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Yom Kippur: September 20, 2018

Rabbi Randall Konigsburg

Gemar Tov, May this long fast day have a good ending for us all.

In the third chapter of Exodus, Moses arrives at the Burning Bush. He is curious; he is intrigued by the flames and amazed that the bush is not being consumed. And then he hears God’s voice to take off his shoes. The dialogue is quite amazing. God tells Moses that the suffering of the Israelites has been heard in heaven. God has set the divine mind to rescue them and bring them to the promised land. God feels the pain of the Israelites. Moses is very impressed. Then God adds the zinger: “I am sending you to Pharaoh to free the people Israel from oppression.” And Moses, replies: “Wait…What!!??”

Moses now gives a series of reasons why he can’t lead Israel to freedom. He is an accused murderer. The Israelites think he is a traitor to them and the Egyptians think he is a traitor to Egypt. He has a stutter and he has no street cred. It would be much better to send someone else. God patiently resolves each reason Moses devises until, finally God says, “You will do what I say!” and the interview is over. Moses’s destiny has been decided. Now he must go out and do God’s will. Moses is correct, both the Israelites and the Egyptians will turn on him, but God’s desires will be filled, and Moses will emerge, years later, as the most extraordinary leader the world has ever known.

The Talmud spends a great deal of time dealing with the concept of fate. Are we destined from birth to a particular path in life or are we free agents, with free will, so that we are all masters of our own fate? Time and time again, the Talmud says that fate is for other nations; we are not bound by rules that are beyond our understanding. In Greek mythology, the Fates determine the life path of all creatures, including the gods. In Judaism, we don’t believe that anything is pre-determined. For the Jewish people, fate is not about what happens to people who act in the world. Fate is what happens to people unless they act to change their fate. Shimon Perez used to say that Jews are always dissatisfied with the world the way it is. Judaism has always insisted that we will never accept what is wrong in the world because we are here to repair the world.

We call Yom Kippur the White Fast and we all wear white as a symbol of our fast as we strive to become pure before God. Tisha B’Av is the Black Fast, the day we remember the blackest day on the Jewish calendar. It is the day that we lost control of our own lives. It is the day that we twice lost our Temple and our government. Rabbinic tradition has different explanations for why the Temple was destroyed but the end result is the same. It seems that whenever we have sovereignty over our own country, we have messed up the opportunity and lost our independence.

In the Torah, Moses, as part of his final message to the people in Devarim, warns the People of Israel “When you eat and are satisfied, when you build houses and settle down, and when your herds multiply and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God” (Deut. 8:12). Moses puts us on notice not to mess up when we have our own state.

And mess up we did. Moses was right. The Prophets of the Bible cry out against the moral and ethical lapses that bring on the destruction of our nation. Amos talks about the rich who eat and drink while the poor starve, how justice is bought and sold in the courts. Isaiah talks about how workers are exploited and sold into slavery because of their debts. Jerimiah compares Israelite society to a wife who has abandoned her husband and family for the perverse pleasures of society. Thus, the First Temple was destroyed.

While we celebrate the victory of Judah Maccabee and his Hasmonaean family that created the next Jewish state, we pay little attention to the family as they go out to conquer their neighbors, who then arise in rebellion. The later Hasmonaeans fight among themselves for power and eventually they bring in Pompey and the Roman army and that will bring about the end of Jewish Sovereignty and lead to the destruction of the Second Temple.

When we are out in the desert or under foreign rule, we have our most creative moments in history; the Torah and Talmud are born in these difficult circumstances. We seem to shine brighter when we are not in control of our destiny. Perhaps we are just not meant to be masters of our own lives.

Rino Tzror, the Israeli film maker, released a film recently called, “Jews, Third Time” that indicates that Jews seem to have a problem with holding power. He thinks that even this third time, we will mess up our opportunity to control our own destiny. History has shown that after 70 years of independence, Jews begin to unravel what they have built.  Mr. Tzror notes that once again Israel is dealing with political corruption, poverty and inequality, religious and political extremism. We again have militants who place tribalism over nationalism in dealing with the Palestinians. He notes that every destruction was preceded by debates in the government about “Who is a Jew?” and “What is Judaism?” Tzror does not blame the country or a specific party for the problem; he thinks Jews have an innate difficulty with holding sovereign power.

I will get to my answer to Mr. Tzror later. First, I want to deal with the problems that he charts. Why is it that we are so quick to hate others? Is this something in human DNA that brings out the worst in us when we debate in public or on social media? Agustin Fuentes, a professor of anthropology at the University of Notre Dame doesn’t think so. He writes in the August 2018 issue of National Geographic; “In my work as an evolutionary anthropologist, I’ve spent years researching and writing about how, over the past two million years, our lineage transformed from groups of apelike beings armed with sticks and stones to the creators of cars, rockets, great artworks, nations and global economic systems. How did we do this? Our brains got bigger and our capacities for cooperation exploded. We’re wired to work together, to forge diverse social relationships, and to creatively problem-solve together. This is the inheritance that everyone in the 21st century carries. I would argue that the increase in online aggression is due to an explosive combination of this human evolutionary social skillset, the social media boom, and the specific political and economic context in which we find ourselves – a combination that’s opened up a space for more and more people to fan the flames of aggression and insult online.” It seems we are programmed by evolution to get along with other people around us. But in a world of Social Media, when the people we meet are not looking us in the face, this removes a critical part of our co-operative spirit and opens us up to spew hate and aggression.

I am not going to say that this is the result of our political process either here or in Israel. Both the right and the left spew hatred in their own way. A recent article in the Connecticut Jewish Ledger outlined anti-Semitism from the left. To those on the left, anti-Semitism is not racism because Jews have power, and racism is about discrimination to those who are not in power. Rabbi Jill Jacobs, the executive Director of T’ruah, the left leaning Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, is quoted in the article saying, “There is a difference between anti-Semitism and accusations of racism against white people, who are not a coherent historical ethnic group, and who have never been the victims of systemic prejudice. Jews have experienced a genocide within living memory and continue to experience anti-Semitism both in words and in actions. Ashkenazi Jews enjoy white privilege much of the time but also regularly encounter anti-Semitism perpetuated by people of many backgrounds.” To the left, it seems that our being powerful in society means that prejudice against us does not count.

On the right, the rise of nationalism has brought us more anti-Semitism. Right nationalists in many countries all over the world are still spewing their hatred of Jews who are too powerful. The Alt-Right in Charlottesville, VA demanded that “Jews will not replace us.” To those on the right, it is permitted to accuse Jews of controlling power, money and the media. They claim that if whites have lost their power in the world, it is because the Jews have taken their power away. So, to the left we are not powerless enough and to the right we are too powerful. President Trump said that there were good people on both sides in Charlottesville, but apparently, none of those good people were Jews. I am reminded of a story about the Roman Emperor, Hadrian who killed a Jew who saluted him and then killed the next Jew, who seeing what happened to the first Jew, didn’t salute him. When asked why he killed one Jew for saluting and one for not saluting, Hadrian replied, “I don’t need a reason to kill Jews.”

Somehow, Jews on the Right and the Left seem to be okay with this arrangement. We argue with each other about our positions as if the dark clouds on either side of the political spectrum don’t belong to us. Chaim Seidler-Feller, the Director Emeritus of the UCLA Hillel, writes in the March 2018 edition of Sh’ma Now magazine, “…while reembracing my activist core, I am disturbed by a realization that my own Jewish community is no longer unified in its commitment to the liberal and humanitarian principles that have guided me socially and politically during my lifetime. Rather, we are divided over an imagined conflict between our universal and particular obligations that has been fabricated by tribal forces in Jewish life. Throughout my Modern Orthodox yeshiva education, I was taught that we had a sacred duty to live with the creative tension between our humanity and our Jewishness, and, therefore, to try and effect a balance between these two inclinations. But a new mood has been gaining ground that calls for the prioritization of the particular over the universal and that classifies those who promote a universalist position as betrayers of Jewish interests. This split is also manifest in the deepening divide between those Jews who have become privileged, affluent whites who no longer consider themselves bound by the prophetic tradition and those whose Jewish identity is informed by a commandedness to act on behalf of the ‘stranger, the orphan and the widow’ – the vulnerable, in our midst. … what was once a Jewish public square rife with robust debate (has been) sorely diminished.”

Is the filmmaker, Rino Tzror correct? Are we doomed to repeat the Jewish experience of nationhood in these modern times? According to Andre Spokoiny, the President of the Jewish Funders Network, perhaps we should worry. Spokoiny writes, “The warning signs that Tzror highlights are there and they are growing more worrisome by the day. We are just now at the 70-year mark – the point at which, historically, Jewish Sovereignty starts to crumble. We have never lost our country due to foreign invaders alone. Yes, Babylonians and Romans gave us the coup de grace, but the disintegration of our social fabric, our own mismanagement of our sovereignty, was the real culprit. There are those who think that to solve our issues with power, we need more power, and an even stronger army, more advanced weaponry, etc. I have nothing against those things; I agree with Imre Kertesz, (the Hungarian Nobel prize winner for literature) who said that “I’d rather see a Jewish star on a tank than on my chest.” But we’d do well to remember that military power is not really a protection: both Solomon and Alexander Jannaeus had mighty armies, and yet their kingdom’s crumbled. … but I don’t agree with Rino Tzror. … Pessimism is attractive because it eliminates responsibility. We can’t disengage; we can’t say that it’s not our business. We’ve been given a new opportunity. It’s on us now. We can break the pattern and make is so that 70 years doesn’t usher in disaster but a new and continuing golden age.”

The real question is, how? How do we prevent disaster, both in Israel and in this country that we call home? How do we prevent the disasters that befell our people in the past and how can we protect our democracy and our faith in this country with its 200-year experiment in this unusual form of government, never tried before in the history of humanity? Jon Meachum, a Pulitzer Prize winning Historian and Biographer, writing in his best-selling book “The Soul of America” gives us some ideas of what will work to give our country a way forward. He writes: “Those who are frightened of losing what thy have are the most vulnerable, and it is difficult to be clear-headed when you believe that you are teetering on a precipice. … The opposite of fear is hope, defined as the expectation of good fortune not only for ourselves but for the group to which we belong. Fear feeds anxiety and produces anger; hope, particularly in a political sense, breeds optimism and feelings of well-being. Fear is about limits; hope is about growth. Fear casts its eyes warily, even shiftily across the landscape; hope looks forward, toward the horizon. Fear points at others, assigning blame; hope points ahead, working for a common good. Fear pushes away; hope pulls others closer. Fear divides; hope unifies.”

Adam Smith, in his 1759 book “The Theory Of Moral Sentiments, writes, “how selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except that pleasure of seeing it.” When this country was founded, it was supposed that humanity was not only thirsty for power, but also have the capacity for sympathy and good feelings for others. This was the balance our Founding Fathers were looking for as they created these United States.

Opposition to tribalism comes down to us over the centuries. Rather than lock ourselves into one position on the right or left, we must understand both sides of the issues.  In the 20th century, Elinore Roosevelt offered her take on why espousing one’s own point of view or the views of those like us is so dangerous. She wrote, “It is not only important but mentally invigorating to discuss political matters with people whose opinions differ radically from one’s own. … For the same reason, I believe it is a sound idea to attend not only the meetings of one’s own party but of the opposition, find out what people are saying, what they are thinking, what they believe. This is an invaluable check on one’s own ideas. … if we are to cope intelligently with a changing world, we must be flexible and willing to relinquish opinions that no longer have any bearing on existing conditions.”

Can we imagine what it would be like to live in a pluralistic Jewish world? Today Orthodox Jews and Jews on the right dream of a day when all the liberal Jews will assimilate away. Those on the left think of the Orthodox as a relic of the distant past who have nothing to say about our modern times. I am sure each side wishes the other would just disappear. But we don’t live in a world of wishes. We live in a real world where neither side is going anywhere. We must learn to get along with each other. There is no magic that will make this unification happen. We are the ones who are being called upon to do the work, to embrace the difficulties and find the flexibility to ease the tensions.

Andre Spokoiny, who is becoming one of my favorite writers of centrist policy, finds five things we can do to embrace the work that needs to be done at this moment in history. The first is to embrace the basic diversity of the Jewish People. We do argue a lot but, as I tell the parents of teenagers, when you argue with someone, you are telling them that you care about them and you care about their opinion. Arguing is not one of our worst traits, it is actually one of the ways we are stronger.

Second, we need to keep asking questions. We think that good leaders have all the answers, but as those who remember Senator Robert Kennedy, who asked, “Why not?” the great leaders are the ones who ask important questions. Asking questions is how we fight the status-quo and see life in a different way.

Third, we can’t fix complex issues unless we learn to collaborate with those who disagree. We cannot impose a solution on those who hold different opinions. We must find the common ground between us. We need to sit down with those with whom we disagree and put our heads together to solve problems. It is the only way we can figure out what will work and what will not.

Fourth, if we want to avoid disasters in our future, we must understand that we are in this for the long haul. The media may demand instant answers and Twitter may erupt with venom over whatever might be proposed, but if we are in this for the long haul, we will understand that any programs that have made a difference, were the programs that took anywhere from 10 to 20 years to bear fruit. There is no shortcut to making a real difference. We need to keep our focus on sustaining our commitment to the future.

And finally, we need a clear vision of what we want our future to be. This may sound obvious but as I said last night, we have become very good at working together to stop something, but we are not very good at working together for the future. If all we care about is stopping a disaster in the making, where is the inspiring dream that will replace it? Andre Spokoiny notes in his essay, “Sadly in today’s world, only the extremists seem to have a passion and a willingness to carry out their dreams. … Never let the extremists have a monopoly on passion. Never think that bold vision and embracing complexity are contradictory. They are not. Clear vision and realistic execution are two sides of the same coin, because execution without a vision is a nightmare and a vision without execution is a hallucination.”

Moses agreed that the Israelite slaves had to be free. But when God told Moses that he was the one who would free them, Moses said, “Wait… What!??. Well, there is also a story of a man, who prayed to God, with a broken heart and carrying the pain from all the injustice of the world. “Dear God,” he prayed, “Look at all the suffering, pain, anguish and injustice in this world. Why don’t you send help?” God replied, “I did send help, I sent you!

God is ready to create in this world the most amazing society the world has ever known. With an Israel that is a light to the nations and a Jewish community with a dream of how the world can be the master of its own fate. And God has sent a leader to lead us through the desert to this golden promised land. And that leader is you.  

 Wait … What!!??

Oh, don’t be so surprised. We are here for Yizkor, to remember our parents, grandparents and the generations who came before us and who never stopped believing that this world is getting better. We are here to remember a sibling, a spouse or even a child who dreamed of what this world could be. And we, the ones who survived, have been given the legacy to do all we can, in their memory, to fulfill their hopes and dreams, the ones they shared through their lives, through their teachings and through the examples they gave us. Their dreams for a better world are our dreams. Their hope is our hope and as they worked, so too do we work in their name, and in our own.

If we will be inspired today to make a difference in this world, it is because of the foundation they gave us in our faith and with the dreams they shared in life. As we pause to remember those who came before us, let us also remember the inspiration they left for us and the tasks, the ones they could not finish, that they left in our hands. If we face the problems of the world and say, Who me? It is their voices we hear in response, “Who else?”

May our memories of those we love and who are gone always inspire us and remind us that they shared our vision and they gave their blessings to our future.

Turn now to our Yizkor books and we rise as we prepare for our prayers of memory


Sermon given by Rabbi Randall Konigsburg at Beth Sholom B’nai Israel on September 20, 2018

Fri, May 24 2019 19 Iyyar 5779