Rosh Hashanah Morning Sermon
1 Tishri, 5771- September 9, 2010
Shana Tova! It is so good to see you again on this first day of our new year 5,771. It may be hard to believe, but this is our twelfth Rosh Hashanah together. Our marriage as rabbi and congregation has continued to grow and prosper as we become more and more intertwined with one another. Together we have celebrated many simchas and shared much sadness. We have marked life’s sacred moments and studied and learned together. In a world of tumultuous change, Oheb Shalom has always been known for its stability. There has been, in recent years, tremendous turnover among the Baltimore rabbinate. There has been so much change that I am now among the longest tenured rabbis in Baltimore. It seems that this year in particular, our stability and reputation are reaping benefits. Going into this membership year, we have gained fifty new families and fifty five new religious school students while losing very few. We, thankfully, are on an upward trajectory.
This is the first of five sermons I will deliver over these Yamim Noraim, these Days of Awe. There is so much to discuss with you. Two of my sermons are for the Yizkor and Memorial Services. On Erev Yom Kippur my sermon is entitled “The Password to Happiness.” The Yom Kippur morning sermon asks the question, “Why do We Keep Secrets?” Before we launch this morning’s topic, I heard this true story which I must recount to you.
It seems that Yeshiva University decided to field a crew team. They practiced for hours, rowing day after day in the Hudson River. They tried their hardest but lost every race, never managing more than a last place finish. Rabbi Goldberg, the team’s coach, decided he had to take drastic action. He decided to send one of the rowers, Avi, to spy on the Harvard team. So Avi shlepped to Cambridge and like Moses’ sister, Miriam, hid in the bulrushes as he watched the Harvard team as they practiced. After observing an entire practice, he had learned enough to return to New York. “I have figured out their secret,” he announced. “What is it?” they all wanted to know. “We should have eight guys rowing and only one guy shouting.”
It seems that all Americans do these days is shout at each other. There is very little serious debate about important issues. The great political center of American life either has disappeared or is incredibly silent. Demagogues of either extreme dominate political life and think that the louder they shout and the more extreme their positions, the greater the number of people who will be attracted to their cause. It is very difficult to have a civil discussion without name calling. Facts seem to be irrelevant in political life. What appalls me the most about modern American life is the absolute ignorance that pervades American culture. Not only are many Americans unwilling to listen to those with whom they disagree, they are unwilling to learn anything that might cause them to question their beliefs. That is exactly what their ignorance has become- a religious belief, a dogma, which bears little resemblance to reality. An example- 40% of the American public believe that President Obama is a Muslim. Absolutely nothing will cause them to abandon this thought. Whatever we think of President Obama and his policies, he is not a Muslim. Similarly, there are those who still believe that climate change is a myth, that astronauts never landed on the moon, and that the destruction of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon was caused by the Federal government and the Jews.
I am disturbed by the rally that took place on the Mall in Washington, D.C., two weeks ago. Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin held a quasi-religious revival meeting that attracted anywhere from 100,000 to 1,000,000 people. This Tea Party rally reminded me of another quasi-religious revivalist movement in America. In the 1850’s there was a political party in this country called the Know Nothing Party. It was anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, anti-Black, anti-Jewish, and anti-anything that was new and different. You should be proud to know that the Know Nothing Party’s presidential candidate, Millard Fillmore, carried just one state, Maryland, in the 1856 election before the party disintegrated. There are a large number of Americans who would be proud to belong to the Know Nothing Party. Any knowledge contrary to their religious beliefs is irrelevant to their point of view. Much of the opposition to building a Muslim community center a few blocks from Ground Zero in New York is found in this old American antipathy for those who are different. For much of American history, it was the black, the Jew, and the Catholic who inspired fear. Today it is the Muslim.
It is hard to find a Jew in the Tea Party. We do not fit in religiously or culturally. But what concerns me even more than the sheer ignorance of so many of its members is the grossly individualistic, anti-government philosophy of those who belong to the Tea Party. Tea Party advocates reject the concept of shared responsibility, that idea that we have an obligation to care for the poor and dispossessed among us. “We made it by ourselves without any help and so should they. Government is just an impediment to our success.” This is exceedingly troubling to me as a rabbi and as a Jew. This, for me, is not about politics or economics. It is not about limited government or expansive government. It is about what it means to live a Jewish life and be a religious Jew.
We just read the Akedat Yizchak, the binding of Isaac, in which Abraham, the first Jew, rejects the normative concept of his age, that God wants human sacrifice. Abraham, a model for us, is an iconoclast. He offers hospitality to strangers, welcomes all into his tent, and even argues with God. Abraham feels a responsibility for all people, even those whom he may find detestable. He challenges God, saying that He should not destroy Sodom and Gemorrah. There may, in the midst of the mob, be good people there who should not be killed. Abraham forced God to act and at least try to find a minimum of good people in these cities. That there were none is incidental. Abraham felt a responsibility not only for his own, but for all humanity.
At the heart of Jewish life is the concept that all Jews are responsible for one another. This has been with us since biblical times. Throughout history we have redeemed Jewish captives, provided dowries for needy Jewish brides, fed the Jewish hungry, supported the Jewish poor, and healed the Jewish sick. What is less well known is that our obligation extends to the entire community. When it comes to helping others, we do not discriminate. Our sages tell us we help non-Jews as we help Jews for Darchei Shalom, “for the sake of peace.” We feed the non-Jewish poor and bury the non-Jewish dead just as we do our own. While one takes care of family first, the obligation to care for the poor and dispossessed is at the heart of the Jewish Tradition.
Today we celebrate Yom Harat Olam, the birthday of the world. While we do not believe that the world is literally 5,771 years old we do believe, in consonance with science, that God is the ultimate Creator of the universe. Tomorrow morning’s Torah portion begins, “When God began to create the heavens and the earth…” The beginning of the Book of Genesis affirms what is for me the essence of Judaism, the theology by which I live my life as a Jewish human being. This verse tells us that the process of creation that God began is never over. Creation is an ongoing process in which we are God’s partners. God gives us the ability to free the captives, heal the sick, and feed the hungry. God gives us the responsibility to repair our world.
Rabbi Isaac Luria of Tsfat wrote about the concept of Tikun Olam in the sixteenth century. Responding to the despair of the Spanish exile, Rabbi Luria, called the Ari or Lion because of his brilliance, connected Jewish mysticism and Jewish ethics in an unprecedented manner. His teaching gave each Jew’s life meaning and purpose. Luria taught that before creation, God was everywhere. God literally filled all space. When God self-contracted in order to create the universe, there was a shattering of matter (shevirah) into billions and billions of shards. The shards exist without access to Divine light. Luria said that every time a Jew performs a mitzvah, each time we perform a righteous act, we raise one of the shards from darkness and bring it to the Divine Light. Let me give you an example. Imagine you have a fine china cup in your hand. It falls and shatters into countless pieces on your tile floor. You and your friends spend hours picking up each shard, using Crazy Glue and eventually making the cup whole. The Ari taught that through our collective action, we repair the world, one shard at a time. Individually and collectively, we make the world a better place by serving as partners with God in the ongoing process of ordering the world.
This is how we should live our lives. We are responsible not just for our own personal betterment but for repairing the world. In contrast to the Tea Party’s philosophy of selfishness, Judaism teaches that we are obligated to do our best to heal the hurt in our communities, our nation, and the very world itself. While our first obligation is to help fellow Jews, our duty does not end there. Avraham Avinu argued with God to save even those he did not like. We are commanded, to the best of our abilities, to help all those in need.
On this New Year of 5,771 we ask God to help us be true to the ideals of our faith. We ask God to give us the ability to delve into the darkness and lift up one shard at a time, enabling us to engage in Tikun Olam, the repair of the world. We should be more like Avraham Avinu who refused to embrace the prevailing sentiment of his time and even challenged the morality of his God. It is never easy to be a righteous human being. Today we ask God for the strength to rededicate ourselves as partners with God in the ongoing creation of the world. Let each one of us lift up as many shards as we can during this year and bring them to the light.
May you and yours be blessed with a year of health, purpose, and fulfillment,