Rosh Hashanah Morning Sermon
1 Tishri, 5778 – September 21, 2017
Shana Tova! Welcome to Temple Oheb Shalom as we mark the beginning of the year 5778. Sally and I personally wish you and yours a healthy, happy and sweet New Year for us, our families, the Jewish people and the all humanity. This is our nineteenth Rosh HaShanah together. We have lived through these last two tumultuous decades. There are many who are missing, no longer sitting in their regular seats. We miss them and mourn for them. Their stories are part of our greater congregational story that began 164 years ago in downtown Baltimore. We have changed so much since then and will continue to change, for that is one of the most important messages of Rosh HaShanah. We must continue to evolve and grow in order to survive and thrive. Despite the imperative to change, so many of us resist it. Let me tell you a story that illustrates this fact.
A man was walking through an elephant camp, and he spotted that the elephants weren’t being kept in cages or held by the use of chains. All that was holding them back from escaping the camp, was a small piece of rope tied to one of their legs. As the man gazed upon the elephants, he was completely confused as to why the elephants didn’t just use their strength to break the rope and escape the camp. They could easily have done so, but instead they didn’t try to at all. Curious and wanting to know the answer, he asked a trainer nearby why the elephants were just standing there and never tried to escape. The trainer replied: “WHEN THEY ARE VERY YOUNG AND MUCH SMALLER WE USE THE SAME SIZE ROPE TO TIE THEM AND, AT THAT AGE, IT’S ENOUGH TO HOLD THEM. AS THEY GROW UP, THEY ARE CONDITIONED TO BELIEVE THEY CANNOT BREAK AWAY. THEY BELIEVE THE ROPE CAN STILL HOLD THEM, SO THEY NEVER TRY TO BREAK FREE.” The only reason that the elephants weren’t breaking free and escaping from the camp was because over time they adopted the belief that it just wasn’t possible.
Like the elephants, so many of us believe that change is too difficult, that we are too old to change or too set in our ways. I assure you that it is never too late to evolve and thrive. We continue to grow until the moment we die. We can change our behavior and free ourselves from old habits and conditioning. That is the essential message of these High Holydays and this Rosh Hashanah.
This country has experienced so much change over this last year. It has become apparent to practically everyone that Donald Trump is unfit to be President of the United States. We are fortunate that the constitutional system of checks and balances seems to be working and that our government has not descended into chaos. Mr. Trump reached a new low just a month ago in his remarks about Charlottesville, when he said there was a moral equivalency between neo-Nazis and the majority of good people who marched against them. There are no good people who march with Nazis. Neo-Nazis, White Supremacists, Klu Klux Klansmen and other hate mongers are, by definition, evil. It is amazing to me that Mr. Trump could find goodness among the same people who would, without batting an eye, throw his Jewish grandchildren into the ovens. Services were being held on Shabbat morning in our sister synagogue in Charlottesville when worshippers heard shouts of “Sieg Heil!” “There’s the synagogue” and “Don’t let the Jews replace us!” Many went out to see white men carrying flags with swastikas and several dressed in fatigues and carrying semi-automatic rifles standing across the street from the synagogue. Later that day, a clean cut young man plowed his car into peaceful protestors and killed an innocent young woman. The leadership of the synagogue took the precaution of removing their Torahs, including the Holocaust scroll, from their ark.
It is hard to believe that these scenes were not from Kristallnacht in 1938 Germany but the United States in 2017. We have always known the danger that White Supremacists presented but, after being given tacit approval by the President of the United States, never have they been so emboldened. The leaders of the Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist rabbinical associations have refused to hold the usual pre-Rosh Hashanah call with the president this year saying “We have concluded that President Trump’s statements during and after the tragic events in Charlottesville are so lacking in moral leadership and empathy for the victims of racial and religious hatred that we cannot organize such a call this year.”[i]
The enemies of the Jewish people and for that matter, of the United States of American, come from three directions. There is real danger coming from the far right. Extremists in Europe have organized under the banner of political parties as they have in Greece, Hungary, and France. “In some cases, they lionize 20th century fascists, call for the registry of Jews, deny the Holocaust and rant about Jewish power and influence.” Their kindred spirits in the United States are the White Supremacists who pine for an America of “blood and soil,” a Nazi euphemism for the annihilation of all non-Northern European whites.[ii] The far left is our enemy as well. Many on the far left have a real problem with only one country on earth- Israel. They deny Israel the same right to exist they give to Albania, Botswana, and Laos. They ignore human rights violations in Syria, Venezuela, and North Korea concentrating only on aberrations in Israel. They would grant the Palestinians the right to self-determination but not grant it to Jews. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks said last year, “Antisemitism means denying the right of Jews to exist collectively as Jews with the same rights as everyone else. Anti-Semitism takes different forms but it remains the same thing: the view that Jews have no right to exist as free and equal human beings.”[iii] The greatest physical threat to Jews are the Islamic jihadists. “Every fatal attack against Jews in Europe in recent years has been carried out by Islamic extremists.”[iv] Islamic extremism has various manifestations in both Shia and Shiite varieties. Whether Hamas, ISIS, Al Qaeda, or Hezbollah, they all work for a world without Jews. Their patron, Iran, strives for a world without Israel. As my grandmother would say, “Es is schwer zu sein a Yid” or in English “It’s hard to be a Jew.”
The tragedy is we make it harder for ourselves. Sometimes we are our own worst enemies. There is, for example, little inter-action between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews in Baltimore. During the week we rent our religious school and modular units to Ohr Chadash Academy, an Orthodox day school. They are good tenants but for every assembly of any kind, they insist we set up chairs in the Blaustein Auditorium rather than meet in this Sanctuary or the Gordon Chapel. Why? Because to enter either space would acknowledge the authenticity of our expression of Judaism, something they fervently deny. Let me share a brief anecdote with you. Many years ago, Governor Ehrlich gave out the first homeland security grants to Jewish institutions in the Greenebaum Sanctuary. Every Orthodox rabbi in town was in here, waiting to receive his check. They walked right up to this bima to shake Governor Ehrlich’s hand and take the check. I leave the moral of the story up to you.
In January, 2016, the Netanyahu government entered into an agreement with the Jewish Agency, the Jewish Federations of North America, the Reform and Conservative movements, and Women of the Wall to create an egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel, the Western Wall, in Jerusalem. Just two months ago, the government yielded to the demands of the seventeen Orthodox members of the Knesset and annulled the agreement. Since then the religious police at the Kotel have inappropriately searched female Reform rabbinic students for allegedly hiding Torah scrolls under their skirts. The Supreme Court of Israel recently gave the government two weeks to come up with an acceptable solution to this egregious situation.
It is now public knowledge that Oheb Shalom and Har Sinai are “dating.” These two historic congregations are actively seeking merger. This is the fourth time during my tenure we have had these discussions but the first time they are really serious. Why now? Because we need each other. Har Sinai has about three hundred family units and we have about six hundred fifty. Not too many decades ago, we were both twice this size. We have lost members due to natural causes but primarily through apathy. Fewer Jews are joining synagogues and many are leaving after their children’s b’nei mitzvah. The affiliation rate in Baltimore for non-Orthodox Jews is appalling. Those of you who are sitting here today are the heroes. You are the heroes who are supporting our synagogues and ensuring the survival of our Jewish community.
It has been said that we are a “community of fate rather than a community of faith. Jews do feel a sense of shared history and common destiny…for us belonging has always been more important than believing.”[v] The irony here is that without synagogues, without the religious community we create and strengthen, the Jewish community would not, could not, exist. I hope the talks between Har Sinai and Oheb Shalom are successful. It will be good for Reform Judaism and for Reform Jews to have two dynamic and strong congregations in Northwest Baltimore. Let us not be like the elephants who refuse to break the ropes that shackle them to their past. We can, and should, change.
Dear friends, as we stand on the threshold of this New Year, 5778, we need to look outwards as well as inwards. We must stand up for those Americans who cannot stand up for themselves. We need to protect the children who are protected by DACA, to protest anti-Semitism, and to stand against racism. We will work with other minorities to protect American pluralism and diversity. America is not built upon blood and soil but upon the idea that all people are created equal and have equal protection and opportunity under our Constitution. We need to look inward as we strengthen our synagogues and Jewish institutions. In this morning’s Torah reading, Abraham said to God, “Hineni, Here I am.” Now is the time to for us to say, “Hineni.” I am standing up for all Americans and the American ideal. I am standing up for Reform Jewish values. We stand up for the stranger, orphan, and widow. We stand for the equality of all Jews.” Join me today in saying, “Hineni” as we begin this New Year.
Shana Tova Tikateivu
[i] NY Times, August 23, 2017
[ii] David Harris, AJC, September 4, 2017
[iii] Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, September 27, 2016.
[iv] David Harris, AJC, September 4, 2017.
[v] Rabbi Sid Schwarz, the Jewish Week, September 1, 2017.