Friday, October 28, 2016

A Prayer Before Voting

Early voting has begun in Maryland. Some of you reading this have already voted; it is my sincere hope that everyone reading this (unless you are not yet 18 or not a U.S. citizen) will vote either on Election Day or beforehand, via Absentee Ballot or early voting.

A number of years ago, on the morning of Election Day, I received an email from a classmate which said something along the following lines: “If you don’t vote, you have no right to complain. As a Jew, I am terrified of losing my right to complain.”

But the fact of the matter, as I explained in my sermon on Kol Nidre evening, is that throughout most of our history we Jews did not have a right to complain. Both democracy and full citizenship for Jews are relative late arrivals on the scene of world history. We ought to be grateful that we have this opportunity.

Barring a replay of the 2000 election or some other unforeseen occurrence, some of us will go to bed on November 8, or early in the morning of November 9, very happy, and others will go to bed unhappy. But for 220 years, since John Adams took over as president from George Washington, we have been blessed with a peaceful transition of power.

I have written a brief “Prayer Before Voting,” using many of the ideas contained in the Prayer for Our Country we say every Shabbat and holiday.  If it speaks to you, I’d be honored for you to use it:
Eloheinu v’elohai avoteinu v’imoteinu,
Our God and God of our fathers and mothers,
I thank you for the opportunity to cast this vote.
May it strengthen the bonds of unity among all inhabitants of this country. May citizens of all races and creeds forge a common bond in true harmony, to banish hatred and bigotry, and to safeguard the ideals and free institutions that are the pride and glory of our country.
Creator of all flesh, we know also that the real work begins tomorrow morning. Whether or not I am pleased with the outcome of this election, help me to be a good citizen and work for understanding and reconciliation among all Americans. May we continue to work for the day when none shall hurt or destroy, when justice shall flow like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Yom Kippur Sermon: It's Not About the Whale

It was the summer of 1980 on the Georgetown University campus. I had just returned from spending my junior year at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and because of credits I had received for taking Hebrew ulpan during the previous summer, I discovered that if I took two summer session classes I could graduate in December rather than June. So that’s what I did. One of the two classes was a foreign affairs course taught by a visiting professor from Tel Aviv University, and one of the other students in that class was Egyptian. Although he was from Egypt, for most of his life he had lived elsewhere, since his father was a member of the Egyptian diplomatic corps. So Hisham had spent many of his elementary school years in London, where his father was Consul, and went to high school in Nicaragua, where his father was the Egyptian Ambassador.
1980 might well have been the high point in the Egyptian - Israeli relationship. Israel had completed its withdrawal from Sinai and returned it in its entirety to Egyptian control. The land border between Israel and Egypt was open and you could take a bus from Tel Aviv to Cairo. Or, as I did with a friend, you could take a shared taxi from the Damascus Gate in East Jerusalem to the border between Egypt and Gaza at Rafah, take another taxi from Rafah to the Suez Canal, cross the canal by ferry and then take a third taxi to Cairo. Israelis and Jewish tourists in Israel regularly visited Egypt, and there was some, although less, traffic in the other direction as well. It may have been this new spirit of cooperation that lead Hisham to take a course taught by an Israeli. At any rate, we soon became close friends and wound up rooming together in an off-campus apartment.
Although of Muslim background, Hisham considered himself an atheist, but like most Georgetown students he was nonetheless interested in religion at least in an academic way. I was taking an advanced tutorial in Hebrew bible and was beginning to think about going to rabbinical school after graduation. In 1980, Jerry Falwell and other elements of the Christian evangelical right wing were starting to come into prominence, and I remember one evening Hisham and I sat and watched a Jerry Falwell speech on TV. Hisham finally turned to me and said “this is the Muslim Brotherhood, except in English.”
The Muslim Brotherhood was the first Islamist organization, created to make Sunni Islamic sharia the law of the land. It was founded in Egypt in 1928 and, although it exists all over the Arab world, Egypt remains its heartland. In 1980 the Egyptian governing class was very worried about the Muslim Brotherhood, which opposed Sadat's government, and especially the Egyptian peace treaty with Israel. And they were right to worry, since in the fall of 1981 Sadat was assassinated by the Muslim Brotherhood.

In many ways I served as Hisham’s guide to all things American, and he wanted to understand the phenomenon of Christian fundamentalism more. He found my approach to religion somewhat puzzling, since in Egypt, whether Muslim or Coptic Christian you were either religious or not. The kind of religiosity exemplified by the Jesuits at Georgetown, or liberal forms of Judaism, which takes scripture seriously but not literally, was something new to him.
It must have been this time of year, because we were discussing the Book of Jonah, which we of course read on Yom Kippur afternoon. At any rate we were standing on Wisconsin Ave. waiting for the 30 bus to take us uptown to the corner of Wisconsin and Mass. Aves, where our apartment was, when we were approached by an attractive young woman. She had a name tag that identified her as a “WOW Ambassador.” I didn’t know exactly what group or denomination she represented but I assumed that she was a missionary of some type.
The young woman asked us “do you always stand around on street corners talking about religion?” I responded “well, I was just explaining to my friend here how fundamentalists get the Bible all wrong.”
She was somewhat taken aback and said “why, whatever do you mean?”
I responded “take the Book of Jonah, for instance. A fundamentalist will go to great lengths to try and convince you that there was an actual man whose actual name was Jonah, who was swallowed by an actual whale and actually lived three days in the belly of that whale and then was actually spit up on dry land and actually lived to tell the tale. Meanwhile, with all the emphasis on the actual whale, they miss the whole point of the story.”
“Which is?, she asked.
“That God forgives you if you repent.”
“How do you get THAT?”, she nearly shouted.
Thankfully, perhaps through divine intervention, our bus pulled up and the conversation ended.

I suppose for this young lady it may well have been difficult to understand that the point of the Book of Jonah is indeed that God forgives you if you repent. Because if you are a fundamentalist Christian, you don’t believe that. God doesn’t forgive you if you repent; God only forgives you if you profess your faith in Jesus. So that can’t possibly be the message of the Book of Jonah; it must, therefore, be a test of faith in our accepting of the literal truth of a story which scientists will tell you can’t have happened as described, since no one could survive for three days in the belly of a whale without being killed by the digestive juices.

There is a great video which you can find on youtube that deals with the different ways men and women tend to relate to problem-solving called “It’s Not About the Nail.” Perhaps a good tagline for the Book of Jonah would be “It’s Not About the Whale.” Our sages chose the Book of Jonah for the Haftarah on Yom Kippur afternoon -- the entire book. Why? Surely, it’s not about the whale.

Jonah was a reluctant prophet but he was also a successful prophet. The other prophets of the Bible like Jeremiah, Amos, and Micah were sent to the Israelites to get them to repent, and generally had very little success. Jonah, on the other hand, was sent to Nineveh. Nineveh was in what is today Northern Iraq and it was the capital of the Assyrian Empire. It was the capital of the kings Sargon and Sennacherib who conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel during the reign of King Hezekiah and carried the ten tribes of Israel into captivity. The book of Jonah describes it as a metropolis of 120,000 people and three days’ journey to cross, and the archeological ruins extant today confirm this as possible. The book of Jonah describes Nineveh as a wicked city worthy of destruction, but God sends Jonah to get them to change their ways.

The whole business of the whale comes in because Jonah doesn’t want to accept this mission. He gets on a boat heading to Tarshish, which was most likely a city on the southern Mediterranean coast of present-day Turkey. So Jonah headed northwest instead of northeast as he was commanded. Why? We don’t exactly know, at least not at first. But Jonah quickly learns that you can’t run away from God. His boat is almost capsized by a storm, and Jonah tells the sailors that it’s because of him and the only way to stop it is to throw him overboard. At first the sailors -- all of them non-Jews -- are reluctant to do so. They row hard, trying to get back to land, with no success.  Then they pray to God not to let them die because of another man’s sins. But their prayers are of no avail, and finally they do throw Jonah overboard. Then he’s swallowed by the whale and after three days spit out on dry land. He’s learned his lesson, and this time embarks on the mission he was given.

He gets to Nineveh and travels one day’s journey into the city. He proclaims that within 40 days Nineveh will be overthrown. And now we begin to see a possible reason for Jonah’s reluctance. Prophets who were sent to Israel were met with hostility, sometimes thrown in jail, sometimes even killed, but rarely did they succeed in prompting a change in behavior. But the Ninevites believe Jonah. The people and the king proclaim a fast, and everyone wears sackcloth and ashes and refrains from food for three days -- even the cattle. The king urges everyone to turn away from their evil and violence. Maybe, if they do so, God will forgive them and not destroy the city. It’s not about the whale.

And so Jonah heads back to Israel, pleased with himself for a job well done, and everyone lives happily ever after. Right? Well, not exactly. He’s not happy at all, in fact he’s furious. He says to God: “see, I knew this would happen, and that’s why I tried to get out of this assignment in the first place. “For I knew that thou art a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and repentest of evil. 3 Therefore now, O Lord, take my life from me, I beseech thee, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

Why is Jonah so angry? A lot of commentators claim it’s because he’s been made to look foolish. After all, he proclaimed that Nineveh would be destroyed and now it’s not going to happen. But I don’t think this is what’s going on here. Although we often think that a prophet is someone who can accurately predict the future, that’s not what a prophet is at all. A prophet warns of what will happen if the people don’t repent and change their ways. Far from looking foolish and being a failure, Jonah was a smashing success. He wasn’t sent to Nineveh to predict the destruction of the city; he was sent to warn the inhabitants that their city would be destroyed if they kept up their evil ways. And they believed him! They changed their ways! The city wasn’t destroyed. It’s not about the whale.
And this, my friends, is precisely what gets Jonah angry. Maybe because he wanted Nineveh to be destroyed; after all, they were the enemies of the Jews. Or maybe he was upset because the Ninevites made the Jews look bad in comparison. God sends prophet after prophet to Israel, and nothing. But one little pipsqueak of a prophet sent to Nineveh, and boom, total repentance. We’re supposed to be God’s special people, schooled in morality and the ways of the Lord. What’s going on here? At any rate, it’s not about the whale.

But Jonah doesn’t give up hope. He decides to camp out east of the city and builds himself a sukkah, waiting to see if maybe the city will be destroyed anyway. So God makes a special plant grow to shade him, and Jonah is happy. Then God sends a worm to destroy the plant, and Jonah once again is furious and wants to die. So God essentially says to him, “you can have compassion on this plant, which you didn’t plant or water. It came up in a night and was destroyed in a night. But you get mad because I have pity on Nineveh, a city of 120,000, and all their animals besides.” You see, it’s not about the whale.

The people of Nineveh became, for the rabbis, the classic paradigm of what true repentance, teshuvah, means. There is a tractate in the Mishnah called Ta’anit -- a Ta’anit is a fast which is proclaimed in the wake of some extraordinary catastrophe, the classic paradigm being a drought. And so if there is a drought, tractate Ta’anit tells you how the community is supposed to respond -- the assumption being, of course, that the drought is sent by God as punishment for the community’s sins.

When the drought has gotten really severe, this is what the sages tell us to do:
What is the order of the fast-days? The ark containing the scrolls of the law is to be brought to the city square… the elder shall then address them in heart-moving terms: "My brethren, consider that it is not written in respect to [the repentance of] the Ninevites, that God regarded their having wrapped themselves in sackcloth, and considered their fast-days, but that 'God saw their acts, and that they had turned from their evil ways' (Jonah 3:10), and the tradition of the prophets also is, 'Tear your hearts, and not your garments' (Joel 2:13)."
The town elder as cited by the Mishna conveys the powerful idea that fasting and sackcloth are merely the outer trappings of repentance, whereas the requisite change must be a fundamental reorientation of lifestyle. Nineveh epitomizes this ethic. Though they did fast and don sackcloth, this was not the critical element. Instead: 'God saw their acts, and that they had turned from their evil ways.'

It’s not about the whale.

This afternoon we will read the Book of Jonah. Shortly thereafter is Ne’ilah, the hour of the “closing of the gates.” We’ll hear the Shofar, our fast will be ended. What happens the next day? Will we as individuals, as a community and as a country, have changed our behavior? Will we turn from our evil ways, love the stranger, feed the hungry, clothe the naked? If so, our fast will have meant something. Let us make it so. It’s not about the whale.

Yom Kippur Sermon: A Prayer for Our Country

It was 1812 and Napoleon and his armies had invaded the Russian Empire, where the plurality of world Jewry lived.
Napoleon was a paradoxical figure. He had risen to prominence during the French Revolution, and despite having crowned himself as Emperor he still espoused the revolutionary ideals of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. The success or failure of his army had a tremendous influence on Jewish life. Although the United States had been the first country to extend full citizenship to Jews, in the early 1800s America was really a backwater for world Jewry. The majority of Jews in the world lived in Europe. They lived in Europe but they were not of Europe. They were not citizens of the countries where they resided, no matter how long their families had lived there. In many cases they did not speak, or barely spoke, the local language, speaking Yiddish and learning, praying, and writing in Hebrew. But wherever Napoleon’s armies advanced, that changed. In the spirit of the French Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man, Jews were made equal citizens. They could participate in society on an equal basis. They could have the same education as everyone else and could enter any profession they wished.
So as Napoleon and his army approached the heartland of Hassidism, the rebbes had a decision to make. Should they support Napoleon? Some of the rebbes, most prominent among them Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, did support him, since he would free the Jews from Czarist oppression and antisemitism. Others, such as Shneur Zalman of Liady, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, supported Czar Alexander I, arguing that while Napoleon might well liberate the Jews from their physical shackles, he would also introduce them to “enlightenment” ideals which could lead them away from their religious strictures as well. The rebbe did well to worry. While Napoleon’s invasion of Russia was rebuffed, Enlightenment ideals did eventually make their way east, and by the late 1800s most Jews in Eastern Europe were no longer fully observant.

The chasidic rebbes’ debate over whether to support the Czar or Napoleon was a marker of Jewry having entered into the modern era. Although Fiddler on the Roof was set in 1905, 91 years later than the Napoleonic invasion of Russia, the Rabbi’s blessing for the Czar -- “may God bless and keep the Czar, far away from us” reflects a pre-modern understanding of the relationship between Jews and the government. In Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Hanina the Deputy High Priest, says: “Pray for the welfare of the government, for were it not for the fear of it, man would swallow his fellow alive.” Rabban Gamaliel says “Be cautious with the people who govern, for they draw a man near in friendship only for their own purposes. They show themselves as friends when it is to their benefit, but they do not stand by a man in his hour of difficulty.” In other words, throughout most of our history, the Jews viewed government as a necessary evil. Necessary, because even a repressive government was better than anarchy. But evil, because in the best of circumstances Jews were tolerated as long as they proved useful to the ruling authorities, but could never count on that goodwill being permanent let alone enshrined in law. A good government, not to put too fine a point on it, was one that persecuted Jews no more than necessary.
If Joseph Stein, who wrote the script for Fiddler on the Roof, had been more attentive to small details of Jewish religious practice, he would not have had a character ask the Rabbi if there was a blessing for the Czar. The rabbi responds that of course there is, since there is a blessing for everything. But in point of fact, there was a blessing for the Czar in the siddurim printed in Imperial Russia, and it even mentioned the Czar and his family by name. Jews were instructed to pray for the welfare of the government under which they lived by Jeremiah during the Babylonian exile: 'Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf; for in its welfare you will have welfare.' (Jeremiah 29:7).

While Jeremiah instructed his people to pray for the welfare of the city, he did not specify the exact words to be said. The prayer which eventually became the standard prayer for the government with the spread of printing was, ironically, written in the 15th century in Aragon for King Ferdinand -- the same King who subsequently both financed Columbus’ expedition and gave all Jews in his kingdom the choice of conversion or exile. This prayer became known as “HaNoten Teshuah,” meaning “he who grants salvation,” from its first two words.

This prayer originally written for Ferdinand continued virtually unchanged for hundreds of years, except of course for the names of the rulers and their specific titles. For example, a Machzor printed in Vilna contains the following, as translated by Rabbi Robert Scheinberg:
May He Who grants salvation to kings and dominion to rulers,
Whose kingdom is a kingdom spanning all eternity,
Who releases David, his servant, from the evil sword,
Who places a road in the sea and a path in the mighty waters –
May He bless, protect, guard, assist, elevate, exalt, and lift upwards
With his wife, the honorable CZARINA ALEXANDRA FEODOROVNA
Their son, the crown prince ALEXI NIKOLAIOVICH
And his mother, the honorable CZARINA MARIA FEODORAVNA
And the entire house of our king, may their glory be exalted.
May the King of kings in His mercy give him life, and protect him,
And save him from every trouble, woe and injury.
May nations submit under his feet, and may his enemies fall before him,
And may he succeed in whatever he endeavors.
May the King of kings, in His mercy, grant compassion in his heart
and the heart of all his advisors
To do favors for us and for all Israel, our brethren.
In his days and in our days, may Judah be saved, and may Israel dwell securely,
And may the Redeemer come to Zion.
So may it be His will – and we say:  AMEN.
Many Orthodox prayer books continue to use this prayer to this day. Depending on the particular edition of the Artscroll siddur, for example, the prayer is either printed only in Hebrew or not at all, with a notation at the appropriate place in the service that this is the point at which the prayer for the government is said. Now Artscroll publishes many different editions of their Siddur, and it’s possible that there are editions which do have an English translation, but as I said, I haven’t seen it.
If we look at the content, we see that this is a prayer for the government but it isn’t a prayer for the country. There is no mention of the inhabitants of the country other than the ruler and his family and advisors, there is no mention of the welfare of the general society, and there is only one desire expressed for the ruler: to have compassion on, and to do favors for, the Jews. This prayer does not view Jews as citizens of the country or as having anything in common with the other inhabitants. It merely seeks to prove that the Jews are loyal to the authorities and expresses the hope that in return for our loyalty, the rulers will be kind to us.

When Jews first came to this country, the practice of saying HaNoten Teshuah continued unchanged. The first Jews came to what was then New Amsterdam in 1654 and had to appeal to the authorities back in old Amsterdam to be permitted to remain, so naturally the Jews wished to prove their loyalty and of course hope that they wouldn’t be persecuted. The congregation that the first Jews of New Amsterdam founded still exists as Shearith Israel, the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, and today is in its 3rd building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Its archives are a treasure trove of information about early American Jewish life, and they reveal that by at least 1760 this prayer was recited at Shearith Israel in English but the names or titles of the authorities -- by this time including not only the British King but the chief magistrate of the New York council -- were recited in Portuguese, a language which by then few of the congregants could understand.

As historian Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis University wrote:  “Within a few years, however, this longtime practice had become a problem for American Jews. It was not just that their loyalties had changed  -- this, after all, was common to many Americans of the day and had in any case been a feature of Jewish life for centuries (causing no end of problems when prayer books extolling a previous sovereign in the text of Hanoten “Teshu'ah had hastily to be withdrawn.) The more vexing problem Jews faced in the wake of the American Revolution was whether the prayer familiar to them from regular use and fixed in their liturgy was appropriate at all in a country where leaders were elected and sovereignty rested with the people.”
There are no records from Shearith Israel or any of the five other Jewish congregations which existed in the United States from during the Revolutionary War, but by 1782 the congregants of Mikve Israel congregation in Philadelphia were praying for "His Excellency the President, and Hon'ble Delegates of the United States of America in Congress Assembled, His Excellency George Washington, Captain General and Commander in Chief of the Federal Army of these States," the General Assembly of Pennsylvania, and "all kings and potentates in alliance with North America." Shortly afterwards, editions of the Siddur printed in the United States began to leave out the name of the President and just used the title, since otherwise it would be necessary to replace all the siddurim every four or eight years. But other than replacing the King with the President, the prayer continued unchanged -- perhaps because traditional congregations -- there were no other kind -- were slow to change, perhaps because the prayer was said in Hebrew which most congregants couldn’t understand anyway.

It wasn’t until 1830 that a Jewish congregation wrote an entirely new prayer, in recognition that a representative democracy is different than a monarchy. That prayer was written in Charleston, S.C. and appeared in the prayer book of the “Reformed Society of Israelites,” the first and rather short-lived attempt at founding a more liberal Jewish congregation. Although the society itself soon disappeared, the attempt opened the floodgates and other new prayers for the government began to appear.
In 1837 Isaac Leeser, the “minister” (he was not an ordained rabbi) of Mikve Israel in Philadelphia issued his siddur with an English translation. Since he hoped to market his work throughout the English-speaking world, he retained the traditional Hebrew “HaNoten Teshua” but offered two different English translations, one for a republican form of government, as he put it, and one for a royal form. The republican version was mostly traditional but removed some of the more flowery and obsequious language used in the royal form. Professor Sarna notes “the symbolic importance of offering two alternative prayers in the liturgy. By distinguishing monarchies and republics as he did, Leeser (perhaps unconsciously) divided the Diaspora into two kinds of polities, implying that they stood differently before God. Everywhere that Leeser's prayer book reached  . . .this dramatic distinction was underscored, reminding Jews who still lived under kings and queens that an alternative form of government existed.”
For 90 years after Leeser, various editions of the prayer book had various attempts at formulating a prayer that would accurately reflect the role of the Jew in our society. Most of these efforts were in prayer books published by the Reform movement; Orthodox congregations were mostly unwilling to change any part of the liturgy while the Conservative movement published no liturgical texts of its own, unwilling thereby to acknowledge that it had definitively broken with Orthodoxy.
In 1927 the United Synagogue published the Festival Prayer Book which was the first siddur or machzor published under Conservative auspices. Rabbi Louis Ginzberg, the outstanding Talmudic scholar at the Jewish Theological Seminary, was asked to write a completely new prayer for the country. With slight adaptations as language changed, and with a revision that made it appropriate for Canadian as well as American congregations to recite, it remains the prayer which is said in Conservative as well as Reconstructionist congregations to this day.

Let’s take a look at what it says:
Our God and God of our ancestors: We ask Your blessings for our country - for its government, for its leaders and advisors, and for all who exercise just and rightful authority. Teach them insights of Your Torah, that they may administer all affairs of state fairly, that peace and security, happiness and prosperity, justice and freedom may forever abide in our midst.
Creator of all flesh, bless all the inhabitants of our country with Your spirit. May citizens of all races and creeds forge a common bond in true harmony, to banish hatred and bigotry, and to safeguard the ideals and free institutions that are the pride and glory of our country.
May this land, under Your Providence, be an influence for good throughout the world, uniting all people in peace and freedom - and helping them to fulfill the vision of Your prophet: "Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they experience war any more." And let us say, Amen.

Many of the prayers we say, especially when we say them in Hebrew, are said simply because they are traditional. It gives us comfort to know that we are saying the same words, and in many cases singing the same melodies, that Jews have said and sung for hundreds of years. For example, our siddur and our mahzor have prayers which look forward to a rebuilding of the Temple and the restoration of worship there under the kohanim. The musaf service we pray every Shabbat and holiday has this as a central theme, and the Avodah service on Yom Kippur focuses on this in its entirety. Personally, I have my doubts that such an eventuality would be desirable, given the disunity within the Jewish world, the control of religious life and religious sites in Israel by a medieval-minded rabbinic bureaucracy, and so on. But I’m happy to say these prayers nonetheless to connect with my ancestors who said them.
But a specially-written prayer which we say in English is meant, I think, to reflect the values we believe in and the reality we hope to create. Unlike HaNoten Teshua, Ginzberg’s prayer sees American Jews not as “subjects” but as “citizens.” We are connected to our fellow Jews but we’re also connected to our fellow Americans. We don’t ask that the king who rules us make decisions and decrees favorable to the Jews. Rather, we ask that our leaders -- who we elected, and who therefore exercise “just and rightful authority” -- make decisions and enact policies which will bring us peace and security, happiness and prosperity, justice and freedom. And we want them to do so, using insights from our Torah. We believe, as American Jews, not that the Torah or Judaism should be imposed as the law of the land; but that “insights from our Torah,” Jewish values, can guide the leaders of our country to make it safe and secure, just and peaceful.

In HaNoten Teshua, we are asking God to make the rulers of the country be good to us. Since historically we were not citizens and had no rights, that is the best we could do. HaNoten Teshua mentions only the rulers and not our fellow-inhabitants, since we are not part of the same polity with them, they probably don’t like us, and we’re not too fond of them either. But here it is different. We ask that God help citizens -- not subjects -- of all races and creeds forge a common bond in true harmony. We know from our painful experience that America is different, but it is different precisely because it protects the rights of minorities, whether those minorities are religious or racial. And what insures that America remains different? Not the goodwill of the ruler but “the ideals and free institutions which are the pride and glory of our country.”

We ask God to bless our leaders -- but in a democracy, our leaders are chosen by the

people and reflect the character and desires of the people. May this land, under God’s

providence, continue to be an influence for good throughout the world, and may citizens of

all races and creeds continue to enjoy its blessings. Ken y’hi ratzon.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Rosh Hashana Sermon: Sisera's Mother and Us

The old woman sat at her window, worried. Her son should have returned by now. She peered out through the lattices, and started wailing. “Why is he so late in coming? He should already be back.” The other women present try to comfort her, making up all kinds of excuses as to why her son is delayed. But in her heart, she knows the truth. He’s not coming back. His lifeless body lies somewhere in a ditch, flies buzzing around his eyes, blood on his clothing. She knows that the words her companions speak aren’t true. He’s not coming back, and she begins to wail.

There are many different explanations as to why we blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. On the second day of Rosh Hashanah we read about the Binding of Isaac, and how a ram was sacrificed instead of Abraham’s son. The shofar is a ram’s horn, and by blowing the shofar we remind God of Abraham’s merit and hope that he will be merciful to us for Abraham’s sake. The shofar is bent, symbolizing our contrition over our sins and failings. In ancient Israel, as throughout the ancient near east, the shofar was used as a battle cry, telling the troops what to do in the heat of the fighting. So Maimonides tells us that the shofar is the battle cry of our soul, rousing us from our spiritual slumber and calling us to fight against the evil inclinations which want us to remain complacent.

But there is another explanation for the shofar with which you may be less familiar. According to the Talmud in Tractate Rosh Hashanah 33b, the sounds of the shofar are supposed to be like those the woman I mentioned a couple of minutes ago made as she looked out the window and realized her son wasn’t coming home. There is no sound in the world that is more pitiful, more broken, than that. If the sound of the shofar is to arouse compassion, there is no sound more appropriate than this.
And who is this woman who sits at the window crying over her lost son? Is it Hannah, the heroic woman who lost seven children in the fight against Antiochus and the Seleucid Empire which gave us Chanukah? Perhaps it is Samson’s mother, waiting for her heroic son to return from fighting the Philistines? But no, the woman who sits at the window and wails, whose pain we reenact as we sound the shofar, is Sisera’s mother. Unless you come to synagogue on the Shabbat when we read the Song at the Sea, and pay attention that morning to the Haftarah, you may well be asking yourself who Sisera was and what his mother has to do with anything. But Sisera is the Canaanite general defeated by the Israelite general Barak and the prophetess Deborah, who was subsequently seduced by the heroine Yael who drove a tent-peg through his forehead while he slept. The bloodthirsty enemy general Sisera, whose well-deserved death meant our ancestors enjoyed peace and quiet for 40 years. But the book of Judges passage which we read as a Haftarah on the Shabbat we read the Song at the Sea reminds us that even brutal bloodthirsty generals have mothers, and that they suffer when their sons are killed.

Rabbi Ed Feld of the Jewish Theological Seminary writes: “what we are to hear is the pain and suffering of the mother of Sisera. . . Make no mistake, the Rabbis are proud of Deborah's victory, she acted to save Israel and did what was required in that hour. And yet, on Rosh Hashanah we are to feel not only the pride of victory but the pain that was caused the mother of our enemy even when we fought in a righteous cause.”

There are times in the Jewish calendar when we are to recall our own pain. Holocaust Remembrance Day, Tisha B’Av, numerous minor fasts that few of us observe such as Tzom Gedaliah, the 17th of Tammuz and the Tenth of Tevet. But on Rosh Hashanah, the Talmud wants to remind us, that if we are to get God’s attention and motivate God to have mercy on us, we need to recall not our pain but someone else’s. Our suffering is not a “get out of jail free” card and we are not exempt from having empathy for others -- even the mother of the bloodthirsty enemy general.

If you were raised in a Jewish family, chances are that some of your earliest Jewish memories are of the Passover seder. When we come to the ten plagues we spill a drop of wine at the mention of each plague. Why? Because our joy at our own deliverance is tempered by our recollection of the sufferings of the Egyptians. And in so doing, we’re reminded of the Midrash that God prevented the angels from rejoicing at the parting of the Red Sea, saying “my creatures (the Egyptian soldiers) are drowning in the sea, this is not a time to sing songs of praise.” The idea that we should have empathy for others, even our enemies, is ingrained in us from an early age.
As Steven Covey wrote in his Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, “seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Covey says that most of us don’t do that.  “Most people listen with the intent to reply, not to understand. You listen to yourself as you prepare in your mind what you are going to say, the questions you are going to ask, etc. You filter everything you hear through your life experiences, your frame of reference. You check what you hear against your autobiography and see how it measures up. And consequently, you decide prematurely what the other person means before he/she finishes communicating.” We can’t have empathy without listening, truly listening, to others. Listening not to sharpen our rebuttal, but truly hearing the other person, including their pain. Our digital age has made it easier to listen to people who are not like us, since their tweets and blogs and Youtube videos are so easily accessible. But our digital age has also made real listening increasingly rare, both because of our diminished attention span and our ability to create digital bubbles so that rarely if ever are we confronted with perspectives which challenge us. It isn’t even a question of agreeing or disagreeing. Just listen to another person and their experiences.

The shooting deaths or deaths in police custody of African-Americans like Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Terence Crutcher and Philando Castile galvanized a movement known as “Black Lives Matter.” Some have criticized the movement, saying “All Lives Matter.” And of course, all lives do matter. But when the American Jewish community in the 1970s and 1980s organized under the banner of “Save Soviet Jewry,” were we saying that only Jewish lives matter? When activists organize under the banner of “Save the Whales” is the unspoken corollary “and to heck with the dolphins and the seals?” But the fact is that for much of our country’s history, Black lives did not matter.

I confess that for a long time when asked to give my racial information I either checked “other” or declined to answer. When somebody would use the phrase “white privilege” I would bristle. My grandparents came here almost penniless. They struggled to learn a new language in a culture where antisemitism was widespread. Not a single one of my ancestors lived in this country when African Americans were slaves. While my ancestors in Eastern Europe weren’t owned as chattel, their lives were not a whole lot better. In Israel, I visited with relatives who had survived concentration camps and others who spent all of World War II hiding in the woods. What kind of privilege is that?
But the reality is that African Americans have a very different experience of the police than white people do. I first learned this in the early 90s when I had jury duty in DC superior court. It was a cocaine possession case and there were 7 blacks and 5 whites on the jury. I was chosen by the jurors as foreman and I decided that before we even deliberated we ought to take a vote. Our first straw poll was 7 to acquit and 5 to convict. All 7 blacks found the defense claim that the police detained the wrong man and then planted drugs on him to cover up their mistake to be credible. At first, none of the whites thought this was remotely possible, because it’s so far outside of our experience. While the first vote divided along racial lines, it would not be fair to say that the blacks on the jury were motivated solely by race. After all, they had elected me as foreman -- but they simply had a different experience of the police in their neighborhoods than I had, living in Cleveland Park.
A couple of years ago the Montgomery County Police came to my home due to a misunderstanding and I was furious. I refused to let them into the house until a supervisor was called. I failed to comply with their orders, I stomped around in my driveway and I was not polite. It never for a moment occurred to me that my failure to comply could get me killed.
The fact that I did something incredibly stupid and potentially life-threatening only dawned on me a couple of weeks later when I saw a video of the arrest -- which ended in his death -- of Eric Garner. If you recall, Garner was at the time of his death in July 2014, 44 years old. He was a big man, 6 foot 3 and close to 400 pounds. He was arrested on suspicion of selling untaxed loose cigarettes, and when the police tried to handcuff him he said that he was tired of being harassed and pulled his hands away. One of the officers put him in a chokehold and he soon died.
When I watched the video of Eric Garner I saw myself on that afternoon a few weeks earlier. I recognized the frustration and anger he was feeling. He wasn’t threatening or violent, he was just fed up. Maybe he was breaking the law by selling untaxed cigarettes, maybe not, but he didn't deserve to die. Watching Eric Garner, I wondered in retrospect what would have happened to me if I had done exactly what I did under different circumstances or in a different place. If one of the officers who came to my house didn’t already know that I was the rabbi of the synagogue around the corner? If I lived in a less-affluent part of Montgomery Village? If my skin had been black?
My parents never felt that they had to warn me to always be polite if stopped by the police and to always keep my hands in sight. Is the same true of black parents in our country? When I demanded the officers call their commander to the scene, guess what they did. They did so rather than arresting me, or worse. My white skin allowed me the “privilege” of being angry and fed up when the police appeared and to be utterly oblivious -- at the time -- to the fact that people pay with their lives for doing what I did.
Saying the words “Black Lives Matter” has become more difficult for Jews in recent weeks as some elements of that movement have embraced the idea of boycotting and divesting from the State of Israel and have labeled Israel a colonialist, apartheid state. It’s also difficult, unfortunately, because so many people imagine that if you are concerned about unarmed black men and women being killed by police or dying in police custody, you are somehow anti-police.
Yet, it seems to me that we can have empathy both for the African-American mother who worries that her son’s skin color casts him under suspicion as well as for the mother of the police officer who knows that every day he goes off to work could be his last.I’m not talking about policy or laws here. It’s not my area of expertise. I’m talking about hearing another person’s pain and not minimizing it.  And I hasten to add that here in Montgomery County we have a fantastic police department. I’ve been in meetings with Chief Manger and Assistant Chief McSwain, and I’ve met patrol officers including those who protect our synagogue and always step up their vigilance whenever there are heightened tensions. I’ve not met a single member of the Montgomery County Police who was less than impressive.

Empathy literally means the ability to understand the feelings of others. That should be simple but it isn’t. It takes an act of imagination, to realize that my experiences are not universal and my frame of reference isn’t the only one. It means asking myself, not “how do I feel about this?” but rather “how would I feel about this if I were the other person? What would it be like to walk a mile in that other person’s shoes?”
I’ve focused so far on the Black experience of the criminal justice system only because for me, watching the video of Eric Garner’s death was a real eye opener. I could have chosen to discuss any of a number of other groups in our society who feel marginalized. Gays and lesbians and especially transgender people; Muslim Americans who are feeling very vulnerable and even Sikh Americans, who are not Muslims yet often fall victim to prejudice and even physical violence because Sikh men wear turbans and have beards and are thus often mistaken for Muslims.
You can also be part of the majority and still feel marginalized. Bruce Springsteen said recently “there's a price being paid for not addressing the real cost of the deindustrialization and globalization that has occurred in the United States for the past 35, 40 years and how it’s deeply affected people's lives and deeply hurt people.” White working class people are losing ground, particularly those who are over 50, those who don’t have a college degree, those working in industries which have declined and aren’t coming back like coal and steel and textile manufacturing. There are a lot of people in this country who are bewildered by the societal and economic changes which have taken place in their lifetime, they are angry and they feel that no one is listening and no one cares about them.
Can we care about unarmed black men and women who are killed by police and also care about police and their families? Can we care about members of racial and ethnic minorities and also care about poor whites who feel that the America they once knew is no more and that their future is bleak? Can we care about LGBT Americans and also have empathy for those who are sincerely bewildered that what once was unthinkable is now perfectly acceptable? Can we care about our Muslim fellow-Americans and also care about Israel and about our soldiers who risk their lives to keep us safe from those who seek to do us harm, many of whom wrap themselves in the mantle of Islam?

On Rosh Hashanah we blow the shofar whose sounds remind us of the grief of a mother who has lost her son. On Yom Kippur during the Al Chet and Ashamnu prayers we will strike our chests over our hearts, symbolically opening our hearts as if we were opening a hole in a wall. If we can embrace the pain of Sisera’s mother, we should be able to embrace the pain of our neighbors who are not like us. My plea to you on this holy day is to do just that. Take the time to listen with an open heart to someone who isn’t like you.
To quote the famous poem of Edwin Markham:
“He drew a circle that shut me out-

Heretic , rebel, a thing to flout.

But love and I had the wit to win:

We drew a circle and took him In !”

Or if you prefer, the teaching found in Avot d’Rabbi Natan: “Who is a hero? The one who turns an enemy into a friend.” In the coming year, may we achieve the heroism of doing just that.