Shana Tova and welcome to the New Year of 5777. It may be hard to believe, but this is our eighteenth Rosh Hashanah together. Eighteen, of course, equals chai, “life.” Given that auspicious omen, I know this will be a very good year. In last night’s service, I spoke briefly about the meaning of the Hebrew letters, ayin and zayin, that equal seventy-seven. I said that when reversed they spell “za” which means to “move.” When doubled to “zaza,” the word means to “agitate.” This is the time to agitate our souls, to shake ourselves up and rebuild our relationship with God, our loved ones and our community. When we take another step into the mysterious world of Gematria by adding up 5+7+7+7, we find the numbers equal 26, which is the Hebrew equivalent for yud, hey, vav, hey, Adonai, the name of God. Is this just a coincidence? I doubt it. This year God wants us to shake up our souls and to become agitators in our community and our country. Before I go on, I have a story to tell.
Dan was a single guy living at home with his father and working in the family business. When he learned he would inherit a fortune when his elderly and ill father died, he decided he needed a wife with whom to share it. One evening, while attending an investment meeting, he spotted the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. Her natural beauty took his breath away. Mustering up his courage, he went up to her at the end of the meeting and said, “I may look like just an ordinary man, but in just a few years my father will die and I’ll inherit twenty million dollars.” Impressed, the beautiful woman obtained his business card and three days later became his step-mother. The moral of the story- women are so much better at estate planning than men.
Next month’s election will hinge on the questions, “What kind of country do we want to leave to our children and grandchildren.” This has been the most heated and ugly campaign in living memory. Our country has become so polarized between right and left that it is difficult to have a civil conversation with someone of the opposite party. Republicans and Democrats used to be able to work across the aisle to create compromise and pass legislation. This rarely happens anymore. The distrust, rancor and viciousness between the two sides make it virtually impossible to solve the manifold problems which face us.
The Internal Revenue Service says I am not allowed to endorse candidates. I will not do so from this pulpit. I must, however, speak about values and vision. If I did not, I would be abdicating my responsibility as your rabbi. My values, our Jewish values, come from our earliest texts, the Torah and the Prophets. Throughout the Torah, God tells the Jewish people to care for the widow and the orphan, to welcome the stranger, and to treat all, rich and poor with due justice. The prophet Isaiah (58:6) calls to us “to unlock the fetters of wickedness and untie the cords of the yoke, to share your bread with the hungry and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to cloth him and not to ignore your own kin.” The prophet Jeremiah said (7:5), “If you mend your ways and your actions, if you execute justice between one man and another; if you do not oppress the stranger, the orphan, and the widow; if you do not shed the blood of the innocent in this place, only then will I allow you to dwell in this land.” Lastly, the prophet Amos preached (5: 14, 24), “Hate evil and love good, establish justice in the gate…I will pay no heed to your gifts of fatlings, spare me the sound of your hymns, but let justice well up as water and righteousness fall like an everlasting stream.”
My values have shaped my vision for the United States of America. I believe that a great country should live up to the ideals it espouses. Our country has never lived up to the ideals expressed in our founding documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Our country is continually striving for greatness, endeavoring to live up to the ideals of liberty, equality and justice for all. Over the 240 years of our existence as a nation, we have become more inclusive, extending equal rights to ever more of our citizens. The dream of American greatness has not yet been achieved. It is up to us to make American great.
The Civil War ended just 151 years ago. We are still reeling from the legacy of slavery, racism and Jim Crow. While Jews have faced discrimination in America, today our children rarely suffer because they are Jewish. It is still very hard to be black in America. It is especially difficult to grow up poor and black in an inner city neighborhood. Racism is still rampant in America. While we have recently extended the right to marry to gays and lesbians, transgender people still face discrimination. Some want to exclude immigrants from this country. I can attest that Baltimore is better off because of the Latin American immigrants who are living and working in our city. As a nation, I strongly believe that we have the moral mandate to eliminate that which impedes our citizens from actualizing their potential, from achieving their best, and for providing for themselves and their families. Every American should have enough healthy food to eat, have decent housing, access to health care, and be entitled to an adequate education.
Just two weeks ago, Ubaldo Jimenez, a starting pitcher for the Orioles, became an American citizen. He worked his way through the system, holding legal residence for five years, passing a rigorous review process and taking a very difficult test on knowledge of U.S. history as well as being proficient in English. He said, “I’ve been part of this country since I was 19 and this country has given me the opportunity to be a better person, not only for me, but for my family. Because of the opportunities this country has given me, I’ve been able to help a lot of people.”[i] Of course, the $50 million the Orioles are paying him over four years helps a lot, but Jimenez said what most people who come here think- this is the best place to live in the entire world.
Contrary to some opinions, the United States is not heading to national ruin. We are not steps away from becoming a dystopian society, like in the movies Mad Max or Blade Runner. Our country has sound fundamentals. “The American dollar is by far the world’s currency. The FDA is the benchmark for medical standards. The American patent system is the most important in the world. Nine of Forbes’ ten most valuable brands are American. We are the world’s leading energy producer and have at least fifteen of the world’s top twenty universities…Some American industries have declined but others are rising. We excel in global trade.”[ii] We have the finest medical care in the world. Patients come to our hospitals from all over the world. More Americans have health insurance than ever before. The economy is improving. Home sales are up to 2008 levels and real wages are up for the first time since the beginning of the Great Recession. Nationally, violent crime is at its lowest level in over fifty years. Millennials and baby boomers alike are flocking to the cities. Our country has deep problems but the “biggest threat now is unmerited pessimism and the stupid and fearful choices that inevitably flow from it.”[iii]
NY Times columnist Tom Friedman said it best when he wrote shortly after September 11, 2001, “American power and wealth flow directly from a deep spiritual source- a spirit of respect for the individual, a spirit of tolerance for differences of faith or politics, a respect for freedom of thought as the necessary foundation for all creativity and a spirit of unity that encompasses all kinds of differences. Only a society with a deep spiritual energy, that welcomes immigrants and worships freedom, could constantly renew itself and its sources of power and wealth…Lord knows, ours is hardly a perfect country. Many times have we deviated from the American spirit or applied it selfishly. But it is because we come back to this spirit more times than not that our country remains both strong and renewable.”
All four of my grandparents came to this country from what is now Lithuania and the Ukraine. They came for the opportunity to have a better life, to live freely as Jews in a free land. They wanted to give their children opportunities they could never have if they stayed in the Old Country. It is actually quite amazing that all of my grandparents’ grandchildren and great-grandchildren are college graduates. This country allowed those who worked hard to move up the societal ladder. We want to ensure that all Americans have this same chance today.
Allow me to share a personal story with you. During my junior year of college, I studied at the University of Lancaster in England. In those days, debate was a very popular form of entertainment, so there was standing room only for this one entitled, “Resolved: Plymouth Rock should have landed on the Pilgrims.” This was, of course, supposed to be an indictment of American imperialism in the midst of the war in Vietnam. After the affirmative argued to great applause, a history professor, Dr. Michael Klein, rose to deliver the negative rebuttal. While I don’t remember every word, I will never forget the gist of what he said. He told us that his parents left Europe with nothing and came to the United States. They made their home in Miami where his father worked as a tailor. Their son excelled in school and went to university, earning his doctorate and attaining a tenured position at this university. Professor Klein stressed that only in the United States could an immigrant’s son, a Jew, not only go to university but earn a doctorate at a great university. Given the stratified class system, this could not have happened in England, France, Germany or anywhere else at that time. The United States gave him the opportunity to succeed and he made the most of it. After he spoke, the judges ruled the debate a tie. It was Professor Klein’s emotional story about the opportunity America gave his family that turned the tide.
I certainly do not want to dismiss the many problems we have as a nation. Our infrastructure is crumbling, the drug war is unwinnable, and our system of public education needs to be a national priority. Unemployment is rampant in the inner city and Baltimore’s murder rate is as high as ever. Racism is still an ever present issue. We have 3,000 children in the Baltimore City schools who go hungry if they do not eat at school. That is why our congregation is starting a “back pack” program, to fill back packs with food the kids can take home for the weekend. This, however, is just a band aid. We need real systemic change so children do not go hungry, so the mentally ill do not live in the streets, so being poor and black is not an impediment to social advancement. What did Isaiah say? “You must unlock the fetters of wickedness and untie the cords of the yoke, share your bread with the hungry and take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, cloth him and do not ignore your own kin.” There is so much to do and so little time. The prophets teach us that we must act and act now. As Rabbi Tarfon taught: “It is not your responsibility to finish the work [of perfecting the world], but you are not free to desist from it either” (Pirke Avot 2:16).
My dear friends, the America I love strives to live up to its ideals. The America I love welcomes immigrants, builds bridges and not walls between nations, supports the State of Israel and honors our treaty obligations. The America I love prepares its citizens to compete in the global economy and recognizes that climate change is our biggest challenge. The America I love protects the widow, orphan and stranger. The America I love is not anti-Muslim, homophobic, and misogynist. The America I love gives opportunity to those who work hard. It does not reward those who profit from bankruptcies and dishonest and disingenuous business practices. No, my friends, I cannot endorse a candidate, but one of them is better equipped to create the America I envision. You can figure out the rest.
In this year of 5777, the year in which God wants us to shake things up and agitate for the good, we should not contribute to the cesspool of ridicule and hate in the political airwaves. If good people on both sides of the aisle can learn to compromise, we may be able to reach agreement on the unfinished business that we face as a nation. Then, we pray, America will become the great nation for which we yearn.
Kein y’hi ratson, may it be God’s will, and let us say: Amen
[i] Baltimore Sun, September 14, 2016.
[ii] David Brooks, NY Times, August 22, 2016.