Continuing my series of High Holy Day sermons, here is the sermon on delivered on Rosh Hashanah morning.
Every year, on Rosh Hashanah morning, I turn to the Torah portion, the story of the attempted sacrifice of Isaac, as a source of inspiration for my sermon. This year will be no different. However, before I enter into my remarks, I must tell you that the sermon you are about to hear is not the sermon I originally intended to share with you. That particular sermon will have to wait until next Rosh Hashanah.
In some ways, that is unfortunate because, though its text has not yet been committed to paper (or whatever you commit texts to when you type them into your computer), it was, is, and will be a very nice sermon; one of those thought provoking feel good sermons that people so much like to hear these days. But as I said, it will have to wait.
You may wonder why I felt the need to set that sermon aside. That is a fair enough question. The answer is that there are times when the world takes over and as a result the sermons that clergy plan to deliver are not the ones they wind up delivering. Rather, they find themselves needing to deliver the sermons that the world demands of them. Unfortunately, this is such a time.
With that being said, let me turn to our Torah portion.
Usually, when rabbis discuss this Torah portion, they almost always center their reflections upon Abraham and Isaac, and all that transpired between them in this powerful account. However, when we consider the totality of the story, we need to recognize that Abraham and Isaac were not the only characters present. There were others. The Hebrew text refers to these others as Abraham’s “na’arav” or “sh’nei na’a’rav,” which most translations, including the one in our prayer book, renders as “servants” or “two servants.” However, the typical Hebrew term for servant is not “na’ar” but “eved.” “Na’ar” usually means “youth.” Recognizing this irregularity in the text, the rabbis of the Midrash asked, “Who were these two special youths who accompanied Abraham and Isaac on their journey?” They generally agree upon the answer. One of them was Abraham’s servant, Eliezer; the person who, later in the text, Abraham would send to Aram Naharayim, the town in which Abraham’s brother, Nahor, lived, in order to acquire a bride for Isaac. The other was none other than Ishmael, Abraham’s oldest son, the son of the maid servant Hagar, Isaac’s half brother.
The presence of Ishmael in this seminal story of our people is highly significant. For even here, in the midst of a foundation story of the Jewish people – a story of one of the truly make-or-break moments in the history of our people and our faith; for if Abraham had carried through with his intended sacrifice, then this story would have marked the end of the Jewish people and of Judaism – even here we sense the presence of Ishmael. And who is Ishmael? As Isaac’s half brother, he is our uncle. But he is more than that. For as we Jews trace our lineage back to Isaac, the followers of Islam trace theirs back to Ishmael. With that in mind, we must never forget that the Muslims are our cousins. They are part of our family, and as such, they have been present with us throughout our history, even from our very beginnings. For even in this story, while Isaac the Jew is on top of Mount Moriah – what would become the Temple Mount – with Father Abraham, Ishmael the Muslim is standing at the foot of the mountain, awaiting the outcome. He accompanied us on our journey there, and he will accompany us on our journey back to Beer Sheva.
So the Muslims are our cousins; they are our family. In the light of contemporary history, that is a difficult concept for many to grasp. For we have spent the last 70 years or so contending with them. So much blood has been shed. Jewish blood by Arabs. Arab blood by Jews. Still they are our cousins. How can we reconcile the two? Well, as many of us know, sometimes the most strident conflicts occur within families. Family feuds can be the most bitter and devastating of controversies. Yet even so, in the end, family is family. And while within a family we can engage in the most vicious warfare imaginable, still there is something almost instinctive within us which demands that we set aside our differences and stand by our family members when others endanger them.
I remember an incident from my childhood which testifies to this phenomenon. My sister, of blessed memory, was six years older than I. As children we always fought, and she would never pass up even the slightest opportunity to beat me up. However, one day, standing at the school bus stop, one of the older boys started beating me up. Immediately, she stepped in and started beating him up. “Wait a minute!” he protested. “Why are you hitting me? After all, you beat up Henry all the time.” To this she replied, “He’s my brother, so I can beat him up, but don’t you dare lay a hand upon him!”
So it is, or should be, within the family of Abraham. It is one thing for us to contend with our cousins, the Muslims. It is quite another to stand silently by while others persecute and abuse them. And sad to say, that is exactly what is happening today – not in some far off land but rather here, on our very shores.
What I am referring to is the controversy which has whirled around the proposal to build an Islamic community center two blocks away from Ground Zero, in New York. The debate over this proposed mosque has stirred up some of the ugliest aspects of American culture today. As a result, we have witnessed a burgeoning of virulent hatred and prejudice. As a result, we Jews, as people of conscience, nevertheless cousins to the Muslims, have been handed the challenge of whether we will join in this hate fest, or silently stand by, and by our silence give tacit approval to it, or stand up and stand with our cousins, even though our dispute with them over the future of the Middle East continues to be bitter and bloody.
Personally, I have struggled with this issue. When the question of the mosque first arose, I have to admit that I myself wondered, “Why do they have to build it there? Isn’t that more than a bit insensitive considering the fact that the tragedy of September 11th was perpetrated by Muslims who claimed to be acting in the name of their faith?” I also have to admit that I wondered about where the funds were coming from. It would be one thing if they were being raised from among the American Muslim community, but something else if they were coming out of the Arab world. Yet even as I entertained these questions, my main concern still centered on the principle of freedom of religion. Still, this is America and in this country people of all faiths are supposed to be free to worship according to their faiths wherever they choose to worship; even if they are Muslims who wish to worship at or near Ground Zero.
As I was grappling with my mixed feelings over this issue, one day at lunch I was approached by Rev. Ron Quay of Churches United, who wanted us to get together to discuss whether or not the Quad Cities faith community ought to take a stand in support of the mosque.
When we did hold our meeting, we ultimately decided not to act immediately but rather to wait and see. What were we waiting for? First of all, we feared that by jumping into this controversy, we would actually be causing more harm than good. At that time, all the negativity was centered on the mosque in New York. There had been no expressions of anti-Muslim hostility here in the Quad Cities. So we feared that if we spoke out, we would actually provoke such hostility. We did not want to give this hostility more legs, especially more local legs than it already had. Secondly, we felt that it would be inappropriate for us to step forward without a request to do so coming from our local Muslim community. If they wanted our help and our support, all they needed to do was ask for it. For us to impose it upon them might indeed do them more harm than good.
But as fate would have it, the anger and the prejudice surrounding the proposed New York mosque would not remain in New York. Like the virulent social cancer hate is, it began to metastasize, spreading its toxins across our country. Feeding off the New York controversy, the purveyors of Islamophobia starting peddling their poisonous pellets of prejudice wherever they could.
The New York Times published a feature article about an evangelical pastor in Florida who was organizing a public book burning of the Koran scheduled for September 11th. I know that there are those who are very unhappy with me when I make Holocaust analogies, but how could I, as a Jew, not shiver at the parallel between this man’s intentions and the Nazis’ burning of Jewish sacred books and books by Jewish authors?
In the Washington Post, I read about how the Islamic community of Mufreesboro, Tennessee – a community which lived in peace and harmony with its neighbors for over thirty years – had met with strong opposition when they proposed building their own mosque in their own town. Nor was this opposition made up exclusively of those who spoke out at county board meetings. It also included hundreds who gathered for a large noisy protest rally in the town square and political candidates who made their opposition to this mosque a center piece of their campaigns. Painfully, an article published in the Post one week later, reported that among those who opposed this mosque there were those who had escalated their protests to include acts of violence such as an act of arson at the construction site, along with reports of gunfire there as well.
Rev. Quay and I conferred. We had worried about giving Islamophobia legs. Well, as report after report of anti-Islamic hatred came in, it was becoming abundantly obviously that this hatred was growing legs of its own. It was likewise becoming obvious that sooner or later – sooner rather than later – we would have to take a stand in opposition to it. For as this issue has evolved, it is no longer an issue of whether or not the site of the New York mosque is appropriate. It has become crystal clear that the fundamental issue here is one of protecting religious freedom; one of taking a strong stand against prejudice and bigotry.
Still, on a local level, there were some pieces that were missing for us. First of all, there was the fact that this hatred of Muslims had yet to touch our community. And of course there was the fact that our local Islamic community had yet to express a desire for any public action in this regard.
Well, that too, was soon to end. It ended for me one morning while on the treadmill during a respiratory therapy session. The TV was on in the therapy room, as we patients were watching the Today Show on KWQC as we exercised. And then there it was on the screen before us, being broadcast by our local TV station. It was the most horrible of commercials. I suspect that at least some of you have seen it. It started off with the claim that whenever the Muslims conquered a place, they celebrated their victory by building there a mosque. Images of Jerusalem, Spain, and now Ground Zero. It equated the building of a mosque at Ground Zero with the building of a Japanese temple at Pearl Harbor. It then went on to castigate Congressman Bruce Braley for supporting the building of this mosque and it encouraged our local citizens to call Congressman Braley to express their opposition and discontent. Now this Islamophobia had local legs. This hatred had come to roost in the Quad Cities. The picture was complete. Our community would not be spared the taint of this hatred. The strident voices who strive to provoke fear in the hearts of the American people by invoking that fearful term, “jihad” were now here recruiting our friends and neighbors to join them in their own holy war against anyone who follows the faith of Mohammed.
So Rev. Quay and I contacted the local Islamic community to let them know that if they wanted to take public action in response to such prejudice, we were willing to stand by them and with them, and we would encourage the other members of the Quad Cities faith community to do so as well.
They have taken us up on our offer. So, on Saturday evening, September 11th, starting at 5:00 p.m., the Moline Mosque will be hosting an interfaith gathering; a Day of Unity and Healing. The program will only last an hour but if people of conscience – and I hope that includes everyone in this room and everyone in our Jewish community – if people of conscience come out and support it, the impact of such a gathering on the Quad Cities will have enduring value. It will affirm the living essence of those important words which President George Washington wrote back in 1790 to Moses Seixas, the leader of the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island: “For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens.”
Our Muslim cousins residing here in the Quad Cities are good citizens. We most certainly disagree with them strongly about the situation in the Middle East, but still, they are good citizens; as good as we are. We, a people who have suffered centuries of persecution, only to find a haven here in a free America, may very well be the best equipped in our land to appreciate their current situation; to appreciate what it is like to be the target of hatred. If we do not stand up for them now, then we demean the memories of all those Jews of generations past who fell victim to the power of bigotry.
I not only invite you to stand with me on the evening of September 11th, in the mosque in Moline. I implore you. It is the debt we owe to our forebears. It is the debt we owe to our children. It is also a family thing. They are our cousins and they need our support. As Ishmael stood by Isaac. So must we now stand by them.