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Rosh HaShanah 2017/5778

09/26/2017 02:34:21 PM


Rabbi Howard L. Jaffe

There are certain events which are indelibly etched into our memories, because they left us with an understanding that the world is different from what we had imagined, or perhaps from what we had allowed ourselves to believe. Those of us who are old enough remember vividly where we were when we heard the news that Pres. Kennedy had been shot, where we were when we heard about the Space Shuttle Challenger, and of course, where we were the morning of September 11, 2001.

We might well add another event to that list, though because it unfolded over several days, we may not necessarily remember exactly where we were when we heard about any given aspect of it, but I daresay that none of us will ever forget Charlottesville.

Most of us will not forget the image of hundreds of marchers with tiki torches in their hands, many chanting “blood and soil,” and “you will not replace us… Jews will not replace us.” Those of us who read it will not forget the letter written by the president of Congregation Beth Israel, Charlottesville’s only synagogue, relating how he saw and heard men with semiautomatic rifles passing by, one of whom shouted, “look, there’s the synagogue!”, and how he advised those who were at services that evening to go out a back door and to travel in groups for their own safety.

Nor will we forget the response of the president of the United States over the next few days: how he decried the “egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides” – as if to emphasize the equivalency - without singling out white nationalists or neo-Nazis. There was a statement the next day condemning “K.K.K., neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups,” but doubled down on his original comments the following day.

The fact that amongst the counter protesters were some whose behavior was questionable creates no such equivalency.

This is not a political statement, but a moral one. Amongst others, Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney and John McCain all came out with forceful, unequivocal statements about what happened in Charlottesville, providing the kind of moral clarity that we should have heard from the highest levels of government.

The Talmud (Shabbat 54b) teaches, “If you see wrongdoing by a member of your household and you do not protest – you are held accountable. If you see wrongdoing by those of your city and you do not protest but you are held accountable. And anyone who is able to protest against the wrongdoing of the entire world and does not do so is held accountable.”

One medieval commentator teaches we must voice hard truths even, and especially, to those with great power, for “the whole people are punished for the sins of the king if they do not protest the king’s actions to him.” How much more so, we who do not live under a king? As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously said, “… in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”

If you are wondering about whether or not this particular topic is being discussed in other congregations today, I can assure you that it is, because for the first time in my memory, there has been a coordinated effort by my colleagues to address a single concern. Hundreds of Reform rabbis signed on to speak, if not the same words, a similar foundational principle: that we will not be silent in the face of the abdication of moral responsibility that we have experienced, that we will remember, and we will act upon, what we have experienced.

Memory is central in Jewish tradition. Almost every one of our most significant rituals, from lighting of Chanukah candles to the Passover Seder relive and transmit memory. But we do not remember for memory’s sake. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the chief Rabbi of Great Britain, noted that “Biblical ethics is based on repeated acts of role-reversal, using memory as a moral force. In Exodus and Deuteronomy, we are commanded to use memory not to preserve hate but to conquer it by recalling what it feels like to be its victim. “Remember” – not to live in the past but to prevent a repetition of the past.”

“Remember” – not to live in the past but to prevent a repetition of the past.”

It would be a bridge too far to say that Charlottesville or the president’s response to it is a repetition of the past. But our society does not need to go as far down the path as 1930s Germany for us to sound the alarm.

As Jews, we have an alarm that we sound on this day every year. Today, the sound of the shofar must be a call for justice.

As you know, there are three different kinds of shofar blasts, and each sounds a particular note this year:

The first is Tekiah, a single blast - The Sound of Certainty: across the country today, hundreds of rabbis declare in unison: acts of hatred, intimidation and divisiveness will not be tolerated in these United States. We speak in memory of every Jew and in memory of all people who tragically and senselessly lost their lives at the hands of evil oppressors. We call on our political leaders; progressives and conservatives alike, to responsibly represent our country’s history and advance its noble visions of tolerance.

The second set of blasts are called Shvarim, three short blasts, the sound of brokenness. Something crumbled inside us when we watched the images of Charlottesville’s streets filled with hate-spewing marchers. The wound reopened a few days later when the glass wall of the Holocaust Memorial was shattered only a few miles from where we pray today. How much more vandalism, how many clashes, which other cities? We must not accept or allow ourselves to become inured to some warped version of “normal,” of racist and anti-Semitic acts or rallies popping in and out of breaking news cycles. The words of Elie Wiesel, who himself experienced unfathomable brokenness, cry out to us today: “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere.” May we never be neutral, never be silent in the face of threats or of discrimination toward any. Let us interfere whenever and wherever we can.

The third set of blasts are called T’ruah, 9 short blasts, the sound of urgency. The events of these recent weeks are a wake-up call to America. Jews were singled out by some of those marchers in Charlottesville, but we not were the only targets of their hate. Those torches illuminated another truth, one we learn and forget only to learn again: when one group’s rights are threatened, we are all threatened.

The final shofar blast, of course, is Tekiah G’dolah , a lengthy, single blast, calling us to the endless pursuit of justice. The Torah admonishes: “Justice, justice you shall pursue, so that you may live and inherit the land which I, God, give to you.” Our sacred text reminds us that for a community truly to inherit its place in the world, thoughtful leaders at every level must be dedicated to equality and to unity. Every community relies on passionate and engaged citizens; it relies on each one of us to be insistent advocates for tolerance and enduring kindness between the diverse peoples of our nation. To pursue justice is to create a society that protects and enlivens every citizen. Let us be relentless and tireless builders of that society in this New Year.

Even though most, though certainly not all, Jews in America are white, we are clearly in the sights of those who would consider certain minorities a threat and unworthy of equal rights, but we are not nearly as vulnerable as many others. And no less than 36 times does the Torah remind us that we were strangers in Egypt, and of the obligation to protect the stranger, the one who is particularly vulnerable. As much as we have reason, perhaps for the first time, to wonder about our own fate and treatment in this country, we have even greater reason and obligation to protect those who are so much more vulnerable.

Rabbi Adam Allenberg noted that he felt the need to reclaim the image of torches, and he found what he needed in our tradition. The midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 9:2) teaches that Saul, the first king of Israel, would not have merited the kingship except for the merit of his grandfather. There were dark alleyways between his house and the house of study, and he would light lamps in order to illuminate them for the public.

Rabbi Allenberg wrote, “I fear that we have not lit torches, we have not lit the way to get to institutions that matter to us, that uphold democracy, that care for people in their greatest need .... what would it mean for us to rekindle the pathways?”

We have lit at least one torch so far in recent months. There are those in our congregation who can remember well when Temple Isaiah helped settle Soviet immigrants in the 1980s and 1990s. The obligation is no less today because those who are seeking refuge in this country are not Jewish, and we are already meeting that responsibility. I am proud to say that there is already a group of Isaiah members who have established a team they are calling, in the best of Jewish tradition, Welcoming the Stranger. They have been meeting with representatives of organizations that support the most vulnerable among us, including, in particular, refugees who are in need of material support. Our team has already committed to helping to settle one refugee family. The commitment is relatively small, but astoundingly meaningful. It requires a small number of hours, and a small financial commitment. We can make a difference, stand up to hate, and stand up for both Jewish and American values by supporting that effort. If you would like to volunteer, contact Eric Cohen, Bruce Lynn, or Don Detweiler, who are spearheading this effort. We will make sure you have their contact information and make sure you know where and how to donate.

There are also members of that group who are exploring ways that we might properly support undocumented immigrants who have been properly vetted to make sure they are not criminals, and who are working with an immigration attorney to determine if they are eligible for asylum or to become documented, to give them time to go through that process - not to subvert the laws or values of this nation, but to do what we can to make sure that they are fulfilled. An informational meeting about that effort will be announced soon.

Lest we despair, and imagine that the darkness of this particular chapter in time need stay with us, I would share two items with you. The first is simply mention of an email I received this week, the second a true story that has gotten too little publicity.

Like many of us, I receive a large number of High Holiday greetings by email. Of all of them, one in particular stood out for me. It was from the Consul General of Germany, whose office has engaged in profoundly meaningful and substantial outreach to the local Jewish community and Jewish leadership.

Think about that for a moment: a Rosh Hashanah greeting from the Consul General of Germany. Not too many years ago that would have been unimaginable.

The story I want to share happened just days after Charlottesville.

A group of volunteers from the Welcome Committee of Reform congregation Beth Shalom of Austin, Texas held a dinner at a Greek buffet restaurant. They had just helped to resettle a family from Afghanistan, and they were holding this dinner to help celebrate the culmination of the family’s settling in process.

There were 18 volunteers, plus the five members of the Afghani family, with a simple price per head that would be paid on the way out. But when it came time to leave, they discovered that a stranger in the restaurant, who had by then left, had paid for their entire dinner, knowing what they were celebrating – knowing, in fact, that they were a synagogue celebrating its resettling of Afghani immigrants. And then the proprietor of the restaurant informed the humbled group that the stranger who had left without leaving a name or a note was a Palestinian immigrant to Austin.

Do we need a better reminder of what this nation can actually be, or what we can do to make it so?

Let us turn, then, to the voice of the shofar: to the Tekiah, the single blast of certainty; to Shvarim, the three blasts of brokenness; to T’ruah, the nine short blasts of urgency; perhaps especially to Tekiah G’dolah, the long single blast, calling as to the endless pursuit of justice, calling us to light the lights, indeed the torches, of justice and equality.

Let us turn 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