A couple of days ago I was in Copenhagen, Denmark. This is a very happy place to me because during World War II, unlike other countries in Nazi-Occupied Europe, the Jewish community was mostly saved from extermination. What was the difference in Denmark? The King himself refused to mistreat his Jewish citizens. And when the orders for deportations came in, Christians smuggled their Jewish neighbors to safety in Sweden. The rescue of the Jews of Denmark is represented at Yad Vashem by a tree planted in gratitude to King Christian the Tenth of Denmark and the Danish Resistance movement—and by an authentic fishing boat from a Danish village. Similarly, the US Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. has on permanent exhibit an authentic rescue boat used in several crossings in the rescue of some 1400 Jews.
It is said that some Christians went to their pastor and asked, now that the Nazis are demanding we turn in the Jews, what should we do? Save them? Betray them? Or nothing. The pastor answered: “I cannot tell you what to do I can only ask you who you are. When you understand who you are you then will know what to do.”
Last Shabbat I stood with thirty members of Temple Sholom at the Berlin memorial for the murdered Jews of Europe during the Holocaust. This memorial is a maze. It is designed to make one feel lost. As the group gathered, on that late Saturday afternoon, I reminded them of what Professor Dumbledore told Harry when he entered the maze to find the golden trophy: “People change in the maze. Oh find the cup if you can. But be very wary, you might just lose yourself along the way.” So much of Europe lost themselves in the moral maze of the 1930s and 40s. Except for the Danes.
Two minutes after sharing this insight the news of Pittsburgh arrived. How ironic to be in the middle of Berlin, the epicenter of the Holocaust, and hear about a horrific act of murder against praying Jews in Pittsburgh. The irony is not easily assimilated.
The question before us now, as we gather in worship is not merely to consider who we are: I believe all of us are righteous and compassionate people who want to do the right thing. The question is how we balance our care for others with our own security concerns?
Do we make our synagogue a fortress?
Do we refrain from supporting refugees because of backlash?
Do we turn inward or continue to treat the stranger with compassion, remembering that we were strangers in the land of Egypt?
This week’s Torah portion speaks of Abraham calling himself a ger toshav, a stranger and a resident. That’s a good description of a Jew today. We are not at home and we are at home. We are not quite at home. We belong but we do not belong. We are rooted and uprooted. The truth of course is more complicated. It is not just the Jews. All Americans — actually all citizens of the world — belong but do not belong. We all face discrimination of one kind. We should all feel as secure as possible and we should all be careful and protective. We should also remember to care for those less secure and less protected.
The late Abraham Joshua Heschel put it succinctly: “In a free society some are guilty but all are responsible.”
The tragedy of Pittsburgh was the act of one horrible man but the culture for the rise of antisemitism in our country is directly a result of the simmering hatred of the other — and yes that includes Jews — that is usually just below the surface but of course sometimes explicit.
I believe the there needs to be a reckoning upon those who encourage such hatred or stand by with the power to quash and do not.
It is easy to feel victimized and part of the mob. It is easy to blame our defeats on others. It is easy to step on the less fortunate.
It is hard to take care of yourself and your community while at the same time to work for social justice for all and an opportunity for freedom in this glorious land. It is hard to fight for open borders when so many in our country once again are shouting for closed borders. It’s even hard to remember that for so much of American history in the twentieth century it was Jews who were on the other side of the border.
To be a stranger and a resident does not mean we are not citizens. It does mean that we don’t forget who we are.
A few days ago in Berlin I went into the New Synagogue, built in the middle of the 19th century as a testament to Jews having arrived for good in Germany. It is a monument of citizenship.
Upstairs there is an exhibit that just opened about the 17000 Jews who were expelled from Germany and dumped into Poland exactly 80 years ago. My mother was one of them. She was a German citizen. Her father had fought in World War I for Germany. And yet, with the stroke of a pen she was stateless.
My friends, I don’t wish to scare you but one thing I have learned in this world is that nothing is permanent, certain or secure. We can all find ourselves in a maze of fear and moral confusion. At that moment — at this moment — we have a choice. I cannot tell you what to do at such a time but I can ask you a question: who are you? When you discover who you are, you will know what to do.
Like many of you I have read some good books this past year. One was by Ron Chernow, who wrote, a few years ago, a biography of Alexander Hamilton. The new one is about President Ulysses S. Grant. I don’t think it will be turned into a hip-hop musical, but Chernow’s biography of U. S. Grant is a compelling read. President Grant was quite the man.
Of course, long before Chernow, we had a telling of Grant’s life from the great man himself.
General Ulysses S. Grant, former President of the United States, did not begin writing his memoirs until he was dying of throat cancer. He did it for a very practical reason: He had lost his fortune to a swindler who was operating what was essentially a Ponzi scheme, and he wanted to be sure his wife, Julia, would be provided for.
His friend Mark Twain served not only as his editor, but also as marketing director. Twain developed a network of veterans who had served under the old General into a specialized sales force, going out in uniform to hawk copies of the book.
In the final paragraphs, composed at a time of agonizing physical pain, Grant addresses the optimistic prediction that Southerner and Northerner would soon again be able to live together in peace and harmony. He wrote:
I cannot stay to be a living witness to the correctness of this prophecy; but I feel it within me that it is to be so. The universally kind feeling expressed for me at a time when it was supposed that each day would prove my last, seemed to me the beginning of the answer to “Let us have peace.”
Grant continues: The expression of these kindly feelings were not restricted to a section of the country, nor to a division of the people. They came from individual citizens of all nationalities; from all denominations — the Protestant, the Catholic and the Jew; and from the various societies of the land — scientific, educational, religious or otherwise. Politics did not enter into the matter at all.
I am not egotist enough to suppose all this significance should be given because I was the object of it. But the war between the States was a very bloody and a very costly war. One side or the other had to yield principles they deemed dearer than life before it could be brought to an end. I commanded the whole of the mighty host engaged on the victorious side. I was, no matter whether deservedly so or not, a representative of that side of the controversy. It is a significant and gratifying fact that Confederates should have joined heartily in this spontaneous move. I hope the good feeling inaugurated may continue to the end.
–Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant (New York: Charles L. Webster & Company, 1885-86).
Imagine how difficult it must have been for the two sides in the American Civil War to be able to communicate civilly with each other. The conflicts had not disappeared. The wounds were still fresh. But something in the American spirit enabled the country to move past the past and keep the country whole.
One hundred and fifty years later, I have to ask: What is our culture regarding conflict and conversation? It seems to me that we have failed to keep difficult conversations going, spending too much time talking and not enough time listening.
A few months ago in the New York Times Nick Kristof observed:
We live in two Americas.
In one America, a mentally unstable president selected partly by Russia lies daily and stirs up bigotry that tears our social fabric.
In another America, a can-do president tries to make America great again as lying journalists stir up hatred that tears our social fabric.
The one thing we all agree on: Our social fabric is torn. In each America, people who inhabit the other are often perceived as not just obtuse but also dangerous. Half of Democrats and Republicans alike say in polls that they are literally afraid of the other political party.
Kristoff continues: This is not to equate the two worldviews. I largely subscribe to the first, and I’m a villain in the second. But I do believe that all of us, on both sides, frequently spend more time demonizing the other side than trying to understand it, and we all suffer a cognitive bias that makes us inclined to seek out news sources that confirm our worldview….
It should be possible both to believe deeply in the rightness of one’s own cause and to hear out the other side. Civility is not a sign of weakness, but of civilization.
On this New Year’s day it is obvious to me and maybe to you that there has been some tearing down of statues in our country but has there been enough crossing of bridges?
There has been a lot of shut down of discussion. Has there been enough opening up of dialogue?
I am not asking for harmony. But I am hoping for continued conversation.
This past year we lost temple members who resigned because certain national leaders of Jewish organizations spoke here.
In each case I asked the offended members to stay in the congregation and keep the conversation going.
Disagreements do not always need to lead to resentment.
Conflict can also bring mutual respect and more understanding.
So much of it depends on our view of conflict.
Two Jews, three opinions, as the saying goes. It turns out that Jewish tradition sees disagreement not as a negative, but as healthy and even holy. In one famous story from the Talmud, two rival houses of scholars, Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel, disagree for three years on certain matters of halakhah, Jewish law. Finally, a Divine Voice calls from heaven, “Eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim chayim hen – these and these are the words of the living God, and the halakhah is according to Beit Hillel” (Er. 13b).
Judaism values a plurality of opinions while also acknowledging the need for standards and rules that the whole community abides by. Both Beit Shammai’s and Beit Hillel’s rulings are divinely inspired, but the law is according to Beit Hillel. This story captures an inherent tension of life in Jewish community: we need diversity and harmony, conflict and resolution.
So we must figure out a way to live with the tension of divergent opinions, how to allow for differences of opinion without letting them tear the community apart. Again, the great sages Hillel and Shammai are our models. Their disagreements are described as “disputes in the name of Heaven,” “machlekot l’shem shamayim,” that is, disputes for a good or holy cause. Hillel and Shammai and their disciples show us the right way to argue: in spite of their disagreements, they still eat in each other’s homes and marry each other’s daughters, showing that they behave with “affection and camaraderie between them.”
The Mishnah also describes several instances when the disciples of Hillel change their opinion and follow the ruling of Beit Shammai, indicating their ability to admit when they are wrong. And finally, the reason that the halakhah usually follows Beit Hillel and not Beit Shammai is because Beit Hillel “were agreeable and forbearing, showing restraint when affronted, and when they taught the halakhah they would teach both their own statements and the statements of Beit Shammai. Moreover, when they formulated their teachings and cited a dispute, they prioritized the statements of Beit Shammai to their own statements in deference to Beit Shammai” (Er. 13b).
In short, healthy conflict requires that one engage in dialogue, carefully consider the opinions of the other party, and be amenable to retract one’s opinion. Such conflict also entails that it not be conducted in a hostile atmosphere and that it not in any way negatively affect the personal relationships of the parties involved.”
Easier said than done, these days!
Even the simple act of listening is rarely practiced well.
A story. A little girl comes home from Hebrew school, eager to show her mother a drawing.
Her mother is washing dishes.
“Mommy, guess what?” she squeals, waving the drawing.
Without looking up, her mother responds, “What?”
“Guess what?” repeats the little girl.
Again the mother asks, “What?”
“Mommy, you’re not listening.”
Still not shifting her focus from the dishes, she says, “Sweetie, yes, I am,”.
“But Mommy, you’re not listening with your eyes.”
My message for this New Year is simple: we are failing in the art of listening.
And if we don’t really listen we will not have genuine conversation.
If we are not listening well, we are also not speaking well.
“Unfortunately, we’ve seen a decline in civility and an uptick in incivility,” said Christine Porath, a Georgetown University professor and author of “Mastering Civility,” a book on behavior in the workplace. “It seems like people are not only reciprocating, but we tend to stoop lower rather than higher. It’s really putting us in an unfortunate place.”
Dr. Porath said the current harsh climate was affecting people beyond politics, injecting itself into everyday life at home and work. “We know that incivility is contagious,” she said. “It’s like a bug or virus. It’s not only when people experience incivility, it’s when they see or read about it.” NY Times 6 21 18
In these tense times where shall we find guidance?
The Torah, of course!
Earlier today we read in the Torah of Abraham and Ishmael. Because of harsh family dynamics, a father and his son were forced to part. But did the relationship really end? Perhaps the conversation did not stop after Ishmael was sent away. Not according to the ancient Rabbis, anyway.
Not content to see the breakdown of this father-son bond, we read in a midrash that after three years, Abraham went to see Ishmael his son, having sworn to Sarah that he would not get off of his camel in the place where Ishmael lived.
He arrived there at midday and found the wife of Ishmael there. He said to her, “Where is Ishmael?” She answered him, “He went with his mother to bring fruit and dates from the wilderness.” He said to her, “Give me a little bread and water, for I am terribly faint from the journey through the desert.” She said to him, “I have no bread and no water.” He said to her, “When Ishmael comes [home] tell him this story, ‘the son of a wise man is like half of a wise man,’ and tell him that an old man from the Land of Canaan came to see you,” and he said, “Exchange the threshold of your house, for it is not good for you.”
When Ishmael came in from the wilderness, she told him the story, ‘a son of a wise man is like half of a wise man,’ and Ishmael understood. The wife was sent away.
His mother then sent for a woman from her father’s house, and her name was Fatimah.
The midrash continues: After three years, Abraham again went to see his son Ishmael, having sworn to Sarah as on the first occasion that he would not get off his camel in the place where Ishmael lived. He arrived there at midday and found Ishmael’s [new] wife. He said to her, “Where is Ishmael?” She said to him, “He and his mother went to graze the camels in the wilderness.” He said to her, “Give me a little bread and water, for I am terribly faint from the journey through the desert.” She brought out bread and water and gave them to him. Abraham arose and prayed before the Holy One, blessed be He for his son, and Ishmael’s house became filled with all good things of the various blessings.
When Ishmael came [home], she told him what had occurred and Ishmael knew that his father’s love and compassion for him remained, as it is said in Psalms: “Like a father has compassion for his children” (Ps.103:13).
From this ancient midrash about Abraham and Ishmael I derive three timely lessons for all of us who want to work through conflict and not be destroyed by it.
First and foremost, we learn from Abraham, when it comes to broken family relationships, don’t stand on ceremony! Get on the camel and get out there.
Make the phone call. Send the text.
Don’t wait until the funeral.
Keep the conversation going.
I know some deeds are beyond the pale but most are not worthy of a lifetime of alienation. When some rapprochement is possible, we are instructed to try. Get on the camel and start a conversation. (Based on an oral teaching of Rabbi J. Schacter, July 2018.)
In addition to getting on the camel, i.e. keeping the relationship alive, as a Jewish people we also learn from this story a valuable lesson.
The Jewish people need to keep talking to each other.
In the end, Ishmael was a Jew who mattered to Abraham.
Every Jew matters.
They are part of our family.
Even when we are speaking of a subject that is raw and painful for many, i.e., Israel, we need to keep talking. Our tradition tells us that the Second Jewish sovereign state was destroyed two thousand years ago because Jews would not speak to other Jews. And I have to wonder: What might bring down the third Jewish commonwealth? We spend so much effort worrying about outside enemies that we forget how much inner resentment can destroy us from the inside.
It’s so easy to stigmatize the other side for their attitudes, their positions but how often do we take a hard look at our own contribution to breakdown in dialogue?
We Jews in Chicago have all sides in the Israeli conversation represented—we need to be speaking and listening more and shutting out less.
Finally, in addition to reaching out to those who have become estranged, and promoting dialogue within the Jewish community, we learn one more important lesson from the story: The American People Need to Keep Talking.
In other words, we have to get out of our comfort zone and speak to people on the other side. We have to get uncomfortable!
After all, camels are not comfortable! Get on the camel!
This means we get to exercise our free speech and we have to listen to other people’s expressions as well.
At a time when university administrators grapple with debates about free speech on campus and people across the nation witness the consequences of free speech in a polarized political climate, administrators, educators, and civic leaders should promote civility as an important element of constructive conversations. This duty becomes a moral imperative in forums where polemic issues take center stage.
As Father John I. Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame observes in his book, Conviction and Peril of Our Passionate Beliefs, “Civility is what allows speech to be heard.”
While civility is crucial, it does have limits. Civility does not require engagement with individuals who utter speech that, at its core, has no connection with respect or mutuality. While those who express bigoted views may have a right to free expression, those who seek civil discourse are not required to engage with those individuals. One may simply walk away from the speaker and refuse to listen, thereby denying the speaker an audience.
Civility is not about giving in to those without civility. Yes, it is partly about going high when they go low. But it’s also having faith in the power of real conversation. And of being willing to listen.
Now, more than ever.
Talking with a reporter, author and educator Parker Palmer recited a poem, The Place Where We Are Right, by Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai:
From the place where we are right
flowers will never grow
in the spring.
The place where we are right
is hard and trampled
like a yard.
But doubts and loves
dig up the world
like a mole, a plough.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
where the ruined
house once stood.
Palmer continued: We can talk across lines by talking about what we love, because a lot of us love the same things: our kids and grandkids, our country, the natural world, the idea that people should be able to get ahead in life. Then we can talk about our doubts, because we all doubt that what we love is being served well.
Beginning a conversation with loves and doubts rather than political ideologies opens a new door to dialogue, driven by story-telling rather than political point scoring.
–Parker Palmer, interviewed by David Bornstein, “Reclaiming ‘We the People,’ one person at a time,” The New York Times, September 4, 2014.
There is so much that binds us together as a family, as a Jewish community, and as an American people. That which divides us need not destroy us.
I began with Grant.
I end with Abe Lincoln:
We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature. —ABRAHAM LINCOLN, First Inaugural Address, 1861
The New Year is upon us and I hope that you will enjoy our worshiping together and know a year filled with many meaningful moments, productive accomplishments, good health, and a deep sense of purpose and fulfillment.This year the congregation is invited to consider ways that we as individuals can practice the fine art of listening to one another better and engaging in respectful dialogue, even with those with whom we disagree. Through classes, sermons and community dialogues we hope to help all of us create a better culture of constructive conflict and tolerance.
Of course, respectful behavior is not only about techniques for communicating. There is also a need for basic goodness, a commodity that seems to be in short supply in our nation’s public discourse. In other words, the purpose of our lives in part should be about cultivating kindness. This is all too often counter intuitive.
On the first day of the new school year, all the teachers in one private school received the following note from their principal:
I am a survivor of a concentration camp. My eyes saw what no man should witness:
Gas chambers built by learned engineers.
Children poisoned by educated physicians.
Infants killed by trained nurses.
Women and babies shot and burned by
high school and college graduates.
So I am suspicious of education.
My request is: Help your students become human.
Your efforts must never produce learned monsters,
psychopaths, educated Eichmanns.
Reading, writing, arithmetic are important only if
they serve to make our children more humane.
The High Holy Days remind us that knowledge is important, but so is goodness. We wish each other a “good” New Year, not a happy New Year in part to remind us that the task ahead is to promote more goodness and justice.
Temple Sholom is excited to be part of your journey of communal kindness and mutual respect.
The day after 9 11 there was a headline stating that, after this tragic terror attack, Americans finally understood what Israelis were experiencing every day during the Second Intifada. Soon there would be guards at every coffee shop, just like in Israel. And life as we knew it in America would stop. Fortunately, the guards never showed up in front of Starbucks, and, last time I checked, there were none in sight at my favorite Jerusalem café. Nevertheless, recently I came to understand that in a very different way, a certain political side in America should be able to understand Israel’s current dilemma.
After Sarah Sanders, the press secretary to President Trump, was asked to leave a restaurant in Virginia, many liberals applauded the action of the owner of the Red Hen. In response some conservatives – and other liberals – castigated them for promoting uncivil behavior. Apparently, the right wing in America has refined the fine art of hypocrisy: complaining about behavior on the other side while blithely ignoring or endorsing it on your own. Writing of this backlash, Michelle Goldberg (no relation) in the New York Times, observed that “…there’s an abusive sort of victim-blaming in demanding that progressives single-handedly uphold civility, lest the right become even more uncivil in response.” [Michelle Goldberg 6 25 NYT]
And this brings us to Israel. For more years than many supporters of Israel would like to remember, the liberal voices in the United States have bitterly condemned Israel for doing things like defending its borders that they would never expect other nations or terrorist groups to eschew. This double standard is frustrating at best and diabolical at worst, and it is pervasive. Israel is supposed to act with morality always and the other players are under no expectation. How ironic that when supporters of Donald Trump challenge liberals to a higher moral standard, fully aware of the baseness of their leaders, liberals are frustrated. As a fellow liberal who also supports Israel’s security, I want to shout: “Do you finally get it? No matter what one does there will be a higher standard. Don’t descend to their level but don’t expect that the other side will behave in a dignified, moralistic way.”
My fantasy is that the liberals who hold Israel to a higher standard will have a little more humility when judging Israel. After all, if there is a silver lining to the political era of today it is that immoral behavior is often deflected by appeals to righteousness while at the same time the behavior itself is tacitly encouraged. As Dr Johnson once observed, “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” The scoundrels are in ascendance, and the liberals are in a quandary: stay out of the mud, get in the mud, or find a third way.
For the sake of civility, security and fairness, I hope that third way is found, and soon.
There’s a story about a troubled mother who had a daughter who was addicted to sweets. One day she approached Gandhi, explained the problem to him and asked whether he might talk to the young girl. Gandhi replied: “Bring your daughter to me in three weeks’ time and I will speak to her.”
After three weeks, the mother brought her daughter to him. He took the young girl aside and spoke to her about the harmful effects of eating sweets excessively and urged her to abandon her bad habit.
The mother thanked Gandhi for this advice and then asked him: “But why didn’t you speak to her three weeks ago?”
Gandhi replied: “Because three weeks ago, I was still addicted to sweets.”
And there’s the lesson: We must do more than just point out the right road to others, we must be on that road ourselves. For this reason, the integrity of our private lives and private morals, down to the smallest detail, is the real power behind our words.
In describing the construction of the Aron HaKodesh, the Holy Ark, in this week’s Torah portion, the Torah instructs, ‘v’tzipita oto zahav tahor, mibayit umihutz t’tzapenu- overlay it with pure gold, overlay it inside and out.”
It is easy to understand why the outside of the ark should be covered with pure gold, for it impresses the beholder with its magnificence. But why put gold on the interior, where no one will ever see it?
Our Sages answered this question as follows:
“Just as the Holy Ark is covered with gold on the outside, so, too, it must be covered with gold on the inside, in order to teach an important lesson: ‘a human being must be as pure on the inside as her is on the outside.’”
When a person appears to be kind, he should feel kindly; when he appears to be charitable, hospitable, or well mannered, his conduct should match his inner feelings. Our Sages utilized architectural details of the Tabernacle to set standards for our behavior. And, in this case, they are criticizing, what we would call, hypocrisy.
The words, “hypocrisy” and “hypocrites” are so often and so freely used, that it may be helpful to understand their origin. The word, “hypocrite,” is derived from the Greek words, “hypo krisis,” which originally meant, “to play a part.” It was a term taken from the ancient Greek practice of having actors wear masks denoting the character they were portraying. This gave rise to the accepted definition of the word, “hypocrite” as a person who pretends to be what he is not, or a person who expresses what he does not feel.
We tend to disapprove of of hypocrisy in any form. We disapprove of the devoted husband who cheats on his wife. We look with disdain on the pious person caught in a dishonest deal.
But, there are many types of hypocrisy that are widely practiced with little awareness that they constitute a form of hypocrisy. Take, for example, a host who makes up a guest list and invites people whom he neither likes nor respects, because he thinks they will add prestige to the social function.
Or, how a person will gushingly compliment another, and disparage her behind her back. Of course, it is easier to recognize this type of hypocrisy in others, than in ourselves.
There are also other types of hypocrisy which people commonly practice without even being aware that they are forms of hypocrisy.
Consider for instance, the element of hypocrisy implicit in the simple word, “but.” What do people really mean when, as in the following case, they use the word, “but?”
A person says,
“I’m not really prejudiced against Blacks, but I don’t like them living next door.”
“I think people should take a more active role in community affairs, attend synagogue more regularly, give more generously, but I….” and you can fill in your own reasons for not doing what you said should be done- by others.
The word, “but” represents a disguised form of hypocrisy that enables a person to hold one position verbally, and to act in just the opposite fashion.
Judaism, when it explained why the Holy Ark had to be covered with gold both inside and outside, was telling us,
“Let us speak what we think. Let us do what we feel is right. Let us make good what we promise. And, let us be what we appear to be.
Many years ago, Al Capone virtually owned Chicago. Capone wasn’t famous for anything heroic. He was notorious for enmeshing the windy city in everything from bootlegged booze and prostitution to murder. Capone had a lawyer nicknamed “Easy Eddie.” He was Capone’s lawyer for a good reason. Eddie was very good! In fact, Eddie’s skill at legal maneuvering kept Big Al out of jail for a long time.
To show his appreciation, Capone paid him very well. Not only was the money big, but also, Eddie got special dividends. For instance, he and his family occupied a fenced-in mansion with live-in help and all of the conveniences of the day. The estate was so large that it filled an entire Chicago city block.
Eddie lived the high life of the Chicago mob and gave little consideration to the atrocity that went on around him. Eddie did have one soft spot, however. He had a son whom he loved dearly. Eddie saw to it that his young son had clothes, cars and a good education. Nothing was withheld. Price was no object. And, despite his involvement with organized crime, Eddie even tried to teach him right from wrong. Eddie wanted his son to be a better man than he was. Yet, with all his wealth and influence, there were two things he couldn’t give his son; he couldn’t pass on a good name or a good example.
One day, Easy Eddie reached a difficult decision. Easy Eddie wanted to rectify wrongs he had done. He decided he would go to the authorities and tell the truth about Al “Scarface” Capone, clean up his tarnished name, and offer his son some semblance of integrity. To do this, he would have to testify against The Mob, and he knew that the cost would be great.
So, he testified.
Within the year, Easy Eddie’s life ended in a blaze of gunfire on a lonely Chicago street. But in his eyes, he had given his son the greatest gift he had to offer, at the greatest price he could ever pay. Police removed from his pockets a rosary, a crucifix, a religious medallion and a poem clipped from a magazine. The poem read:
The clock of life is wound but once,
And no man has the power
To tell just when the hands will stop
At late or early hour.
Now is the only time you own.
Live, love, toil with a will.
Place no faith in time,
For the clock may soon be still.
And now this brings us to tonight and another horror-filled week. And such a lack of integrity. Such hypocrisy!
We all know the drill by now:
As news of the killing comes in, cable channels give it wall-to-wall coverage.
The NRA ducks its head down and goes dark for hours or days, in its Twitter and other social-media outlets.
Politicians who have done everything possible to oppose changes in gun laws, and who often are major recipients of NRA contributions, offer “thoughts and prayers” to the victims, say they are “deeply saddened,” praise the heroes of law enforcement and of medical treatment who have tried to limit the damage, and lament the mental-health or cultural problems that have expressed themselves via an AR-15.
“Thoughts and prayers” are of course admirable. But after an airline crash, politicians don’t stop with “thoughts and prayers” for the victims; they want to get to the bottom of the cause. After a fatal fire, after a botched response to a hurricane, after a food-poisoning or product-safety failure or a nursing-home abuse scandal, “thoughts and prayers” are the beginning of the public response but not the end. After a shooting they are both.
These same politicians say that the aftermath of a shooting is “not the right time” to “politicize” the tragedy by talking about gun laws or asking why only in America do massacres happen week after week after week.
The right time to discuss these policies is “never.”
The news moves on; everyone forgets except the families and communities that are forever changed.
The next shooting comes, “thoughts and prayers” are offered, and the cycle resumes.
If this summary sounds too cynical, think back to what has happened since a gunman killed or wounded more than 900 people in Las Vegas less than five months ago.
Nothing has changed.
I don’t think so.
Thoughts and prayers.
They are not enough.
I want integrity.
I want honesty.
I want action.
What do you want?
“Just as the Holy Ark is covered with gold on the outside, so, too, it must be covered with gold on the inside, in order to teach an important lesson: ‘a human being must be as pure on the inside as her is on the outside.’”
Thanksgiving Weekend continues with much family time.
Every now and then we might disconnect from our individual devices and be together to eat or even play a game.
Remember games that didn’t have a screen?
The Torah portion of Vayetze might remind many of us of a game we played during our childhood called, ‘Chutes and Ladders.’
The participants in the game would either ascend the ladder toward victory or descend via the chute going backward in a downward spiral.
In the Torah we read of a kind of chute and ladder:
He (Jacob) had a dream; a ladder was set on the ground and the top reached to the sky, and the angels of God were going up and down on it. And the Eternal was standing beside him and God said, “I am the Eternal, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac, the ground on which you are lying I will give to you and to your offspring.”(Genesis 28: 12 & 13)
Jacob’s dream represents a vision, a possible prophecy of the triumphs and the tragedy that would occur in Jewish history. The stairway or ramp, with its rungs reflects an ancient belief of the connection between heaven and earth.
The ancient Midrash explains the terminology of ascending and descending as corresponding to loyalty to God. If Jacob’s descendants embrace the Torah, they will ascend like messengers of God, but should they reject the law, they will descend. (Genesis Rabbah 68:12)
Another ancient midrash suggests the angels represent the various peoples that will rule over the Jewish people. The ultimate message is that we Jews will outlast them all.
The ladder and its rungs, similar to the game Chutes and Ladders, challenge each us to be resilient during times of adversity. During ancient and modern times the rungs of the ladder may symbolize the tragedy of the chutes, of Jewish persecution and tragedy.
The poet has written:
Egypt enslaved you.
Babylon crushed you.
Rome led you captive.
Pray, who taught you never to die!
Israel my people, God’s greatest riddle, will your solution ever be told?
The modern State of Israel represents a similar transformation of the Jewish people, from Jacob, the tent dweller, to the modern era the tough and strong Israeli soldier.
These days, too, we might find ourselves praying to God that this cycle of history, with its fears, vulgarity and crudity, might pass, replaced by a more eloquent and elegant era.
Our ability to keep climbing and hoping is the very definition of resilience.
Who is resilient? And how do we become resilient?
What made Jacob resilient? What made our people resilient? These are important questions. Maybe the most important questions.
The Wall Street Journal recently asked this question about resilience :Does early hardship in life keep children from becoming successful adults? Or does early hardship actually help?
It’s an urgent question for parents and educators, who worry that children growing up in difficult circumstances will fail to reach their full potential, or worse, sink into despair and dysfunction.
Social scientists have shown that the risks of being hampered by early stress are real, but they also have found a surprising pattern among those whose early lives included tough times: Many draw strength from hardship and see their struggle against it as one of the keys to their later success.
A wide range of studies over the past few decades has shed light on how such people overcome life’s adversities—and how we might all cultivate resilience as well.
In 1962, the psychologist Victor Goertzel and his wife, Mildred, published a book called “Cradles of Eminence: A Provocative Study of the Childhoods of Over 400 Famous Twentieth-Century Men and Women.”
They selected individuals who had had at least two biographies written about them and who had made a positive contribution to society. Their subjects ranged from Louis Armstrong, Frida Kahlo and Marie Curie to Eleanor Roosevelt, Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller.
The authors found that less than 15% of their famous men and women had been raised in supportive, untroubled homes, with another 10% in a mixed setting.
Of the 400, a full 75%—some 300 individuals—had grown up in a family burdened by a severe problem: poverty, abuse, absent parents, alcoholism, serious illness or some other misfortune.
If this study were published today, we would find many more examples of women and men who rose to great heights after difficult childhoods—Oprah Winfrey, Howard Schultz, LeBron James and Sonia Sotomayor, to name just a few. Today, we often use the word “resilient” to describe such people.
But resilient people are everywhere, not just in the ranks of celebrities. They are ordinary women and men, in every walk of life, who meet the definition of resilience set forth by American Psychological Association: “adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress.”
What makes someone resilient in spite or because of the stress?
A minister once shared a parable that neatly captures this question: Two brothers are raised in a home in which the father is a violent alcoholic. One brother grows up to be a drinker and an abuser, while the other becomes an abstinent man and a model parent. When asked how they came to be who they were, both brothers gave the same answer: “Given who my father was, how could I not?”
Back in 1962, the finding that so many prominent people had grown up with hard times may have seemed counterintuitive but, given what we now know about stress and coping, it isn’t so surprising. Coping with stress is a lot like exercise: We become stronger with practice.
Poet Dylan Thomas said, “There’s only one thing that’s worse than having an unhappy childhood, and that’s having a too-happy childhood.” I don’t know if this is true, but I do know that too many women and men feel lesser somehow because of the adversities they have grown up with, imagining they would be happier or more successful people if they had enjoyed stress-free upbringings. But this isn’t necessarily the case.
In the end, we all should work for and hope for resilience. We should all understand that our reaction to life is what makes us strong, not our circumstances.
A great military leader (with a supposedly hot temper) was given a beautiful bowl for an important tea ceremony. Someone dropped the bowl, which broke into five pieces. One of the guests spoke up with an improvised poem cleverly linking the name of the giver of the bowl, the style of the bowl and the five broken pieces, making them all laugh and avoiding the wrath of the hot-headed leader. This specific bowl has since become quite famous, and is considered very important.
The bowl has become more beautiful for having been broken. … In other words, the proof of its fragility and its resilience is what makes it beautiful.
The opposite of depression isn’t happiness, writes Peter D. Kramer in his book Against Depression. The opposite of depression is resilience. It’s not the absence of guilt and sadness, but is the ability to find a path away from those feelings.
As we go up and down the ladder of life I wish us many blessings, but most especially the blessing of resilience.
There’s an old story about a father who enters a toy store to buy something for his little boy. Picking up an interesting-looking gadget, he asks the clerk, “Isn’t this a rather complicated toy for a small child?”
The clerk replies, “It’s an educational toy. It’s designed to adjust children for living in the world today. Anyway they put it together is wrong.”
Unfortunately, this story is getting more relevant all the time. The potential for anxiety and frustration seems to grow as quickly as the national debt.
Many young parents today feel that their children have far more complicated lives then they did growing up, and they are correct.
The irony is that grown-ups, too, live in a world more complicated than ever. Our technological innovations always seem behind the stresses they are supposed to address.
Such fears are not only individual. They are also felt collectively by our country. Can anyone say that Twitter has made our social discourse better?In short, we fear a world in which we have instantaneous communication but nothing to say about returning to the values and optimism of the past. We are anxious about our inability to meet the complications of the twenty-first century with the same basic human hardware and software given to us as was given to our Neanderthal ancestors. Edna St. Vincent Millay, a great poet of the early twentieth century, put it well:
Upon this gifted age, in its dark hour,
Rains from the sky a meteoric shower
Of facts….they lie unquestioned, uncombined.
Wisdom enough to leech us of our ill
Is daily spun, but there exists no loom
To weave it into fabric…
As the poet suggests, in the last century and a half we have discovered or created so much information. We have invented so many technological wonders. We have remade the world with the telegraph, photography, the telephone, the typewriter, the phonograph, the transatlantic cable, the electric light, radio waves, movies, the locomotive, rockets, the x-ray, the computer, smart phones, and even the safety pin.
There is no question that the quality of our life has greatly improved because of such items. We do not want to go back in time. Often, a hospital stay back then was worse than the disease itself. Until the advent of the telegraph, it could take weeks to have an urgent message delivered to a loved one. There was no refrigeration, no anti-biotics, no incubators, or modern sanitation devices. There is no question that our technological advances have created a better life for us.
But our technology has come with a price. Unlike the Sorcerer’s Apprentice in Fantasia, we are “awash in information without even a broom to help us get rid of it. What has happened is that the tie between information and human purpose has been severed.” [Neil Postman] We have no loom to weave it into fabric of meaning. And such a disconnection between information and meaning inevitably leads to anxiety. It’s even been suggested that the twentieth century began as a continuation of the Age of Enlightenment but quickly turned into the Age of Anxiety.
In other words, a hundred years ago, Western civilization felt it was on the verge of an era of peace and good feeling, produced by the advancements in science. And then came the bloodiest century in human history, complete with the perpetration of the Holocaust by the most technologically advanced society in the world. And came the Atom bomb. So much for an era of peace. And hello, age of anxiety.
If it’s true that anxiety thrives on uncertainty and confusion about the future, then we should be very anxious people. In this second decade of the twenty first century there is a palpable tension in the air. And this uncertainty frightens us.
One response to this age of anxiety has been a religious reawakening in this country on a scale not seen since the beginning of the nineteenth century. Even a quick stroll through a contemporary bookstore reflects our era’s infatuation with meaning and spiritual renewal. Science itself has begun to reconsider the wisdom of religion, even as religion appreciates anew the insights of science. For no amount of medication or psychotherapy will relieve the anxiety we feel. What we need is an overarching religious context to help us place our worry into perspective.
Here is where the Bible’s creation story, which we read this week, can help. Many years ago the late author, Thomas Cahill wrote a book, The Gifts of the Jews, in which he argued that so much of Western life was produced by our Jewish heritage. It’s ironic, but perhaps we Jews need a non-Jew to remind us that our Jewish sources can provide us vital direction as we try to make a better future for ourselves and our descendants.
If we say that Judaism gave such gifts to the world, then we may be accused of religious chauvinism. Fortunately, Cahill published a book that says it for us.
In his book, Cahill lists a number of specific “gifts” which Judaism has given to the world. Tonight, I would like to share my own brief list, based on his teachings, in order to suggest how our Judaism might help us greet the brave new world that we face tonight. It’s my hope that recognizing the wisdom of our tradition might help us create a new world that filled not with anxiety but with serenity, not with malaise but with joy, not with death but with life.
The first “gift” to consider is that, as Judaism has taught us, what we do has cosmic significance. It used to be that most inhabitants of the world believed in a cyclical worldview. Cahill labels this the “Great Wheel”. According to this perspective, every event has already occurred and will occur again. Nature keeps everything in balance and our human job is simply to exist. We need not worry that some people are victims of injustice or in need of our help, for whatever acts we take have already happened. In other words, we cannot influence the future if everything happens over and over.
In response to this passive view of life, Judaism offers another approach. As God tells Abraham, “Arise, leave your native land, and go to a new place.” Transform your life and your world. With such a declaration, writes Cahill, the world received new words such as “adventure, surprise, individual, person, vocation, time, history, future, freedom, progress, spirit, faith, hope, justice, and even the word “new” itself. The upshot of such a view is that everything we do makes a difference. We can change the future, for good or for bad.
In addition to transforming how we view our role in the world, Judaism also offers us the gift of absolute morality. The ancient worldview taught that what is good for the king is good for the people, Judaism reminds us that every human being, even a king, is subject to a higher law of goodness. Unlike earlier law codes, the Ten Commandments are not accompanied by rationales for why we should follow them. All we are told is that God demands of us such behavior. Murder is not wrong because of certain circumstances. Murder is wrong because God forbids it.
Thanks to this teaching, we know that no individual is above the law, and neither is any nation. Presidents of the United States have no more right to break the law than the lowliest citizen. I think that bears repeating. Such leaders, like everyone else, should be held to the same moral standards. Likewise, our country – as well as the State of Israel – is not at liberty to pursue policies that conflict with moral laws of the world.
Finally, besides the gifts of personal responsibility and transcendent morality, there is one additional gift to mention tonight: Judaism gives us what our world has come to call “spirituality”. In ancient days, religiosity was primarily physical, depending on such things as sacrifices and edifices. It was about “outside” behavior. As Cahill taught, Judaism introduced another view of the religious life: “God wanted something other than blood and smoke, buildings and citadels….[God] wanted justice, mercy, humility…[God] wanted what was invisible.” What was on the inside. Concluded Cahill, “…we take for granted the power of the innerlife…the predominance of the spirit over might. Yet, it was the Jews who gave us this.”
Now, clearly other religions have also taught the world about the power the spirit and the significance of our inner life. But I do agree that our Jewish heritage has presented us with a vital way to bring serenity and healing to an anxious and fractured world. Both the Hebrew word for spirituality, “ruchaniyoot,” and the Latin root of our English word, “spirare,” connote the act of breathing. And herein lies an important insight: Taking a breath is not only necessary to our existence; it is also something we do wherever we go. Most of us are healthy enough to need no assistance in breathing. We are not even aware that we are doing it. But it is happening all the time. The same can be said of life. We are always living it, but we seldom are aware of how little we need to make our lives complete. Spirituality is about recognizing that what matters is not what we have but what pleasure we are finding in the present moment. Spirituality is recognizing that what matters is not our resentment about the past, or our anxiety about the future, but our ability find joy in the here and now. As one modern Zen master has put it, “wherever you go there you are.” Like our breath, our capacity to find serenity in this anxious world is not farther away than the heart and mind we take with us wherever we go.
In this week’s portion God literally inspires all humanity with the breath of life. God is still inspiring and we are still breathing. So the rest is up to us!
If you are like me, you love The Art Institute of Chicago, and for many reasons.
One reason I love the Art Institute is that it has Grant Wood’s well-known painting, American Gothic.
Created in 1930, it depicts a farmer standing beside a woman that has been interpreted to be his daughter or wife.
Actually the figures were modeled by Wood’s sister and his dentist. The woman is dressed in a colonial print apron evoking 19th-century Americana, and the man is holding a pitchfork.
Interesting story about this piece of art.
For the painting to happen, the artist had to “repurpose” his life.
Grant Wood grew up in Anamosa, Iowa.
Yet when this Iowa farm boy decided to become a painter, he imagined there was only one place for him to go: Paris. He joined the expat American art community there and rubbed shoulders with the likes of Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein.
But one day in 1926, Wood woke up with a chilling thought. Every thing he was painting was wrong. He confessed to a friend:
“All those landscapes of mine of the French countryside and the familiar places in Paris. There’s not a one that the French Impressionists didn’t do a hundred times better!
“… All these years wasted because I thought you couldn’t get started as a painter unless you went to Paris and studied and painted like a Frenchman. I used to go back to Iowa and think how ugly it all was. Nothing to paint. And all I could think of was getting back here so I could find something worth painting.”
“I think … at last … I’ve learned something….I think you have to paint … what you know. And despite the years in Europe — all I really know is home. Iowa. The farm at Anamosa. Milking cows. Cedar Rapids. The typical small town….Everything commonplace…the quiet streets, the clapboard homes, the drab clothes, the dried-up lives, the hypocritical talk, the silly boosters, the poverty of culture.”
The artist then declared:
“I’m going home for good. And I’m going to paint those cows and barns and barnyards and cornfields and little red schoolhouses and all those pinched faces and the women in their aprons and the men in their overalls and the storefronts and the look of a field or a street in the heat of summer or when it’s 10 below and the snow is piled 6 feet high. I’m going to do it.”
And so he did. American Gothic is very possibly the most famous American painting of the 20th century. It’s one of the very few paintings that’s instantly recognizable the world over. It’s become a beloved icon of our culture.
There was a time when Grant Wood considered the rolling hills and dairy farms of eastern Iowa a wasteland, a place of artistic exile. It was only when he learned to re-vision, to repurpose, to seek the contentment that could be found there that he discovered his own distinctive style as a painter.
Here is a truth: most of will not be painting masterpieces to be hung in the Art Institute but all of us can learn a lesson from Grant Wood.
All that we see about us, all that we touch and feel that is real, serves as a stimulus for our creativity and for our development as human beings.
On this holy night of Kol Nidrei, we return to our roots, to that which is authentic in our lives. Tonight we come home. We return to what we know. To what is real.
The homecoming is not only for us as individuals.
As a congregation we are also coming home.
As you know, we are celebrating 150 years of Temple Sholom as a spiritual home.
I hope that for many of us our congregation feels like home or at least has the potential to feel that way. I hope our lives feel intertwined with the history of this sacred place.
Most of us have our own stories about this congregation, including yours truly.
I may have become a rabbi here less than five years ago but I actually first stepped foot in Temple Sholom back in 1971, when Rabbi Binstock officiated at the bar mitzvah of my cousin, Mark. I was impressed then too!
My personal connection is even stronger than that. As many of you also know, after coming here and speaking my first year about my mother’s rescue from Nazi Europe due to helpful Chicago families, I learned that the man who literally got my mother and her family a seat on the Pan Am airplane to freedom was Grant Pick, Sr. Grant Pick, Jr., his son, was an active member of Temple Sholom until his untimely death. Along with others he started the Monday Meal program. Grant’s wife, Kathy Pick, is still a cherished member.
Outside in Lake Shore Lobby there is a plaque, in memory of Grant and his establishment of the Monday Meal. When I first came, the light above the plaque rarely worked. I have made it a personal mission to always have this light on. I did so not only out of gratitude to Grant and his family, but because I also think that light is a symbol of the past, present, and potential greatness of Temple Sholom.
I imagine many years from now someone asking me what was my mission at Temple Sholom and I will answer, “To keep the light burning.” And they will think that’s a metaphor. But actually I will be quite literal.
Also maybe metaphorical.
Light and a flame, have long been symbols of Temple Sholom. Indeed, there is a flame of light on our Temple business cards. Also, as most of you know our 150th year has an official motto: Temple Sholom: Illuminating the Future Since 1867.
Some questions to ponder:
Just how have we been illuminating the future in the past?
Why is this image of light so essential to our story?
And what, exactly, is so special about light as a symbol?
Here is my answer: Earlier tonight, when we took out the Torah scrolls, we read this verse from Psalms:
Light is Sown for the Righteous, Joy for the Upright in Heart. Or zarua latzadik ul-yishrei lev simcha. (Ps 97 11).
Of all the texts in the Bible why do Jews traditionally sing these words when we take out our Torah scrolls for Kol Nidre, quite possibly the holiest moment of the year?
Why of all texts do we sing this?
Think about it: Light is sown, planted. Just like seeds. It is latent, like the crops on Grant Wood’s farm in winter.
It does not come out by itself. Light needs us to thrive. It needs righteous people.
Righteousness is the very essence of our Torah, of our faith.
“Light is sown for the righteous.”
Light is also sown by the righteous.
And it is the righteous who spread the light.
Why, exactly, is light a metaphor?
In Judaism “light” stands for all spiritual blessing for all our blessings are sown for us just as wheat-grains and flower-seeds are sown. We gather the harvest from this sowing—as we pluck flowers from garden or field, or reap the wheat from the fields.
You see, God gives us our blessings not fully-formed—but as seeds.
Temple Sholom over the decades had cultivated those seeds and produced beautiful light.
Just look at our history. Our early senior rabbis, Aaron Norden and Abraham Hirshberg, were known for the social justice work they performed for the City of Chicago. They cared about the poor and – in the language of their day – “the friendless”. After he left the pulpit and served in the Illinois legislature, Rabbi Norden sponsored a fair wage bill. Rabbi Hirshberg wanted everyone to have a place to pray in the city so he arranged for the temple to rent the Medinah Temple – you might know it these days as the Bloomingdale’s Home Store – to hold extra High Holy Day services. Rabbis Norden and Hirshberg most definitely brought the light.
Rabbi Louis Binstock arranged for Eleanor Roosevelt to speak from this very pulpit. The very same Eleanor Roosevelt who said, “It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.” Rabbi Binstock brought Reverend Dr. King. Rabbi Binstock brought the light.
Rabbi Schwartz with education and Rabbi Petuchowski with pastoring brought the light. Elie Wiesel brought the light when he spoke from this very pulpit.
I don’t have to tell you how much light our current clergy – Klay Kodesh – brings to this community. As do our lay leaders, volunteers and staff. We work for social justice. We feed the hungry. We educate ourselves and our children. We pray to God for goodness and peace.
But what about the future?
How shall we proceed in our illumination?
In our righteous work?
It is obvious to say that, just as we have harvested the planting of those who toiled before us, it’s now our time to sow the seeds of light.
But these days something is different. It’s been a long time since this congregation, this community, this country has faced so much darkness and is in need of so much more light.
Do I have to spell out the darkness of these days? Charlottesville. Washington. Whitefish. The Internet.
Make no mistake: we are living in a scary time. And so sowing the seeds of light — at least in my lifetime — has never seemed so important and so challenging.
Just how do we shine the light outward in these difficult days?
Once there was a grandmother, struggling with a life-threatening illness, who had her little granddaughter with her one Chanukah. The granddaughter was watching her as she lit the menorah and placed it in the window. “Grandma,” the little girl asked, “why do we light candles on Chanukah ?”
“We light candles on Chanukah, my dear, to tell the darkness we beg to differ.”
Casting away darkness is our mission; like an old Chanukah song says: banu choshech legaresh, we have come to banish the darkness.
In the years ahead as individuals and as a sacred community we have an important choice to make: will we sow more seeds of light or will we allow the darkness to increase?
My fervent prayer is that you will join me and your congregation in saying loud and clear to the darkness,
“We beg to differ”.
How do we spread the light? How do we banish the darkness?
How do we tell the darkness, “We beg to differ?”
So many things to do:
There are the mitzvot of feeding the hungry and all the other charitable acts.
There are monetary donations we can make.
There are political acts and there is the need to educate ourselves, to get into the “great game” of politics. Only it’s not just a game. It’s our future. This country needs us active; no more spectator sports.
But also there is the need to support our spiritual home. During these dark times it may be tempting to put all our resources in the political arena. But I believe strengthening our spiritual home is also vital.
Now more than ever we need to confront racism, xenophobia and hate with a renewed effort to study and understand the wisdom of our Jewish heritage.
Now more than ever our young people need exposure to the texts and practices of Judaism that will give them a strong identity and promote resilience and grit.
Now more than ever we need to have a place to gather in prayer and to find inspiration.
We should all heed the call to sow the seeds of light in Temple Sholom. Let your temple be part of the solution. Just as we have been for 150 years.
Now more than ever, we need each other and we need a strong Temple Sholom of Chicago. We need you to make our temple stronger, warmer, more learned, more spiritual, a place to come and be made resilient and refreshed, renewed and refocused.
I know some may see the rise of antisemitism in our country and conclude the best thing to do is avoid too much Jewish practice, to blend in, to assimilate even more. To hunker down.
This is exactly not the right thing to do.
This is the worst time to walk away from our Jewish identity and our resources of spiritual resilience.
Two thousand years ago this lesson was taught to us by the great Rabbi Akiva.
Once, the wicked government [of Rome] decreed that the Jewish people were forbidden to study Torah. Pappus ben Judah saw Rabbi Akiva convening gatherings in public and studying Torah [with them]. Said he to him: “Akiva, are you not afraid of the government?”
Said [Rabbi Akiva] to him: “I’ll give you a parable.
“A fox was walking along a river and saw fish rushing to and fro. Said the fox to them: ‘What are you fleeing?’
“Said the fish to him: ‘The nets that the humans spread for us.’
“The fox said: ‘Why don’t you come out onto the dry land? We’ll live together, as my ancestors lived with your ancestors.’
“Said the fish to the fox: ‘Are you the one of whom it is said that you are the wisest of animals? You’re not wise, but foolish! If, in our environment of life we have cause for fear, how much more so in the environment of our death!’
“The same applies to us,” taught Akiva. “If now, when we sit and study the Torah, our source of light and the core of our existence, how much more so will we be in danger if we neglect it . . . .”
Akiva was right then and he is right now.
In dark times more than ever we need the light of Torah, of Jewish wisdom, of identifying with the Jewish community.
And we need to support our spiritual home, the synagogue, the only institution whose single purpose is the cultivation of Jewish light.
Temple Sholom of Chicago:
We need to sow the seeds of light.
We need to continue to illuminate the future and say to the damned darkness: we beg to differ!
“Arise, shine for our time has come,” declares the prophet. The world is pleading to us: shine the light of righteousness in a world eclipsed by hate and fear.
Temple Sholom has a purpose.
Our business is illumination.
That’s what we do.
We shine the light and we never stop hoping for a better future.
Hugo Gryn, an exemplary Reform rabbi and a Holocaust survivor, was born in Czechoslovakia in a home filled with great warmth. He once related: When I was a young boy my family was sent to Auschwitz. For a while my father and I shared a barrack. In spite of the unspeakable horror, oppression and hardship, many Jews held onto what scraps of Jewish religious observance as they were able.
One midwinter evening one of the inmates reminded us that tonight was the first night of Chanukah, the festival of lights. My father constructed a little Chanukah menorah out of scrap metal. For a wick, he took some threads from his prison uniform.
For oil, he used some butter that he somehow obtained from a guard.
Such observances were strictly “verboten,” but we were used to taking risks.
Rabbi Gryn continued: I protested at the “waste” of precious calories. Would it not be better to share the butter on a crust of bread than burn it?
“Hugo,” said my father, “both you and I know that a person can live a very long time without food. But Hugo, I tell you, a person cannot live a single day without hope.
This Menorah is the fire of hope. Never let it go out. Not here. Not anywhere. Remember that Hugo.”
My friends, the darkness gathers.
The fear is real.
But so is the light. And it is ours to share.
This then is our task, as we illuminate the future: to release the light of goodness, of kindness, of justice and peace. The light of Torah.
And the best part is we don’t have to go anywhere. We don’t have to search for something. We already have it! It just needs to be released.
Temple Sholom has illuminated the darkness for 150 years.
We are just getting started!
What is our task? To keep the light burning, yes. But even more crucial, to sow the seeds of light.
An old Hebrew song says: “we all have little torches.” Yes indeed we all have little torches. They are not tikki torches of hate used on the march in Charlottesville. No, sir. They are beacons of light.
And just as the darkness is real so, too, is the light.
Light is sown for the righteous. Or Zarua Latzadik.
I call upon all righteous people to help us sow the seeds of light and hope, to welcome the New Year with the prayer that a starburst of righteousness will illuminate for us all a future of blessing and peace.
Many here today have been loyal members and great supporters of Temple Sholom for a good portion of this time. Please know how indebted we are to you. Thank you! The success of Temple Sholom is due in no small part to your loyalty to and love for this congregation. God bless you!
You know, one hundred and fifty years ago, in 1867, some amazing things happened in the world.
January 9, 1867: African Americans in D.C. are granted the right to vote.
February 13: the Blue Danube Waltz by Strauss premieres in Vienna.
March 2: the US Department of Education is formed.
March 29: the US Congress approves the building of the Lincoln Memorial.
June 12: The Congress that serves the Austro-Hungarian Empire votes to give Jews in the Empire political emancipation. From this vote countless doors will open to Jews in Austria and the Germanic States.
September 12: the 2nd synagogue in Curacao, Emanu-El of Willemstad, is inaugurated.
September 27: the North Chicago Hebrew Congregation is formed. And that will become Temple Sholom of Chicago!
Later events that year include the opening of the first Jewish college in America, Maimonides, and the beginning of the impeachment proceedings against President Andrew Johnson.
But back to September 27 and the beginning of our congregation.
I would like to think that our founders would be excited to see what we have done with the congregation in the last 150 years.
You should know that a congregation that would last this long was not a sure thing. When the original founders of the synagogue met in a lecture room on North Clark Street in 1867 to establish our synagogue they agreed on the fact that Chicago needed a synagogue north of the river. When they dedicated the first modest building on September 27 of that year — it cost a whopping $6000 — they were in agreement that the location was convenient. The outstanding issue that divided them was what kind of Judaism would they practice.
The first senior rabbi, Adolph Ollendorf, who was paid a salary of $100 a month, only lasted for two years. Many think he left because the congregation was divided between those who wanted to practice a traditional Judaism of ritual and observance, and those who favored social justice and the reformation of Judaism.
This tension would not quickly give way and there are those who argue that the next senior rabbi, Aaron Norden, who lasted for decades, ultimately left the congregation for the same reason. The congregation couldn’t decide what kind of Jews they wanted to become.
Although eventually the North Chicago Hebrew Congregation would evolve into Temple Sholom of Chicago and align itself with Reform Judaism, the tension between those who valued rituals such as keeping kosher and Shabbat observance and those who preferred the social action of prophetic Judaism remained and to some extent still remains.
Of course, the Jewish elements that the synagogue later discarded, such as head coverings for men, Torah study instead of sermons, prayer shawls, and bar mitzvahs, have all made a comeback. But the early message of social justice is still strong among Temple Sholom members.
I am proud of our social justice tradition. While researching Chicago Reform Jewish history in preparation for this year I came across a dramatic story of a labor strike at the clothing company Hart, Schaffner and Marx in 1910 that pitted poor immigrant Jews from Eastern Europe against a wealthy Reform Jew. Hannah Shapiro, an 18-year-old Russian-born worker, led a walkout in response to a wage cut at a Hart, Schaffner & Marx factory. Within weeks, nearly 40,000 others joined the strike. After four months, Joseph Schaffner, a German-born Jew, settled with his workers in a landmark agreement that established a wage increase of ten percent, a 54-hour work week, and an independent arbitration committee to resolve labor disputes.
Schaffner only agreed to settle the strike when his rabbi, Emil G. Hirsch, convinced him that his establishing a more just place to work was the Jewish thing to do.
This was a great moment for Chicago.
When we celebrate our congregation’s momentous birthday, we should be proud of our legacy of social justice allied with our Jewish heritage.
God knows we need social justice now more than ever. The old English major in me keeps being haunted by W. B. Yeats’ famous lines, written a century ago but oddly relevant:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Here’s my question: If “the best lack all conviction,” then won’t the worst “with passionate intensity” have the field to themselves?
Who are the worst who are filled with passionate intensity? I will let you make that determination for yourselves.
As for me, I want to be clear: We need actively to share our values with our beloved country. 150 years of American Jewish life North of the River should be celebrated as a blessing but also recognized as a mandate. The freedom we have enjoyed comes with certain responsibilities. These include fighting for the rights of others as if we were fighting for our own rights.
Let me get more specific: As American Jews it is essential we should express outrage and condemnation of the executive order announced recently that repeals Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). DACA was instituted by President Obama in reaction to years of failed immigration policy, giving many young people who had spent most of their lives in the U.S. hope for the future. I know there is some doubt this drastic and harsh order will be carried out but our task is not to be lulled into complacency.
We American Jews have no choice but to support these immigrants. With vigilance.
We are a nation of immigrants. And as Jews, we are all immigrants. The young people protected by DACA are part of the fabric of our communities and of our country. Their story is the story of our people as well. We know what it is to be strangers. We know the hard work and extraordinary fortitude that is required to succeed as immigrants. And we know this: We must maintain this country’s long tradition, and the principles it was founded upon, as a welcoming country, a leader of nations, and a safe haven.
The assault on immigrants is a dangerous precedent and incompatible with both our core Jewish values, and our core American values. We need policies that do not tear families apart, that aren’t created out of hate and baseless fear, but that lift up our shared humanity.
The young immigrants affected by DACA are the future of this country. We cannot turn our backs on them. We call for legislative action that provides protection for DACA immigrants and all those who come here seeking a better life for themselves.
Let us then urge our Senators and Representatives to immediately pass the Dream Act of 2017 (S.1615/H.R.3440). Congress must act now to protect DACA recipients from deportation or detention. The bipartisan Dream Act would grant DACA recipients permanent residence status and provide a pathway to citizenship for DREAMers who attend college, work in the U.S., or serve in the military.
We need to support this bill because it is enmeshed in who we are.
Rabbi Jonah Pesner, the head of the Religious Action Center, and a future guest this year at Temple Sholom, recently offered this pledge:
We will not be indifferent when a woman of color fears for the safety of her children.
We will not be indifferent when a young man is at risk of losing his essential health care.
We will not be indifferent when take home wages hold millions in poverty or when mass incarceration rips apart millions of American families.
We will not be indifferent when transgender Americans are denied the chance to serve their country.
We will not be indifferent when a sheriff sworn to protect the community abuses the law and preys upon people instead.
We will not be indifferent because we believe so deeply in the power of people of faith to act together and transform our society.
We will not be indifferent because we know
that when we stand with one another,
when we love one another as neighbors,
Then we can hold our leaders accountable
to a higher moral vision
that transcends any political party
and any political moment,
And redeem the soul of our nation.
There are so many other social justice issues. Our Sholom Justice Committee under the leadership of Rabbi Conover, Matty Major and Marla Gross, need your help. We should be proud of all that is being done.
And yet, I fear that too many of us today subscribe to the social justice side of Judaism but have never indulged in the larger view of Judaism, rejected for a time by our Temple Sholom ancestors, but embraced by many in the years that have passed.
Why does this matter?
For one thing, social justice does not equal Judaism.
Tikkun Olam, the commandment to repair the world, and what we usually call social justice, is vital to our mission at Temple Sholom in particular and as Reform Jews in general, but it is does not stand alone at the core of our ancient faith. World-repairing, stripped of its specific theological underpinnings, is nothing more than the vague sort of general goodwill professed not only by Jews but also by Hindus, Zoroastrians, members of the Kiwanis Club, and practically every other sentient being who ever gazed upon God’s creation and had the fleeting feeling that it ought to be just a touch more perfect.
To put it another way: It’s been said that saying you crave social justice doesn’t make you any more Jewish than saying you crave pizza makes you Italian; it’s a mood, not a belief system.
Don’t misunderstand me: I personally align with progressive values, and I believe that they have a place in Judaism. In fact I celebrate the confluence of many liberal and Jewish values.
But progressive values—or conservative convictions, or libertarian streaks, or any other variety of ideological sentiments—only have a place in our religion if they spring from our corpus of Jewish texts and especially our theology.
Our sacred task as Reform Jews is to teach and reflect the authentic values of our liberal Jewish heritage. They are the values that come from the Torah, the ancient prophets, and the compassionate insights of the classical Sages.
Our 150 year legacy as a congregation– not to mention our 4000 year Jewish heritage — should not be watered down into a vague notion of social action. Unfortunately the term “tikkun olam” has become a general motto of most American Jewry, and like other Jewish words such as “chutzpah” it has entered English vocabulary without translation. American politicians readily invoke it.
Ironically the term did not always refer to social justice work. In medieval Jewish philosophy, the word “tikkun” was often applied to human self-development, and to the quest for human “perfection,” self-actualization or moral/spiritual improvement. It was about self growth. Even in the 1960s the term was not popular. Although he was no stranger to social action or to the teachings of the biblical prophets, Abraham Joshua Heschel did not use the term “tikkun olam” to describe either of them. Heschel advocated the application of a particularly and authentically Jewish way of thinking both to Jewish and universal social, ethical and spiritual issues. Unlike contemporary views of tikkun olam that begin with universalism drawn from non-Jewish ideologies, Heschel advocated the application of particularly Jewish… ideas to universalistic issues. Simply put, our world does need repair. But so do we.
So this is what I ask of you on this special birthday: allow Temple Sholom to repair the world but also repair ourselves. The need is out there and we’ve got the cure: Jewish wisdom and practice.
Consider, for instance, Shabbat. I understand that Saturday worship was difficult for generations of Temple Sholom members. Many had to work on Saturday. One response in the early days was to make Sunday the Sabbath. Temple Sholom tried this for years. Then again, many over the years only came twice a year and did not visit the synagogue at all on most sabbaths.
But today is not one hundred years ago, and the demands on our sanity have never been greater. In short Jewish practices that may have seemed irrelevant to our Temple Sholom ancestors are pretty timely now.
We need time away from work, from our smart phones. We need prayerful meditation and the insights of ancient but timely texts.
Temple Sholom offers all of this. In honor of our 150 or in light of our crazy world, I plead with you to take this part of Judaism seriously too.
Working the Monday meal is amazing. Studying on Saturday and Sunday is also a gift, one that I urge you to consider. Being members of this incredible temple gives us a kind of Jewish authenticity that is hard to beat, but there is more that most of us can do to practice Judaism in its fuller sense.
The brochure you have spells out a myriad of opportunities, including studying our Reform Jewish heritage and the teachings of the classic prophets. Please take them home!
In short, we all know that America has many faults that must be repaired. I pray that we find a way as a country to do this work together. We must, as Rev Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said during a 1965 commencement address for Oberlin College, learn to live together as brothers and sisters. Or, we will perish together as fools. But such work does not start in the streets. It starts in the classroom and sacred space. We repair the world first by repairing ourselves.
In conclusion, consider the insight of a Jewish ethical sage:
When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world. I found it was difficult to change the world, so I tried to change my nation. When I found I couldn’t change the nation, I began to focus on my town. I couldn’t change the town and as an older man, I tried to change my family. Now, as an old man, I realize the only thing I can change is myself, and suddenly I realize that if long ago I had changed myself, I could have made an impact on my family. My family and I could have made an impact on our town. Their impact could have changed the nation and I could indeed have changed the world.
My friends, the new world beckons, the year of celebration begins and the world more than ever needs our help.
I pray we will rise to the challenge, buoyed by our noble and righteous heritage, inspired by the dedication and legacy of the giants who walked before us.
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