Monday, April 29, 2013
High Holidays Sermons 5764: The Invisible Fence
Rosh Hashanah Day One
The Invisible Fence
It’s always great to take stock at a time like this, and this has been an eventful time for the Hammerman family. This fall actually marks my 20th year in the rabbinate. It’s scary to think that I’m roughly halfway from rabbinical school to retirement, and how quickly the time has gone by. There’s a college sophomore in this room today who last saw me give a High Holidays sermon when he was three. The next Rosh Hashanah came I had left Peekskill N.Y. to go to a far off place called Stamford, and he looked up at the new clergy on the pulpit and yelled out, in the middle of services, “That’s not my rabbi. Where’s my rabbi?” Well, Aaron. Here I am. A little grayer, maybe a little wiser. But still your rabbi. And I guess that says something about both of us.
We had a nice family reunion this past summer on the occasion of my mother’s 80th birthday – so Happy Birthday, Mom. My sister was in from Israel – and many of you have commented about the moving e-mails she has sent me from “the front,” over the past year. We’ll be continuing the correspondence in the very near future. I look forward to seeing her and her family in November as I go over there with about 50 people from Stamford and Greenwich on our combined mission, and God willing again next summer on our Beth El Family trip. Mara passed a key milestone this year – she now spends more time in this building than I do (in addition to her other work) – and probably has a greater impact on the lives of many of our young people. She’s accumulating many fans, but none can appreciate her half as much as I do. My children are growing up to be very, very special young men. You’ll have the chance to see Daniel’s High Holidays debut tomorrow; I am so proud of him and also need to take this opportunity to say that he had a fabulous summer at Camp Ramah. The camp is just so full of love and creativity and pride in being Jewish – everything we try to be here. I hope that more and more of our families will consider it for your children. Meanwhile, talk about time flying, I’m equally proud of Ethan, who will become Bar Mitzvah here next February 21st. And I almost never have to remind him to practice! So, you’re all invited. Now, the caterer has requested that I call for a show of hands today so we can get an accurate count. Seriously. The life of a clergy person a very public one, and it is so important to put up the proper barriers to protect our privacy; but when it comes to the Bar Mitzvah of my child who was born here, we’re not about to skimp on the guest list. You’ve all had so much to do with Ethan’s childhood; we really would have it no other way. The boundaries are important; but sometimes they are not necessary.
So it’s been quite a year. But I’m leaving the best for last. You may have heard that we had a new addition to our family since last High Holidays. He’s got black, curly hair, weighs about 65 pounds and his bark is far worse than his bite. Crosby is a standard poodle who just loves everything that moves. So we were worried that he might come to love the cars on Roxbury Road a little too much, and we decided to install what they call an “invisible fence.” It’s a lovely name. I guess the people in marketing decided against calling it the “Electro-shock Dog Zapper” or “Stalag Fido.” In case you are wondering, we are right now on the outside of that fence. Crosby is on the inside. Training Crosby with the special collar was not easy. We all have those “this will hurt me more than it hurts you” moments with our loved ones, but I’m reasonably sure it hurt him more than it hurt me. The jolt might have been invisible, but it was very real. And within a few sessions, Crosby was trained.
The ironic thing is that now that he has been restricted to the area within the fence, Crosby has been liberated – and he’s happier than ever. He can run free all over the yard, while before he had to be on the leash. And while he might occasionally look forlornly at the green grass on the other side of that invisible barrier, he leaps and barks far, far away from the dangers of Roxbury Road. Even if he were to shed the special collar, he would still stay behind the invisible fence. One might call it force of habit – or one could call it structure and security.
There was that one time he was so excited to see the cantor’s daughters that he leaped across the line. So there was Crosby, suddenly on the other side of the fence, off leash, free to do whatever he wanted. He could have run to Norwalk if he wanted, or joined the circus, or hopped a flight to Paris, where the poodles run the show. But he froze, for just a second, in discombobulated disbelief. Mr. Liberated High and Mighty Poodle was not so happy after all.
It’s not just dogs, of course, who prosper from living within limits. Robert Frost is not the only one to understand that good fences make good neighbors. The controversial security fence being built in Israel right now roughly along the 1967 borders will cost millions of dollars, but in Israel it isn’t controversial at all. The vast majority supports the Seam Zone, as Israelis call it, across party lines, with some major differences as to the exact route; but no one disputes its effectiveness. Over the past two horrible years, not a single suicide attack by Palestinian terrorist on Israel proper has originated in Gaza, where there has long been a fence. Infiltration from Lebanon, where there is a similar fence, is nearly impossible. In November our Stamford mission plans to visit a part of the fence near our long-suffering sister city of Afula. Afula is a much safer place to be right now, as is much of the coastal megalopolis. I won’t dwell on the security fence here, but I do highly recommend a terrific Israeli government Web site on the Seam Zone, as they call it, filled with detailed maps and explanations. I will include the link when I post this sermon to our tbe.org Web site early next week. Please look at it – you need to be informed.
Good fences make good neighbors – and no fences make for chaos. This past summer, Crosby wasn’t the only Hammerman to feel the tug of an invisible fence. For the first time, both Daniel and Ethan were at overnight camp for an extended period of several weeks. When they were dropped off Mara and I looked at each other and realized that we didn’t have to go home! There was something very disconcerting about the sudden freedom we had, not having to worry about getting a baby sitter, about being able to go out for dinner without having to make elaborate preparations weeks ahead of time. But we managed…
When I left home for college, I looked forward to relaxing some of the ritual practices I had grown up with. It was my freshman ten – I shed 10 mitzvahs. But I soon found myself missing the intimacy of being with family and community on Shabbat. The restrictions that had been imposed on me in my youth became my chosen anchor during those turbulent college years. My observance level was still more relaxed than it had been, but the rhythm of my week still revolved around Shabbat dinners at Hillel.
People react strangely to sudden liberation. When the ancient Israelites were freed from Egypt the first thing they did was loot and pillage. Just a few weeks ago I read about an Egyptian, Dr. Nabil Hilmi, who is filing a lawsuit against "all the Jews of the world" for recovery of property allegedly stolen during the Exodus. According to Dr. Hilmi's mathematical computations, which include an annual doubling in value of the material in question, 1,125 trillion tons of gold are owed by the Jews for each of the 300 tons he estimates was taken. And that doesn't include interest, which he claims, without explanation, should be calculated for 5758 years.
Dr. Hilmi knows his Bible, but evidently he does not know his Talmud. The Talmud tells of precisely such a claim lodged over 2000 years ago in a world court of sorts presided over by none other than Alexander the Great. The story is recounted in Sanhedrin 91a, where it is recorded that one Geviha ben Pesisa responded on the Jews' behalf. There Geviha responded to those very same accusations also by invoking the Torah, and asking for compensation for all the man-hours labored by 600,000 Jews during the 430 years of Egyptian slavery. The Egyptians, the Talmud continues, then asked Alexander for three days during which to formulate a response. The recess was granted but the representatives, finding no counter-argument, never returned.
The Jews owe the Egyptians nothing, but neither does that justify the looting that did take place at that time. The exact same thing happened in Iraq this year. That incredible scene of April 9, the most indelible image of this past year, of Saddam’s statue being pulled down, was one we all cheered and an image I’ll return to throughout these Holy Days. But the anarchy hardly stopped at that square. Trying to impose order on Iraq was impossible once that genie had been let loose from the bottle. So at the same time the statue came down, we were seeing scenes of massive looting on such a grand scale as to be almost comical – except that it was so tragic. I tuned in the news one evening and saw an Iraqi walking down the street literally carrying in his arms the kitchen sink. This is what happens when you suddenly take away the invisible fence.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not a big fan of dictatorships. Slavery is not a good thing. But fences can be.
So I was looking for an anniversary card last June down at the Hallmark store and came across this beaut: “To My Wife – Even after all this time in captivity – I love you.” I did not buy it. Yes, people complain about marriage, using expressions like “the old ball and chain.” People complain all the time – except me. I’m totally happy. But we need that invisible fence. Monogamous marriage trains humans much like Crosby has been trained. Maybe some of the same technology can be employed. I can just see it now: “Marriage Zapper – Simply slip this collar around your spouse’s neck and let him roam freely.” But seriously, monogamy was one of the best things ever invented. They even practice it in Utah. It teaches us self discipline. We learn loyalty. We learn not always to be grabbing for more, but to be satisfied with what we have. Just as with the Invisible Fence, it teaches us not to mess up someone else’s backyard.
Yet I was fascinated to discover that monogamous societies are the exception rather than the rule. Among mammals, only about 5% of species practice it. And among human societies, according to Murdoch’s Ethnographic Atlas, over 72% permit multi-spousal relationships. Judaism didn’t climb on this bandwagon until Rabbenu Gershom banned polygamy in the tenth century, and some non Western Jews continued the practice until the 20th century. But monogamy was already predominant in many Jewish communities much earlier and Talmudic law set firm boundaries on marriage especially to protect women. Judaism calls marriage the ultimate act of holiness – Kiddushin – and that is symbolized by the drawing of boundaries – the circling that is often down under the huppah is really the marking of a holy boundary, enclosing and protecting the couple within that sacred space. It seems clear, though, that left on our own, without that invisible fence symbolized by the wedding ring human beings would be much more naturally inclined to swap spouses like so many baseball cards.
You know, this Invisible Fence idea was actually invented by our tradition. There is something called an Eruv, that somewhat physical but primarily metaphysical boundary within which traditional Jews can carry on Shabbat. The Talmud also instructs us in Pirke Avot to build a fence around the Torah. It is called a “syag l’Torah.” And why build that fence, you ask? So we can have a sefer Torah!
The idea was that we should consciously avoid behaviors that might place us in a position where we could violate a law of the Torah. Traditionally, this principle has been cited as a justification for everything from the lighting of Shabbat candles 18 minutes before sunset, to the Ashkenazic prohibition of legumes on Passover to the separation of milk and meat. The Torah says nothing about two sets of dishes. It just says we can’t cook a goat in its mother’s milk. The rabbis instituted the separation of milk and meat pots and pans so that there would be no possibility that anyone, even accidentally, would boil a kid in the milk of its own mother. The Torah doesn’t say chicken is meat, by the way. But God forbid you should mistake a chicken cutlet for a veal cutlet and mistakenly boil the veal in its mother’s milk, so the rabbis placed chicken in the meat category for just that reason. That’s how s’yag l’Torah works, expanding upon the Torah. It often seems arbitrary, and in some cases Jews have gone much too far, such as with the concept of “glatt” kosher for example, but the principle is sound. The rabbis had little trust in human nature. They had good reason. They lived in a time where people had little self-control. Not much has changed.
Of course, if the rabbis lived today, things would be much simpler. No need for a fence around the Torah. If we mistakenly eat veal thinking it’s a chicken, no problem. Simply sue the veal for impersonating a chicken!
That’s what people are doing today. So what do you do when you eat McDonald’s French fries five times a day for twenty five years and you wake up one morning and discover you can’t fit through the door? Of course, you sue McDonalds. If a kid is eating a dozen Oreo cookies a day because Nabisco and Kraft foods is promoting obesity through deceptive advertising aimed at children, of course, you sue the company. Blame McDonalds, blame Kraft – it’s their fault, not mine.
Do I like the kind of advertising I see on children’s television? Of course not. Do I like what is getting through all the invisible fences we try to put up on the Internet? Of course, not. Do I like the increasing violence and promiscuity that we are seeing in movies, TV programs and music videos directed at our children? Of course not. But it is up to us to build the firewalls and filters, not to blame others for failing to do our work. We’ve spent so much time knocking down the fences of others that we’ve neglected to build up any of our own. We have to set proper limits and live within them.
Americans are obese, we hear, especially children. I see that as a spiritual problem. Now don’t get me wrong – there are plenty of religious people who are fat. A 1998 Purdue University study found that religious people are more likely to be overweight than other Americans. I think a perfect solution would be to install treadmills at the morning minyan. I spotted this dieter’s prayer on Beliefnet:
Lord my soul is ripped with riot
Incited by my wicked diet
I want to rise on Judgment day, that’s plain
But at my present weight I’ll need a crane.
So grant me the strength that I may not fall
Into the clutches of cholesterol.
Give me this day my daily slice
But cut it thin and toast it twice.
And crisp fried chicken from the South
Lord if you love me, SHUT MY MOUTH!
Compulsive behavior is not something that can be controlled simply by building an invisible fence around the refrigerator. That having been said, obesity is a spiritual problem because eating is a profoundly religious activity. And exercising self control in our eating is precisely what the Torah is getting at. Like other religious activities, eating and dieting are all consuming activities, so to speak, regulated, challenging, difficult, requiring an incredible amount of self control; and above all, life affirming, making us acutely aware of every morsel that is going on into our bodies. I know many people who are glatt dieters. Some follow the Pritiker Rebbe. Some follow Reb Phil. Some follow the Atkinser. I follow the small planeter rebbe, with a few allowances for Cape Cod potato chips. People bring their first fruits to the priests of Weight Watchers, weighing in or depositing our cholesterol samples. Eating is a profoundly religious act, and if I ever needed to be reminded of that, I realized it once again a few weeks ago when I was inundated with responses to an e-mail request for the best brisket in town. I was reminded that the primary way we transmit Jewish culture, including our religion, is through the stomach. When we exercise self control in our eating, when we have conquered our impulses, we feel good. "Who is a hero? Pirke Avot asks, "The one who conquers temptation."
If that’s what makes a hero, Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav was a superhero. Reb Nachman would go to extremes to torture his body. He would fast for days on end, because he so loved to eat, and in this way he learned to control his hunger. Legend has it that he would roll naked in the snow to control his physical desires (and this is without having a hot tub on the backyard). But the most amazing thing about Reb Nachman, in his own estimation, is that he never scratched himself. I kid you not. Never. Imagine a mosquito bite and the itch is just crawling up your arm – and not doing anything about it. The Torah doesn’t command us not to scratch. And the man suffered quite abit in his life. Through all of this, Reb Nachman of Bratzlav said, “My suffering is always in my power.” When things became unbearable, he simply could will away the pain.
That is a true source of happiness – to have complete control of our impulses and claim absolute responsibility for our actions; to have the choke collar taken off and without needing the invisible fence anymore because we have reached the highest spiritual peak; to not even be tempted to mess up the lawn next door. Nachman was in such control that he didn’t even need the Torah any more, much less a fence around it. The mitzvot are nothing but training wheels to a life of holiness, but who needs training wheels when you can already fly?
It is not at all surprising that, those who most embraced the permissiveness of the 60s and 70s are among those seeking new spiritual discipline in their lives today. Even Ozzie Osborn has admitted that his and his wife Sharon's parenting skills are to blame for their son Jack's drug addiction problem, which saw him undergo rehabilitation earlier this year. Earlier this month, the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia released a study revealing that teens who eat dinner with their parents twice a week or less are four times more likely to smoke cigarettes, three times more likely to smoke marijuana and nearly twice as likely to drink as those who eat dinner with their parents six to seven times a week. Communities are now trying to institute designated family dinner nights. As everyone knows who has tried to schedule an appointment with me or call our home at 6:00, the dinner hour is one fence I’ve built around the family. Sometimes the conversation around the table is less than scintillating. And we are almost always in a hurry. But we do it.
Some people aren’t looking to gain control over their lives through family dinners. In fact they are choosing to avoid dinner altogether. According to the New York Times, a growing number of people are opting for the ultimate diet by fasting. What we’re all going to be doing next week on Yom Kippur for free, people are paying an arm and a leg for at trendy spas. Go to the Tree of Life Rejuvenation Center in Patagonia Arizona, or to the We Care Spa and Desert Hot Springs California, and you can fast with Liv Tyler and Ben Affleck. It costs $3,484 a week to go there and not eat! That’s twice synagogue dues, and we throw in a weekly Kiddush! But people feel good not eating, as they cleanse their bodies of toxins and their souls of excess.
It feels great to be in control. It feels great to discover a power of self discipline that we didn’t know existed in us. It feels great to voluntarily construct the fence, to choose to limit our freedom in order to achieve fulfillment. Americans are craving to control their craving. And that is what makes Judaism does – for those who choose to bring it into their lives. And that is precisely why the Kosher food industry is booming nationwide right now. In the Kosher food industry had $45 billion in sales – by last year that number had ballooned to $165 billion. Recently, even Campbell’s vegetarian vegetable soup hopped on the kosher bandwagon. A Kosher lifestyle is seen by many as healthier and more disciplined. And it is. It is one of the great ironies of our time that the best cure for the sickness of obesity, the discipline of diet, comes from same people who gave the world kishke and schmaltz.
We feel great not only about conquering food cravings but all addiction, to become the master of all that tempts us. That’s why 12 step programs are all spiritual in nature, including the Jewish one called JACS -- you can find it at JACsweb.org. I recommend it highly. I must emphasize that that many of us cannot overcome addiction without help and we all need to help one another. We must be compassionate, to others and forgiving of ourselves. On the other hand, we must attack the permissive nature of our culture head on by fencing it off.
We are all understandably wary about giving up freedom. But the opposite of freedom is not necessarily slavery. And that’s the mistake so many of us make. We so fear giving up our freedom that we fail to recognize that our freedom is empty and meaningless if it is not accompanied by commitment. Freedom without limits is a prescription for anarchy. We saw it in Baghdad. We saw it in the ‘60s here. And we are seeing it in Judaism. The primal Jewish activity is the act of setting limits and setting things apart. That’s what the word Kedusha means. The first divine act of Creation was that of separation. God turned on the lights and immediately began to build boundaries, between earth and heavens, land and sea, night and day, Sabbath and weekday, sacred and profane. Without such distinctions, Judaism becomes as murky as the primordial heavens. The Ten Commandments become ten suggestions, wrong becomes right and everyone starts binging on Twinkies. If the only boundary that we care about is the Wall of Separation between church and state, as important as that is, then we are neglecting, to our irreparable loss, that fence around the Torah.
And so, I am asking each of us to build an invisible fence. Voluntarily. Break a habit this week. Or at least begin to. Take one small step to sever a pattern of destructive behavior. Find a way to bring more structure into your lives. Better yet, find a Jewish way. Rediscover the deep wisdom of the rhythms of Jewish time. Let that wisdom nurture your soul. I’m not asking for a New Year’s resolution, which usually gets dropped by January 3rd, but for deeper Teshuvah, which could change your life. Start with something small. Try to overcome those things that stifle positive change – embarrassment, denial, guilt, misplaced anger or mere inertia. Let us help. Let me help.
Today, Crosby is a very happy dog. He has his fence; he has his crate; he loves them both, but he is nobody’s slave. Next February, when Ethan steps up to this bima to embrace the Torah, he will become part of that security fence protecting the people Israel, linking arms with all who have come before and all who will follow. And it will be his choice to do it – and he can choose not to do it. No one will force him. No one will do it for him. But we will all pray for him and for his classmates, as we do here week after week in a never ending drama, each Shabbat morning filled with the joy and pain of generational transition and spiritual renewal. Most of all, on that day next February, I will be celebrating not Ethan’s right to choose but that he will have made the right choice.
May we all make that choice, the only choice that matters: the choice of commitment.
Power and its Limitations
The year that has just ended was filled with images of triumph and heartbreak. But no image left a more indelible mark on us than the scene we saw live from Baghdad last April 9. We saw it with our own eyes -- the jubilant Iraqis tying a noose around a huge statue of Saddam Hussein in al-Fadus Square; we saw them as they pelted it with shoes; we saw the American soldiers join in and the crowds cheer as men struck the statue's base with sledge hammers, then some climbed the statue, a monument to Saddam's birthday, and placed a rope around the neck in preparation to topple it. And we saw the Abrams tank pull away and the idol fall. First halfway, as if the idol itself were bowing to some higher power, and then it clanked to the ground and the humiliation was complete.
It was a scene reminiscent of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The end, at long last, the end of the despot, an event that would mark the beginning of a new era for Iraq, the region and the world.
It was an unforgettable scene, and one that springs to mind especially on Rosh Hashanah, when we belt out the potent refrain at the conclusion of the Alenu, the dream that on that day, on THIS day, only God will be Lord of all universe and on that day, idolatry will cease and all humanity will be One. This was one of those Kodak moments of harmonic convergence, of pure good crushing pure evil.
We were bathed in ecstasy last April the 9th. It all was going so well: Saddam's mighty military machine – gone; civilian casualties – minimized; our troops – safe from chemical weapons; oil wells - not ablaze, the Turks and Kurds at peace, the Israelis not hit by a single Scud, no suicide bombers in America's shopping malls. The Iraqis: eternally grateful; the terrorists: on the run:
“Believe me, I have waited for this moment for 35 years," said Majid Mohammed, an electrical engineer. "You must bring these words to the American people. Thank you, thank you very, very much."
So where are we today, just about half a year later? More US troops have died in Iraq since the war ended than died in the war itself. The US has some sound ideas for bringing about progress in the Middle East, but Yasser Arafat doesn’t seem to be listening. The US has some imaginative plans for the rebuilding of Iraq, but the Europeans don’t seem to be listening. The US has some lofty ideas as to how democracy can rescue bankrupt societies, but California doesn’t seem to be listening.
What we have, in short, is a mess.
It’s a mess – but a well-intentioned mess. If there is such a thing, and there is, it’s a good mess. The alternative, not making a mess, would have been worse. The key to cleaning up the mess is to recognize the power that has been placed in our hands, and also be cognizant of the limits of that power. I want to talk with you today about power and its limits. That is the subject that overwhelms all others on this Rosh Hashanah of 5764:
In mid August, my family took that great journey that Americans have undertaken since the days of Lewis and Clarke. We went to the national parks out West. Then, for a change of pace, we spent a couple of days in Las Vegas, following in the footsteps of Lewis and Martin. During those two weeks, we experienced immeasurable expressions of divine power, countless wonders, enough to make you shake with trepidation and bend the knee with awe. I carried around the blessings card that you find at your seats, which I got from the Jewish environmental organization called Hazon that sponsors bike rides in Israel and New York, and my challenge to my kids before the vacation was to see if we could have the chance to recite every blessing of wonder found on the card before the trip was done. They told me to “chill,” (we HAD to take this trip with a rabbi??) but then joined me in the quest.
The fist stop is Yellowstone and we find ourselves standing in a living, bubbling caldera – the earth is literally breathing, it is spitting up water, it is gurgling, it is making the most god awful gaseous smells; like a baby. The land, quite literally, is coming alive.
All around me is devastation – the most beautiful devastation I’ve ever seen, miles and miles of ashen, burnt out trees, destroyed by the wildfires of 1988, fires that became catastrophic because generations of our hubris prevented nature from taking its course. In the brush there are young trees, sprouting up amidst the devastation fragrant and pure. I recite the blessing on fragrant trees, boray atzei besamim.
I stand by Yellowstone Lake looking out on Saturday night, as wildfires rage over the east entrance to the park. Two intermingled bursts of flame lighting the distant sky with God’s power look like some heavenly havdalah candle. I hum the Havdalah melody as the smoke hovers overhead. We see lots of glorious creatures in Yellowstone, bald eagles and falcons, and herds of bison all across the hillsides. We actually see a place where the deer and the antelope play. So I recite the blessing for extraordinary creatures.
We drive through the Grand Tetons where snowcapped mountains pierce the sky – good for another blessing, the first one, oseh ma’ase breisheet, “Who makes the works of creation.” Mountains have the power to awaken an overwhelming sense of the sacred. We stop in Jackson Hole where they thank God daily for designer cowboy boots.
A few days later we are on our way to Zion National Park driving through Southern Utah, into some mountains where the clouds are ominous and thick, and the lightning perilously close. The rain clouds engulf the mountains out West, something I’m not used to seeing here, though I’ve seen it in Jerusalem many times. And with the wind kicking up something awful, we stop at a Dairy Queen along the interstate and ask the cashier if there are tornadoes in these parts. She says yes, but don’t worry, they are usually not too bad. At this point I’m ready to pick up Toto and run for cover. We make it through the storm, but we later find out that the same storm flooded Las Vegas, turning it into Venice. Coincidently, when we left Yellowstone we had just missed an earthquake. I’m feeling very lucky, but keenly aware of my own smallness. On a daily basis, I am witnessing earthquakes, floods, wildfires, and the most gorgeous sunrises and sunsets I’ve ever seen. To be standing at Bryce canyon with these human – like rock formations, whom the Native Americans call “legend people,” who were turned to stone because of their sins, is to be reminded of how sin can turn human hearts to stone. And to be in at the canyon floor of Zion National Park or at the rim of the Grand Canyon is to know what it must have been like to be at the shores of the Red Sea.
What’s totally natural appears supernatural, perfection and balance painted on an enormous canvas. As the writer Linda Hogan has written, “The cure for soul sickness, is not in books. It is written in the bark of a tree, in the moonlit silence of night, in the bank of a river and the water's motion. The cure is outside ourselves."
By the time we reached the Grand Canyon, we had been able to recite each blessing on the card, including that all important one you may have noticed for going to the bathroom; we even drove through some hail, which has a different blessing not on the card, and we saw Mars, closer to earth than ever before – so we had experienced every blessing except the one for a rainbow. All we needed was the rainbow. Looking over the south rim, I could see a beautiful sunset, and right next to it, a thunderstorm. There had to be a rainbow, somewhere. And sure enough, Mara noticed it first, over to the right, miles and miles from the thundercloud, there it was, a rainbow. It was about 7 o clock on Friday evening. We recited the final blessing, and the Sabbath began. Now I could put the blessing card down and God could rest. But the miracles never stop, and they never fail to shock and awe.
Back on the first day of the trip, just after I watched Old Faithful burst out with steam shooting up into the sky, I tried to call home for messages, but my machine back didn’t pick up. Only later did I find our why. While I was in the midst of experiencing the greatest power display on earth, the entire east coast had been thrown into darkness. 50 million people stood helpless in the August heat, victims not of divine power but of a terrible man made hubris.
Where were you when the lights went out? I was at Old Faithful, where there were no subways, no high rise elevators, no cable TV. I was at Yellowstone, where the sky was being lit up by the stars and the forests illumined by a thousand degrees of conflagration. And I felt vulnerable, but empowered, knowing that a power far greater than I has bathed me in enormous responsibility. Where were you when the lights went out? Were you in the subway? In an elevator? In the kitchen, with suddenly nothing to cook, but a lifetime to thaw? Were you sweating, exposed to the elements with no a/c? Were you at the airport, grounded? Or stuck in the air? Were you in a hospital, at the mercy of tightly rationed auxiliary generators? Did you feel vulnerable? Did you fear terrorism? Did you understand, did you finally understand, just how limited we are? The power grid is a perfect symbol of our hubris, of our presumed power, and of how instantly it all can come tumbling down.
On September 3, Congress reconvened and Louisiana Republican Billy Tauzin, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, wasted no time in opening two days of showcase hearings on the biggest power failure in history. Ironically, a temporary audio failure in the hearing room muffled most of what the chairman had to say. On the day I was writing these lines at home, I couldn’t transmit it to my computer at the temple because our server was down.
Yes, this year we have all been humbled by the limits of our authority. The world’s greatest superpower has thus far failed to defeat small guerrilla armies of terrorists despite its military capability to shock and awe. We have touched the moon and seen through Hubble’s eyes the farthest reaches of the universe, but we lacked the wherewithal to check the underside of Columbia’s wing before reentry. We have developed he ability to create artificial life, but we couldn’t save a set of adult conjoined twins. We have seen loved ones suffer and die, we’ve seen the rich and famous succumb to these same diseases, as well, and we’ve been powerless to prevent it. Again and again we’ve been reminded of our limits.
Power and its limitations are a prime concern of a central prayer of the High Holiday and daily liturgy, the Aleynu. This magnificent prayer speaks of a future time when all humanity will be united under a single standard of morality and goodness, enhancing the prospects of harmony and peace. It doesn’t promise that we’ll get there soon, but asserts that it is our responsibility to make progress toward that end – that’s what the word Aleynu means; “it is up to us,” but that responsibility is a long-term, multi-generational contract, requiring patience and persistence.
And the prayer gives us enormous license to exercise that power. We too often speed through the second paragraph of the Aleynu, but there we see a prime goal of Judaism as being “l’taken olam bmalchut shaddai,” to repair the world, to prefect the word, under divine sovereignty. Tikkun Olam is a fairly common term used now for acts of tzedakkah and world repair, but originally came from the rabbinic concept of takkanah, and this is where it gets interesting: The rabbis believed that God had given them authority to override even the Torah itself, which they did on rare occasions when there was a compelling moral reason. A famous takkanah was instituted by the sage Hillel in the first century. The Torah says that in the Sabbatical year, all existing debts are annulled. Hillel recognized that if that were to occur, no one in his right mind would lend money to a poor person as the seventh year approached, so he instituted a takkanah – called the Prozbul – assuring the lender that the money would be repaid, in order to help the poor escape their poverty.
So it would seem that this prayer is advocating that human beings have the chutzpah even to contradict the Torah at times. This prayer empowers us to overrule God! To be a Jew means to have chutzpah – but only, only with humility. Yes, Hillel contradicted the Torah, but he did it out of the spirit of the love of God, and the love of his fellow human being. For he understood, as this prayer does, that the ultimate source of power does not reside in our hands: “She-hu noteh shamayim v’yosed aretz,” that there is a higher power who planted the heavens and established the foundations of the earth.
We have been given incredible power to do good, as long as we recall that that the ultimate source of our power comes from somewhere else. And so we bow during the Aleynu. We bow, as hard as it is. And as Jews we bow to no one! We didn’t bow to Antiochus, we didn’t bow to Pharaoh, we didn’t bow to Haman, we didn’t bow to Hitler – but here we bow. And we need to bow! And we must bow! We take bowing very seriously; we are very uncomfortable with it – a 14th century sage known as the Maharil actually banned bowing during this prayer, but the custom prevailed and is now universal, and as potent as ever, because it helps us to understand that the extraordinary power that has been given us is not our entitlement. Hillel understood this. We are blessed – but we are not the best! This prayer is a thrice daily kick in the pants. We say Aleynu more than almost any other prayer, and while we hardly ever think about what we are saying; we sure know that we are bowing. “V’Anahcnu Korim,” we bend, “Umishtachavim u’modim,” we bow and we are grateful,” as we stand before “melech malchai hamlachim ha kadosh baruch hu,” the ultimate source of power, sanctity and blessing.
A Hasidic master once said that every person should carry two pieces of paper, one in your right hand pocket and the other in your left. On one of the pieces, you write the verse “Bishvili nivra haolam,” “For my sake the world was created.” On the other piece, you write a very different verse, “I am but dust and ashes.”
We are so powerful – and yet so humbled.
How fitting that the most successful film of this summer was not about power – no, it wasn’t the Hulk, or the Matrix or Daredevil or even Bruce Almighty. The movie that touched Americans most was about a father’s need to let go of his child and his discovery of how powerless he really was to protect his son from the dangers of the deep. “Finding Nemo” might have been about fish, but it was really about us and about America. And maybe it is no surprise; given all we have seen, that a prevailing theme of the new TV fall season is our reliance on God to help us through hard times.
Maybe it is incredible hubris to exercise American power to make Middle East safe for democracy. Maybe we really can’t prevent another terrorist attack here. Maybe we can’t make Hamas go away by taking the drastic actions that Israel has taken. Maybe we need to let go of our chutzpah and try another tack. Maybe we can’t wall out the terrorists.
Or maybe we can. For in the end, while we always must know that our power in not infinite, neither is it infinitesimal. While it is not infinite, it is ultimate. It is decisive. For in our hands lies the power of life and death, of good and of evil, of severity and compassion. Mi Yichyeh U mi Yamut – who shall live and who shall die – the power is in our hands. We can topple dictators, and we can dangle a baby over balcony ledge. We have the power to do good or evil.
This past year was not a good one for clergy. The Catholic Church has had its tzuris, but we Jews have had our own indignities. For the first time in American history, last November, a rabbi was convicted of murder. In his book about the Fred Neulander case called “The Rabbi and the Hit Man,” author Arthur Magida (who spoke here a few years ago) writes, “Neulander’s misdeeds… should serve as cautions about what happens when hubris supplants candor and when we foolishly and persistently worship before the altar of the ego.”
The Neulander story is chilling, not because the man was a monster, but because the monster was a man. And he was a rabbi, with a background not that different from all the rabbis I know, including myself, facing all the pressures and temptations we all face, and he simply snapped. His ego grew so large that it overcame any of the humility that he might have had when he got into this business, and because of him, and a small minority of others, all of us feel betrayed. It makes me angry because he not only let his congregation down and his children and himself, he let me down too. His recklessness was a betrayal to every rabbi, anyone who would presume to be worthy of the public trust. This was a man who not only cheated on his wife, he cheated on his mistress. He abused his power, taking advantage of women in states of bereavement, women he was counseling. And then, he somehow decided that a divorce would be too messy, that it would taint him too much in the eyes of his congregation, ignoring the fact that in Judaism divorce does not taint you at all. But this rabbi wanted to be all-powerful and to be all powerful he had to be perfect: perfect marriage, perfect children, perfect temperament, perfect counselor, perfect preacher, perfect teacher, perfect friend, perfect lover, even the perfect body – he was pumping iron in his spare time – and the perfect congregation – one he had founded two decades earlier that had grown the become the largest in Southern New Jersey. He was their unquestioned leader. He was feted by the politicians, befriended by the police, loved by his congregants, and many stood by him even when he betrayed them. They couldn’t believe he was capable of that. He was too perfect. And his perfection, in his own mind, was the source of his power. He got it wrong – like Samson. The power doesn’t reside in virility, but in humility.
So in order to preserve his false power, he exercised real power, the power of life and death. And he took a precious, innocent life. All of us, to a degree, face temptation, and some of us succumb. We all exercise power in our relationships and some of us abuse that power. Perhaps all of us do, to some small extent. And we all fool ourselves, at one time or another, into thinking that we are the Masters of the Universe.
Memo to us: We are not!
Not even Leo DiCapria is “King of the World!”
He’s not the king. I’m not the king. You’re not the king. Aleynu l’shabayach la’Adon ha-kol!” Neither are any of us “Shehu noteh shamayim v’Yosed Aretz.”
And that is why, even as we exercise enormous power, we need to pray. Some people are uncomfortable with the fact that our President prays. And he does – a lot. I find it reassuring. I’m not always comfortable with what the President does when he is not praying, but I’m OK with the praying, especially because he is President…. Really -- I am truly glad that Brian Rogol prays, because I know how hard his job is.
Before President Bush put American lives on the line in Iraq, he prayed. We all need to be praying for those soldiers now. For all who are fighting this dogged fight. For the task is daunting. Victory is not yet near. And we’ve got to be humble – humble enough to come to the UN and even the French and ask for their help. All is forgiven! Here, have a French fry! For we are giving the people of the Middle East a chance, at long last, a fighting chance to write a new kind of history, exchanging jihad and martyrdom for peace and cooperation, a world where Arab children will not choose to blow themselves up, but rather to grow themselves up. This is a Noble Mission that we are on right now, like nothing we’ve seen since the 2nd World War and the Marshall Plan. God bless this quest! Thank God for giving us the power to bring good into the world.
How I wish I were back at Yellowstone right now, bathed in the mist of the geyser, warmed by the glow of a hundred acre inferno a couple of miles away. Things were a lot less complicated there, where the deer and the antelope play, cradled in the womb of God. How terrifying it is to have the world on our shoulders. I feel the weight of the burden – and I know you do too.
But I’m a big boy now. We’re all big boys and girls. And God his given us the keys to the Hummer. God has given us the intelligence to split the atom and re-cork a wine bottle. God has given us the power to topple a dictator. And we have done it.
We pray for guidance that from the current volatility we be able to forge a better world for our children. And we give thanks. For it is good to give thanks unto the Lord. For God’s power kindness is everywhere to be found. In each mountain, each lovely creature, and each rainbow. And it is the power of kindness, the power of love.
Kol Nidre 5764
Not long ago, a Bar Mitzvah student stood on this bima and said matter of factly that he’s not really certain that there is a God, especially a God who rewards and punishes, and that many of our prayers are meaningless to him. I said “Great” and told him he’ll probably be a rabbi. After the service, his family thanked me for letting him express his doubts openly from the bima and all I could say was, “Are you kidding? I live for this! I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t let him speak his mind. At least he takes this thing seriously enough to ask. A student who challenges our presumptions about God is simply reminding us how little we know of God.
Only a few days after that Bar Mitzvah, a young man walked into my office. I recognized the face, but the body was much taller than I remembered. “I’ll bet you never expected to see me back here,” he said, reminding me of all the tzuris he caused before his Bar Mitzvah, all the questions he raised, and all the doubts he had. He was working on college applications and wanted to explore some ideas with me.” We talked a little and then he turned to me and said, “At my Bar Mitzvah, you said I would probably end up being a rabbi. Were you serious or were you kidding?” I thought about it and replied, “Both.” I knew it would seem funny to those present, but down deep I was very serious.” What I meant to say was, “I wasn’t talking to you, the 13 year old you. I was talking to the you who would look back at that day when you are 17, or 20. Because then you would understand. And he did.
As gratified as I was to see the student, there was a troubling undercurrent to these two incidents. When students are concerned about the acceptability of serious questioning, we have some serious soul searching to do. And I have some serious educating to do. Because questioning is the very heart and soul of Judaism. That is what we are about. And, to the extent that rabbis over the centuries have speculated about God, that’s what God wants too. Why would be so afraid of offending God, when God has heard much worse – Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev put God on trial, for heavens sake, for the suffering of the Jewish people. There’s a story in the Talmud about how a revered rabbi overrules the divine voice itself in making a crucial ruling. And God’s response in the heavens was sheet delight, “My children have overcome me, God says, acting like a parent whose child has finally defeated a parent in one on one hoops, fair and square.
So why are we so reticent to challenge our faith? Are we afraid of exacerbating divisions among ourselves? Jews couldn’t be more divided than we are already. Perhaps the one thing that we all have in common is this heritage of chutzpah. Are we afraid of what others will think of us? You should know that one thing that many non Jews have told me they admire about Judaism is its intellectual honesty. We’re, at heart, skeptics. And that is how it should be.
Last week, as you recall, I used two springboards for my remarks about power and self-control: the now immortal image of Saddam’s statue falling, and the Aleynu. Tonight and tomorrow I’ll be looking at that prayer, as well as that the fall of Saddam, from two more angles.
So once again let’s go back to April 9. How we cheered as Saddam’s statue was yanked down. Here was yet another earthly pretender to divine status meeting his humble demise, at least symbolically. It was all so perfect. Here, in the land of Abraham’s birth, where the first Hebrew stood up to the idols of his ancestry, the latest pretender to the pantheon of self idolatry was being torn down by, of all things, an Abrams tank; and to make the symmetry complete, the first meeting of Iraq’s post-dictatorial leadership took place in Ur, Abraham’s home town.
Our collective mood turned sour, however, when we saw what was going on at precisely the same time across town at the Baghdad Museum, where thousands of priceless ancient artifacts were being smashed and stolen. We are still not certain how much of the ancient Mesopotamian heritage was lost during that chaotic week, but the image of the ransacked museum stunned the world.
So we have two things going on at the same time – Saddam’s idol being trashed and the ancient idols of Babylon also being ransacked. And I began to wonder, why should one instance of idol destruction be acceptable, and the other one not? I recalled that Judaism’s very origins can be traced to the ransacking of Mesopotamian Idols. It all began in the idol shop of Terach, Abraham’s father, where, according the midrash, Abraham destroyed all the idols and then put the sledgehammer in the hands of the largest one. When Terach returned and was incensed at the destruction, Abraham pointed to the large one and said, “He did it. The big one.” At which point Terach looked over at the inanimate object and begin to understand the foolishness of his idolatrous ways.
So what was so different about what Abraham’s deed in his father’s workshop, a seminal moment in the development of monotheism, and what was done at the Baghdad museum on April 9 – to the very same idols? We should have been cheering! We all know that eventually idols crumble and turn to dust, so those thieves of Baghdad were simply accelerating the process. The original idol thief in that area, by the way, was none other than Rachel, who, in leaving her father’s home with Jacob, stole Laban’s household idols, only to be nabbed by Laban just this side of the Syrian border. Yes, Rachel, mother Rachel, that paragon of Jewish virtue, had a thing for idols.
And so do we. Jews have been struggling with idolatry since our people’s infancy. Isn’t it ironic that the very place Abraham went to escape the veneration of the finite, the Land of Israel, has itself become an idol to some? The greatest irony of all is that, of all the revered spots in that Land, the places that have achieved the most iconic status are the burial spots of Abraham and Rachel. Abraham would be rolling over in his grave if he knew how people were fighting over worshipping at his grave!
We Jews gave to the world a precious gift – the gift of the invisible God – a God who transcends all and incorporates all. Like Abraham, we need to leave the false Gods behind. Abraham remains the model for the iconoclasm that has defined our faith from the start. Seinfeld was a show about nothing. Abraham discovered a God who is nothing – and everything. A God who loves with eternal love but is beyond all human emotion – a God who could not possibly have whims; a God who could not possibly expect Abraham to kill his own son.
In Judaism we worship nothing. No – thing. Nothing finite gets in the way of our contemplation of the infinite. Even the Torah is celebrated not as the embodiment of divinity but as a blueprint for our sacred quest. When a written Torah becomes unreadable, it is buried, like Moses, in an unspecified grave (and, alas, unlike Abraham and Rachel). The words live eternally, but the artifact is kept out of the limelight. In that way, the Torah can never become an idol. We worship no-thing – so that we can question EVERYTHING.
“V’anahcnu Korim,” we bow during the Aleinu – and we are bowing to nothing. How absurd it must look; like Russell Crowe playing John Nash in “A Beautiful Mind.” As if we are living in an alternate universe. And it does look strange – but it is also beautiful, for by our bowing down to NOTHING, to a God that we can’t see – to a God whose very definition is that she is indefinable, we are asserting, with power and certainly, that no one else is ultimate, not Saddam Hussein, not Astarte or Ba’al, not the United States, not American Idol Ruben Studdard, not even Cher, not even our favorite baseball team and certainly not, absolutely not ourselves. To be a believing Jew in this era is to defiantly proclaim that there is more to life than meets the eye and to thereby challenge everything else. To worship the indefinable is to tear down the falseness of everything else. If you are a Jew, everything is up for grabs, there is nothing that is sacred – no THING.
It is an ultimate challenge to be a Jew in this era. As Franz Rozensweig wrote nearly a century ago, “No idolater has ever worshiped his idols with greater devotion and faith than that displayed by modern man toward his gods.”
Journey back with me through the history of this prayer and see how courageously our ancestors stood up for their beliefs. Aleynu was composed in post-biblical times, but there is a rabbinic tradition dating it back to Joshua. Why Joshua? Because Joshua never went along with the crowd. He was one of only two spies who boldly stood up to the fears and faithlessness of the other ten, and Joshua was one of the few leaders of his generation who avoided the sin of the Golden Calf. Like just about every Jewish leader from Abraham on, Joshua was a non-conformist.
The Alenu was likely written in the 3rd century Babylonia as a diatribe against the paganism of that time. For a prayer supposedly promoting global unity, Alenu includes some rough, exclusivist language even today, but the original version included an even harsher verse that we no longer recite: “For they bow down to vanity and emptiness and pray to a god who does not save.” “She-hem mishtahavim lahevel varik umitpalellim el El lo yoshia,”
The author knew little of Christianity, but throughout the middle ages in Europe, this verse incensed the church -- perhaps for good reason. Because as Jews became more and more powerless, as their degradation and suffering increased in Europe, this prayer took on a life of its own. Even without that controversial verse, the first half of the Aleynu is a primal scream heavenward to justify why we are so different. Why maintain such strange customs in the face of horrific persecution and pressure to convert? Why hold onto this invisible God? Because “she’lo asanu k’goyay ha’aratzot, v’lo samanu k’mishpechot ha’adama.”
Despite it all, we believe the Jewish people are here for a purpose, they said. Despite it all, we believe.
And so they believed.
The final proclamation of Alenu, a vision of universal oneness, remained on the lips of Jews even as they were about to become martyrs. This public chanting of this prayer came to be associated with the religious obligation to proclaim loyalty to the One God even at the risk of death. Like the Sh’ma, its first and last letters of the Alenu spell out the Hebrew word for “witness,” “ayd,” and many went to their deaths bearing public witness to God’s sovereignty with this prayer on their lips.
In 1171, the Jews of Blois were massacred while uttering the words of this prayer. It was reported in gruesome detail by an eyewitness, who spoke of how revered rabbis were tied up and the ropes set ablaze. When the fire burned through them rope, the martyrs struggled to free themselves, only to be dragged back into the pyre by the guards. And then, the report goes, “as the flames mounted high, the martyrs began to sing in unison a melody that began softly but ended with a full voice. The Christian onlookers came and asked us “What kind of a song is this for we have never heard such a sweet melody?" We knew it well for it was the Aleynu.”
Imagine that scene in the 12th century. And imagine how Jews responded in the 14th century, when an apostate Jew named Pesach Peter leveled accusations of blasphemy against the Jews because of that verse, and how Martin Luther used it as a basis for his anti-Semitic diatribes. And imagine how, after August 28, 1703, when the Prussian government prohibited the offending verse, police were actually stationed in the synagogue to implement the edict. Ironically, the Aleynu was originally recited only privately; but the public recitation was enforced by the authorities to prove that the offensive line was being excised. Jews were forced to sing it out loud. Imagine that scenario of intimidation taking place today. How would we respond if the Stamford Police stood in the aisle just to make sure that our prayers are politically correct? Imagine the courage it took to pray the Aleynu throughout our history to proclaim a hope beyond all hope, that someday all humanity would be one, and a belief beyond all evidence to the contrary, that an invisible God is out there, caring for us all.
That’s the power of this prayer, and that’s why today this prayer is as popular as ever. People rise for it at the end of every service, no matter if the synagogue is Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist or New Age, and even those Jews who attend synagogue infrequently are as familiar with this prayer as they are with any other. It is a high point of the High Holidays. Heschel said that prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow the forces of falsehood, and that is what this prayer does. Heschel also said, “One who has not prayed has not fully lived.” And, I may add, one who has not prayed the Aleynu has not fully prayed.
Undoubtedly some Jews did see the offending verse as a secret dig at Christianity, especially since the word “varik,” “emptiness,” has the same numerical value as the Hebrew name for Jesus, “Yeshu.” Sefardic Jews still include this verse in their liturgy, and some Hasidic groups have revived it, incorporating an old custom of spitting when reciting the word “varik,” which also means “spittle.” In light of the devastation of the Crusades, this prayer became increasingly popular, in part, to give Jews a secret and safe way of expressing their rage against their oppressors, a liturgical punching bag of sorts. Even as this verse has been excised time and time again by censors, Jewish communities have found ingenious ways to sneak it back in.
So the Aleynu is a paragon of protest, but Jews have found other ways to smash idols. Jewish humor has been a prime vehicle to assert non-conformity in the face of powerlessness, as this classic joke from the early Nazi era: German Jews taught their children to conform, outwardly, to Nazi customs, for the sake of survival. One such Jew was teaching his young child how to conduct himself when eating in a restaurant where he might be observed by others.
"When saying the blessing," he reminded the youngster, "the correct form of grace is 'Thank God and the Fuehrer.'"
"But suppose the Fuehrer dies?" queried the boy.
"In that case, my son," the father explained, "you just thank God."
“May God bless and keep the Czar…far away from us”
And so, in the spirit of our ancestors who showed such courage in standing up to the forces of brutality and conformity around them, we all need to smash our own idols, even if those challenges rise up to the gates of heaven itself. Jonathan Safran Foer, in his wildly imaginative novel, “Everything is Illuminated,” creates an alternative universe to the traditional concept of the shtetl, sort of Anatekva meets Grovers Corners, and an alternative Torah to go with it. Nothing could be more iconoclastic – and stirring to the soul.
This past year Roman Polanski a complex figure whose life was framed by the vision of his mother, 8 months pregnant, dying at Auschwitz, gave us what we can decidedly call a Holocaust anti-hero in “the Pianist,” one who, like Polanski himself, survived by running away and by being very lucky. The protagonist of the Pianist abandons his family literally on the tracks to Auschwitz, shows no loyalty to anyone other than himself and his music, and is saved because his music strikes a universal, spiritual chord in a Nazi officer. This film forces us to examine all that we had previously thought was right and heroic. Survival itself becomes the ultimate act of heroism. It is a profoundly subversive notion.
But subversiveness is nothing new to Judaism, the people who gave the world Spinoza, Marx and Freud. It’s no accident. The genius of our people stems from our ability to challenge every sacred cow – and never to be afraid. That is, by the way, why Sandy Koufax is such a great Jewish hero. Read Jane Leavy’s biography and you’ll see why, in the words of pitcher Steve Stone, “He gave little Jewish boys some hope.” He made them brave. Koufax, who was hardly an observant Jew, understood the symbolic importance of his position. He simply would not pitch on the High Holidays. It was a given for him. Legends have grown about that week in 1965. Several people reported Koufax sightings in Minneapolis synagogues that historic Yom Kippur. One rabbi wrote in great detail about Koufax’visit. Only problem was, he spent the entire day in his hotel and never set foot in a synagogue. Leavy writes, “Koufax refused to be a Jews’s Jew or a Gentile’s Jew. He refused to be anything other than himself.”
And do you know when Sandy Koufax’ Jewish nature revealed itself the most? Not on that Yom Kippur of 1965, but during the following spring, when he and Don Drysdale held out and became the first to bargain collectively and challenge the system where baseball players were treated like chattel, they won in the end. Koufax’s great hero was his grandfather, a lifelong socialist, who walked away from a secure job at Consolidated Edison because on his first day, he saw the huge iron gates close behind the men on his shift, and he said, “I came to America to get away from locked gates.” He walked through the gates and never returned.
We Jews can drive people crazy. We’ve been driving ourselves crazy for centuries, so no wonder people have such difficulty understanding us, as we were reminded this past summer in, of all things, an episode of “Sex in the City.” In an amusing deviation from the norm, the gentile goddess actually undergoes a conversion to Judaism to marry the rich Jewish shlub, at his insistence, only to discover that he won’t leave his ball game to come light Shabbat candles with her. And in another scene in a restaurant, as he is insisting that she convert, she can’t why understand how at that same moment he is devouring a lobster. “I’m not Kosher,” he replies, “I’m Conservative,” a line that drew loud cries of protest from Conservative leaders.
Abigail van Buren was asked why it is that Jews always answer a question with a question. Her response: “How should they answer?”
How should we answer? With a question. With a challenge. With a dare. And God does not get off so easily. Nor do our holiest places. Once when I was walking through the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, I was stunned by a sight of extraordinary normalcy. A group of teenagers was kicking a soccer ball, using an ancient Roman-era column as one of the goal posts. Undoubtedly this pillar had once stood in the courtyard of the Second Temple, only to be tossed to the valley below following the Temple’s destruction. In the end, this sacred pillar was being treated no more reverently than the head of Sadaam’s statue that was rolled through the streets of Baghdad. If a column from the Temple itself can become a soccer goal, is nothing sacred? Precisely. Even that. Even this! Even this building will someday end up in the dustbin of history. It is humbling to know that these glass walls will someday come crashing down and moss will be growing where we now sit.
But a truth beyond all else will survive. And that truth is the human spirit. And that spirit of defiance is the essence of God. In Elie Wiesel's tale, The Gates of the Forest, a dancing, singing Hasid cries out to God, "You don't want me to dance; too bad. I'll dance anyhow. You've taken away every reason for singing, but I shall sing. I shall sing of the deceit that walks by day and the truth that walks by night, yes, and of the silence of dusk as well. You didn't expect my joy, but here it is; yes, my joy will rise up; it will submerge you."
Let our joy rise up. Let our life force submerge all the false idols and when we bow low for the Aleynu, let us all understand that it is not before whom we are bowing that matters nearly as much as that we never bow to anyone or anything else. The Ba’al Shem Tov understood that when Abraham was knocking down the idols of his father’s shop, he was really smashing his own false gods; he was obliterating the idolatry of ego. Let that image from April 9 in Baghdad remind us to do the same, every day.
And so, to my B’nai Mitzvah students, past, present and future, this is my advice: never be afraid to ask questions of God and to challenge our beliefs. But don’t expect any easy answers. When the answers don’t come, let the joy rise up anyway. Dance anyway. Sing anyway. Love anyway. Live anyway. Somewhere in your dancing, singing, loving and living, you will find your answer. And so will we all. Amen
Yom Kippur Day 5764
Finding Nineveh: The Band of Brothers
And God said to Jonah, “Arise. Go to Nineveh, the great city, and call out to them…Tell them that unless they repent, they will be destroyed.” We all know the story of Jonah from there, and we’ll hear it again this afternoon. Jonah tries to flee his assignment, he goes down to the port of Jaffa and boards a ship bound for Tarshish. But Jonah is blamed for the misfortunes of the crew, is flung overboard like a human scapegoat, and ends up in the belly of a fish. Eventually he repents, escapes and takes that three day journey to Nineveh, warns the people and, lo and behold, they repent and they are forgiven. At the end of the story, God produces a plant, which then withers and dies, deeply grieving Jonah. And God says to him, “You take pity on this plant – should I not take pity upon the great city of Nineveh, with over 120,000 human beings, plus many animals?”
That God takes pity on Nineveh is no surprise. God, to be God, is God for all peoples, not just the Jews. But this is not called the “Story of God,” it’s called the “Story of Jonah.” God doesn’t need to learn that lesson here. Jonah does. And Jonah DOES. That’s the headline here. Jonah the Israelite learns to have compassion for the capital of Israel’s great enemy, Assyria. That’s the headline all right, but not just the headline of the book of Jonah. It’s the headline of Yom Kippur. In fact, it is the headline of all of Judaism. Last week I spoke of our need to build invisible fences. Today we focus on how to knock them down, to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Since we’re always trying to be interactive here, I want us to play Jonah, on a very small scale. Do we really care about the destiny of others? Enough to risk even our own security? Simcha Bunim of Pesischa wondered three centuries ago: How can we allow some to be written into the Book of Life and some not? And he’s right! So turn to your neighbor, whether or not you know that neighbor and repeat after me: “I REFUSE to be written in the Book of Life without you.”
Now, do you mean it? If you are talking to a close family member, you just might mean it. I’ve often thought about whether I would take a bullet for my wife and kids – and I really think I would. But would I take one for a total stranger? When I see amazing War stories like last year’s amazing series on HBO about the 101st Airborne, the “Band of Brothers,” I am amazed at what human beings will do. I would call it incredible bravery, and it is, but it all seems too instinctive, and too common. It appears to be part of our very nature to risk our lives for total strangers. Something deep within us cries out and says, that person over there is actually part of me. We are all One.
Let me tell you about a great figure from the Talmud, one of the few to women to achieve such prominence. Her name was Bruriah. In one famous passage, (Berachot 10a) she chastises her husband, Rabbi Meir, because he was praying for the demise of some thugs who had been bothering him. She convinced him instead to pray that the sinners change their ways. It is the sin that we are trying to get rid of, not the sinner. The sinner is simply another human being, in God’s image, like us. So Meir did change his prayer, and legend has it that because of his caring bout the “other,” his entire generation was without sin.
It’s interesting that just as in English, the words “other” and “brother” are almost identical, so in Hebrew, the word “brother” is “ach,” and the word “other” is “acher.” There is so little that really separates an enemy from a friend.
A couple of weeks ago, there was a big celebration for Shimon Peres’ 80 birthday. It was a bit awkward, because so much has gone awry in the ten years since that hand shake on the White House lawn that Peres orchestrated, and the New Middle East that he envisioned has literally gone up in smoke. Yet there he was, and there were celebrities from across the Israeli political spectrum and from around the world. Perhaps the highlight of the evening came when Bill Clinton joined with a choir of Israeli and Palestinian children in singing John Lennon’s universal anthem of hope, “Imagine.”
Imagine such a surreal scene occurring. Given the gruesome turn of events since Oslo collapsed, it almost seemed a cruel joke, to turn back the clock and celebrate with nostalgia such a flawed vision. A number of Israelis protested outside the hall, wondering aloud how Peres could celebrate his birthday when so many hundreds of innocent victims would have no more birthdays because of his failed experiment in co-existence. Yet something deep within us craves to hold on to those wacky dreams of harmonious co-existence. It’s as if something of us would die if we lose grip of those last shreds of hope. So we dream – in this world dreaming is a very dangerous thing. But we have no choice. Something of us still wants to go to Nineveh.
When you think about it, John Lennon’s “Imagine” is really a modernized version of the Aleynu – even the part about there being no religion. Of course what John Lennon meant was that there would be no different religions, no xenophobic and hate-filled religions that lead to war and destruction. But in fact there would be religion in this imagined utopia, a single religion, a single vision of hope.
It’s the same with Aleynu – which envisions a world where all religious differences are erased. Now last night I focused on the first paragraph of the Aleynu, the defiant part that kept Jews sane in an insane world, helping our persecuted ancestors to take pride in their distinctiveness. But if you look on the second paragraph of the prayer, it speaks in amazingly universal terms. Yes, this global religion discussed in the second paragraph will be monotheistic, but it won’t necessarily be Judaism. Given the suffering of the Jews at the time it was written, this paragraph is astoundingly non-parochial. Nothing there about everyone keeping the Shabbat. Nothing there about everyone keeping kosher. Nothing there about everyone praying in Hebrew. Nothing there about everyone feeling guilty and neurotic. Nothing Jewish in this vision at all! To fully appreciate its meaning, the last part of the Aleynu, the part we typically daven through very quickly, should be sung to the melody of “Imagine.”
Aleynu calls upon us to dream, even when the dream appears dead. It does so by reminding us, when we so need to be reminded, of our innate need to turn “I” into “We.” And it is an innate, biological need, as we shall see. Author Ellen Frankel writes, “In essence, this prayer looks forward to the day when all difference will be harmonized, when all religions will be gathered under one universal tent, when all of humanity will embrace the same God.” For the Jewish people, she adds, “Aleynu asks us to liberate our self image so that we are no longer be dependent on demonized others, who will, in the end, no longer be there as “other.” In other words, there will no longer be “acher.” All that will remain is the “ach.”
The prayer is always recited in unison – and it’s customary, even if you’ve already said this prayer on your own, to say it again with the congregation. You might recall that I mentioned last night that originally it was chanted out loud because Jews were forced to by suspicious authorities. But over the centuries that custom has taken on a life of its own. We now end the Aleynu together with that proclamation of Oneness and that puts us all on the same page, literally and figuratively, for the mourner’s Kaddish that follows. We’re all together, lending support to one another just when we need it most.
The prayer concludes with a call from the prophet Zechariah for a day to arise when God will be recognized as One by all the nations of the world. That is the ringing final line that we all sing. “Bayom hahu yehyeh adonai ehad ushmo echad.” Zechariah’s vision didn’t just call for a single religion, but also a single authority and standard of conduct for the entire world, a blueprint for international peace and harmony. There really can be a direct line drawn from Zechariah and the Aleynu directly to Woodrow Wilson, Shimon Peres, and all the other glassy eyed idealists who saw utopia within their grasp, but never quite achieved it. It’s those dashed hopes that keep us wary of the dreamers, and too skeptical to give in totally to that aching desire for Oneness.
It is so fitting that, if we go with the assumption that Aleynu is the final prayer of the formal service, the final word of that final prayer is echad – one – a word that is even closer to acher, other, than ach is. To get from acher to echad, all you have to do is change the final letter from a resh to a daled – and those two letters are nearly identical. Even in our shattered world of us and them, we are that close to our goal of unity.
So close and yet so far. We are really two steps away from the kind of global Oneness we seek. First we have to become one people – a truly unified Jewish family. Then we have to reach out to the rest of humanity. Only then, once we have made the journey from Jaffa to Nineveh, will we achieve that ultimate Oneness with God.
There is another vital prayer that also ends with then world echad – the Sh’ma. The first line of the Sh’ma declares the unity not only of God, according to the Hasidic commentary of Rabbi Shneyur Zalman of Lyadi, but the unity of all existence. There is nothing that is apart from God.
But that is not the reality that we see here in this material world, where divisions persist. We experience that unity only in fleeting moments, such as at the rim of the Grand Canyon, when falling in love or seeing a baby born, at the end of Yom Kippur – or when your baseball team makes it to the World Series (im yirtzeh Hashem). The question Shneyur Zalman faces is, how to we bring a greater sense of this unity into this world? The problem is solved by the second line of the Sh’ma, the line “Baruch Shem K’vod malchuto L’olam Va’ed,” which can be translated “May the sovereignty of divine sanctity appear eternally in this world.” This is the only part of the Sh’ma not found in the Bible. It was added by the rabbis as a congregational response. But it is only chanted aloud on Yom Kippur, the spiritual apex of the year. So the first line of the Sh’ma is the ideal, the unachievable, or as the Zohar calls it, the “higher Unity.” The Baruch Shem K’vod response is what the Zohar calls the “lower unity.” It is our cry up to heaven from the top of the mountain, our noble but imperfect attempt to bring that divine unity into everyday reality.
So how do we do that? We can do that even by how we pray the Sh’ma itself. Two examples:
The Sh’ma is supposed to be recited in the morning as early as possible. One of the first discussions in the Talmud involves rabbis wondering just exactly how early that can be. Since workers in those days were out in the fields long before sunrise, it needed to be recited sometime around the first light of dawn. So they agreed that only a small amount of morning light would be necessary. But how small? One rabbi said, when there’s enough thread to distinguish a purple thread from a black thread, you can say the Sh’ma. Another suggested that there needs to be enough light to distinguish a purple thread from blue. But the third rabbi said no – we can begin to say the Sh’ma only when it is light enough to see a human face. That is when we can perceive the Oneness of God.
Rabbi Sidney Schwarz tells this story about the Sh’ma. At the end of a trip to Israel last year, he got into a cab in Jerusalem at 4:30 in the morning to catch an early flight. As the cab approached Ben Gurion airport, the darkness of night turned to the first glimmers of daylight. Suddenly the driver turned on then radio, and on the radio, the announcer was reciting the morning Sh’ma. The cabdriver joined in unison with the radio announcer in reciting that line at the halachically indicated time. It was one of those only-in-Israel moments, and, as Schwarz put it, at that instant, “all of the conflict and divisions and tensions of the previous week dissolved. I was overtaken by the primary meaning of the Sh’ma: oneness, unity, cosmic harmony. I was in the Jewish homeland, hearing a prayer that has been the anthem of our people for 3,000 years. So what’s a rabbi to do? I joined my cabbie and the rest of my family, past, present and future, and said the Sh’ma.”
If Jewish unity is the first goal in our journey to Nineveh, we still have a long way to go, as illustrated from this joke sent to me by a congregant a couple of weeks ago.
A woman goes into the post office to buy stamps for Shana Tova cards. She says to the clerk, “May I have 50 Rosh Hashanah stamps? “What denomination?” asks the clerk? The woman says, “Oy vey has it come to this? OK, give me 6 Orthodox, 12 Conservative and 32 Reform.”
What does it mean to love our fellow Jew, to get beyond all those labels? The Holocaust presents us with countless examples, but sometimes the least apparent examples are the most moving. The epic 9-hour documentary “Shoah” includes an interview with a barber who had survived Auschwitz. It was his job to cut the hair of the women in the gas chamber. If he wanted to survive he couldn’t tell them that they were about to die. Further, if he told them, it would save no one else either. Can you imagine his predicament? Yet somehow, in this most inhuman of circumstances, he maintained the dignity of these women. Even to the point of giving them the finest haircut he could, and of trying to stay with and comfort them just a few moments longer, though it didn’t really matter, just to make the last few moments of their lives more bearable and dignified. So we connect with fellow Jews at the deepest, most human level. That’s why it’s so important to me that when we have a Bar Mitzvah, naming or ufruf on a Shabbat morning here, and sometimes all three, that everyone tap into the pulse of that life-flow moment. That’s why such moments are most powerful when they held publicly, amongst close friends and total strangers – all of whom experience the magic of becoming “echad,” unifed, together.
We can also connect with the Jewish people through our shared sacred language. Today I’ve been announcing some page numbers in Hebrew as a small gesture of Jewish solidarity. In Conservative synagogues the service is recited primarily in Hebrew, even though the vast majority of Conservative congregants do not read it fluently; but we all understand at an intuitive level that the language of prayer is a powerful connector, unifying Jews across space and time. And that adds so much depth and authenticity to the experience of prayer.
The poet Jacqueline Osherow speaks about the mystery and power of the sounds of Hebrew prayer of her youth. “I was utterly exhilarated, even as a very young child, by the idea that there exists such a thing as holy language. I was completely captivated by the lavish Hebrew sounds, chanted out of books that you must never drop on the ground, or handwritten scrolls that were carried around the synagogue for all of us standing there to kiss. I really believed that these words I didn't understand contained all the secrets of the universe.”
The experience of prayer is a unifying one on so many levels – which is why it is so powerful to be here as we are today, and why the ideal setting for Jewish prayer is within a community, with a minyan of at least ten. As the saying goes, nine rabbis do not make a minyan, but ten shoemakers do.
Once we’ve achieved unity with the Jewish people, we need to reach out beyond our inner circles. We need to break down the walls that have been built. That won’t be easy. I spoke last week about the need for that security fence now being constructed in Israel – and it is so necessary. But that construction will not come without a cost. As Hirsh Goodman wrote recently in the Jerusalem Report, “The fence around Jerusalem is an allegory for the larger fence going up between us and the Palestinians. It gives the illusion of security while exacerbating the problem. It postpones seeking a solution and deepens resentment and hatred on both sides.”
And as Daniel Yankelovich has demonstrated in a forthcoming paper, “The War Against Hatred,” we need to reach out to the Islamic world in new ways in order to diffuse the hatred and truly defeat the terrorist threat. “More than nine out of ten Muslims believe that Americans have no knowledge of Muslim culture and beliefs, and worse yet, no respect for them,” he writes. “History shows that nothing breeds hatred and resentment more powerfully than for people to feel that they are held in contempt and disrespect.” In his razor sharp analysis, Yankelovitch indicates that the contacts between faith communities need to begin at the local level and grow from there. And that is why I’ve invited a Moslem religious leader to join Reverend Douglas McArthur and me for this year’s “Learning and Latte” series at Borders, beginning October 15. Together the three of us will spend one evening each month discussing those matters that we all have most in common. Together we will reach out. We need to connect.
Recent research, including that done by Dr. Andrew Newberg, as discussed in his book, “Why God Won’t Go Away,” confirms through science that the drive to reach out beyond ourselves is in fact a biological imperative.. The brain craves transcendence and undergoes dramatic and beneficial changes especially when a subject is in a state of prayerful meditation. It stabilizes our heart rate, lowers our blood pressure and lessens our anxiety. It is as if, in Newberg’s words, our brains have been hardwired for God.
So when we repeat, again and again, in a droning fashion, Avinu Malkenu, Al Chet or Ashamnu, or the Aleynu, it may seem like mind-numbing repetition to our logical left brain, but part of us craves that spiritual contemplation, precisely because it IS mind-numbing.. In seeking oneness through prayer and meditation, we achieve an inner peace.
To gain the benefits of meditation, research shows that you need 22 minutes of repetitive sound, or 22 minutes of silence. (Our brains are telling us, “You give us 22 minutes, we’ll give you God.”) Many people are about as ready for 20 minutes of absolute silence as they are for Hebrew page numbers. So we seek other ways to achieve a state of mindfulness in prayer. When we repeat a melody over and over – a niggun, Hallelu last week, Hashivenu last night, something incredible happens. We become lost in a sea of sound. Lost – yet unmistakably found. And so, during the break today, rather than having an intellectual discussion as we have in years past, we’ll put the right brain to work. The chapel upstairs will become a meditation room, where we will sit in silence, or in tuneful melodic, repetitive, meditative prayer. Feel free to join me there. This new research on the brain also explains, to a degree, the selflessness we saw from the “Band of Brothers” though that makes it no less heroic.
We began this journey last week with a sermon about building invisible fences, and now we end with a call to tear fences down, the fences that divide humanity. Our journey has taken us from the streets of Baghdad to the rim of the Grand Canyon, to the musty aisles of a Prussian synagogue, to Terach’s idol shop and now, back to Baghdad. Well not exactly Baghdad – but to Nineveh. All along we’ve been like Jonah, whose journey to Nineveh took three days. Well here it has been, three days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and now we are approaching Nineveh. In fact, we’re there.
Nineveh, you see, has another, more modern name. It is the city of Mosul, in northern Iraq, and that is the place where the dynasty of Sadaam Hussein really came to an end, with the deaths there of his two sons Uday and Kusay. History has taken us back to Nineveh, and a Jewish army chaplain named Carlos Huerta, stationed with the Screaming Eagles, the 101st airborne of the U.S. Army, yes, the very same immortal “Band of Brothers,” recently became the first rabbi to set foot there in many decades. His journal of those first days is remarkable.
He finds from the older locals that there once was a Jewish quarter in the city, a long time ago. One day, while searching the streets of the ancient city, he came across a building missing half of its roof. The site was a garbage dump and the building's interior was three-quarters full of rotting garbage, feces and sewage. He had to crouch down low to get inside as the doorway was almost completely buried.
“As I entered light came through the half-open roof,” he writes, “and I could just make out writing engraved on the walls. It was Hebrew. It was then that I knew I had stumbled into the ancient synagogue of the city of Mosul-Nineveh. My heart broke as I climbed over the garbage piles that filled the room where, for hundreds of years, the prayers of Jews had reached the heavens. I realized I was probably the first Jew to enter this holy place in over 50 years. Over three-and-a half meters of garbage filled the main sanctuary and what appeared to be the women's section. I could barely make it out because of the filth, but there was Hebrew writing on the walls. Many Iraqis congregated around me, wanting to know what I was doing. My translator said that the American army was interested in old archeological sites of all kinds. I asked them if they knew what this place was, and they all said in an instant: It was the house where the Jews prayed.
They told me that the houses in the streets surrounding the synagogue had been filled with Jews. They took me to the children's yeshiva, a marbled edifice that no longer had a roof, only walls and half-rooms. There was a vagrant family living there and when I asked them what this place was, they said it was a Jewish school for children.
As I walked through the quarter I was shown the grave of the prophet Daniel, once a synagogue. I saw that many of the doorposts had an engraving of the lion of Judah on the top.
I felt the presence of our people, of their daily lives as merchants, teachers, rabbis, doctors, and tailors. I felt their rush to get ready for Shabbat, felt their presence as they walked to the synagogue on Yom Kippur. I could almost hear singing in the courtyards, in the Sukkot, as they invited in the ushpizin. I could hear the Pesach songs echoing through the narrow streets late into the night.
And the children, I could see their shadows as they raced down the alleys and around the corners, praying. I heard their voices learning the aleph bet in the yeshivot as they prepared for their bar and bat mitzvahs.
But I also heard the babies crying, and I could see the young daughters of Zion clinging to their mother's skirts, asking why the bad people were killing them and making them leave their homes of thousands of years.
Tears came to my eyes, but I had to hold them back lest I put myself and the soldier with me in a dangerous situation. I had to pretend that I was only mildly interested in what they were showing me.
How does one absorb this kind of experience? How do I convey the feeling of hearing all those voices reaching out in prayer at the synagogue as I stood on top of all that garbage? How do I recover our history, how do I bring honor to a holy place that has been so desecrated?
I have no answers. I only have great sadness, pain, and loneliness.”
Tradition has it that Jonah is buried in Nineveh, deep in the ground next to the non-Jews he saved. And Carlos Huerga found some Hebrew inscriptions in a military cemetery in Mosul, indicating that Jews are buried there, next to remains Hindus, Sikhs, Moslems and Christians, all soldiers who died in the service of their country.
Let’s try to understand this amazing twist of history. Nineveh was the city where the Jewish people first learned to have compassion even for our enemies. And it was a place where a Jewish community existed for thousands of years, only to be evicted in 1948. And now, as this rabbi came to Iraq to love the Iraqi people as himself, and he discovers there a missing part of himself, the echoes, the remnant, the debris, of a buried Jewish past. But the prayers are still reaching upward. Jonah flees Judea and finds Nineveh. Carlos Huerta digs through Nineveh and finds the Jews. And he finds himself.
That is why we love our neighbor. Because through that encounter, we discover ourselves. That is why we visit Israel. Because only through that encounter can we fully discover ourselves. That is why we help Iraqis. That is why we help Africans and Argentineans; that is why we help those with disabilities, that is why we care for endangered animals or overgrown forests; that is why we care for anything at all. Because through that encounter, we find ourselves. And we find God. And that is why, if you are not going to be written into the Book of Life. Neither am I.
We are all part of the same sacred whole. We have retuned to Nineveh, like Jonah, this time not to counsel the people’s repentance, but to help the people to govern themselves. We have returned to Nineveh, the pace where Uday and Kusay’s demise meant the end of Sadaam’s dynasty; we return to Nineveh, having defeated Nebuchadnezzar this time, to rebuild the temples of Abraham’s homeland. The temple of the sun god in Ur, and the mosques of Musul. We will rebuild their country so that they can worship their gods in peace and freedom, so that together, in the end, we will all come to worship the same principles of mutual respect and fraternal love. We have returned to Nineveh because Jonah would have had it no other way, because that’s where Zechariah’s vision will begin to be fulfilled. If we reach out we will find the other – if we truly love our neighbor, we will truly find ourselves. And all will be One.
In the words of the Hindu sacred scriptures, the Upanishads:
“As the river flowing east and west
Merge in the sea and become one with it,
Forgetting that they were ever separate rivers,
So do all creatures lose their separateness
When they merge at last.”
V’haya Adonai l’mekech al kol ha’aretz bayom hahu yihye Adonai echad Ushmo echad.
And on that day, the Lord will be One, all will be One, and our name: One. Amen.