Posted tagged ‘Rosh Hashanah’

Family Feud

September 18, 2012

Every year on Rosh Hashanah morning I base my sermon on the text of the Torah portion; the story of the Binding of Isaac.  Every year, I attempt to look at the story from a different angle and draw a different lesson from this remarkable account.

Two years ago, I focused my remarks not on Abraham and Isaac but rather on the “na’arav,” the servants or youths who accompanied them to Mount Moriah.  At that time I pointed out that the rabbis who wrote the commentaries and the Midrash were in general agreement that these two special young people who had the privilege of accompanying Abraham and Isaac were none other than Eliezer – the servant Abraham ultimately would send to acquire a wife for Isaac – and Ishmael – Isaac’s half-brother; Abraham’s older son from Sarah’s Egyptian handmaid, Hagar.

As I did two years ago, I wish to turn our attention to Ishmael, for Ishmael is a unique and very important character in the story of our people, not only then in our early days, but today as well.  For as we Jews trace our lineage back to Abraham through Isaac, the Arab world traces it lineage back to Abraham through Ishmael.  Arabs and Jews, we are family.  We are all the children of Abraham.  While we Jews have followed the path of Isaac, the Arabs have followed the path of Ishmael.

As we all know, in this world there are families and then there are families.  There are families in which their members are bound one to the other by indestructible bonds.  Then there are families in which their members each go their own separate ways, acknowledging their connections, one to the other, but not really feeling those connections in their hearts.  And then there are families in which their members are steeped in bitterness and anger one toward the other because of old wrongs, both real and imagined; families at war with themselves.

Sad to say, our family is just that; a family at war with itself.  Arabs and Jews, we find ourselves caught in the midst of a family feud, the roots of which are thousands of year old.  The roots of which go back all the way to the days of Isaac and Ishmael.

In the very same Torah portion in which we find the text of the Binding of Isaac, we find another account as well; an important text in understanding the roots of our family feud.  According to this text, Sarah saw Ishmael doing something, and it distressed her greatly.  Indeed, she was so distressed that she went straight to Abraham and insisted that he send Ishmael and his mother, Hagar, away and do so immediately.  And so he did.

One of the questions the rabbis ask is, “What is it that Sarah saw?”  The Torah text simply states that she saw Ishmael “metzachek,” which in modern Hebrew simply means “playing.”  As you can imagine, it is the meaning of that term, “Metzachek” over which the rabbis have struggled throughout the ensuing years.   We do not have to look very far to get a taste of their debates.  We only have to look to the trans­lation or translations of the Torah most popularly accepted by the English speaking Jewish world; those published by the Jewish Publication Society.  Many synagogues, mine included, provide copies of the Torah translation for the worshipers to refer to while the Torah is being read.  Those translations more often than not are the most recent one published by the Jewish Publication Society.  It is the most recent but it is not the first.  Rather it is the third.  The translation in those books was first published in 1962.  Prior to that, the Jewish Publication Society published two other translations; one in 1884 and the other in 1917.  In the 1884 translation, “metzachek” was translated as “mocking” while in 1917 it was translated as “making sport.”  It was not until 1962 that it was translated as “playing.”

Why is the translation of “metzachek” so important?  Because it is the key to understanding why it was that Sarah insisted that Abraham tear his family apart and create the rift which is the foundation of the family feud which we experience to this day between Arabs and Jews.  The 1884 translation reflected the interpretation that Sarah witnessed Ishmael “mocking” Isaac while the 1917 reflected the interpretation that Ishmael was making fun of Isaac.  While the 1962 translation does use the word “playing” still in the Midrash and commentaries that support the use of that interpretation, there is found the opinion that while Ishmael may have been befriending Isaac through play, he was also using his friendship to exert an undo influence over him.  Whichever way the rabbis fell in the debates over the meaning of that one word, where they all came together was that whatever Sarah saw, in it she saw that Ishmael posed some significant threat to Isaac’s well being, and therefore needed to be expelled from the camp; ousted from the family circle.

Ishmael’s supposed threat, along with Sarah’s & Abraham’s very painful rejection, sowed the seeds for the animosity we experience today between Arabs and Jews.  For 4,000 years we have each looked at the other, with anger and with hatred, as the enemy; as the one who has done us harm in the past and will do us harm in the future.  This has become so ingrained in us that even if we seriously looked back to the roots of this hostility, seeking to understand its genesis, still there are so many years of ill will that it seems near impossible to repair it.  Here in America we look to the Hatfields and the McCoys as a classic example of a family feud, but when compared to the Arabs and the Jews, they were mere novices.

Now reason dictates that we should be able set aside our differences and seek a peaceful resolution to our conflict.  However, reason plays a very small role in what goes on in the Middle East.  Indeed, much of the hatred which exists is pure mindless hatred.  It is hatred based upon generations of hatred.  While we American Jews would like to believe that Israel is more open to seeking reasonable solutions with its neighbors, still there are many in Israel who hate the Arabs as virulently and as blindly as the Arabs hate us.  Literally a month ago, on August 16th, there was a despicable incident in Zion Square in Jerusalem, in which a mob of Jewish teenagers beat a 17 year old Palestinian boy to within an inch of his life while hundreds of Israeli merely looked on, doing nothing to intervene.  While 8 teenagers, ranging in age from 13 to 19, have been arrested for this attack, one of them, a 14 year old whose name has been withheld because he is a minor, and who is considered to be the one who delivered the critical blow to the victim, shortly after his arrest, said to reporters, “For my part, he can die; he’s an Arab.”

In addressing the Arab-Israeli conflict, we Jews have always been quick to point an accusing finger at all those Arab imams who week after week preach bloody hatred of Jews from their pulpits, and we have been completely justified in doing so.  However, in the aftermath of the beating of this Palestinian boy in Jerusalem, our attention has been turned in another direction as well.  It has been turned toward rabbis who likewise preach hate.  Anat Hoffman, the Executive Director of Reform Judaism’s Israel Religious Action Center, has challenged the Israeli government to take criminal action against some 50 state-employed Israeli rabbis, not the least of whom is none other than Shmuel Eliyahu, the Chief Rabbi of S’fat (Safed), who regularly preach anti-Arab hatred from their pulpits, in blatant disregard for Israeli law which clearly states that racist incitement is a criminal offense.  But what else can you call it when these rabbis deliver messages such as “don’t rent or sell apartments to Arabs” or “All Arabs have a violent nature”?  So blind hatred is not exclusively the purview of the Arabs.  The Jews have enough of it to go around as well.

All that being said, in the Jewish world, and in Israel in particular, we do hear more voices of moderation.  There is more hand-wringing and soul searching after events such as what happened in Zion Square than when the shoe is on the other foot, so to speak.  For there are those who recognize that this cycle of violence, this cycle of anger, this cycle of hatred has to be broken.  If only there were more in the Arab world that shared such a recognition and were courageous enough to be outspoken about it.  But even if there are, the anger and the hatred is so deep-seated in the Arab world that to so speak out is to literally put one’s life and the lives of one’s family members at risk.

So more often than not, Israel finds itself with no choice but to act defensively in the face of unmitigated hatred.  Their desire for peace does not, nor should it, require them to commit any act of national suicide.

Such is the situation in which Israel finds itself today when it comes to Iran.  While Israel would prefer peace; would prefer to put an end to this family feud, the political leadership of Iran will have none of it.  For years now, the Ayatollah leadership of Iran and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejab have spewed upon the world their messages of antisemitism and hatred of Israel.  Time and again, they have not threatened but promised to wipe Israel off the map; to utterly destroy what they call “the Zionist entity.”  True to a history of deep seated prejudice, you never hear them explain why they feel this way.  They just do.  Hatred of Jews – hatred of Israel – is simply a given in their lives.  When it comes to Israel, they see no alternative but to seek out its destruction, for they are lost in the family feud; caught up in the cycle of hate.

It has been to this end that the Iranian government has avidly pursued the development of nuclear weapons and they have made it abundantly clear that they have one goal in mind; to use those weapons in their quest to wipe Israel off the map.  This goal they have never kept secret.  Quite the contrary.  In fact, just last month a member of the Iranian Parliament announced, “This nuclear weapon is meant to create a balance of terror with Israel, to finish off the Zionist enterprise.”  Echoing those same sentiments, President Ahmadinejad said, “Anyone who loves freedom and justice must strive for the annihilation of the Zionist regime.”

As we all know, the Iranians are not the first to proclaim as their goal the desire to wipe out the Jews.  There is a laundry list of others who have preceded them: the Crusaders, the Cossacks, the Nazis.  And each of them tried their best to accomplish their goal.  So for us Jews, when there are those who threaten to destroy us, we have good cause to take their threats seriously.  How much the more so should Israel take Iran’s threats seriously, taking into consideration that they are born out of our 4,000 year old family feud!

A few weeks ago, I found myself in Washington, D.C., attending a conference of 120 rabbis from across the spectrum of Jewish religious life, sponsored by AIPAC – the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.  As you can imagine, the main topic for consideration was the immediate tangible threat which Iran poses to the continued existence of the State of Israel.  That day we heard from many speakers, both from the left and from the right – speakers of note such as William Cristol and Dennis Ross, not to mention Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren.  What was remarkable was that despite their varying political orientations, with nuanced differences, they arrived at the same conclusions.  And their bottom line was that unless the Iranian leadership can be convinced to break out of this lockstep mentality of hatred for Israel – unless they can be convinced to break out of the family feud mind set – there will be a war and it will be soon, perhaps even before our November elections.  For no matter what the United States chooses to do, Israel will never and can never permit Iran to take its nuclear development to a point beyond which Israel will no longer be able to take actions to stop them.  The frightening reality is that today in Israel, those who make plans are planning for several scenarios, all of which include the likelihood that no matter which way Israel turns, she will have to endure a significant number of civilian casualties.  For if Israel strikes Iran, Iran will have to conduct a counter-strike.  Yet if Israel doesn’t strike Iran, and Iran is permitted to continue to pursue its nuclear ambitions, the cost in Israeli casualties will be phenomenally higher.  As the cycle of violence continues, both sides may find themselves drawing blood and bleeding as the result of a 4,000 year old family feud.

As hopeless as the whole matter seems, our meeting closed with an excellent presentation and a ray of hope brought to us by Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic.  Wieseltier reminded us of a statement once made by David Ben Gurion.  Back in the 30’s, when Ben Gurion was asked what the Jewish community in Palestine was going to do about the British White Paper, which eliminated Jewish immigration to Palestine at a time when European Jews desperately needed to flee from the Nazis, Ben Gurion responded: “We will fight the White Paper as if there were no Hitler, and we will fight Hitler as if there were no White Paper.”  What he was saying was that we Jews do not have the luxury to face one issue at a time.  We have to face and juggle them all.  In other words, as long as this family feud presents us with fundamental threats to our continued existence, we must confront those threats.  However, even as we confront those threats – militarily, if necessary – we still must commit ourselves to make every effort to bring to an end this family feud and break through the walls of hatred, on both sides, which have been erected over 4 millennia.

May God help us find a way to transform age old anger into peace.

The Undiscovered Country

September 18, 2012

My memories from high school are scattered and few.  In fact I am sure that if my daughtes, Shira and Helene, were here, they would be quick to say, “Well, Dad, that explains why you tell us the same stories over and over again!”  Anyway, my high school memories are scattered and few, yet come to think of it, so are my college memories, but I suspect that there is a reason for that.  Nonetheless as scattered and few as my high school memories are, some do stand out.  One centers around when I was studying Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.”

For some odd, and perhaps even mystical, reason, “Hamlet” touched me in ways far more profound than any of my other studies.  Indeed, I literally absorbed the play.  As I read it, I instantly memorized it.  If someone recited to me just three words from its text, I could not only complete the quote but also identify the act and the scene in which it appeared.  Trust me, I could not do that with any of my other studies but I could do it with “Hamlet.”  I can not do that now with “Hamlet” but in those days, I could.  There was just something about that play that seemed to resonate with my youthful imagination.

Not surprisingly, my favorite part of the play was the famous “To Be or Not To Be” soliloquy.  That being said, the part of that soliloquy that grabbed my imagination the most was not the opening “To be or not to be” lines but rather the following text: “The Undiscovered Country, from whose bourn no traveler returns, puzzles the will and makes us rather bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of.”[1]

“The Undiscovered Country.”  What was the undiscovered country Shakespeare was talking about?  I wondered about that then and I still puzzle over it now.  When we discussed the question in class, all those years ago, my English teacher was quick to share the standard interpretation that the “Undiscovered Country” was death.  After all, death is main focus of the soliloquy – “To be or not to be” – to live or to die.  But even then, I was not satisfied with that answer, for there was a certain inconsistency in the text.  For if death indeed was the “Undiscovered Country from whose bourn (whose boundary) no traveler returns,” then how do you explain the fact that earlier in play, the ghost of Hamlet’s father does in fact return and speaks with him?

Nor was that inconsistency the only aspect of the quote which troubled me.  For if the “Undiscovered Country” was death, then why would the knowledge of our own inescapable death “make us rather  bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of”?  One would think that if we know we are going to die no matter what, then that knowledge would liberate us to break with our everyday trials and tribulations – “those ills we have” –  and experiment with the unknown; indeed to “fly to the others that we know not of.”

Pondering this text, eventually, I came to the conclusion that perhaps the “Undiscovered Country” was not death, but rather the future.  For unlike Hamlet’s father, who returned from death, no one returns from the future – except of course Michael J. Fox and and Christopher Lloyd.  Our lives are lived linearly and mono-directionally; past, present, future.  Nor is it fear of death that drives us to “bear those ills we have” – to lock ourselves into the established patterns of our lives; to live our lives unchanged and un­changing.  Rather it is our fear of the future which leads us to fear to “fly to others that we know not of” – to fear change; more precisely to fear how change may alter our future, perhaps for the better but maybe also for the worse.

So why do I speak to you of Shakespeare on Rosh Hashanah, rather than of Torah or Talmud or Midrash or the teachings of our great theologians?  Because Rosh Hashanah is all about the Undiscovered Country and how we will face it.  It’s all about the future; our future, both as individuals and as we live our lives in the company of others.

When considering the Undiscovered Country, Shakespeare cannot help but wonder – it “puzzles the will,” to use his own words – what it is about the Undiscovered Country that leads us to resolutely cling to the established patterns of our lives, even if they do us harm, rather than open ourselves up to the possibility of making changes in our lives.  Granted that with change comes the risk that new ways merely may be a matter of exchanging one set of ills for another, still, on the other hand, they may also lead us to living better, happier lives and becoming better, happier people.

These are the exact same challenges that Rosh Hashanah and the High Holy Days present before us as Jews.  This day calls upon us not to cower in fear of the future; not to permit our fear of the future to paralyze us so that we run to the comfort of the familiar patterns of our lives but rather to march bravely into the future, insightfully understanding that in the Undiscovered Country of the future, there is the prom­ise and potential of a better life and a better self if we are but willing to overcome our fears and risk changing our ways; if we are but willing to grasp that promise and potential and work at making our lives better and transforming ourselves into better people.  Let not our fears of the unknown keep us as prisoners of the past but let our dreams of a better tomorrow, of becoming better people, of living in a better world, liberate us so that we can build that better tomorrow, that better person, that better world.

All this is not to say that the Undiscovered Country does not contain reasons for fear.  Of course it does.  There will always be lurking in the unknown valid causes for our fears.  As we welcome the year 5773, none of us can know of a certainty what that year will hold.  Some may think they do, but they really don’t.  None of our expectations for the year to come are etched in stone, and they most certainly are not yet sealed in the Book of Life.  They are nothing more that hopes, plans, and expectations.  They not givens.  For some of us, this may prove to be a wonderful year, filled with love and laughter and joyous surprises, health, happiness, and perhaps even material success.  For others of us, this may prove to be a disastrous year, filled with pain and failure and tragic loss, personal suffering, the suffering of loved ones, and perhaps even death.  Which will it be for us?  We gather here this evening, and none of us can truly know the answer to that question.  It may be one.  In may be the other.  And it can be anything in between.

And the truly frightening part is that so much of it – for good or for ill – probably will be beyond our control.  There is so much of our lives which simply is out of our hands.  Just ask anyone who has been the victim of a natural disaster.  We can no more stop or change the course of a tornado or a hurricane than we can alter the phases of the moon.  I suspect that there are many among us who have known people who have seriously striven to live physically healthy life styles, being meticulous about their diets and disciplined in their exercise regimens, yet in spite of it all, one day they collapsed of a fatal heart attack or were diagnosed with terminal cancer.  As the old Yiddish saying goes, “Man plans and God laughs.”  There can be no denying that the Undiscovered Country is just that – undiscovered, uncertain, and therefore filled with uncertainty.  Out of uncertainty can easily be born fear.

Yet with all that being said, our fear is no excuse for our stubborn refusal to consider change in our lives.  Yes, there is so much that is beyond our control, but yes, there is still so much that is within it.  At the end of the day, we have to accept the fact that we cannot control what we cannot control.  But what we can control is how we choose to live in the face of that frightening reality.  Perhaps one day we will be planting in our garden and strike gold.  That would be wonderful, but it is out of our hands.  Perhaps one day we will be driving along, obeying all the rules, and some moron will run a stop sign or a traffic light and demolish our car and perhaps its passengers as well.  That would be horrible, but it also is out of our hands.  Those types of things we cannot change, so there is no point in worrying about them.  Knowing that such things can happen at any time, still we must live our lives, acting as though we possessed no such knowledge.  We must live our lives focusing our attention on those things that we can control and not wasting a moment’s thought or an ounce of our energy on those things we can’t.

When it comes down to it, where do we possess the most control?  We possess it over ourselves.  We choose what we will do, what we will say, where our values lie, how we will interact with others; we choose the type of people we are and the type of people we will become.  That is our power.  We cannot control other people but we can control ourselves.  We are the people we are today in great part – maybe not in all but in great part – because of the choices we have made.  We will become the people we will be in the future – as we journey forward into the Undiscovered Country – because of the choices we make today and tomorrow, and everyday afterwards.  If we think that we can be better, and we want to be better, then we must choose to be better.  We must choose to change; taking chances by following paths until now untrod by us and therefore unknown to us, hoping and praying that they will lead us to rewards that outweigh their risks.

Rosh Hashanah does not just call upon us to do this.  It begs us to do this.  It weeps, pleading “Please!  Don’t come to this holy day, read the words of the prayer book, listen to the sounds of the shofar, and then leave this sanctuary the very same person you were when you entered.  Please don’t come and sit and close yourself off to the possibility that there can be a better you, and with a better you, a better life.  For there can!  It’s in your hands!  No one else’s.”

Rosh Hashanah is all about change.  The year is changing.  The seasons are changing.  And it calls upon us to change as well.  It is so easy for us to enfold ourselves in the warm and comfortable blanket of “I am who I am.  This is who I have always been.  This is who I will always be.”  But Rosh Hashanah knows, as we truly know in our heart of hearts, that we can be so much more; that it can be within our power to make of ourselves better people – kinder people, gentler people, friendlier people, fairer people, more caring, more giving, healers of body and soul, and not just our own bodies and souls but the bodies and souls of others, both near and far, friend, stranger, and even foe.  And Rosh Hashanah challenges us to make the change.  Yes, it is frightening to leave behind familiar ways and strive to do things differently, but the benefits far outweigh the risks.  For as we change, we become bearers of light; light into our own lives and light into the lives of others.  We can make our own lives better, and believe or not, in our own small, and not so small, ways, we can make the life of the world better as well.

So let us this day choose to leap into the Undiscovered Country, with a resolve in our hearts to transform that Undiscovered Country into a Paradise – a Gan Eden – filled with love, caring, justice, and grace.  And let us all say:

AMEN


[1] Shakespeare, William, “Hamlet,” Act III, Scene 1.

Rosh Hashanah Hunger Appeal 2012

September 18, 2012

I serve a congregation that is very dedicated to the work of Tikkun Olam – Repairing the World, what many people call Social Justice.  One aspect of our Tikkun Olam programming is to place significant emphasis on hunger issues during the High Holy Days.  To that end, I open our Rosh Hashanah evening service with an annual Hunger Appeal.  Below is the text of this year’s Appeal.

Shanah Tovah Tikateivu!  May you all be inscribed for blessings in the Book of Life!  As I extend to you our traditional holy day greeting on this Rosh Hashanah, I ask you to pause and reflect upon it, even if just for a moment.  What does our tradition tell us to seek – to aspire to – on Rosh Hashanah?  Blessings.  We yearn for our lives and for the year ahead to be filled with blessings.  Yet when we think about it, how can we deny that our lives already are extremely blessed?  We cannot.  We have homes that are warm in the winter and cool in the summer.  We have closets full of clothing and pantries, refrigerators, and freezers filled with food.  Our community is teeming with grocery stores and restaurants, and most, if not all of us, are more than capable of frequenting them when we please and purchasing whatever our hearts desire.

In these, and in so many other ways, we are already abundantly blessed.  Yet as the new year approaches, still our prayers are for increased blessings.  For in everyone’s life, there is always room for an additional blessing or two or three.

It is precisely because we are so blessed already that year after year, I unashamedly open up our High Holy Day services with this hunger appeal, to beseech you who already are so greatly blessed not only to seek blessings for yourselves but also to open up your hearts and extend yourselves so that you will to bestow blessings on others as well; bestowing your blessing upon those people in our community and in our world whose lives are so dramatically different than our own, for theirs are so bereft of blessings.

Living in a land of plenty and possessing the abundance that we so fortunately possess, it can be difficult for us to even begin to imagine how the lives of others, not just on our planet but also in our own community, can be so lacking in what we take for granted.

There is a Hasidic story which speaks directly to that point.  It is the story of a poor man whose family is about to face the winter without being able to afford enough to purchase sufficient firewood to see them through it.  So he swallows his pride and goes to the home of the wealthiest man in town, asking that man for a loan in order to acquire the wood.  Well the wealthy man considers the request but in the end decides to deny it because, quite frankly, he could not envision how the poor man would ever be able to repay the loan.  After this rejection, the poor man goes to the rabbi, sharing with him his problems and how the wealthy man responded to them.  So the rabbi goes to the home of the wealthy man.  When the wealthy man answers the door and sees the rabbi on his doorstep, he immediately invites him in.  But the rabbi refuses, saying that what he has to discuss will not take very long, so let us discuss it right here.  The rabbi then begins to speak, and speak, and speak, and speak.  Standing in the open doorway, in the brisk air of early winter, it is not long before the wealthy man is feeling the chill.  “Come on rabbi!  Come inside.  We can sit by the fire and have a nice cup of warm tea and conduct our business.”  “No,” the rabbi responds, “I am almost done so let’s just continue where we are.”  Finally, after more and more talk on the rabbi’s part, the wealthy man becomes quite insistent.  “Rabbi, I am freezing out here!  Please!  Let’s go inside!”  With this, the rabbi turns to the wealthy man and says, “You have only been standing in this cold for a few brief moments, and already you find it unbearable.  How much the worse it will be for that poor man and his family this winter because you could not find it in your heart to lend him the money to keep his wife and children warm!”

Think of that story on Yom Kippur, especially if you are fasting.  As the day wears on, and you get hungrier and hungrier, remember that the day will end and you will enjoy a wonderful break the fast.  Yet throughout this world there are literally millions of people – according to the most recent statistics, 925 million people; one out of every seven people on this planet – who starve, not just one day year, but 365 days a year.  While they starve, we are like the wealthy man, for it is in our power to help them by opening up our hearts, and our wallets, and sharing some of our blessings with them; by making efforts we are more than capable of making which will help to ease their suffering.

While when it comes to hunger issues, we tend to think of the starving populations of foreign lands, particularly in Asia and Africa, the harsh reality is that hunger is no stranger to our own community as well.  It may shock you to learn that 1 in every 6 Quad Citians is a victim of hunger, with children under 18 years of age representing 39% of that population.  For those who receive and depend upon food stamps for their nutrition, the typical food stamp allotment is a mere $1.50 per meal.  How many of us are capable, nevertheless willing, to maintain that type of diet?

All this is why year after year I come to you and I beg you to support our various hunger programs.  And I most certainly do that again this year, but this year with a difference.  In past years, I have regaled you with our own congregational statistics; how many walkers we fielded for the CROP Walk, how much money we raised, how many pounds of food we collected, and how all of that compared to years past.  I know that I find those statistics very meaningful, but I am not quite sure that you do.  Sometimes I wonder whether or not I am boring you with them, and by boring you, hurting the cause rather than helping it.  So this year, I will refrain from presenting those numbers.  Suffice it to say that our congregation has a proud history of stepping up and supporting these hunger programs and I pray that once again, we will prove ourselves up to the challenge.

So I call upon you once again to support our efforts on behalf of the annual CROP WALK Against World Hunger.  We need as many walkers as we can field and we need people to pledge as much as they can.  If you walk, you also can pledge, and if you pledge you also can walk.  This year’s Walk will take place on Sunday, October 7, beginning at 2:00 p.m., starting at Modern Woodman Park – which some of us still stubbornly call John O’Donnell Stadium.  About the Walk, people sometimes wonder whether they have to complete the course in order to qualify for their pledges.  The answer is “No.”  All we ask is that you walk as much as you can.  For well over 20 years, I have walked in every one of these walks.  These days, my health being what it is, walking is not one of my strong suits.  However, with the help of this handy-dandy inhaler, I plan on making at least part of this walk.  I hope you will join me.

I call upon you to once again support our collection of non-perishable food items.  For years, we have taken this time between Rosh Hashanah and Simhat Torah to collect food on behalf of our local Riverbend Foodbank.  As we do so this year, I want you to remember two things: First, that what we collect will help to feed the 1 in 6 Quad Citians who are so desperately in need.  Secondly, I want you to think about all the reports you have heard about how during the coming year, food prices are going to soar as a result of this summer’s drought.  As you consider how that will effect your own pocket books, think about what that means for those who already are having trouble putting food on their family’s tables.

I call upon you once again to make a contribution to that very important Jewish organization, MAZON.  MAZON was the first exclusively Jewish organization created to address the issue of hunger.  Their approach is a holistic one, as expressed in the words of their mission statement: “To provide for people who are hungry while at the same time advocating for other ways to end hunger and its causes.”  In your prayer books, you will find a self-addressed donation envelop for MAZON.  I encourage you to take it home and seriously consider making a donation equal to what it would cost you to take the members of your household out to dinner at a restaurant.

And finally, I call upon you to support the efforts of our Tikkun Olam Committee throughout the year, as they periodically prepare and serve meals for Café on Vine, one of our community’s meal sites for the homeless.

In PIRKE AVOT, we are taught, “Lo alecha hamlacha ligmor, v’lo ata ben horin lehibateil mimena! – While you are not obligated to complete the task, neither are you free to desist from it!”  While we at Temple Emanuel, by ourselves, cannot hope to solve the challenge of hunger in our own community, nevertheless in the world, still we should feel it incumbent upon us to do everything we possibly can to contribute our part to that solution.  Ken yehi ratzon! – May it be God’s will!  May it be our will!

The Blessing of Being Different

November 9, 2011

The Torah portion “Lech Lecha” is aptly named, for it means “You go!” in the command form.  It opens with God’s very first instruction to Abraham.  That instruction is for him and his household and his followers to leave their native land and go to a place of their own, which will be given to them by God.  Today we call that place Israel.

When you think about it, this is not just the very first instruction which God gave Abraham but it also is the very first instruction which God gave to us, the Jewish people.  “Go!”  Separate yourselves from that which is familiar and make of yourselves a singular and unique people.  In other words, “Be Different!”  Be different from all those who surround you.  Be different and be proud.  How prophetic were God’s words to Abraham, for as we know now, 4,000 years later, throughout the millennia, one of the primary hallmarks of being a Jew has been, is, and most likely will continue to be, being different; being different from everyone else who surrounds us.

We all know that being different has been for us Jews both a blessing and a curse.  There is an old Yiddish maxim which I love to cite.  “Schwer zu sein ein Yid und schayne zu sein ein Yid” – “It is difficult to be a Jew and it is beautiful to be a Jew.”  Most of us, at one time or another, have experienced both sides of that equation.

There is no question but that we have known the schwer side – the difficult side – of being a Jew all too well.  So many of our holidays commemorate our having survived the attempts of others to crush or even destroy us.  Passover celebrates our redemption from slavery in Egypt.  Hanukkah celebrates our reclaiming Jerusalem and rededicating the Temple to God from the Syrian Greeks who turned it into a house for pagan worship.  Purim celebrates the undoing of Haman’s plot to execute the entire Jewish population of the Persian empire.  Yom HaShoah memorializes the six million Jews slaughtered as a result of the genocidal plans of Nazi Germany.  Yom HaAtzmaut celebrates the establishment of the State of Israel, and its survival, both in its War of Independence when the Arab world vowed to “drive every Jew into the sea” and through all its subsequent wars, each time defeating a foe who would see it completely destroyed.  Tisha B’Av commemorates the destructions of the Temple by both the Babylonians and the Romans, as well as the expulsion of the Jews from Spain.

Nor is our familiarity with the schwer side – the difficult side – of being a Jew limited to our knowledge of past history.  Unfortunately, we continue to experience it first hand as well.  We experience it every time Israel has been attacked by terrorists bent on its destruction, yet the rest of the world remains silent about such attacks while they are ready and eager to condemn Israel for defending its citizens.  We experience it every time one of our children is been put into the situation in a public school in which they find themselves forced to sing words of faith which are contrary to ours.  We experience it every time the schools hold standardized testing such as the SATs or the ACTs on Jewish holidays; or for that matter, home­coming celebrations on our holidays.  We experience it every time employers balk at or flatly refuse to grant their Jewish employees time off in order to observe Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur.  We experience it every time someone starts to rant about what they call “The War on Christmas” simply because some businesses attempt to be sensitive to the fact that not everyone in America celebrates that holiday.  We experience it every time someone insists that America is a “Christian” nation, meaning that the rest of us are not true Americans but rather some sort of tolerated guests.  We experience it every time we attend a public gathering in which a prayer is offered and the person offering that prayer chooses to close it with a statement like, “in Jesus’ name we pray.”  We experience it every time social pressure calls upon us to desert the observances of Shabbat and the holidays in order to engage with our neighbors in secular activities, for if we truly want to be accepted by others, we have to minimize if not abandon that which marks us as Jews; that which makes us different.

Yet even while being different can be a tremendous burden upon us as Jews, there is the shayne side – the beautiful side – as well.  That, too, we have experienced.  Who can deny the beauty of a Passover seder?  As Americans, we celebrate Thanksgiving as we gather round the dining room table for our Thanksgiving feast, and it is nice.  But the Thanksgiving feast pales in comparison to the seder.  There is wonder and magic and beauty to be found there.  So much so that even our Christian neighbors envy us our seder celebrations.

Who can deny the overwhelming joy of watching a child – especially when it is one of our children – becoming a Bar or a Bat Mitzvah?  How justifiably filled with pride we are, and more importantly, how justifiably filled with pride our children are, at such a special occasion.  And once again, our Christian neighbors envy us our Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations.  Not just the parties, for anyone can hold a big party.  They envy us the dedication and achievement of our children.  They envy that our children are so ready and capable to stand up in public and profess their bonds to our people and our faith.  I know that, for this is what I so often hear them say while standing in those Bar and Bat Mitzvah receiving lines.

Who can deny the power of a Jewish wedding?  All weddings are beautiful but there is something very special about Jewish weddings.  The rituals speak straight to the heart.  There is the chupah, symbolizing the home and the new family unit that this couple is creating.  With a roof but no sides, it is an open home, welcoming all who care for the happy couple, with both sets of parents standing beside them as well as their friends and siblings.  There is the wine, symbolizing our prayers that the newlyweds’ lives together be both sweet and joyful.  There is the ketubah, the wedding contract, symbolizing the commitments that are necessary to create a lasting marriage.  There is the breaking of the glass, symbolizing the seal of sanctity that has been placed on the union they have created.  And once again, our Christian neighbors envy us our wedding rituals.  I know this because often, after conducting an interfaith marriage ceremony, the non-Jewish parents, who often at first were hesitant about participating, approach me to tell me how beautiful, meaningful, and inclusive, they found the whole experience to be.

Whether we choose to realize it or not, there is a message embedded in all of this.  That message is that when we affirm our Judaism, when we celebrate our Judaism, when we elect to stop being afraid of being different and willingly embrace that in Judaism which makes us different, there is great beauty to be found there.  At the end of the day, that which makes us Jews different is not a curse, but rather a blessing; a profound blessing.

While we seem to be able to uncover such blessings in the big Jewish events in our lives, those are not the only places in which such blessings reside.  For if we but seek them out, we will find that they permeate all of Jewish life; the big moments and the small ones as well.

Recently, I explored with the students of our religious school the practice of reciting the prayer “Modeh Ani” upon waking up in the morning.  It is a simple prayer and easily chanted.  In translation the text states, “I offer thanks to You, ever-living Sovereign, that You have restored my soul to me in mercy: How great is Your trust.”  What a wonderful way to start each and every day – thanking God for the gift of another day of life!  For when we go to sleep at night, there is no guarantee that we will wake up.  That is why it is a Jewish practice that right before we go to sleep we recite the “Shema”, which according to our tradition is supposed to be the last words a Jew utters before dying.  So when we do wake up in the morning, “the Modeh Ani” reminds us that each day is a gift.  What a wonderful, positive thing it is for us to start each and every day, recognizing that it is a gift and should be treated accordingly.  It is a blessing that our Judaism teaches us to approach each and every day with an attitude of gratitude.

The same holds true for saying the “Motsi” whenever we sit down to eat.  In a world filled with starving people, Judaism teaches us to appreciate the blessing of having food with which to sustain our bodies.

The same holds true for all those opportunities offered to us to say the “Shehechiyanu”; all those times in our lives which are special and unique.  For this prayer is not just for lighting the first candle on Hanukkah or just for Bar and Bat Mitzvah services and weddings.  Our lives are filled with “Shehechiyanu” moments, if we but recognizing them and feel moved enough by them to sanctify them with the prayer.  Our Judaism teaches us that there are special moments in our lives which call for a special blessing.

The same holds true for the observance of Shabbat.  There are those Jews who think of Shabbat as one of the most onerous burdens placed upon us as Jews, and so they choose not to observe it.  But then there are those Jews who choose to observe Shabbat, and in their observance they discover, not burden but blessing.  They discover that Shabbat Shalom, the peace of Shabbat, is far more than some empty words with which Jews greet each other on this day; that enfolded in Shabbat can be a profound sense of peace, if we but choose to access it.  That Oneg Shabbat, the “joy of Shabbat” is far more than just a snack of coffee and cookies after the services; that there is a true sense of joy to be found in taking this weekly opportunity to affirm ourselves as Jews, proud of being Jews, connected through Judaism to our fellow Jews and to God.  Shabbat can be an enormous blessing offered to Jews week after week after week if we but choose to pick it up.

These are but just a few simple examples of how those aspects of Judaism which makes us different from others are not to be feared or resented but rather embraced, for it is precisely that which makes us different from others which is also that which enables us to sanctify our lives, both in the big moments and in the small ones.  While there is no denying that which makes us as Jews different from others can, at times be a curse from which we can suffer greatly, it is all the more true that what makes us as Jews different can be, at all times a blessing.  To be a Jew is to receive the blessing of being different.

Faith: One More Reading of the “Binding of Isaac”

October 4, 2011

When it comes to this morning’s Torah portion, there are almost countless interpretations.  Indeed, it is one of the most studied and commented on sections in the Torah.  Yet, even with that being said, there still stands one interpretation that is considered by all rabbis the classic interpretation; the mother of all interpretations of the story of the Binding of Isaac.  That interpretation is that this story is a story of faith; Abraham’s absolute faith in God.  For Abraham’s faith in God was so great that when God instructed him to take his son up to Mount Moriah and there to offer him up to God as a sacrifice, Abraham did not question.  He did not doubt.  He did not hesitate.  Indeed, the classic commentary points out that the Torah text itself states that after receiving God’s instructions, Abraham got up early the next morning to carry them out, which supposedly shows that Abraham was so eager to fulfill God’s will that he did not want to delay it even a moment.

Obviously, there are certain moral problems with such an interpretation.  After all, what kind of God would demand the death of a child?  And what kind of parent would not only be willing but actually eager to meet that demand?  So as you can imagine, alternative interpretations quickly arose, and multiplied, in their attempts to redeem at least the image of Abraham, if not God, from the implications of this story.

Yet as troubling as we find this Torah text, the classic interpretation of it is right on target.  This story is a story about faith and the importance of faith.  However, in order to appreciate it more fully we have to recognize and understand that there is a difference between true faith and blind faith.  While true faith is about following a path because our knowledge and experience has led us to believe that the path in question will lead us to good and positive ends, blind faith is about a total surrendering of our will and judgement to another and in so doing, being willing to travel any path we are told to travel without any consideration of right or wrong, or of the consequences.  It’s about “only following orders.”

While it is easy to interpret Abraham’s actions in this story as a product of blind faith – of his being willing to slaughter his son merely because God told him to do so – it is not necessarily that simple.  To be true to the Torah text, and to the special relationship that the Jewish people have had with the Torah text for thousands of years, we have to be willing to explore the possibility that Abraham’s faith was a true faith rather than a blind one; that Abraham was more than just God’s lackey.  That he was God’s trusting and trusted partner.

When we look at the Torah, one of the most important indicators that this was not just a matter of blind faith on Abraham’s part is to be found in the personality of Abraham himself.  Throughout the book of GENESIS, we see that Abraham was never really a mindless follower.  He was a thinker.  He was a questioner.  He was a challenger.  No where is that clearer than in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, where he confronts God directly, challenging God’s sense of justice in regards to God’s intention to destroy the two cities.  It is not logical to assume that the very same man who went toe-to-toe with God, challenging God by asking, “Shall the Judge of all the earth not act justly?” would then turn around and passively accept God’s decision to brutally take the life of an innocent child.  If Abraham challenged God’s intentions for Sodom and Gomorrah, so much the more so would Abraham challenge God’s intentions in this instance if he truly believed that God wanted to see the brutal slaying of an innocent child.

Perhaps Abraham did not challenge God in this instance because his understanding of God’s instructions were different than the typical translations and interpretations that have come down us over the years.  Perhaps Abraham did not see this, at least initially, as a call for him to physically sacrifice his son, but rather as something very different.

In reviewing the Hebrew of the text, it struck me that one of its key statements which has always been understood as a call for the physical sacrifice of Isaac, can, in fact, be given a dramatically different translation than the one we are used to.  In the Hebrew, God says to Abraham, “Ve’ha’aleiju sham l’olah,” which is typically translated as “offer him up there as a sacrifice.”  But perhaps it actually means something else entirely.  This difference between the standard translation and a translation I am about to propose, hinges on the understanding of the Hebrew word “oleh”, which has a double meaning.  One meaning is that of “going up” both physically and spiritually, as we see in the term “aliyah” which is physically going up to the bimah for the high honor of blessing the reading of the Torah, while the other meaning – the one generally applied to this text – is that of “making a sacrifice to God” such as the “olah”, the burnt offering which was offered at the Temple.  However, perhaps it was the first, and not the second meaning that was meant to be attached to these words in this sentence in this Torah account.  Perhaps God was not saying that Abraham should “offer Isaac up there, on Mount Moriah, as a sacrifice,” but rather that he should “bring Isaac up there so as to elevate him,” not just physically but spiritually, by including the lad in the ritual of offering up a sacrifice to God.  You might even consider this to be like the first Bar Mitzvah, as Isaac would be assuming the role of a Hebrew adult by participating in this sacred ritual, just like our children who come up to the bimah to bless the Torah for the first time in their lives.

If we begin to understand the text in this way, then another part of the story assumes a significantly different meaning.  While Abraham and Isaac were walking up the mountain, Isaac asked his father, “Here is the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the sacrifice?”  To this, Abraham replied, “God with provide the lamb, my son.”  Traditionally, Abraham’s response has been interpreted as meaning that the lamb which God will provide for the sacrifice was none other than his son.  But perhaps that interpretation is wrong, and that the simple meaning of the sentence is the true meaning of the sentence; that Isaac should not worry – that he should have faith that God, when needed, will provide the animal for the sacrifice.  Indeed, in the end, that is exactly what God did.  God provided the ram which they sacrificed together.

It we take this approach, we discover an Abraham who is not driven by blind obedience but rather who possesses a true faith in God; trusting in God and in so trusting, confident that in the end, all things will work out for the good.

It is only when the altar is build, and the wood for the fire is all arranged, and Abraham is ready to make the sacrifice, but there is no lamb or ram to offer up, that Abraham even considers the possibility that Isaac is the intended sacrifice.  Yet still trusting in God, Abraham continues to believe that things will work out, even as he is binding up his son and placing him on the altar.  Indeed there is a midrash which states that while Abraham was doing this, he was crying.  His tears dropped into Isaac’s eyes and were the cause of Isaac’s blindness, as described in the story of Jacob and Esau.

Indeed, even though Abraham momentarily had doubts about God’s good will, his faith was well placed, for God stopped the sacrifice.  God was distressed by the very thought that Abraham would consider doing such a horrible thing to his son.  “Do not raise your hand against the boy or do any harm to him!” God’s angel tells Abraham.  Perhaps Abraham’s actual attempt to sacrifice Isaac was a misunderstanding.  Perhaps it was Abraham’s slipping for a moment from true faith to blind faith; a move which deeply disturbed God rather than gratified him.

Understood in this way, Abraham’s faith was, for the most part, a true faith.  Abraham had faith in God.  Why?  Because so many of Abraham’s experiences with God were such that God earned Abraham’s faith.  Abraham trusted in God because even though life was not always easy for Abraham, and along the way there were many challenges to be met, still in the long run, God’s promise was kept and things worked out for the better.  God’s desires were known to Abraham, and in those desires, Abraham saw only good things, positive things, not only for himself and his family, but for all humanity.  Abraham saw God as good, and therefore as worthy of his faith.  His true faith.

Blind faith is easy.  Just do what you are told.  You don’t need to think about it.  Your life is totally in the hands of another.  Good and bad.  Right and wrong.  They do not matter.  Obedience is the only thing that matters.

True faith, on the other hand, is not so easy.  It means that we need to constantly look at the bigger picture.  We have to constantly consider the past in measuring the future.  Good and bad, right and wrong do matter, when it comes to our judgement as to whether or not our faith is well placed.  It means trusting that things are not always what they appear to be at the moment; that sometimes in order to arrive at good times, you have to endure bad times.

This is what Abraham saw in God.  This is why Abraham trusted in God.  This is why Abraham sought to obey God.

Who should know this type of faith better than we, the Jewish people?  Our long history is a patchwork quilt of keeping faith in bad times as well as good times, and ironically sometimes finding it harder to keep faith in good times as well as bad times.  Today, we American Jews live in marvelous times.  We have good lives in a country which welcomes us and considers us equals; citizens and not strangers.  God has blessed our lives with an abundance perhaps unequaled in Jewish history.  Yet for some, finding a true faith in God is still elusive.

One cannot help but wonder why so many Jews have been able to keep their faith in God across the millennia?  Because their faith and our faith has been a true one.  We have maintained our faith in God because when we consider what God wants from us, and wants from the world, we see that these are all good things.  God wants the best for us and for all humanity.  God wants peace.  God wants healing.  God wants prosperity.  God wants love.  God wants justice and fair treatment for all.  God wants to be our parent and for us to be a family.  Our God has always been a God worthy of believing in; worthy of our trust and faith; our true faith.

Having such faith in God can help us to live our lives as better human being.  For our faith in God can serve as a model for our faith in others.  When we apply the same principles that govern a healthy faith in God to our relationships with other people, then we can start down the road toward building healthy relationships, not only with God but with worthy people as well.

As a true faith requires us to ask of our relationship with God – Where is this taking us?  Is it leading us down the path to being better people and leading a better life? – so we should be asking those very same questions when it comes to our relationships with other human beings.  Will these relationships contribute to making us better people and, as better people, leading us to a better life?

As true faith calls upon us to invest a great degree of trust in God because God has proven worthy of our trust, so should we be willing to invest a great degree of trust in others who, by their past actions have proven worthy of our trust.

This, for some reason, seems to be very hard for some people to accomplish.  There seems to be a part of the human psyche that wants us to think the worst of others, and of God, even if they have done much in the past which should have proven their trustworthiness to us.  We seem to revel in looking at the dark side; in gobbling up the rumors as is they were established facts; in readily embracing the worst scenarios rather than the best possibilities.  But just as a true faith in God – Abraham’s faith in God – calls upon us to invest our trust in God, not just because God is God but also because God has earned that trust through intentions and past actions, so should the spirit of true faith call upon is to invest our trust in so many of those people in our lives, not just because they are in our lives, but because they have earned our trust through both intentions and past actions.  They have earn that place in our lives in which we should always first assume the best of them rather than the worst; in which we should always first grant them the benefit of the doubt rather than instantly doubting their credibility, their intentions, and their good will.

In this way, if we can find it in our hearts to take on the mantle of true faith, both in God and in those individuals who populate the landscape of our lives, then we will discover that with true faith in our hearts, blessings will surely follow in our lives.  For we will more readily discover joy instead of sorrow; contentment instead of dissatisfaction; confidence instead of doubt; pleasure instead of pain; love instead of anger.

Our Cousin at the Foot of the Mountain

September 11, 2010

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.

Temple Emanuel: Looking Toward Our Next 150 Years

September 10, 2010

If you wonder why I have not posted on this blog in some time, the answer is simple:  High Holy Days preparation.  Writing sermons and tending to countless other details prior to the advent of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur occupy nearly the totality of every congregational rabbi’s time.  So in my next few posts, I will be sharing with you the texts of the sermons that I presented to my congregation during the Holy Days.  Below is the text of my Rosh Hashanah Eve sermon.

There are New Years and then there are New Years, and this is certainly a New Year for us here at Temple Emanuel. For us, this Rosh Hashanah not only marks the beginning of the Jewish year of 5771, but it also marks the beginning of the celebration of our 150th anniversary as a congregation.

150 years! That is no small accomplishment. While ours was not the first synagogue established in the state of Iowa – for there were synagogues which preceded ours in both Dubuque and Keokuk – ours is the oldest Jewish congregation in continual existence in the state. Of that we can most justifiably be proud.

We sit here this evening in this fine 57 year old building, which, by the way, was the first house of worship in the Quad Cities which was constructed utilizing the designs of modern architecture. We sit here, not only as a viable but also as a vibrant congregation. There is so much about Temple Emanuel life which we take for granted, as if it was always so. But it was not. What we benefit from and enjoy today was handed down to us as the result of the dedication and labor of so many others who came before us; who strove to make Temple Emanuel possible, nevertheless vital and vibrant. Over the next 13 months, we will be celebrating their gifts to us, as we begin to learn more about our past and rededicate ourselves to the future of the congregation which they bequeathed to us.

Sitting here this evening, considering the life of Temple Emanuel today, let us try to imagine what Jewish life in this community was like for our founders back in 1861. In those days, the total population of Davenport was a meager 500. Of those 500, there were a scant one dozen Jewish families. Most, if not all of them were German Jews who had arrived in this community during the preceding ten years. They came to America, seeking freedom and democracy. They were part of a greater wave of German Jewish immigration that came to our shores fleeing Germany and Austria after the failures of the liberal revolutions of 1848. Yes, even then, Jews were social liberals. In fact, in our congregation today, we have direct descendants of one such famous socially liberal Jewish refugee who didn’t come to our area, but rather to Kansas. His name was August Bondi. Bringing to America his socially liberal values, August Bondi rode with the abolitionist John Brown, only to break with Brown for ethical reasons after the Potowatamy Massacre. Later, he would earn the Congressional Medal of Honor while serving the Union during the Civil War. He earned that honor by risking his life to bring wounded soldiers from both sides off of the battlefield and to safety. Hart Bondi, Greg Schermer, and their children, are his direct descendants. Those early German Jews who settled here, while maybe not as heroic as August Bondi, most certainly shared with him their motivation for coming to this country and their vision of what America should be.

So on Wednesday evening September 4, 1861 – Erev Rosh Hashanah, 5622 – our congregation held its first High Holy Day service. They had no building. They had no rabbi. So the services were led by a knowledgeable Jew by the name of Max Feder. Shortly after that, on October 21, 1861, they formally voted Congregation B’nai Israel into existence.

That’s right, Congregation B’nai Israel. That was, until recently, our original and official name. So where does the name Temple Emanuel come from? Back in 1885, we finally erected our first synagogue building. It was on Ripley Street, between 4th and 5th Avenues. At that time, belonging to our congregation was a very wealthy family by the name of Rothschild. In exchange for a major donation to the building fund, the congregation agreed to name the building after the patriarch of that family, Moses Emanuel Rothschild, who had recently passed away. So originally it was our building which was called Temple Emanuel, but with the passage of time, it was that name that stuck.

So our congregation came into being. Our first Board President was Isaac Berneis, and initially membership dues were a whopping $5.00 a year. Until we built that building in 1885, we rented space in which to meet, our first being a third floor room in a building at 3rd & Perry.

It was not until 1875 that our congregation acquired the services of a rabbi. Our first rabbi was Rabbi Isaac Fall. He served our congregation until 1890, which made him the longest serving rabbi of our congregation until yours truly. He is also the only rabbi buried in Mt. Nebo Cemetery. As part of our anniversary celebration, next October we will be holding a special ceremony at his grave. That ceremony, researched by the Cantor, is called a Hilu La Ceremony.

You might find this hard to believe, but Rabbi Fall was an Orthodox rabbi. That is not as strange as it might seem, considering the fact that in 1875 we were an Orthodox congregation. Granted, we were a liberal Orthodox congregation, but we were Orthodox nonetheless. But even at that time, we were seriously considering change. The Union of American Hebrew Congregations – which today we call the Union for Reform Judaism – the official North American organization of Reform congregations, was founded in 1873. Whether or not our congregation should join it, leave Orthodoxy and officially become a Reform congregation, was the subject of heated debate. It was not until 1879 that we decided to make that move. But even as the congregation voted to join the Reform movement, the president of our congregation at that time, John Ochs – you may have seen the Ochs mausoleum in our cemetery – resigned his post as president because of it.

Nor did the struggle over our Reform identity end with that vote. It went on for many years, painfully dividing our congregation. The planning of the dedication ceremony for our first building was embraced by the proponents of Reform as an opportunity to bring the practices of our congregation closer to their way of thinking. It was in that spirit that the Board voted that no hats were to be worn during the ceremony. They also invited a rabbi from Chicago to deliver the main address, in English. You have to understand. Up until that point, only Hebrew and German were spoken on our bimah. With this act, they introduced the use of English into our service. Later, in August of 1889, the Board voted to affirm the decision of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, to include the counting of women in the minyan.

It should be noted that through all of this, Rabbi Fall tried to be responsive to all his congregants. As an Orthodox rabbi, he demonstrated himself to be extremely flexible and open to the changes proposed by the proponents of Reform. But he was walking a tight rope, with some finding him too open to change and others finding him not open enough to change. Finally, in August of 1890, the Board released him and turned around, engaging the services of their first rabbi who was a graduate of the Hebrew Union College.

Rabbi Samuel Freuder was ordained from the Hebrew Union College in 1886. He came to our community, having previously served a congregation in San Diego. However, his tenure at Temple Emanuel was short lived. He was a living example of the caution, “Beware lest you get what you asked for.” The congregation felt that they wanted someone more progressive than Rabbi Fall, and in Rabbi Freuder they found him. However, Rabbi Freuder went too far in the other direction. As one chronicler put it, whatever was forbidden, he considered permitted. The dissatisfaction with him was so great that in July of 1891, the Board released him. However, you could imagine their dismay when the local newspaper published an article in which Rabbi Freuder announced that he had resigned and was renouncing the Jewish faith altogether.

In our lobby, you will find a handwritten letter to our congregation from Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, the father of American Reform Judaism; the founding president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the founding president of the Hebrew Union College, and the founding president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. In it he expressed his apologies for not being able to provide us with a student rabbi to conduct our High Holy Day services, but recommended that we contact an unemployed rabbi living in New York. On the surface, this is a very disappointing letter. Indeed, when Joan McGee found that letter in our records, as she was organizing our 125th anniversary celebration, her comment was, “Damned Union! Didn’t do anything for us then and is still not doing anything for us!” However, you have to look at the date – September 12, 1891 – and understand it in our historical context. For obviously, it was after our congregation went through this trauma with Rabbi Freuder, and probably conducted an unsuccessful rabbinic search, that we applied to the Hebrew Union College for a student rabbi for the holy days. But by then, it was too late. All the students had High Holy Day pulpits. This was but another manifestation of how I congregation suffered in the wake of its struggle over its Jewish identity.

That struggle would continue for quite some time, only ultimately finding resolution during the rabbinate of William Fineshriber. Rabbi Fineshriber, a graduate of the Hebrew Union College, came to our community in 1900. It was through his efforts that the old wounds were ultimately healed and it was under his leadership that we finally established ourselves solidly as a Reform congregation, with the formal conclusion of the struggle being our adoption, in 1902, of the UNION PRAYER BOOK, a prayer book which we would worship from, in its various incarnations, until, in the mid 1970’s, when we adopted GATES OF PRAYER, the prayer book which replaced the UNION PRAYER BOOK as the worship text of Reform Judaism.

It was also through Rabbi Fineshriber’s efforts that our congregation seriously embarked upon its mission to pursue social justice causes and to become a voice and a presence for social justice in this community; a mission which we still pursue today, as earlier this evening I testified to, as I called upon you to support our hunger relief efforts. It is not surprising that it was through Rabbi Fineshriber’s social justice efforts that our congregation came to assume a new position of esteem and respect in the eyes of our general community; a position we still hold today, in good part due to our Tikkun Olam efforts.

I share with you these tidbits from the early history of our congregation because we need to know our past in order to appreciate our present and to start to build for our future. History, whether it be world history or American history or Jewish history or the history of our congregation, is not made up of quantum independent moments in time. Rather, it is linear; it is cumulative. Our ancient rabbis understood this all too well when they coined the concept of “Shalshelet HaKabbalah – the Chain of Tradition.” What we are today is due in great part to the gifts bequeathed to us by those who came before us. What comprises the future will be due in great part to the gifts we pass on to those who come after us. Today, we stand as one moment in time along the time line of Temple Emanuel. So much of what we are today as a congregation, whether we realize it or not, is great part owing to those who came before us. What will happen to this congregation, and this Jewish community, in the future, will be due, in great part, to the decisions we make and the actions we take; we, our generation of Temple Emanuelites.

For the first 40 years of its existence, our congregation struggled desperately with issues of its Jewish identity. Should we be a Reform congregation? What does it mean to be a Reform congregation? How much change is not enough? How much change is too much?

Struggling with our Jewish identity as a congregation is not new to this congregation. In fact, it is a very old story as far as Temple Emanuel is concerned. But from that story we must learn important lessons.

Lesson Number One: Openness to change is an intrinsic part of the nature of this congregation, as it is an intrinsic part of the nature of Reform Judaism itself. We should not be afraid of change but neither should we embrace it blindly. Change can be good, but only when it is purposeful and thoughtfully arrived at. Every possible change must be evaluated on its own merits. Is this a change for the good? Will this serve to advance our goal of being a contemporary meaningful expression of Judaism for our congregants? Will this change serve us for the good in the long run, or only in the short run? Will this change stand the test of time? Where will it take us ten years down the road? Twenty years down the road? A hundred & fifty years down the road? On the other hand, are our ties to the past founded upon the innate values of the past or only because the past is comfortable while change is disconcerting? The changes we make today, and the changes we choose not to make today, are the legacies we leave for tomorrow. Before we make them or don’t make them, we need to honestly ask ourselves whether or not this is what we wish to be remembered for.

Lesson Number Two: As the philosopher George Santayana once said, “Those who fail to learn from the past are condemned to repeat it.” The early history of our congregation was a very difficult history – a very painful history – because of the ways in which we dealt with, or failed to deal with successfully, the issues of change. It was a history filled with conflict and controversy. Too many people drew lines. Too many people took sides. As my mother, of blessed memory, was fond of saying, “You can disagree without being disagreeable.” It would appear that our Temple Emanuel forebears did not always appear to grasp that concept, and as a result, the congregation as a whole suffered.

Today, we, too, struggle with questions of change, both within the current life of our congregation, and especially as we consider the possibility of merger with the Tri City Jewish Center. The changes we are considering, and the decisions we will make about them, will most certainly impact the future of this congregation; the next 150 years of Temple Emanuel, or whatever it is we become if we decide to merge. As we grapple with these issues of change, we constantly need to ask ourselves two questions: (1) By making these changes, can we honestly claim that we are remaining true to our past, to our heritage? And (2) By making these changes, can we honestly claim that these are the legacies we wish to bequeath to our children and those who come after us?

As we go about our business, considering the future – the next 150 years – we need to constantly remind ourselves that we can disagree without being disagreeable. We can understand that others hold viewpoints which may differ from ours; viewpoints which may differ greatly from ours. Yet just because they differ from us does not mean that they are wrong. Each and every one of us holds the future of this congregation gently and lovingly within our hearts, within our minds, and within our hands. We all strive to do what we think will be best for our congregation and for its future. Though we may differ on approach, we do not differ on intent. And we need to respect that. We need to respect that though someone may disagree with us, they do so honestly and they do so lovingly when it comes to the Temple. Therefore, even though we may disagree, we need to maintain a respectful dialogue. We need to truly listen to each other; not just listen for the points we can dispute, but listen in order that we can come to understand where each of us is coming from. For only when we develop that groundwork of respectful understanding, can we build from that a successful compromise; a successful consensus; a successful meeting of the minds. And it is in that meeting of the minds that we will find the strongest future for Temple Emanuel. I do not know what that future will be. No one does. But let us explore it together.