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What Judaism Can Teach Us About Living in Interesting Times – erev Rosh Hashanah

September 29, 2019

One of my mentors, Rabbi John Friedman, warned me to always leave one High Holy Day sermon slot open until the last minute. This was in case, as he put it, “Rabin and Arafat shake hands on the White House lawn in the middle of September,” referring to the Oslo Accords, which had derailed his High Holy Day sermons in 1993.

While this was great advice, I’ve never been able to follow it. I start writing my sermons months in advance, and it still takes every last minute to finish them. Writing an entirely new sermon at the last minute has always been my personal nightmare.

But this year it feels even more difficult to heed this advice. In a world where it often seems as though everything is on fire, does anything really qualify as “stop the presses,” or “scrap the sermon,” anymore?

On the day that I started writing this sermon (August 26th), here is what was happening: The KKK demonstrated 15 miles from where I used to live in North Carolina. Two representatives were banned from visiting Israel because of their politics, and the President called Jews who questioned that decision “disloyal.” Immigrant children in detention centers were denied basic medical care such as flu shots. Anti-choice legislation forced reproductive health organizations to withdraw from federal funding programs. More victims in a high-profile sexual assault case came forward, alleging that no one had listened when they spoke up nearly a decade ago.  900 Democrats and at least three Republicans were running for President, and we learned of more vulnerabilities in our electoral system. Gun violence, racism, and anti-LGBTQ sentiments were rampant. A trade war was looming. The Amazon Rainforest was in flames. The President tried to buy Greenland and then, when he didn’t get his way, canceled a trip to Denmark. That one, I will admit, I did not see coming. We are truly living, as the ancient curse says, “in interesting times.”

How could I know what would be front and center in our minds at this moment, as we welcome this New Year? Everything could change, not only during the four weeks I spent writing, but also in the four tenuous hours between when I hit “print” and my standing here in front of you this evening.

What could I say about any of these things, what has happened, and what still might happen, that could bring us a modicum of comfort, and that wouldn’t just add to the constant, unrelenting noise of it all?

I had to remind myself that I am not an historian or a journalist, a politician or a pundit. I am a rabbi. My role in this moment is to offer spiritual sustenance and moral direction, rooted in the texts and traditions of our people. We are here, not to solve the problems of the world in one evening, but to answer the eternal question: Who are we called to be in this moment?

The answer to this question cannot be found in the daily headlines. We must instead journey all the way back to our ancient sources. Though the world is constantly changing, who our tradition calls us to be remains more or less the same.

So tonight, I’d like to lead us through some teachings that Judaism has to offer us in these interesting times, with gratitude to rabbi and activist Rachel Timoner for providing me with a framework for these teachings.

First of all, Judaism teaches us that there is a unity underlying all creation, which many of us understand as the oneness of God.

Twice each day, we recite, Hear O Israel, the Eternal is Our God, the Eternal is One. This is what separates the Jewish people from all other faith traditions. We believe that that God preceded creation, and will be here even if, someday, we are not.

That the arc of the universe is much, much longer than we can imagine is a comfort in itself. But the oneness of God, and the unity of all things, is also a radical idea. In an era when people believed that the chaos in our world was the result of a diverse cast of gods fighting one another, our people chose to believe that everything—the good and the bad, the peaceful and the chaotic—originated from a single source. We could not simply pray that one deity would overtake another. We had to play a role in shaping our world.

Biblical scholar Tikvah Frymer-Kensky wrote that, “monotheism makes human beings the initiators of change within the universe. …. as God’s partners, it becomes humanity’s responsibility to maintain God’s universe through right behavior” (The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, p. 1082).

Judaism teaches us that every human being is created in the image of God, and to be partners with God.

Many ancient narratives posited that human beings were, at best, an accident, and, at worst, a nuisance. But our tradition posits that all human beings were created in the image of the One God, and descended from one ancestor.

We learn in the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:5) that creation began with one human being to prove the oneness of God, and to show the greatness of God, who created the entire spectrum of human diversity from the singular imprint of God’s own image.

Creation began with one human being to ensure peace between us, so that no one might say, “My ancestors were greater than yours,” to teach us that to destroy one life is to destroy an entire world, and to save one life is to save the entire world.

Thus, embedded in that singular moment of creation, are the concepts of diversity, equality, and the sanctity of human life.

The value of a human life is so high that we are permitted to violate most Jewish laws for the purpose of preserving it. But beyond merely ensuring survival, we are commanded to preserve human dignity. Rabbi Yosi bar Hanina says that, “One who gains honor at the degradation of one’s fellow human has no share in the World to Come” (Gen. R. 1:5).

Throughout history we have encountered many instances where those in power have denied this inherent sanctity of human life, and the underlying equality of all human beings. Our current era is no exception. Though we are all stamped from the same divine mold, many are still discriminated against, harassed, oppressed, or abused because of their skin color, gender or sexuality, because of the country they came from, who they love, or the circumstances of their birth.

This should be alarming to us because we have, time and time again, been targets of hatred. We are never more than a few steps away from history repeating itself. But we should also be alarmed because human beings are suffering right now, from cruel government policies and at the hands of hate groups. This, too, is our responsibility. Because Judaism teaches us that we are all responsible for one another.

We read in the Talmud kol Yisrael arevim zeh b’zeh, “all Israel is responsible for one another” (Shevuot 39a-b). This has been our rallying cry when Jewish people are in trouble anywhere in the world. But in its original context, the Talmud is not telling us to stand by our own in times of trouble, but rather to hold one another accountable for wrong behavior. If we see it and say nothing, we too are liable for the outcome.

A midrash likens this to people traveling on a boat. If one person drills a hole beneath themselves, they cannot say, “I only drilled beneath my own seat” (Midrash Yelamedenu, Otzar HaMidrashim 225). Our actions impact everyone on board. We are all, quite literally, in the same boat.

The Torah commands us to go out of our way to right the world’s wrongs, big and small, to return lost property to its rightful owner, and to help raise a fallen animal (Deut. 22:1-4), even if its owner is our enemy (Ex. 23:4). God knows that our natural instinct might be to pretend that we don’t see what is happening, and commands us lo tuchal l’hitalem– “You must not remain indifferent” (Deut. 22:3), literally “do not hide yourself” from this responsibility.

It’s tempting, in these times, to turn off the news and pull the covers over our head, to say that what is happening to another group of people, or in another part of the world, is not our business or our problem. But our tradition teaches us that, even when the person suffering is our enemy, we are forbidden to look away.

The harsh tones of the shofar’s blast are meant to wake us up, to shake us from whatever slumber or ignorance, complicity or complacency, has caused us to turn our back on the world. Because we know too well how turning our back can have deadly consequences.

When Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, he drew upon his own memories of the world’s silence as the Nazis attempted to wipe out the Jewish people. He said:

“We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.”

Our responsibilities do not end with calling out injustice and fighting oppression. Judaism also teaches us that we are responsible for actively building a just and peaceful world.

We often teach our children that mitzvah means “good deed” and tzedaka means “charity.” But neither mitzvah nor tzedaka are about being generous, and neither are optional. A mitzvah is a sacred obligation, commanded by God to help us become a holy people. And tzedaka is a framework for establishing social and economic justice in our communities, and our world.

Throughout the Torah, God sets out correctives that prevent the rich from becoming too rich, and the poor from falling too deeply into poverty. This is not a socialist interpretation of the Torah. This is simply what it says. We are commanded to forgive loans and release the indentured from servitude (Leviticus 25:10, 13), to devote much of our harvest to supporting the stranger, the orphan, the widow (Deut. 24:19-21) and the public servant (Deut. 14:29). We are commanded to pay our workers right away (Deut. 24: 15), and not to collect a debt by taking the clothes off their back, or the livelihood from their hands (Deut. 24:6, 10-13, 17).

We are commanded be concerned with public safety, to build railings on our roofs (Deut. 22:8) and to lock up violent animals (Exodus 21:28-29), to keep innocent people from harm.

Above all, thirty-six times, we are commanded to love and care for the stranger, because we were strangers in the land of Egypt.

This is the fundamental project that the Torah lays out for us: to build a society that protects the vulnerable from exploitation and the common person from danger, that recognizes that the abundance of the world is God’s to share, not ours to accumulate.

I don’t need to tell you that this is not the society we live in today. Honestly, that has little to do with our current administration or political squabbles. This distance between the ideal and our reality has gone on for decades if not centuries. Our greatest concern should not be that we haven’t achieved our vision of sustenance and security for all. Our greatest concern should be that we might no longer agree that a just, equitable, and peaceful society IS our vision.

Our world is broken, and that brokenness weights heavily upon us.

Rabbi Isaac Luria, a 16th century mystic, believed that the world’s brokenness was a feature, not a flaw, in the world’s design. There was so much divine light, so much potential for goodness in the universe, that God needed to contract it all to make room for the world. But the goodness could not be contained, and creation began with a cosmic “big bang,” sending shards of light every which way. Our duty as human beings is to pick up those pieces, and work towards restoring the world to its original wholeness. This is what we mean by tikkun olam, repairing the world.

We have our work cut out for us. But that does not mean there is no enjoyment to be had along the way. Today is the beginning of our Ten Days of Repentance, but it is also the birthday of the world, a day of renewal, a fresh start. It is a day to drop honey on our tongue and celebrate life’s sweetness.

This might feel incongruous: to set a festive table in the midst of so much turmoil. But isn’t this just what we have always done? We celebrate the wedding, even as we smash the glass in remembrance of the Temple. We drink four cups of wine at Passover, even as we leave one untasted, in hopes of welcoming the good tidings of the prophet Elijiah.

Rabbi Nehorai tells us in a midrash that, as our people fled Egypt, “A … woman, crossing through the sea, held her child in her hand, crying. She stretched out her hand and plucked … a pomegranate from the sea and gave it to her child, for it says, “God led them through the depths, as through a wilderness” (Psalm 106:9, Exodus Rabbah 21: 10).

This image so perfectly encapsulates our lives: in the midst of an awesome miracle, we must tend to life’s ordinary challenges—a crying child. And in the midst of one of the most terrifying moments in our history—being pursued by Pharaoh’s army—a mother plucks a sweet fruit, seemingly from thin air, and hands it to her child.

Though we might more easily connect this story with Passover, the pomegranate brings us back to Rosh Hashana. We eat pomegranates because their roundness signifies the wholeness of the cycles of life, and because they offer the promise of a sweet year. The pomegranate’s crown is a reminder of God’s sovereignty, itsseeds symbolizing all 613 mitzvot in the Torah.

But the pomegranate also gives us an excuse to recite an extra Shehecheyanu, giving thanks to God for giving us life, sustaining us, and enabling us to reach this season. The ancient rabbis weren’t sure whether one could say this prayer on the 2nd day of Rosh Hashana, since they’d just said it the day before. But they must have known that we should seize every opportunity to be joyful. So they decided to eat a pomegranate, newly in season, so that, in honor of the fruit, they could say the blessing one more time (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim 600:2).

Judaism teaches us that we as a people have a need to celebrate. Recognizing the joys in our lives, and giving thanks for them through blessings, is what sustains us, even in dark times. And if there are no joys to celebrate, we must create them.

We are not the first generation to live in “interesting times.” And God-willing, we won’t be the last. We do not know what tidings tomorrow’s news will bring, or even what is pinging on your smartphones at this very moment. But if there are any words of comfort I can offer, it is this: though the world is constantly in flux, what we are called to do, and who we are called to be, has not changed.

Like the generations that came before us, we are called recognize the majestic unity of God and the divinity inherent in human beings. We are called to partner with God, and to be responsible for each other. We are called to build a better world for future generations, and also to celebrate the moment we are living in right now.

The chaos of our world does not excuse us from living by the teachings of our tradition. Rather, our traditions call us to confront the world’s chaos, to search for light in the dark corners, and to lift up the sparks of holiness we find there.

As we enter this new year, 5780, may we have the privilege of living by these teachings, and may they empower us to work towards bringing our broken world one step closer to wholeness. And let us say, Amen.

Shana tovah!

Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz