Rabbi David Gelfand: Rosh Hashanah 5779
I have always loved being a rabbi. When I applied to rabbinic school, they ask you a question, or at least they used to. “What will you do if you don’t get in?” I told them the truth. I didn’t do what most of my classmates did; social work school, law school, academia. I told them the truth. I’d reapply. I didn’t need to do that, but the truth be told, these have been some of the most difficult times in which to be a rabbi and speak truth. And to speak honestly, as in many ways it feels as though the world is ablaze. And so I speak from the heart today as a rabbi, your rabbi, and think about the courage to be.
There have been many articles written, both in the Jewish and secular press in the last two weeks, about what is it that rabbis should or shouldn’t talk about. Dr. Stephen Wise, Rabbi Stephen Wise, in the late 1920s was offered the most prestigious pulpit in New York at that time that was open at Temple Emmanuel. The president of the congregation said, “We have a custom here. We read and censor the rabbi’s sermons.” Rabbi Wise went crosstown to the westside, started his own synagogue, called the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, and thumbed his nose at Temple Emmanuel by filling Carnegie Hall weekly. Their services didn’t fit at Stephen Wise Synagogue.
It is difficult to know how to respond when so many of our core values are threatened. When the Jewish people is polarized. When the state of Israel, which as I believe you know, I deeply and will always support, struggles with its own identity because of extremist politics and because of extremists.
So I thought I’d begin by telling you about two fires, but not the fires of today. About twenty years ago, as I was writing a sermon – not for the High Holidays, off season, as it were – I sat in my study in my synagogue, a beautiful all wooden structure in East Hampton. I heard some strange noises coming from the third floor custodian’s apartment above me and I did what I would normally do when I’m busy writing a sermon. I ignore everything around me. I even ignored the fire alarm that went off. After all, I was busy crafting words and thinking. Having not exited, someone timidly knocked on my door and then when I didn’t look up, walked right in and screamed at me, “Rabbi, it’s not a fire drill! Now!”
And as I exited my study, I smelled a lot of smoke and saw flames through the roof right above where I had been sitting. Within seconds, sirens blared. Within moments first responders came screeching to a halt as firefighters arrived from all the surrounding towns. It doesn’t happen very often except for summer traffic, but Route 27 stopped. The main thoroughfare was literally closed. I begged the fire responders to let me go back in with a few of them to get the Torah Scrolls. They said, “We can’t do that.”
Finally, the chief showed up. I said to him, “There’s a strange closet in the front up on the alter. Do you understand what I’m telling you? And people have died to get those scrolls out.” And he looked at me and said, “Not you, Rabbi.” They grabbed a couple of ambulance stretchers and in full gear, with smoke masks on, went in and got them out. The wind died down. The beautiful cedar shingles soaked up the water like sponges and within half an hour, it was out.
So when rabbis see things like that, other than thanking the over 150 firefighters who showed up from seven different towns, what do you do? You think in Jewish terms. And I thought, there must be some story about fires in Jewish tradition. And then and now, I reflected on a Midrash about a biblical Abraham who witnessed a fire. In it, Abraham was going about his business when he noted a palace all in flames. He said, “Why is no one doing anything? How can it be that there’s no one to look out for this palace?” Suddenly, a voice called from the highest balcony itself, engulfed in the flames, “I’m the owner of this palace. I’m supposed to be in charge. I don’t know what to do.” And at that moment, the Midrash goes, “God selected Abraham to bring the Jewish people into the world to lead them because he was the only one walking around with his eyes wide open and screamed, fire.”
The rabbis told that story to answer the question, why does the Jewish narrative start with Abraham? What did God see in Avram? And the answer, according to the story of the burning palace, is that Abraham walks with eyes wide open. He pays attention and he notices the fire and he notices the person on the balcony. But it is also that Abraham wonders aloud, “Why is such a thing happening? And why is no one else paying attention? Why is no one doing anything, when everyone should be responding?” What makes Abraham special is that he sees things not only for what they are, but for the way they ought to be. And that he shouts out his objection.
In this spirit, the spirit of Pirkei Avot, the wisdom of the sages, as reflected in an unusual piece of art in the courtyard and on some posters around the building, look carefully. Things are not always as they seem to be. And then tell me what you see in that large gold print. Im ein ani li, mi li? If I am only for myself, what kind of person am I? Uchshe’ani le’atzmi, ma ani? But if I am only for myself, what kind of person am I and who am I really if all I do is think about myself, even if no one else will stand up for me? Im lo achashav, matai. The punchline: And if not now, when? Sir Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain explains: Judaism begins not in wonder that the world is, but in protest that the world is not as it ought to be. It is in that sacred discontent that Abraham’s journey begins. And the Jewish people have been pushing the envelope, challenging hot button issues ever since.
For four thousand years the Jewish people have been the world’s moral compass. But what about now? What about today? Perhaps even more fascinating, in this story, than the character of Abraham is the character of God. Is God, in fact, powerless to save the palace? Or is God, by remaining hidden inside, insisting that the palace will continue to burn until some person notices the black smoke and finally asks, what the hell is going on here? The rabbis wanted to teach that only after human intervention, only after human intervention comes divine intervention. Only after we pay attention, does God answer. Not as a magical guardian or as a supernatural savior, not for we Jews. But rather, God says to us, after we try, after we cry out, after we say fire, only then does God say to us, thank God you showed up.
The world is on fire. Rome is burning and God, so to speak, is waiting for us to pay attention, to speak up and to demand a response, beginning with ourselves or more to the point, to be the response. The fires of toxic discourse, moral corruption, meanness of spirit and obstructionism have consumed civility when it comes to American politics or Israeli society and it’s true across Europe and in most corners of the world.
What some of us may be old enough to remember is that when we were teenagers in the tumultuous ‘60s, a song by Buffalo Springfield, a hit, For What It’s Worth. The lyrics rang true then and unfortunately now. “There’s battle lines being drawn, nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong. Paranoia strikes deep, into your life it will creep.”
These days are creepy. It is not as it was supposed to be. And the flames of violence and bloodshed continue in the Middle East and much of Africa reverberates in pain. Rogue nations, rogue nations like Iran, North Korea and Russia spew hatred and poison and murder dissidents. And the smoke of ignorance and deception suffocate those who are subjected to a daily stream of lies, masquerading as daily news. Our beloved Israel, that deserves and needs our support, is far from immune to the polarization and extremism. They intensify and domestic politics attempts to delegitimize some people in Israel, even some who are citizens and for sure, all of us who are not ultra orthodox. And even the role of the Supreme Court in Israel, of which they have always been so proud, has been now challenged.
And here, once again since last Rosh Hashanah, gunfire has claimed thousands of innocent lives. Parkland has been a terrifying clarion call as guns blaze in American classrooms, offices, nightclubs, concerts and public spaces. The flames of antisemitism have grown into a conflagration of white supremacist hatred. From Whitefish Montana to Charlottesville and yes, even to private schools here in New York. And even as they have kindled ugly confrontation on college campuses, in the form of BDS, the insidious boycotts, divestment and sanctions directed against Israel continue to be growing. The flames of antisemitism have been intensifying and legitimized in Poland, Hungary, France, Belgium, Austria and now unbelievably, the Labor Party in Great Britain, where Rabbi Sacks recently described Mr. Corbin, a possible next Prime Minister, as an anti-Semite who has given support to racists, terrorists and dealers of hate. And British Jews, the majority in a poll this week, are wondering if it’s time to pack their bags.
The world burns from right to left, and from the left to the right. And one of the tools is antisemitism. Yea, the world is on fire. And our impulse may be to look away. A colleague of mine wrote, “We’ve learned that the response to a fire is stop, drop and roll, not run into the fire or shout fire.”
These are difficult times and to lead today requires the courage to risk being antagonized for your refusal to accept the status quo and to stand up for what are your core beliefs. After all, after all, that Torah behind me, it is in that Torah Scroll from which comes the foundation of democracy, human rights, and treating every human being as though they are made in the image of God. That has been our legacy to the world for four thousand years. And on a purely human and humane level, Judaism calls to us in other ways. It mandates that embarrassing another, any other human being, embarrassing another and denying their humanity is a sin. There are no excuses for dehumanization by kids in nursery schools, and by people who are leaders of countries. By people who sit in halls of justice, and by people who sit in parliaments.
Here in Synagogue, at this time of year, we are reminded that these High Holy Days are supposed to be aspirational, make us want to aspire to something. Yes, we come together to reconfirm that our lives, individually and collectively, have a moral foundation and hopefully that includes a spine that makes us stand aright.
It’s the New Year. So I’ve been wondering, as you look around you this year, beyond the people in your own nuclear family, whether you look here or far, of whom are you proud? Of what are you proud? Do our lives reflect the best of our Jewish values? And even yes, our national values? And do we have the strength to yet have the courage to be our best? Again, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks reminds us: We may live most of the year as what matters is success or fame, power or wealth. But on these Holy Days, we come together in the synagogue to stand before God and acknowledge altogether deeper truths, that we are the good in the world and we are accountable for the bad we did or the good we failed to do.
Words that once guided us like right and wrong, ought and should, duty, obligation, loyalty, virtue, honor, seem to have an antiquated air about them. As if they come, tragically, from an age long dead. And we can count the cost in loss of community, an unbelievable rise in depression. For that reason, I’ve invited one of the leading psychiatrists in New York to join me to speak here on Yom Kippur afternoon. The profundity of depression and anxiety knows no bounds now. Because the foundations are shaken. Remember, it is in this year that we have witnessed an unbelievable upturn of suicides. And there is a profound loss in trust in corporations, in governments. And there is a tribalism unlike anything we have witnessed in our lifetime of identity politics and the vitriol that passes for communication is unbelievable. The rise of hate and antisemitic terms, pieces, call outs, on the internet, has risen 700 percent in the last year and a half.
The prophet said that the end result of such a society would be defeat and despair. Well, we don’t have prophets like in the Bible anymore, but we do have authors and so Rabbi Sacks reminded us of some recently published books. How Democracy Ends. The Death of Democracy. Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism. The Strange Death of Europe and the Suicide of the West. These are endless variations in secular updating of the warnings of the Hebrew Prophets. Long ago, Jews pioneered the alternative. Sorry, it wasn’t an American politician. And it was called twenty-seven hundred years ago, The Politics of Hope. Hope is born when we dedicate ourselves individually, and collectively, to certain simple things they taught us. The prophets said, teach justice, compassion, the sanctity of life and the dignity of the individual. And they lifted it right out of our High Holy Day Prayer Book.
God does not ask us to be perfect. God asks us to try our best for God’s sake, for our neighbors’ sake and for the stranger. And when we fail, and we all do in one way or another, God asks us to acknowledge our failures and then to try again and try to do better. From the dawn of history, Judaism has been driven by a moral passion. God’s command to Abraham to teach his children to keep the way of God by doing righteousness and justice. The Jewish message was rarely more relevant than in the 21st Century in which we are living. But the message has been repeated year after year. Who is listening? There is a legend concerning Moses after he broke the first set of Ten Commandments. In anger at his backsliding people, on his way up another mountain, Mount Pisgah, he prayed to God that he might just briefly enter the Promised Land to see it before his dying eyes. But God said, “Moses, you lost your faith in me, I could forgive you. You lost your faith in the people, I could forgive you. But when you lost your faith in yourself, for that I will never forgive you. For without faith in yourself, it is impossible for you to do your best, to be your best and to enter the Promised Land.”
How about us? The Talmud tells us that Adam was fashioned last by God in order to prove that humanity was God’s crowning achievement at creation. This proclaims that every person is significant. Each person is precious, whether the years are few or many. Rosh Hashanah teaches us yes, to be reflective and yes, to be analytical and even critical, but not to be cynical. Rosh Hashanah teaches us that hopes and dreams can live.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was not the first one to talk about dreams. We Jews have had a dream every Rosh Hashanah. It’s both personal and particularistic and global and universalistic. It’s a dream for all humanity that has Jewish flavors and sounds. Apples and honey and Shofar and tears and laughter. It is what the great theologian Paul Tillich called, the courage to be. Despite terror, despite fear, despite setbacks and disappointments, the courage to be. That courage was revealed by words etched into the concrete wall in Cologne, Germany by a Jew hiding out from the Nazis. “I believe in the sun even when it is not shining. I believe in love even when I’m not feeling it. I believe in God even when God is silent.”
And if that doesn’t work for you, maybe this parable will. Two friends went out one night to explore the world. One was equipped with a lighted torch while the other went into the night with nothing in his hands. When the one without the light returned, sadly, he said, “Wherever I went I saw nothing in the darkness.” But the first friend responded, “But wherever I went, I brought light.”
So come with me, my friend. Let us go to the world with a single flame. There is, after all, enough light for all of us. I pray that there is yet enough light for all of us. If only we would kindle it. If only we would share it. Will each of us, in this new year, be a boat riding the rough waves of these challenging days and helping others along the way? Will we remember that Judaism is our compass and it can help us be our best selves? Will we join the youth who have made the shooting in Parkland their #NeverAgain moment? Will we exercise our freedom to vote for leaders whose vision of this great nation, America, is not the way things are or the way that things used to be, but the way that things could be? Will you be an Abraham for Judaism? For the Jewish people? For America? For Israel? For those on the margins of society? For those whose voices might otherwise not be heard?
I shared with you, some may have thought strange, the words of a ballad in a New Year’s card. Somos el barco, somos el mar, yo navego en tu, tu navegas en mi – it means, “We are the boat, we are the sea. I sail in you, you sail in me.” The stream sings it to the river, the river sings it to the sea. The sea sings it to the boat that carries you and me. The boat we are sailing in was built by many hands. And the sea we are sailing on, it touches every land.
The first time I heard that song, its words and melody captured my imagination. In uncertain times, we need to be there for one another. As a sacred community, a kehillah kedoshah, striving not only to learn and sing and pray, but to be Torah and live the values of that Scroll, seeking to be the best that we can in the New Year.
What are we waiting for? It’s time to show up. Truth has been debased, injustice reigns, hatred and lies are toxic, doors are slammed shut, children are torn from their parents and fires are blazing around us. Use your compass. Be the boat. Share it with others. If not now, when?