldest. It will solidify our community like nothing we’ve seen before. And we’ll hear from one of the world’s foremost experts on American Jewish life, Dr Jack Wertheimer, Provost of the Jewish Theological Seminary, who will be our guest scholar for the weekend, and Deborah Katchko Zimmerman, familiar to so many around here, who will be our guest song leader.
If we can teach ourselves how to be models of menschlichkite, learning how to love God, love our neighbors and love ourselves, we truly can become a light unto the nations.
And once we learn how to show love within our own family, we can begin to share it with our more distant cousins. This has been a terrible week in that regard. A sad week for those of us still clinging to the vision of peaceful coexistence in the Middle East. Many rabbis throughout the country spent this past week tearing up their sermons and writing new ones to come to grips with the fast-changing situation. Indeed, part of living in Z’man hazeh is that things change so quickly that we don’t even know what is happening in Israel in this exact moment, only that this is the most foreboding Yom Kippur there, and here, since 1973. But the message of this sermons still stands, that to live baz’man hazeh, in the moment, means, for the Jew, to be able to balance an often cruel really with vision and hope. That’s what they did in Terezin (see Rosh Hashanah sermon for day 2), and if they could do it, so can we. So must we.
And despite all evidence to the contrary, there is good news out there. Even through the recrimination, some hope is beginning to shine through. We’ve seen this year how the pope’s visit to Israel was reciprocated by a statement from Jewish leaders calling upon Jews to join hands in partnership and mutual respect with the Christian world. And even between Jews and Arabs, there is hope, as illustrated by this story:
Just a few weeks ago, in early August, Omri Jadah, a Palestinian was accorded the funeral of a martyr. Over 7,000 carried his coffin aloft through the streets of his dusty village. He was a hero. But unlike so many martyrs who came before him, he wasn’t lionized because he killed Jews, but because he saved one. The 24-year-old construction worker lost his life rescuing an Israeli child from drowning in the Sea of Galilee. Jadah and a cousin had spent the afternoon barbecuing kebabs on the beach, napping, and swimming. They were packing up to leave when they spotted a 6-year-old boy flailing in the lake and screaming for help. Jadah swam out and towed the child back to the shore, fighting a strong current. Another Palestinian took the child from Jadah's arms and returned him unharmed to his mother. But Jadah, exhausted from the effort, was dragged toward the center of the lake by a strong undertow. By the time he was brought back to shore, he was in a coma. He died two days later, leaving behind a 2-year-old son, a 10-month-old daughter, and a pregnant 23-year-old widow.
Jadah's heroism turns on its heels some of the conventional assumptions about relations between Israelis and Palestinians. What was remarkable was not just the individual act of bravery but the seemingly universal acclaim it has received in a community where most of the heroes were those killed fighting Israelis, not rescuing them. "Politics is one thing, but a human life is another," said Jadah’s father, receiving visitors during the mourning period. "We are all born the same, without nationality or religion." Jadah's widow, Kifaya, rail-thin even in her seventh month of pregnancy, nodded her approval.
The Palestinian press has written glowingly of his feat -- Jadah was featured in a two-page color spread in Fosta, a popular glossy magazine, under the headline "The Story of Omri and the Jewish boy." Yasser Arafat sent his condolences to the family, as did Prime Minister Barak. "Everything is possible among the ordinary people," said an uncle, Abdullah Ghana Radah. "Even if the politicians, can't make peace, we can."
There are partners out there, even now, even if Yasser Arafat is apparently not one of them. There is true hope for global reconciliation, baz’man hazeh, if we can begin that process here at home, and among our own people. If only we can figure out how to bring an end to Jew vs. Jew, if peace can make it here, among the Jews, then peace can make it anywhere. It will almost seem easy to bring about a historic reconciliation between the Jews and our historic enemies. But it must begin here – within the family, with our love fo rfellow Jews here and our unbending support for our brothers and sisters in Israel.
And that is why the world needs us. Because we Jews are always experimenting with new ways to bring sanctity and harmony into the here and now. Ours is a dynamic tradition. We comb the Torah again and again, and delve into the Talmud, Midrash and Zohar for guidance. Ours is a good way, when it is truly followed, a way of pleasantness, a path to peace, unclouded by illusion, based in reality, flexible and fluid, strengthened by tradition, buoyed by hope, yet anchored to the present.
And now, as we enter the New Year, can this possibly be the year when even Jerusalem will finally see peace? We look for guidance to the model set out in Genesis Rabbah (56:10), an early fifth century collection of Midrash. Looking at the verse we discussed last week, where Abraham calls the place of the Akedah "Adonai Yireh," "God will show me a vision," the Midrash notes that the exact same spot was claimed generations before by Noah’s son Shem, who called it "Shalem." One holy place, two names, two nations. What’s a God to do? Said the Holy One, blessed be He: ‘If I call it Yireh as did Abraham, then Shem, a righteous man, will resent it; while if I call it Shalem as did Shem, Abraham, the righteous man, will resent it. Hence I will call it Jerusalem, including both names, Jireh Shalem. Jerusalem, the city of peace, city of different names, got its universal name through an act of compromise and outreach. If only the Arabs could see this. If only. Then the spirit of Omri Jada might have a chance to live on.
And one final story. This of a Holocaust survivor, a woman from Hungary, who told her tale to Steven Spielberg’s Survivor’s project and was featured in the award winning movie, "The Last Days." In this incredibly moving film, she speaks of one day at Auschwitz, how she had just witnessed yet another mass execution. And she thought: "They’ve taken my identity, they’ve taken my parents, they’ve taken my siblings, they’ve taken my possessions. They won’t even let us die when we choose. Why are they doing this? There is something that they want from me. What could it possibly be that they want so badly that they don’t already have?" And then she realized. "They wanted my soul. I said: they’re not going to take my soul. I decided then and there to get up from this mud and fight – that I was not going to become ashes."
The world looks to us as never before, and not just on the grand stages of Camp David, the Knesset or the campaign trail. The world is watching us, because it is fascinated by our ways. Let our ways be ways of pleasantness. The world is in awe of the indominable Jewish soul. Let us be worthy of that awe. These are indeed miraculous times. And we have a pivotal role to play, not as American Jews, but as Jewish Americans.
Next year, God willing, we will all be here, though we know that not even God can assure us of that. But we can be sure that this room will be full once again, and our congregation even larger and more vibrant; the room will be filled with people who have tales to tell about the miracles that brought them to this moment, this place of meeting, and all the places they’ve been and returned from safely, and all the excruciating decisions made or put off, all the paths that changed course midway, all the loves lost and gained. And together we will all say the Shehechianu prayer, and drop our jaws in utter astonishment at our good fortune merely to be alive. And we’ll understand, even more fully than now, what it means to be a spiritual Jew, a Jew who is truly Jewish. We’ll feel closer to one another and to God. And to the world, we shall be a blessing. Shehechianu, V’kiyemanu, V’higiyanu, Laz’man hazeh…