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Rosh Hashanah - 2008/ 5769

09/01/2008 09:08:21 PM


Rabbi Howard Jaffe

Some years, there is an obvious topic to be addressed. Other years, nothing stands out. This year, well, let's see … Israel is in the midst of determining who its new prime minister will be, potentially impacting world peace …..…. we are facing a financial crisis that we are told may be the worst since the Great Depression …..… and we are in the midst of a presidential election, with sharper distinctions between the candidates now apparent than was imaginable just a month or so ago.
The Jewish community has an advantage this year - we will spend more time at prayer these next ten days than most other religious groups will have between now and Nov. 4th , and we have a responsibility to use them wisely. This is my 26th year standing before a congregation, and, if you can believe it, my 9th year of doing so here at Temple Isaiah, and I cannot recall another year when so much was at stake - not even Rosh Hashanah of 2001, which came days after the devastating attacks that forced us to redefine our view of the world. At that time, our task was to determine our reaction to what had just happened to us. Today, our task is to determine what actions we will take - as the decisions that are made here and in Israel over the next weeks and months will determine not only our view of the world, but, potentially, the very contours of our world.

As American Jews, we are well schooled in applying Jewish values and behaviors to the decisions that face us, the challenges and the opportunities that Jews have had nowhere else as we have had in America. With the exception of those we often call "ultra-Orthodox" (or black hat or Haredi Jews), all streams of Jewish life have struggled with the balance of being Jewish and being American, of bringing Jewish values to this remarkable experiment we call America.

The institution of higher learning that is perhaps most widely recognized for its effort to fuse traditional Jewish teaching with the lessons of modernity is Yeshiva University in New York.
Yeshiva University is not, as you might imagine, especially well known for its athletic program. As one story goes, its crew team was perennially out of the running, consistently coming in last place by a wide margin in every competition. Frustrated, they sent a scout up here to observe the Harvard crew team, one of the most successful and respected in the country. Upon his return home, the scout was mobbed by his teammates who wanted to know what he learned. He turned to them and said, "It was fascinating! First of all, they have eight people rowing, and only one person shouting….."

We Jews have a well-deserved reputation for making our voices heard. That is not a bad thing - except when it prevents us from hearing the voices of others. Now, in truth, Yeshiva University does not have a crew team, but in fact, it does have a meaningful athletic program, and participates in a number of men's and women's intercollegiate sports. It also boasts a motto that encapsulates what it means to be a Jew in the world today: "Bring wisdom to life."

Jews do not have a monopoly on that concept, but we do have a responsibility to follow it - otherwise, we have little reason to exist. From the very beginning, the most meaningful contributions that the Jews have made has been our particular brand of wisdom. It is not all inclusive, and it is not superior to other streams of wisdom, but it is sufficiently distinctive as to have inspired and infuriated for thousands of years, and still counting. And if there was ever a time our world needed wisdom, it is now.

Yes, Jews have been known to shout and to argue not only with each other but with God from the very beginning, because we recognize that debating different responses to a question is an effective way of achieving a sharper, clearer, more nuanced and ultimately more successful and enduring response. Judaism has long held that we learn best when we are challenged. It is woven into the fabric of Jewish life.

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner tells one of my favorite stories: when he was a rabbinical student in New York in the 1960's, he went to have dinner at what was then one of the many kosher dairy restaurants in the city. Choosing a seat at the counter, and placing the Hebrew text he was carrying on the counter in front of him, an older man two seats over looked up at him and said "so, young man, how about an argument?"

In Western culture, contentiousness is viewed as unpleasant and leading to strife. For Jews, contentiousness is a modality that leads to greater enlightenment.

The Hebrew word for teaching, l'shanot, is the same word as sharpening, as in the familiar phrase from the V'ahavta prayer, 'v'shinantam l'vanecha" - usually translated as "you shall teach your children", but also "and you shall sharpen your children" not a double entendre but an etymological synchronicity. Learning takes place when wits are sharpened, acuity is sharpened, and the ability to face and think through an issue is sharpened - all of which happen when there is open confrontation of ideas, rooted not in proving one's dearly held conviction, but in arriving at a higher truth. For Jews, to leave a freshly proposed idea unchallenged is an insult.

Yet despite all the shouting we Jews are known to do, listening is foundational in Jewish life- not just hearing, but listening.  I want to ask you: tell me the one verse in Jewish life that virtually every Jew can recite. Right, the Shma - Hear, O Israel. Listen, Jews. Because speaking - or even shouting  - is only half of the equation.  We also need to listen - not just to hear, but to listen! The core text regarding Jewish wisdom comes from Pirke Avot: "Who is wise? One who learns from every human being" (V'aizehu chacham? Halomed mi-kol adam).  Surprising, yes? Not the one who pores over Torah day and night, not the oldest, most experienced person - though we imagine they, too, possess significant wisdom - but who is truly wise? One who is able to hear, to listen, and so, to learn from others.

 This does not, of course, characterize the current state of debate in our country right now.

I thought that the ads run in previous presidential campaigns could not sink any lower. I was wrong. Both camps are guilty of creating too much heat and not enough light. They are so busy attacking each other that we have yet to hear enough about what either of them intend to do to fix the mess we are in.    If I had the opportunity to say one word to the presidential candidates, it would be the same one I would say to the members of Congress:  Shma! Listen. If I could say a few words, I would say:  listen to each other.  Join me in a fantasy moment: Imagine what would happen if in the middle of one of the debates, one of the candidates stopped and said to the other, "you're right. I hadn't thought of that. Thank you for pointing that out."

This will not happen, of course, because we expect our leaders to be strong and decisive, and if a candidate's position on an issue shifts, evolves or even changes - they are perceived, and portrayed, as weak. And my friends, on this day, we must add to our list of sins by taking responsibility for our part in this mess and say chatanu  - we have sinned - by being party to instransigence and stubbornness and negativity.  In the early 19th century, Henry Clay famously said "I'd rather be right than president."  It appears that he was right. We have, collectively, signaled to those seeking the highest offices in our land that for them to become president, we would rather they be certain, and even offensive, than be right.

Conviction is a good thing, but not when it makes us blind, deaf, or dumb. Our rabbis of long ago understood that it was important to reinforce this message of listening today, as we begin the New Year, by assigning the Torah portion we just heard. Note how quickly, and wordlessly, Abraham accedes to what he understands to be God's command, to sacrifice his son.  Our rabbis, however, argue that God did no such thing.  Remember that there are no grammatical marks in the Torah - context and tradition determine how we read and understand every passage.  The Midrash Tanhuma notes that if we read this morning's most critical passage a certain way, we realize that Abraham may have been so sure that he knew what God wanted, he wasn't really listening.


The way it is traditionally read:

"And (God) said, Take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah; and offer him up there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell you."

Now - put a period instead of a comma in the middle and it becomes:
"Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah; and bring him up there. (Period)"  

Then, according to the midrash, the text continues: "…and while you are up there, sacrifice a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell you."

If you want to argue that Abraham heard correctly, that God did want to test him this way, please explain to me, at least, why Abraham is silent. Explain why the same man who argued ferociously on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah does not even ask for punctuation to clarify an unimaginable command.

If we learn anything from Abraham, let us at least learn the consequences of unnecessary conviction.

We are facing what is almost universally recognized as a pivotal presidential election. Some of us made up our minds about how we were voting before the primaries were over - or even before they began, knowing in advance that we would be voting by party affiliation. For some, that has changed, and with weeks to go before the election, it may change more. In that regard, the financial crisis and the growing revelations about all of the candidates may have had some positive impact. Few of us, however, are in a place where we are prepared to express gratitude for this particular growth opportunity.

So let us learn, once again, from Abraham.

According to the Mishnah, the Akedah was the last of ten trials that Abraham endured. The rabbis of the Midrash Tanhuma, again, expounded upon this, using the image of flax that is beaten to make linen.   Inferior flax, they tell us, cracks and breaks, while superior flax becomes purified by the process. In this manner, we are told, Abraham became purified through each of those trials.

There is a danger in taking this to an extreme: how many of us have heard it said that God gives no one more than they can handle? Let me tell you, that is not a Jewish sentiment. It suggests that whatever happens in our lives is a direct result of Gods' will, and while there may be some Jews who believe that, it is inconsistent with anything resembling mainstream Jewish thought. And it suggests that those who are broken were too weak or simply didn't try hard enough.

Yet there is a measure of truth to this - if we do survive our most challenging trials, we do come out stronger. It was Nietzsche who said the words that are often translated as "What does not kill me makes me stronger" - but a better translation is "What does not destroy me, makes me stronger."  How true!  There are hollow human beings walking this earth, who were destroyed, but not killed by the circumstances that left them this way, who could not handle what happened to them.  Right now, we are Facing the possibility of a time when many lives will be destroyed economically. Those lives will not necessarily be made stronger. But we have a choice to make.

The rabbis used the image of flax to describe Abraham. I would like to suggest that we use the image of leather. Leather is tough, and in times like these, we need to be tough. Tough, but not hard. Tough like leather, which becomes more supple and more it is touched by human hands. Tough, like leather, not hard like granite. At times like these, it is easy to become selfish, to become hard. If there is an opportunity here, it is for us to become the nation we want to be, but for too long have not been!  We are being presented with the opportunity to truly care for each other, and finally to recognize that the lives of all of us are intertwined with one another.

Several times in the course of his Rosh Hashanah services, we have already said the words Shma Koleinu, "hear our voice". We will say it again many more times on Yom Kippur. Yet note that the word is Koleinu - our voice, in the singular. On these high holy days, we pray together in one voice. We come together as one community. Only when we pray in one voice can we hope to merit God's mercy and grace. Selfish, disparate voices cancel each other out.

I recently came across a piece called A Prayer for Our Country. I do not know if the authors are Jewish, but I do know that the prayer itself is entirely consistent with Jewish values.

May we as a nation be guided by the divine
the sacred flame of our national heritage,
which so many have given their lives to safeguard;

Let the wounds of separation division be healed by opening
our hearts to listen to the truth on all sides,
allowing us to find a higher truth that includes us all;

May we learn to honor enjoyer diversity and
differences as a people, even as we more deeply
touch our fundamental unity;

May we, as a people undergo a transformation that will
draw fourth individuals to lead our nation who
embody courage, compassion, and a higher vision;

May our leaders inspire us, and we so inspire each
other with our potential as individuals and as a
nation, that a new spirit of forgiveness, caring and
honesty be born in our nation;

May we, as a united people, move with clear, directed
purpose to take our place within the community
of nations to help build a better future for all humankind;

May we as a nation rededicate ourselves to truly living
as one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty,
and justice for all;

And may God's Will be done for the United States, as
we, the people, align with that Will.

(Corrinne McGlaughlin and Gordon Davidson)

Shma Koleinu, Adonai Eloheinu - hear our voice, our God - and let us, on this day especially, hear yours.

Sat, December 4 2021 30 Kislev 5782