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Vayera: January 28, 2017

Rabbi Randall Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom.

For many people, the Holocaust teaches different lessons. The lessons of a country where morality was suspended, redefined and ignored are lessons that are never far from the mind of us Rabbis. How could human beings kill so easily? How could people close their eyes to the reality of death and destruction? How could science turn so readily from helping humanity to destroying humanity? How could human beings survive such suffering and deprivations? Five million soldiers and civilians died in Nazi Germany as a direct result of World War II. That is the result of just the war effort. Eleven million people died in the OTHER war, the war within the war. Eleven million people that did not fit into the Nazi understanding of their perfect society. Six million who were killed because they were Jews and five million “others” including homosexuals, gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Catholic priests that ran afoul of Nazi government, vagrants, and illegal immigrants, who were killed because they were “different”.

When Omar Mateen began shooting in a crowded nightclub in Orlando Florida, there were 320 people inside. 49 people were killed and 53 were injured.  While it was the largest number of people killed in a shooting in this country, it could have been a lot worse. Why were so few actually killed? Omar Mateen had plenty of ammunition to kill many more. The reality is that when the shooting started, people immediately began to run, and hide. That is what we expect when the shooting starts. So how could Nazi Germany kill 11 million people? Why didn’t they run, hide or at least fight? Andy Andrews, the motivational speaker from Alabama wrote a very small book asking just that question. How do you kill 11 million people? His answer is breathtakingly simple and chilling.  All you have to do is lie to them.

We know the tools that Hitler used to kill Jews. The concentration camps, the work camps, the gas chambers. But how do you get people to go where you want them to go? Here history is clear. First Jews were told that they should stay in their Ghettos for their own safety. Then the Germans took bribes from the Jews for better conditions. After all, the Jewish community reasoned, “Why would the Germans take bribes if they were going to kill us all and take everything anyway?” Finally the Jews were loaded on the trains by being told that the Russians were advancing and the Jews needed to be moved for their own protection. Once the train cars were closed and locked, they would not be opened again until the train was inside Auschwitz or any of the other concentration camps.

We know all about Hitler, Goering and Nazi lies. Hitler often said to his inner circle, “How fortunate for leaders that men do not think. Make the lie big, make it simple and keep saying it and eventually they will believe it.”  Germany had almost 80 million people at the beginning of the war. Only ten percent actively worked or campaigned for Hitler’s changes. Ninety percent of Germans just stood by and watched, covering their eyes and ears until it was too late.

Martin Niemöller, a Catholic theologian explained it this way in his famous poem:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Erwin Lutzner in his book, When a Nation Forgets God, tells the story of one eyewitness to the Holocaust: “We heard stories of what was happening to the Jews but we tried to distance ourselves from it, because we felt, what could anyone do to stop it? Each Sunday morning, we would hear the train whistle blowing in the distance, then the wheels coming over the tracks. We became disturbed when we heard cries coming from the train as it passed by. We realized that it was carrying Jews like cattle in the cars! Week after week the whistle would blow. We dreaded to hear the sounds of those wheels because we knew that we would hear the cries of the Jews en route to a death camp. Their screams tormented us. We knew the time the train was coming and when we heard the whistle blow we began singing hymns. By the time the train came past our church, we were singing at the top of our voices. If we heard the screams, we sang more loudly and soon we heard them no more. Years have passed and no one talks about it now, but I still hear that train whistle in my sleep. “

So to answer Mr. Andrews’s question, “How do you kill 11 million people?” it takes two elements. You have to tell big lies and you need a population willing to believe them and do nothing. It is a matter of record that Hitler came to power on a populist platform. He gave exciting speeches that promised a weary public more, new and better. What he actually promised depended on the audience. In farm towns he promised food price supports and tax cuts. In working class neighborhoods he spoke against the rich who made their huge profits on the backs of these workers. When he appeared before the industrial barons, he spoke about defeating communism and the labor unions. Everyone didn’t have to really believe everything that Hitler said; they just had to believe it enough to ignore him. When they fully understood, when they realized what was happening, when the Nazis came for them, it was too late.

You know all this. I know you know all of this. This is all a matter of record. You know all these facts about Nazi Germany. But do we really understand the implications of these facts for the United States today? Do we fully understand this history? Deep in my heart I hope so because as George Santayana, teaches, ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’

As I have watched this past election season and now the first days of this new Administration, I find myself worrying if we have condemned ourselves to repeat history. I say here, and I say this clearly and without reservation, that we are NOT in any way going down the path of Nazi Germany. Neither political party nor any political action committee wishes this country to be a fascist regime led by a fanatic, megalomaniac. That much history I hope we have learned. Of all the people elected to office last November, not one of them is in any danger of becoming the next Adolf Hitler. To make that comparison would be an insult to the memories of our survivors and guilty of a vile slander against the elected officials.

But I find myself afraid when politicians tell us that, they have to “play to the party base”, telling the people what they want to hear so that they can be elected. When I hear those words, I know that they are justifying telling us lies. If we were to tell lies when testifying before Congress, we would be guilty of a felony. If Congressmen and Senators lie to us, we call it politics. So these politicians tell middle class audiences that they are for tax cuts, they tell millionaires that they are for capital gains cuts and they tell the poor that they are for increases to Medicaid and Food Stamps. They tell the young they are for job growth, they tell middle aged people that they are for job security and they tell seniors that they are for increasing social security. But we know that all of these promises cannot be fulfilled, they are mutually exclusive. You can’t spend more and take in less without somebody suffering. The truth, as inconvenient as it is, is that you can’t have both.

It amazes me that we now have several internet sites that “fact check” our politicians. After every speech the news media have to keep score as to what was true and what was a lie. We can know exactly when a politician is telling the truth, exaggerating the truth, stretching the truth or when he or she is outright lying to us. They update the sites after every major speech. We know they are lying and we keep electing them!! It becomes hard for me to blame the politicians for lying when they know that when they do, we elect them anyway. We make no demands for our politicians to tell the truth. We encourage them to tell us what we want to hear. We are getting the representatives we deserve because we refuse to see beyond our own self interest.

Does anyone here honestly believe that they would vote for any man or woman who gave a speech saying “This country needs to look out for those who are the poorest and most vulnerable in society and it is the responsibility of all of us to reach out and help them. I will therefore propose a special tax to be paid by those who can afford it to help those who can’t.” Or how about the candidate that says, “I think our immigration program is far too complicated. I propose a streamlined system that will make it easier to take in the refugees from war and famine, the same kind of refugees who built this country.” My friends, that is what the truth sounds like.  Why is it that Pope Francis can speak the truth and ask every parish in Europe to take in refugees from the Middle East but not one politician can? Because Pope Frances does not have to face re-election.

Why do we have a complicated tax code? Why do we have a complicated health insurance program? Why do we have a complicated immigration policy? It all could be made far simpler. We don’t have these things because our system demands that our leadership make special arrangements for special interest groups who provide money for their campaigns. We keep unneeded military bases open because representatives of nearby towns refuse to let them close. We are all guilty of self interest, of wanting what is good for us and not what is for the good of the country. So the politicians learn to lie. To tell us what we want to hear. As Andy Andrews writes, “With all we know, does anyone believe that telling the truth will solve all a nation’s problems? Of course not. But it is a beginning. In fact, speaking the truth should be the LEAST we require of our elected leaders! After all, what are OUR standards for being led? You see the danger to America is not a single politician with ill intent, or even a group of them. The most dangerous thing any nation faces is a citizenry capable of trusting a liar to lead them.”

There are 311 million Americans in this country. Yet recent presidential elections were won by less than ten million votes. In the last 25 years, every federal election (let’s not get started on state and local elections) has had over one hundred million people of voting age who did not bother to vote. You tell me which is better, voting for a liar to lead us or singing louder when we hear the whistle and wheels of the train as it comes down the track? We wrote hundreds of letters to elected officials about a bad deal with Iran but how many of us have ever written even one letter about requiring our leadership to tell us the truth?

What would happen when this country decided to go on a campaign for truth? Not the convenient truths that we want to hear but the unvarnished truth of what it really takes to govern this country. This country has many difficult problems to solve. Problems that we know will take hard work and sacrifice from each and every one of us. Does that truth bother you? Then go to Greece and see what kind of pain the truth of their economic situation has fallen on them. Terrorism in Europe is due to Muslim extremism and now these same countries are being asked to absorb more Muslim refugees. That is what truth looks like. God knows this country had a bloated budget in 1970 but having cut the budget for 40 years, this country cannot grow without more revenue, and yes, that is a fancy way of saying taxes. Can it be possible that we can’t figure out a fair and simple way to collect taxes this country? That is what the truth looks like.  Or will we believe Jack Nicholson in the movie, “A Few Good Men” who screams, “You want the truth, You Can’t Handle the Truth!” Will we just sing louder so we can’t hear the train that is coming our way?

History is filled with countries that have suffered great tragedies because the citizens did not react when leaders told them what they wanted to hear rather than the truth. When we react out of fear, or out of our own self interest, leaders can lie to us and we will often follow like sheep.

The public record of every politician is right in front of us. We can easily access voting records, campaign promises and the lies they tell with a simple internet search. All we need to do is look it up. All we need to do is take a good look at the record. Pay attention when someone disagrees with our assessment of an elected official. After all, we may have missed something or overlooked some important item that makes a difference. Don’t just write to a legislator about only your own self-interest, but think about what is good for the country, what would be good if we could all act together for the good, and for what is right.

The Ten Commandments are not just for Democrats or just for Republicans. Thou Shalt Not Lie is not just for Liberals or Conservatives. We need to demand honesty and integrity from all of America’s leadership now. This is the time to do it. This is the real demand we need to make from our lawmakers. How can we expect our leadership to make the hard decisions that will determine the course of our country for the next two to four years if they can lie to us and kick the can down the road for someone else to worry about? If we demand the truth from our government, from those we elect, then they will have the strength to make the hard decisions and know that we support them in spite of the difficulties that it may spin off.

As a religious leader I am appalled at the lies that we as citizens of this country are told each and every day. News reporters scratch their heads when they report the lies being told and we just keep singing louder, so as not to hear what is coming down the track. And yet, our nights are haunted by the sound of that whistle. We know we are being lied to but as long as we can hold on to our self interest, as long as they are not coming for us, we think we can wait it out, until there is no one to rescue us when they come for us and our children. I want you to go home after Shabbat and listen, really listen to your favorite news source, and hear the incredulousness in their voices as they report the most audacious things our politicians say knowing that nobody is paying attention.

Pay Attention! Start demanding the truth. Ask your friends to demand the truth. In our Parsha, Pharaoh promises to let our people go and his promise is just a lie. He reneges on his promises time and time again. Words matter. We know we can’t just mouth the words of prayer and not make them the foundation of our actions. Our prayers are the promises we make to live better lives and we know we have to go home a try harder to live our lives with truth and compassion.

 If we allow those we elect to continue with their lies, then we are enabling their addiction and helping to undermine all that we love about this country. Forget asking our legislators if they will take a pledge of “no new taxes,” ask them instead of they can take a pledge of “No more lies”. If we can’t elect politicians who can tell the truth then we will get the leaders we deserve.  If we can’t begin a movement in this country based on telling the truth, even when it hurts, we will be training a new generation of leaders to give us what we want rather than what we need. Write letters, go on Twitter and Facebook demanding the truth. Don’t just accept pat answers but demand real policies that have real consequences and require painful choices. WE need to be direct with our leadership and call them to task if we sincerely believe that they are not working for the best interests of our country. Does it take a lot of work? You bet it does. We have to know history if we don’t want to be condemned to repeat it. We have to know what our leaders say so we can judge them by the honesty of their words.

We pray for our government because without it, people would swallow up each other alive. Let us also pray that we do all we can to elect good leaders, without them we will lose everything about this country we hold dear. Already we have fake news and “alternative facts” Already many of the virtues of this country are in danger of being lost. How many liars do we have to elect before we have had enough? In the words of Roger Daltry and the Who:

I’ll tip my hat to the new constitution
Take a bow for the new revolution
Smile and grin at the change all around
Pick up my guitar and play
Just like yesterday
Then I’ll get on my knees and pray
We don’t get fooled again

God help us as we navigate this new political landscape. Let us find a truth worth supporting and please God we humbly pray… We don’t get fooled again.

Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Sermon given by Rabbi Randall Konigsburg at Beth Sholom B’nai Israel on Saturday, January 28, 2017.

Mon, July 6 2020 14 Tammuz 5780