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Rosh Hashanah 2016/5777

09/01/2016 09:50:20 PM


Rabbi Howard L. Jaffe

Noting that this is the time of year for apologies, I begin with one this morning.

For those who our here today hoping that I would talk about the presidential election and even endorse a particular candidate, I apologize for disappointing you.

And for those who came today hoping that I would talk about timeless matters, and not reference the presidential election, I apologize for disappointing you.

Because we need to talk about timeless topics today, and not get bogged down in politics.

And because we need to talk about the world in which we find ourselves today, and not allow ourselves to pretend that we can or should escape from the challenges of the world in which we live.

Because both of those are Jewish obligations.

And because they are not at all inconsistent or contradictory.

We are not here out of fealty to our tradition. Nor are we here to discuss the issues of the day as we might in any other forum.

We are here to examine ourselves and our world, and determine who we are going to be, and what part we are going to play in creating the world in which we find ourselves.

We need to apply the wisdom of Judaism and Jewish teaching to a society and a world that may be on the precipice.

In a few minutes, we will, once again, sound the shofar. If the shofar is anything, it is a call to take note so that we might act.

It is so important that our rabbis, in setting forth the practices and observances for this day, spent half of the Talmudic tractate Rosh Hashanah of the sound of the shofar, what constituted a shofar that was fit for use, and what constituted fulfilling the commandment of hearing the sound.

The rabbis determined, for example, that if someone happened to be passing a synagogue and heard the sound of the shofar, unless they were intent on fulfilling the commandment at that moment, and listening for the sound, they have not fulfilled the obligation.

It is not enough to hear the sound. One actually has to hear the call. Otherwise, it is just noise.

And we are living in a moment in history where there is so much noise that is hard to hear and concentrate on what matters.

Disagreement is important and valuable. Thoughtful argument leads to clarity and deeper understanding.

The Talmud tells of two extraordinary scholars, Rabbi Yochanan and Resh Lakish who would study together, meaning that they would argue with one another. When Resh Lakish died, Rabbi Yochanan was inconsolable, having lost his foil. They brought him the finest student in the academy to be his new partner. On every dictum uttered by Rabbi Yochanan he observed: 'There is a teaching which supports you.' Rabbi Yochanan was hardly consoled. Instead, he complained that “‘when I studied with Resh Lakish, he would raise twenty-four objections, to which I gave twenty-four answers, which consequently led to a fuller comprehension of the law; while you say, "there is a teaching which supports you.’ Do I not know myself that my dicta are right?” The Talmud then tells us that he went into a deep depression from which he never arose.

Rabbi Yochanan was not interested in winning or even in being right. He was interested in finding the truth, in the deeper understanding and growth that comes from thoughtful, principled argument and the exchange of ideas.

We have had many contentious presidential elections and times of profound disagreement over the years, but it is hard to recall a time when our national conversation was so disconnected from principles, and when we were so at odds with one another that we lacked even the common ground to engage in discussion and debate about the issues of the day.

I am concerned. I am concerned that there are fault lines in our society that have been uncovered which, if left unattended, will damage this nation in ways from which we will not recover in my lifetime.

Our rabbis teach that the second Temple was destroyed by the Romans and the people were exiled because of baseless hatred, sinat chinam.  The Jewish community living in the land of Israel in the year 70 was so fractured that they were, according to the rabbis, unworthy of the Temple itself or even continued residency in the land.

But that same story gives us great reason to hope, and maybe, maybe, even be optimistic.

Looking back, one would have readily expected that the Jewish people would have become a footnote in history. With no geographic center, no physical center, no place to be a nation, there would have been every reason to imagine that the Jews would have suffered the fate of the Mesopotamians, the Incas, and oh yes, the Romans.

We are still here, I submit, because of three principles to which we have adhered from the beginning of our existence, and I submit that adherence to those same three principles will keep America whole and strong, and not lose our place of responsible leadership in the world. And I submit that as Jews, we have a particular responsibility to model adherence to those principles:

Unity - achdut

mutual responsibility – arevut                                                                       

concern for others-  Re'ut


Principle number one: Unity/Achdut: our creation story, shared, of course, by Christianity, and so, half of the world’s population, is that all of us are descendants of the same two people, and so, all of humanity are interconnected to one another. Unity is not the same as uniformity. Unity is the state or fact of being united or combined into one, as of the parts of a whole. Throughout our existence, the Jewish people has understood that wherever we have lived, however we have lived, individuals and communities are parts of a greater whole. Unity is not the opposite of diversity, and in fact, the plurality of approaches to Jewish life throughout the millennia prove that there can be diversity in unity. Diversity is not division. Unity is recognizing that we are all part of a greater whole that transcends our individual parochial concerns and interests. To be sure, there have been periods when our sense of unity has been stronger than other periods, but we continue to be one people, no matter how challenging that can sometimes be. If we have been able to do so as the Jewish people dispersed across the globe, without a land of our own for 2000 years, surely we in these United States can resolve to be unified even in our rich diversity.


Unity can be hard to come by, even in small communities, let alone an entire nation. Ironically, crisis can help – and if we are facing a crisis right now, we might come out of it stronger and more unified, but only if we still have a nation to unify.  True story: about 20 years ago, a pastor  in Arkansas was arrested for setting his church on fire. Apparently, there was a great deal of disunity in the congregation. According to court records, he “sought to contrive a project that the members of the congregation could work on together, thereby promoting unity of purpose.” So he started what he expected to be a small fire, claiming that he had intended only to scorch a small area of the church wall that could then have been repaired by members of his congregation in an act of communal unity. Unfortunately, he miscalculated, and 30 minutes later, the entire church was in flames.

We are already scorched enough to know how badly we need unity. How far will we let the crisis continue? Are we willing to risk burning the whole thing down?  

Principle number two: Mutual responsibility/ Arevut  -- in January of 1987, I visited what was then still very much the Soviet Union, and visited with refuseniks, those who had applied for exit visas to live in Israel, whose requests had been denied, and whose lives were turned into a living hell. One night in Odessa, that I will never forget, my friend and I met with about a half a dozen such refuseniks, and heard their painful stories, including that of the husbands of our hosts, a mother and daughter, who were in a Soviet prison, the younger man for clandestinely teaching Hebrew, his father-in-law for writing letters seeking support from the West. There was a man in the group about my age, built very much like me, even a similar beard. There was a picture of the two of us, which I showed to someone when I came home, who asked if we were related. I immediately realized that the difference between us was that my grandfather left that part of the world when he was a young man. His never did. There but for an accident of history, I had the have a life I did, and he had the has a life he did. It could very well have been the other way around. And so it could be for us and for any other person on this earth. That is the basis of the fundamental Jewish concept of Tzedakah: not charity, but fulfillment of responsibility. Of course our responsibility has to be to ourselves and our own families first and perhaps it has to be to our own local communities and to our own country first. Hillel said so himself, in his famous aphorism, which begins with the words “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” But of course, it goes on: “if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

If not now, when?

The third principle: concern for others/Re'ut - it would be easy to translate that word as neighborliness, but that is too facile. We have existed for thousands of years because we recognize that we are not only in relationship with each other in the Jewish community, but that we share the world with others, and how we treat each other defines us.  The word reut comes from the word for neighbor, as in the commandment,  “you shall love your neighbor as yourself”….which does not mean the person who lives next door, but your fellow human being.  Love your fellow human being…love the other as you love yourself!

But is it not odd that we need to be commanded to love others? Does our tradition really dictate what our emotions should be?

In a word, no.

The word is love, but the meaning is not emotion, but behavior – act lovingly towards others.  We do not need to be commanded to act lovingly and compassionately towards people we care about. But when it comes to the other, we usually do.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, powerfully teaches that “intolerance lies at the core of evil. Not the intolerance that results from any threat or danger. But intolerance of another being who dares to exist. Intolerance without cause. It is so deep within us, because every human being secretly desires the entire universe to himself. Our only way out is to learn compassion without cause. To care for each other simple because that ‘other’ exists.”

As we enter the new year, are we prepared to make room in our hearts, and to make room in the universe for the other? Can we truly learn compassion without cause? Can we find a way to care for each other simply because that “other” exists?

In a few minutes, we will turn, once again, to the sound of the shofar. I would note that our text that teaches that we do not fulfill the mitzvah of hearing the shofar if it happens incidentally includes another surprising teaching. It says that if a shofar is blown in a pit or into a pit - the language is not clear - one who is in the pit, and hears it clearly, has fulfilled the obligation, but one who is standing on the edge, and has heard only the echo, has not fulfilled the obligation. There is some disagreement about exactly what kind of circumstances would lead to someone blowing shofar while in a pit, or blowing shofar into a pit, but the ruling is clear: if what you are hearing is the echo, you have not fulfilled the obligation.

I submit the reason for that is the same as the reason that an incidental hearing does not count. If you are not really hearing the sound, it is just noise, not a clarion call to action and renewed resolve.

I confess that there are times, these days, when I feel like we are in a pit. Perhaps you do, as well. If so, the good news is that we are in the pit together, so you will be able to hear the shofar loud and clear. And if you do not feel that way, the news is even better: you ought to be able to hear the sound of the shofar even more clearly, and find yourself called even more resolutely.

Because if we have ever needed to hear the call the shofar, it is this year. It is today.

Let us turn, then, back to our books, to page 284. And let us open our ears, and open our hearts, to the call to make this world what it can yet be.

Tue, June 6 2023 17 Sivan 5783