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Nitzavim – Vayelech 5783    September 9th, 2023

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom

The story goes that a man, in a business suit, is sitting on a train and across from him is a tall man with a long beard, a black hat and long frock coat. They travel for a while in silence but the man in the suit finally erupts in anger. “I don’t understand why you Jews have to dress differently than everyone else. Why can’t you be a Jew like me? A modern man in modern dress; why do you have to be an embarrassment to the Jewish People?”

The other man looked at him with surprise. He replied, “I am sorry if I offended you, but you see, I am not Jewish at all. I am Amish and we dress this way because, according to our traditions, it brings us closer to what God expects from us.”

The man in the suit shrinks back in embarrassment. “I am so sorry to offend you, I made a wrong assumption, and I am sorry. It is very meaningful for you to dress that way and be closer to God. Forgive me for my outburst.”

The other man shakes his head and replies in Yiddish, “For the goyiim it is OK but not for a Jew?”

This is an old story, and I am not sure that it even applies in our world today. Today we see people in all kinds of dress, and maybe undress, everywhere all around us. There are odd body piercings and strange tattoos, all kinds of hair color and all kinds of hair styles. I am sure that there are some parents who wonder about the fashion sensibility of their children, but we live in a world where everyone can set their own personal style.

But at the same time, I wonder, why is it that Jews often try to hide their faith? I once asked a confirmation class of 10th graders what would happen if they were to wear a kipah to school for a week? Most of them looked at me in horror that I could even suggest such a thing. Their replies mostly centered on the fact that if they wore a kipah, they would be killed at school. I told them that it was highly unlikely that they would be killed at school. The more likely response would be curiosity from their friends and those they don’t know could care less. Of course, for a teenager, being fashionable allows for a certain amount of diversity but there are limits that teens must conform to or God Forbid, they be thought of as weird.

I also admit that today we live in a world where anti-Semitism is more rampant than it was just a few years ago. Most people today are accepting and open about religious differences but there are those few, on the far right and on the far left, who might harass us if we displayed our Judaism too loud and too proud. I do wear my kipah all day every day all over this town and most people don’t even notice. Those that do notice are too polite to ask about it and only those with several experiences with me ever ask about what my kipah means; and they always ask politely.

This is a good time of year to think about what Judaism means in our life. It is also a time to think about how we display our Judaism to the world. We would never consider not having a mezuzah on our door. Most people ask me to make sure it is on the outside of the door so all passing by might know that a Jew lives here. Some people wear jewelry that indicates their Jewish inclinations. Everyone is different and how we express our Judaism is a matter of personal preference. Of course, in Israel, where the majority of people are Jewish, it is more accepted to display Judaism to the world.

My friend in Jerusalem, Rabbi Mordechai Silverstein, wrote in his Devar Torah this week, Jews, Judeans, Israelites, and the children of Israel all seemed to have struggled with what I call “minority people syndrome.” Outside cultures and religions seem for so many of us so much more appealing than the home-grown variety. Many of us are easily convinced that our ideas and our behavior are somehow inferior to that of others, and that Jewish policy, whether political or religious is remiss or inferior to that practiced by the outside world. This phenomenon is not new. Anyone who pays close attention to Moshe’s messages in Sefer Devarim (Deuteronomy) is familiar with the fact that Moshe had to fight tooth and nail to keep his “minority” people on the straight and narrow. And the “sales pitches” offered by Moshe did not end with him. They extended throughout the ages. It is just not easy to be different.

Moshe, in his entreaties to his people, made a great effort to convince them that they were both capable and worthy of fulfilling God’s expectations as expressed in the Torah [in our Parsha this week where it says]: Surely this mitzvah which I enjoin upon you is not too baffling to you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, ‘Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’
…  (Deuteronomy 30:11-12)

It is not easy being different. It is not easy being a minority. Racism and Anti-Semitism often go hand in hand although the Black community notes that at least, we can “pass” as white people. Black Jews of Color are becoming more common, but they still get a lot of “but you don’t look Jewish” from Jews and non-Jews alike. And like the Hasid in our story, somehow, we allow for others to be different, but we are less sure about ourselves being different as Jews.

Our faith distinguishes us from other people in the world. Jews have a different weekend then most of the people around us. We eat differently from those around us. We pray in a different language than those around us. We also have a different world view than those around us. We look at the world around us and the grass seems greener on the other side of the fence. But it is not. It’s just different grass.

Our Judaism is a great treasure. There are those, believe it or not, who wish they could be Jewish, not just so they can marry a Jew, but because they like the Jewish outlook on life better. We don’t terrorize our people about burning in hell. We don’t need an intercessor in order to ask God for forgiveness. We don’t have to disconnect from life in order to find spirituality and a closeness to God. These are really important to those who come to be a part of the Jewish community.

And many people are impressed with how we stand together as a community. If you ask Jews about the Jewish community, they will point out all the differences between Jews and how we often fight with each other about what is the best way to express our faith. But if we were to ask non-Jews about our community, they would marvel at how we stand together about Israel and all kinds of things that really matter. More often than not, we can only see our flaws and it takes an outsider to point out where our strength really lies.

There is an old proverb that says it is hard to be a Jew. But our parsha tells us that while it may be a bit harder than being part of the majority, it is really not that much harder. As Jews we are not asked to do impossible things. Our parsha teaches us that our faith is not somewhere over the ocean, and we are in need of a hero to go after it and bring it back to us. Our faith is not on the top of some tall mountain that we need a person of strength and stamina to bring it back to us. Our faith is not in heaven that we have to wait for God to reveal the essence of what we need to be. Our faith is right here, with us every day, in our hearts and minds, just waiting for us to recognize the treasure that already belongs to us.

If there was something fundamentally wrong with Judaism, this religion would have disappeared long ago. History records many times when we could have walked away from the religion of our ancestors and yet we stood firm in our beliefs. There have been people in every age, including our own modern times, who chose death before they would deny their faith in God. We are very blessed to live in a country that gives us the freedom to worship as we please. There have been times in history, when the police would come and prevent Jews from celebrating holidays. Here we have the police come to protect our right to gather for our Days of Awe. No lighting candles in the cellar for us. We are free to practice Judaism in whatever way we wish. So why is it that so many of us don’t practice it at all?

A Rabbi was once asked to help make a minyan in a home where the family was sitting Shiva. It was a very strange Shiva house. Clearly the person who lived in the home was a religious Jew. The surroundings were filled with books and religious objects, but the family clearly had little knowledge of basic Judaism. How could this be? After the service, the Rabbi asked the children how, if their father was so religious, was it that it did not enter their lives as well? The elder son said, “This was our father’s religious sanctuary. When he practiced his Judaism, he did it in here, closing the door behind him and never sharing what he was doing with us. After a while we just stopped wondering what he was doing in here and went our own way.”

I am often told that someone will not be in shul next week because the children or grandchildren will be visiting. Why not invite them to sit with us and show the family why being here on Shabbat is so important to us? How will they know if we don’t share this with them? We have opportunities to let our children and other family members know that this is a special place to be on Shabbat or even at daily minyan. Why should we hide our practices behind closed doors? Let us be proud of who we are and let our friends and family know how important our faith and our people are in our lives.

Maybe you noticed the blue square pins in the lobby, they are a new symbol to stop Jewish Hate. As the bigots find more and more spaces online to spread their lies, we wear this blue square and we can place it in our email and on our social media sites to let the world know that Hatred of Jews is not okay and we will stand up for who we are and for our place in American society.

This is not the time to wonder if Judaism is too hard or too remote for us to get involved. Bring your family to synagogue and display your blue square proudly. May God help us wear our Judaism proudly so all can see who we are and let us show our respect for the faith that carries us forward. As we say … Amen and Shabbat Shalom


Thu, May 30 2024 22 Iyyar 5784