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Rosh Hashanah 2019/5780

10/03/2019 11:16:22 AM


Rabbi Howard L. Jaffe

This is the 20th year that I stand before you as rabbi of this congregation. I know what some of you are thinking: how can that be? He does not look any older than he did when he first arrived here…

Those who have been here for high holidays over these years know that I generally prefer to focus on that which is timeless at this time of year, in the hope that what is shared can inform how we respond to the timely. There are times, of course, when current events do not allow that luxury, but demand addressing, demand the application of Jewish teaching and Jewish values. Other years, it can be challenging to come up with a topic for a high Holiday sermon, but in those years when there are events that demand our attention, at least choosing a topic is not so challenging.

If only there was something to talk about this year…

Let us acknowledge the situation: a vital democracy, whose leader appears to be holding on by his fingernails, accused of serious crimes and abuse of his office, insisting that the investigation is a witch hunt. While his overall favorability is fairly limited, his supporters are steadfast, seemingly emboldening him in ways that are shocking to many. The country is polarized, its legislature nearly paralyzed, although its economy seems to be doing well and he is certainly claiming a great deal of the credit for it - even if there are those who say that he is the beneficiary of circumstance. There are many waiting and hoping for him to be removed from office and maybe even indicted and ultimately jailed, and perhaps just as many, especially from within his own party, who see him as a great leader who needs to stay in power or the nation will face perils that they shudder to think about.

Any idea who I am talking about?

Take your pick.

If you said Benjamin Netanyahu, you would be correct.

And of course, if you said Donald Trump, you would be correct.

While the specific circumstances are different, the parallels are striking.

Even as the drama surrounding President Trump is unfolding here in this country, a strikingly similar drama is unfolding in Israel.

Perhaps just as striking is the willingness of religious leaders to draw parallels between both Netanyahu and Trump with none other than King David.

Let me refresh your memories: while walking on his rooftop, David spotted Bathsheba bathing, desired her, and had her brought to him. They slept together, even though she was married, and she became pregnant. David had her husband, Uriah, recalled from the battlefield, in the hope that the two of them would sleep together and it would be assumed that the child was Uriah’s. Unfortunately for David, Uriah, knowing that his soldiers were still in harm’s way out on the battlefield, slept in the servants' quarters instead, foiling David’s plan. So, David had his commander place Uriah on the front lines of battle and then purposefully fall back from him, leaving Uriah exposed to enemy attack. He did, and Uriah was killed in battle. After a period of mourning, Bathsheba married David.

At least one outspoken rabbi makes a direct comparison between King David and Netanyahu, describing him as being “accused of giving in to kingly temptations”, and how kings, apparently including Netanyahu, “can easily fall into the trap of thinking everything is their personal domain. It is an enormous temptation the average man cannot understand.”

I suspect that in his way of thinking women do not even register as potential rulers . . .

That is only someone different from the parade of Evangelical Christian leaders who have defended Donald Trump’s admitted transgressions, let alone those he has not admitted, by declaring Trump to have been chosen by God just as David was chosen by God.

Their explanation is that just as God chose an imperfect, flawed leader in King David, so God chose Donald Trump. In defending his choice to endorse Trump, in 2016, Jerry Falwell Jr., said "God called King David a man after God’s own heart even though he was an adulterer and a murderer. You have to choose the leader that would make the best king or president and not necessarily someone who would be a good pastor."

I do not even know where to begin to respond to that.

I have no argument with that rabbi or those pastors about David being a morally flawed leader.

I do know, though, that Falwell, along with the rabbi who actually speaks of Netanyahu in messianic terms, both conveniently ignore one critical part of the story of King David.

the text does say that “Adonai sought out a man after God’s own heart and appointed him ruler of God’s people”, though it appears long before David’s breathtaking, and decidedly un-Jewish behavior.

But even if we were to accept the notion that God knew who David was and what David might yet do, even what David would yet do, there is a spectacular difference between David and either Trump or Netanyahu: when confronted by the prophet Nathan about his wrongdoing, rather than denying what he did, or using his absolute power to dispense with Nathan as well, he responded by saying “I have sinned against Adonai.” “Chatati l’Adonai.”

“I have sinned against Adonai.”

No spin, no denial, no outrage, no anger, no umbrage. The rabbis recognize it as one of the greatest examples of teshuvah, of profound repentance, in Jewish history. With just two Hebrew words, “Chatati l’Adonai,” David changes his fate and the fate of the Western world.

Maybe it is too much to expect that those in such powerful positions not “fall into the trap of thinking everything is their personal domain.”

But it cannot be too much to expect them not to act on such thoughts, to recognize when they have crossed lines, and to recognize how much a just and healthy society depends upon their righteous behavior.

The good news is that no one has accused Netanyahu of scheming to do away with his adversaries - and President Trump has only obliquely raised the death penalty for those who shared their concerns with the person identified as the whistleblower.

The hero in the story of King David is, of course, the prophet Nathan. We are not told the details of how he became aware of David’s behavior, just that he approached the king with a parable that helped David realize the error and injustice of his ways. But think just for a moment about the chance he was taking:

Nathan was standing before a monarch with unchecked authority and power. He was literally putting his own life at risk.

What made Nathan a successful court prophet was that he was someone to whom David would listen.

And the ones who have an opportunity to play anything like that role with President Trump are not the ones bringing the impeachment inquiry, but the members of his own party, and his own advisors and inner circle.

The question is: are they going to continue to be enablers, and allow him to harden his position without any pushback, or will they call finally call out the president’s behavior, whether or not there is any real chance that he will do teshuvah, whether or not it means risking their own political lives?

Whether or not you believe that the president’s behavior rises to the level that he ought to resign or be removed from office – even if you believe that what he did was not illegal, even if you are willing to accept the litany of lies, bullying, name-calling and more that have become so common that we have become inured to them - is there not a responsibility to challenge him to do and to be better?

And does the responsibility to do so not fall on those who are in a position to do so, those of his same political party, who cannot be accused of doing so for their own gain, but simply because it is right?

And friends, at this time of year especially, the behavior of the president’s defenders challenges us not only to look at them, but ourselves.

If we are going to be honest with ourselves, we have to ask ourselves: have most of us – perhaps all of us - not been guilty of the same kind of behavior at some point in our lives?

How many of us have not at some point in our lives shied away from confronting someone whose behavior was wrong or even destructive, because we were afraid of what the reaction might be, or what the cost might be to us?

Is there a person here who has not convinced themselves that there was no point in confronting someone who we knew needed confronting, because we were so certain that it would not do any good, anyway?

On Yom Kippur afternoon, we will once again read the section known as The Holiness Code from Leviticus chapter 19.

It includes the admonition, “You shall not hold hatred for your fellow your heart. You must reprove your fellow, and incur no guilt because of them.”

Perhaps better translated, “You must not keep a feeling of revulsion at your fellow to yourself. Instead, you should rebuke your fellow so that you not become guilty by association with him or her."

When we do not speak up, we are guilty of not doing what we could have done.

Not using the power we have is itself an abuse of that power.

We need to learn from what is happening around us and apply it to our own lives.

The good news is, we have an opportunity to do so. We are in a new year. Goodness, we are in a new era. If our tradition demands of us that at as we enter a new year, we review our behavior and examine our souls, then as we arrive in the period of time that we are now entering, we have an even more intense obligation than usual.

In just a few moments, we will turn to the sound of the shofar. The sound of the shofar, of course, is intended as a wake-up call, but let us not forget its context. You may recall, as we just read a few minutes ago, that the shofar is a reminder of the ram that was sacrificed in place of Isaac. That ram was there all along, but Abraham did not see it - he was so focused on doing what he was convinced was right and righteous that he almost sacrificed his own future, and ours. It took the voice of God, or at least, what he was sure was the voice of God to wake him up.

We cannot rely on the voice of God, so we rely instead on the sound of the shofar, reminding us of that moment when Abraham finally saw what he was doing, reminding us to pay attention, to recognize how easy it is to be certain even if we are not right . . . Reminding us to be the ones to sound the shofar for those who are so certain even if they are not right . . . Reminding us to look around, to see the world around us, and never, ever, stand by silently when we have the power to make a difference . . .  Because not using the power we have is itself an abuse of that power.

We turn then, to page 284, for the sounding of the shofar . . .  May its sound awaken us to our duties and to our possibilities . . .

Tue, June 6 2023 17 Sivan 5783