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America the Beautiful – Can It Be – Rosh Hashanah

September 17, 2012

A very important election awaits this nation in November, and so I want to share some thoughts with you about the America that I experience and envision.

I want to talk about the American flag for a moment, and in particular about the American flag that stands on our bimah. It was given to us in 2006, as was the flag of the State of Israel, by Chuck and Laurie Langman. This American flag was raised and lowered on a flagpole mounted to the battleship USS Arizona. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor a few minutes after 8:00am on December 7, 1941, two bombs hit the battleship just minutes apart. The second bomb exploded at 8:06 that morning, detonating the ammunition magazine located under deck. The Arizona sank at her berth: 1,177 of the 1,400 on board died. The battleship rests in 38 feet of water, and was stricken from the active list in 1942. Twenty years later, on May 30, 1962, the site was designated as a national shrine and an American flag has flown over her ever since: a new flag, every day, since May 1962. The flag on our congregation’s bimah had that honor on May 29, 2006.

I have tremendous respect for those who serve in our country’s armed forces. They stand in harm’s way so that my children and yours, and for some of you, your grandchildren, can live in freedom. That said, I wish that our country’s national anthem was “America the Beautiful’ instead of “The Star-Spangled Banner” which consists of four stanzas, but only the first one, with its words “broad stripes and bright stars…so gallantly streaming…over the land of the free and the home of the brave” is usually recited or sung. The poem was written in 1814 by Francis Scott Key after he witnessed the bombardment of Fort McHenry by the British Royal Navy in the War of 1812. I yearn for a national anthem with a more peaceful theme and praise for our natural wonders.

“America the Beautiful” was written by Katharine Lee Bates in 1893. She was an English professor at Wellesley College and had taken a train trip to Colorado Springs to teach a summer school session at Colorado College. Inspired by the sights on her trip – the tall buildings in Chicago, the Kansas wheat fields, and the expansive view of the Great Plains – the original title of the poem was Pikes Peak. It was first published in the Fourth of July edition of the church periodical The Congregationalist in 1895. Church organist and choir master Samuel A. Ward had written the music Materna for the hymn O Mother dear, Jerusalem in 1882, and then combined the music with the words of Pikes Peak, which was published in 1910 as “America the Beautiful”: “O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain, for purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain!”…and then an acknowledgement of battle and bravery, visions and dreams: ”O beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife…for patriot dream that sees beyond the years”…and on to the prayerful hope, “God shed His grace on thee, and crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea.”

I love the hopefulness and expansiveness of those words, and yet I, an optimist at heart, spin back and forth between two emotions – hope and despair – given what is happening in the world…earthquakes of hatred and violence…and my feelings are perfectly captured by Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai:


“Hope is like a faithful dog.

Sometimes she runs ahead of me to check the future, to sniff it out,

and then I call her:

Hope, Hope, come here,

and she comes to me.

I pet her,

she eats out of my hand,

and sometimes she stays behind, near some other hope,

maybe to sniff out whatever was.

Then I call her my Despair.

I call out to her:

Hey, my little Despair, come here,

and she comes and snuggles up

and again I call her Hope.”

{‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Why Jerusalem?’ 16 from Open Closed Open}


Hope and despair, and points in-between.

There is such a sense of dis-ease in our country. There is an ever-growing gap between the super-rich and everyone else. The Occupy Movement has been roundly criticized for its lack of clearly defined policy statements, and what many take to be its hyper-criticism of the 1%, but when exactly a year ago today {September 17, 2011} Zuccotti Park was filled mostly by young Americans protesting serious inequities in our society, it gave me hope that the Tea Party and far right were being responded to in ways that few had envisioned. The arrival of numerous street people with mental impairment and addictions, as well as assaults and altercations in general, blunted the effect of Occupy, but its voice is still there, a movement yearning for traction.

I recently read Gary Shteyngart’s latest book, Super Sad True Love Story, and I urge you to do so as well. It is a devastating satire – not a prediction – of what our country might look like two decades from now if the worst of our current trends plays out: a nation in alarming decline; populated by those who can afford the ingestion of drugs and I.V. liquids to delay aging as their sparkling, chemically altered bodies glisten with artificial health, certain that they have held wrinkles at bay and placed infirmity on hold; people addicted to the constant flow of information, most of it coming through digital devices that they wear around their necks. There is little hope or optimism, and no shared commitment to community.

The pervasive digital devices allow people to instantly access data about everyone around them – at work and in social settings – including information about their income averaged over the past five years; financial liabilities; current blood pressure; lifespan estimate; consumer profile; reading habits and latest purchases. Street corners in metropolitan areas are marked with Credit Poles, which are tall, thin superstructures that provide a constant flow of information about the net worth of everyone who passes by, enabling the authorities to keep track of ‘undesirables’ at every moment. At the top of various Credit Poles, the American Restoration Authority has placed signs that read, “America Celebrates Its Spenders!” but for most Americans there is not much to spend and little that they can afford to buy. When riots break out in Manhattan, an information feed moves across the digital devices – much like what one sees flowing across the bottom of our television screens to keep us apprised of the latest news, weather trends, and sports updates – and during the riots words in large letters read, “18 Credit Poles set on fire by low net worth protestors in Manhattan. Credit district National Guard to respond with ‘swift action’” {Shteyngart, Gary. Super Sad True Love Story. New York. Random House, 2010, p. 243}. The “National Guardsmen were checking the [devices] of the diverse crowd” {ibid., p. 129} to instantly determine who to detain, especially if their net worth is nil or they are deemed to be “troublemakers.” The litany of the times is “check, control, confine, deport.”

Shteyngart writes about a future filled with abject despair. China and Europe have severed all meaningful ties with America, but have bought huge tracts of land in major cities and the heartland, creating bustling economic zones and housing markets for the super-rich. One of the central characters in his book – a young American of Korean descent, characterized by the author as having core values similar to her Jewish peers and elders – types these words on her digital apparatus: “What about charity and hope? Don’t we all need that?” {ibid., p. 146}

Ours is a nation in desperate need, not of charity but of tzedek/righteousness, and, yes, hope. I recently read about the contrast between tourist-happy Disneyland, in Anaheim, California, just south of Los Angeles, and a neighborhood in Anaheim, just five miles north of Disneyland, where the police killed an unarmed man this past July, and then another unarmed man just a day later,. The reaction to those killings were days of protest, at times violent, as police responded in combat gear and placed sharpshooters to guard their headquarters. Most of the city’s 350,000 residents live on the west side, and to the east on the hills is a wealthy enclave known as Anaheim Hills where the household income is twice that of people who live in what is referred to as ‘the flatlands.’ It is there, where the killings occurred, that mostly Latino residents have struggled with unemployment, crime and gangs for years.

In 2007, when a developer proposed a high-rise building with affordable housing near Disneyland, Disney spent more than $2 million to back a group called Save Our Anaheim Resort Area, which opposed the plan and persuaded the city to abandon the idea. Earlier this year, the City Council approved a tax incentive to a developer for a $283 million project to build two luxury hotels across from Disneyland. Typically, the city collects a 15 per cent tax for every stay in the city. The incentive plan will allow the developer to keep the money from the tax for the next 15 years, an amount estimated to be $158 million. {Medina, Jennifer. “Fury Reveals Deep Rifts Near ‘Happiest Place on Earth.’ The New York Times 2 August, 2012}

Disneyland’s brochures and marketing materials proclaim it to be “the Happiest place on Earth.” It is certainly not true for Anaheim, with the exception of Disneyland and Anaheim Hills. This narrative is not endemic to Disneyland. It goes on all over the country where the poor languish and despair. You don’t have to fly to Anaheim to sense powerlessness and anger, you can drive right across the Ben Franklin Bridge to Camden, New Jersey, which most people avoid. It is the poorest city per capita in the United States. It is one of the most dangerous cities in the country. There are open-air drug markets, but business has fled. The per capita income is just over $11,000 and large parts of the city are defined by abandoned factories and warehouses.

Power talks and the poor walk, and it is no better exemplified than by ‘voter registration suppression’: a case study in what it is to be marginalized, and to have a basic American right stripped away because acquiring the necessary identification to vote if you have lost your documents is so onerous as to effectively deter those who could vote from doing so, specifically the elderly and infirm who live ten, twelve, fifteen miles away from the nearest DMV office. Voter fraud is not statistically significant enough to require such Drachonian measures.

Disenfranchisement. Despair. Whatever happened to “grace and good with brotherhood”? Was that “America the Beautiful” ever there? Can it be? I want to leave you with two thoughts. The first is the message in the Book of Deuteronomy: “When you have eaten your fill, and have built fine houses to live in…and your silver and gold have increased, and everything you own has prospered, beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget the Eternal your God…and you say to yourselves, ‘My own power and the might of my own hand have acquired this wealth for me’” {Deuteronomy 8:12-14, 17}. We are not as well off as we were before, but we are far better off than many of our fellow citizens have ever been and are likely to ever be.

I yearn for an America in which those who earn the most will be taxed at a higher rate than they are currently assessed without the loopholes that allow them to park their money offshore; where fewer corporate profits are made at the expense of the environment; where there are not only harsher penalties for those convicted of financial thuggery through market manipulation, but longer incarceration for those individuals as well.

In the words of the prophet Isaiah, “Let every one who is thirsty, come for water; eat what you need even if you have no money…” That is not about a welfare state, it is about a caring society! In words reminiscent of “America the Beautiful,” Isaiah foresees a time when “the mountains and the hills shall break out before you in song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands, and instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress {Isaiah 44:12-13}…[if you] cherish justice and do righteousness” {Isaiah 56:1}.”

I want to believe that “America the Beautiful” is still possible. I want to believe that it will be said of us, as in the words found in the Book of Deuteronomy during Moses’ final oration to the people:


“Blessed shall you be in the city and blessed shall you be in the country.

Blessed shall be your issue from your womb, your produce from the soil,

and your offspring from the cattle, calves from the herd and your lambs from your flock.

Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl.

Blessed shall you be in your going out and upon your return.”

{Deuteronomy 38:3-6}


I want to believe in that the day will dawn when it will be said of us, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, “I will make Peace your government, and Righteousness your rulers” {Isaiah 60:17}.

I want to believe that how we vote in November will make that possible.

Rabbi Elliot J. Holin