This is the Day of Awe, our most serious and introspective day, when we stand alone before God in the midst of our congregation, promising to change and asking for forgiveness. This does not mean, however, that we are not allowed to laugh. Let me tell you a story:
Samuel Cohen was the oldest of seven children who lived on Lombard Street in Baltimore. Unfortunately, he had to leave City College early and go to work to help support his younger brothers and sisters. So Samuel never learned to read.
Years later when he married and opened a bank account, he signed his checks just “XX”.
Samuel then started his own tailoring business in Pikesville, which soon prospered. He became a very rich man.
One Thursday, he got a call from his bank, ‘Mr. Cohen, I wanted to ask you about this check. We weren’t sure you had really signed it. All these years, you’ve been signing your checks, “XX”; this one is signed with three X’s………’
Samuel sighed, “Since I’ve become rich, my wife thought I should have a middle name.
Samuel Cohen is a perfect example of who we are and what we have become. Just three or four generations separate us from our immigrant grandparents and great-grandparents who worked very hard and sacrificed so that their children could go to school and become Americans. Their children and grandchildren prospered in this new country, making us the most successful ethno-religious group in the United States and the wealthiest Jewish community in history. That doesn’t mean that all of us have prospered. There are many poor Jews, especially since the beginning of the Great Recession in 2007. Yet most of us, despite economic setbacks, are pretty comfortable. For us, sacrifice means not taking a vacation every year, not getting a new car or postponing our cosmetic surgery. This does not mean that life is easy. We still worry about money and are insecure about our employment. We do not spend enough time at home and work too hard. Despite our angst, the majority of us are college educated, live in nice homes, and enjoy some material pleasures. It is not just the older generation who is doing well. If you haven’t been here on a Sunday morning when religious school is in session, you should see the kind of cars that pull up to drop off our kids. Half of our children go to private school and half to public schools, the best ones in Baltimore and Howard Counties. By any standard of measurement, we are doing well and I thank God for that. I am incredibly thankful that my grandparents came to this country so that we could have the opportunities we do. We can live freely as Jews without fear of persecution. We have achieved the American dream. While it is harder today for our children then it was for us, compared to most in this country, they will do well.
My concern today is that for many Americans today, the American Dream is unattainable. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, the American Dream meant that anyone who worked hard and was a good citizen could own a home and have a decent life in this country. It was this idea that brought our ancestors here and still attracts millions of immigrants to our country every day. Yet most Americans will not be able to achieve this standard of living- and more and more are being left behind every day.
We have become the most economically stratified country in the world. A few of us here today may be in the top 1% of all Americans in terms of wealth. Most of us are in the top 5 and certainly the top 10% in terms of income. The middle class, however, is not growing. It is shrinking! The economic gap between the social classes in this country is becoming enormous and is perceived by those at the bottom to be unbridgeable. It is this last statement that is most troubling for if so, it means the American Dream, that which inspired our ancestors and still propels us to success, is dead for the majority of Americans.
We do not have to go far to witness the despair that envelopes so many in Baltimore. Just drive a few miles south on Park Heights Avenue or Reisterstown Road and we enter a different world, one plagued by crime, drugs, and hopelessness. Thousands of Baltimoreans have no hope that their children will break out of the cycle of poverty in which they live. They believe, with some merit, that if their children are born into poverty, they will die in poverty. They have little towards which to aspire, except for a short and hard life.
Writing in Politico, Doug Sosnik assessed what he called a decade of anger and disaffection. He said, “At the core of American’s anger and alienation is the belief that the American Dream is no longer attainable. For the first time in our country’s history, there is more social mobility in Europe than in the United States.” Our middle class, which had long been the world’s most affluent, no longer is. We have been overtaken by Canada. America’s rank on a social progress index of 132 countries has us at 39th in basic education¸ 34th in access to water and sanitation and 16th overall, just two spots ahead of Slovenia!”
For us and so many others, education has been the key to economic advancement. “The gap between the wages of a family of two college graduates and that of two high school graduates is $30,000 a year…American workers with a college degree are paid 74% more than those with only a high school degree, on average, nearly the biggest premium in the industrialized world.” The United States used to lead the world in educational equality. Not anymore. Among 25-34 year olds, only 20% of men and 27% of women have achieved a higher level of education than their parents. It is even bleaker at the bottom: Only one in twenty Americans aged 25-34 whose parents didn’t finish high school has a college degree. In most industrialized countries, the average is one in four!” Unless we vastly improve public education for the poorest of our children and help them break out of the cycle of poverty, America will become more and more stratified into a nation of rich and poor.
A strong middle class has been America’s greatest strength. Without giving those at the bottom rung of society a real chance to move upwards, our country is in real trouble. That is one of the reasons why I am so committed to making life better for all people in Baltimore. I want to give as many children as possible a chance to achieve the American Dream, to make something of them, and not end up as just another statistic in the crime reports. Too many of our children, and make no mistake, they are all our children, see their lives as dead ends. They are born poor and will die poor, living in cockroach infested housing, working for the minimum wage, and dying at a young age. We know what happens when anger and frustration build up in the inner city. Baltimore is still recovering from the riots of 1968. What will happen when thousands of people, many of them just wanting a chance for a better life, become so angry they take out their frustrations on those whom they view as an impediment to their having one?
Dear friends, our Torah portion for this morning speaks to us of choices, choices we make every day, for life or death, blessing or curse. We have a choice to make and we should make it today. Will we stick our heads in the proverbial sand and allow these trends to continue or will we do our very best to change our community’s priorities? Will we try our best to lower the impediments to social and economic advancement or will our country become a place for the rich and the poor with few in between?
Let me assure you that I am not naïve. I know there will always be poor people and that some will always struggle. The rabbis of the Talmud said that until the Messiah came there hunger, poverty and oppression. Yet that does not give us an excuse not to try to make Baltimore a more livable and more humane city.
I encouraged our congregation to join BUILD last year, Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, so that we could join with like minded people, members of churches and schools throughout our city, to be part of ongoing work. BUILD has been around for almost forty years- and we are the first and only synagogue to be part of it. BUILD is a community action organization. It is dedicated to creating relationships that will change the power dynamic in our city. Over the years, BUILD has brought after school care to the city schools, has made possible the creation of hundreds of new homes, and helped steer the $1 Billion bond program through the State legislature that will renovate and rebuild over thirty Baltimore schools. If the cycle of poverty will ever be broken, if Jewish families ever want to buy home once again in Baltimore City, we have to start with the schools. If Baltimore gets quality schools, then families will stay in the city, neighborhoods will be more stable and prosperous, jobs will be created, and the American Dream will become reachable for the next generation.
I would like each of us to donate a few hours every month, just a few hours, to make life better for others in our city. In Hebrew, the word for volunteerism is hitnavdut. It comes from the root nun-dalet-vet which means “free will offering.” Giving to others is literally a gift of our hearts. We can work provide meals for the residents of the Ronald McDonald House through Oheb Shalom. Just contact Shelle Schnell, our vice president of Tikkun Olam. Shelle also co-chairs Isaiah 61, our task force with Bethel AME that works on improving the lives of the residents of Upton, one of the most impoverished neighborhoods in the city. Shelle, will you please stand up so everyone can see you?
I just mentioned Tikkun Olam. These two words mean “Repair the world.” This is more than just a phrase. Tikkun Olam is a Kabbalistic concept that is at the heart of my Jewish belief and identity. The idea was most profoundly taught by the Ari, Rabbi Isaac Luria, who lived four hundred years ago in Sfat. It is at the center of Lurianic Kabbalah. No one has described this concept better than master of Jewish storytelling, Howard Schwartz:
“At the beginning of time, God’s presence filled the universe. When God decided to bring this world into being, to make room for creation, He first drew in His breath, contracting himself. From that contraction darkness was created. When God said, “Let there be light,” the light that came into being filled the darkness. Ten holy vessels came forth, each filled with primordial light.
In this way, God sent forth those ten vessels, like a fleet of ships, each carrying its cargo of light. Had they all arrived intact, the world would have been perfect. But the vessels were too fragile to contain such a powerful divine light. They broke open, split asunder, and all the holy sparks were scattered like sand, like seeds, like stars. Those sparks fell everywhere, but more fell on the holy land of Israel than anywhere else.
That is why we were created, to gather the sparks, no matter where they are hidden. God created the world so that the descendants of Jacob could raise up the holy sparks. That is why there have been so many exiles, to release the holy sparks from the servitude of captivity. In this way, the Jewish people will sift all the holy sparks from the four corners of the earth.
When enough holy sparks have been gathered, the broken vessels will be restored, and Tikkun Olam, the repair of the world, awaited so long, will finally be complete. Therefore it should be the aim of everyone to raise these sparks from wherever they are imprisoned and to elevate them to holiness by the power of their soul.”
Whenever we help another, perform a good deed, study Torah, and do a mitzvah, we gather another spark and restore it to the broken vessels. When we work together individually and communally, through the efforts of countless generations, eventually we will raise enough sparks to repair the world and bring forth the Messianic Age. That is what I believe. It gives meaning to my life as a human being and a Jew. It makes our existence worthwhile. It makes our work together as part of this greater community even more important.
So, my dearest friends, on this holiest day of the year, let us re-dedicate ourselves to Tikkun Olam, the repair of the world. Our lives, our city, and our very world depends upon it.
G’mar Chatimah Tovah,
May we be written and sealed in the Book of Life.
Frank Bruni, the NY Times, May 3, 2014.
Eduardo Porter, NY Times, September 10, 2014.