Rabbi Peter W. Stein
Temple B’rith Kodesh
Rochester, New York
Rosh HaShana 5779
September 10, 2018
We are a Generation of Builders:
Creating Hope and Opportunity for Migrants, Refugees, and Immigrants
The great writer Sholom Aleichem spent the last years of his life writing an autobiographical novel. Entitled From the Fair, it was never finished, but it provides exquisite insight into his world view and serves as an extraordinary prompt for all of us as we reflect on our own lives at the start of this new year.
“Now’s the time. Seize the opportunity and write. For who knows what the morrow may bring? When you die, others who think they know you will concoct things about you. What good will that do? Better pick up a pen and write it yourself, for you know yourself best. Tell who you are and write your autobiography.”
He continues by saying, “[Writing] your autobiography – the real story, not an invented tale – is easier said than done. It means taking stock of your entire life for your readers and confessing to the whole world…it’s rather hard for a memoirist to withstand the temptation to publicly make himself a saint and show everyone he’s a fine fellow who deserves a medal.”1
1 From the Fair by Sholom Aleichem (1859-1916)
During the coming year, we will each add a chapter to our autobiography. We wish one another a shana tova umetukah, hoping that it will be a chapter of goodness and sweetness, a chapter of health and success.
I also wonder aloud: will this be a chapter where we make a difference? Will this new year, this next chapter in the story of our lives, be one in which we recognize and respond to the healing ability that God has created within each one of us?
A dear colleague of mine, Rabbi Daniel Treiser, died this summer after fighting cancer. Last year at Rosh Hashana, in the shadow of his diagnosis, he reflected on this Holy Day as a sort of alarm clock.
He poignantly describes it this way: “This alarm raises…questions that are equally important for each and every one of us. What have I done with my life? How do I use my days? How do I treat others around me? Do I give thanks for the myriad blessings I encounter every day or do I forget to acknowledge them? Did I offer the caring hand, the supportive shoulder, the gentle chuckle to ease the hurt? Did I say I love you enough? We often live our lives as if we have all the time in the world to get around to changing, even though we know our time is short.”2
2 Rabbi Daniel Treiser, Rosh Hashana Morning 2017, Temple B’nai Israel, Clearwater, FL
Dr. King called this “the urgency of now”. By any standard, by any definition, there is an urgent need to take action, to see the violence in our world and create peace…to see hatred and bigotry and respond with a nourishing embrace.
There is an urgency in this moment. And there is power and possibility. Rather than lament that we are a generation living in difficult times, let us proclaim that we are the generation that will secure the future. We have, in this room today and across our country, implanted within each one of us, everything we need to change the world.
Let me share a bit about one of my most important mentors in the rabbinate. Rabbi Walter Jacob is a sixteenth generation rabbi, an extraordinary scholar, someone who has offered distinguished and important leadership in many different parts of the Jewish world.
Rabbi Jacob is also an incredibly kind, humble, and nurturing presence, who has been a model for me for nearly twenty years.
A wonderful biography of Rabbi Jacob, entitled The Seventeenth Generation, was published this spring. I had the chance to not only read the book, but to see Walter shortly after it was published.
Despite Sholom Aleichem’s caution about others “concocting things about you”, this book includes Walter’s own voice throughout. It is a reminder of how he lives: with lifelong curiosity, intellectual rigor, deep and genuine care for every person he encounters, and most significantly, a sense of profound optimism.
Why is this optimism so notable? Because Walter’s life has included many tragic episodes.
He was born in Germany in 1930. He lost his home, his community, and many members of his family as he fled from the Nazis.
During his lifetime here in the US, he lost his parents and all three of his children in tragic ways.
And yet, he remains an incredibly positive, gentle, and optimistic person. He continues, at 88 years old, to work each and every day for a better world.
I mentioned that Rabbi Jacob is a sixteenth generation rabbi. With the loss of all his children, it would seem that this is the end of the line.
At the close of the biography, however, the author includes a beautiful teaching, in the form of a condolence letter sent to Rabbi Jacob upon the death of his third child. It was written by the students and alumni of the Abraham Geiger College. Geiger is the first rabbinical school in continental Europe since the end of the Holocaust. It was founded by Rabbi Jacob in 2000 in Potsdam, Germany.
This new generation of rabbis included a passage from the Talmud, which reads, “Rabbi Elazar said in the name of Rabbi Haninah: Torah scholars increase peace in the world. As it says (in Isaiah 54:13): All of your children (Kol banayich) are students of God; great is the peace of Your children. Read this not banayich – meaning ‘Your children’ – but rather bonayich – ‘Your builders’.
In the context of the Talmud, this wordplay is intended to illustrate that each generation can build upon the work of previous generations by continuing the task of studying holy texts. But the students and alumni of Geiger were reversing the allusion. They were telling [Rabbi Jacob] that if children are like builders, then builders must also be like children. These young rabbis know that they bear the responsibility for rebuilding Jewish life in Europe. They also know that their connection to the Abraham Geiger College personally binds each of them to Walter and to the fifteen rabbinic generations before him.
By teaching and ordaining this new generation of rabbis, Walter has blessed them, and therefore they are, in a spiritual sense, his children. Each one has joined his lineage. They are the seventeenth generation devoted to increasing peace in the world.3
While I was not formally ordained by Rabbi Jacob, I have been mentored and molded by him in significant ways. I count myself in this lineage as well, hoping that one day my biography will demonstrate that I was devoted to increasing peace in the world. I pray that we all see ourselves as part of this lineage, and seize this new year as a chance to increase peace in the world.
3 The Seventh Generation: The lifework of Rabbi Walter Jacob by Eric Lidji
Right now, we can do so, I believe, in a particular fashion. Over the last several months, I have been working with a small group of rabbis across New York State to consider the possibility of social justice organizing within our state. This is linked to the social action efforts of our national Religious Action Center, but with a focus on the opportunities to have an impact on the state and local level.
The guiding question we have been asking is this: What is the New York we want to see?
Today, as we come together on Rosh Hashana, this is the question I ask all of you. What is the New York you want to see? What is the Rochester you dream of?
Many answers emerge, I am sure, and I look forward to hearing your answers in the coming months. One answer that I keep considering is that I want our state, our city, and our congregation to be a place that welcomes refugees, migrants, and immigrants…all those who come seeking safety, opportunity, and lives of dignity and purpose.
We have, in recent months, already taken many steps towards this goal. I am incredibly proud of those among you who are already doing this work. It is the fulfillment of one of Torah’s central ideals, as we are told no fewer than 36 times over to love the stranger. No command in Torah is repeated so many times, and we know that repetition in Torah is used for emphasis.
My mentor Rabbi Jacob fled from the Nazis. He was a refugee and he found a home here that enabled him to build a life of extraordinary importance.
A branch of my own family crossed the ocean – and tragically back again – on the St. Louis. And I fervently hope to honor their memory with my own actions.
So many of us have stories of immigration. What did we find when we arrived? How do we act on the memory of those experiences?
My intention is not to discuss the fine points of policy and law. Rather, it is to describe, on this first day of the new year, how I hope this year will be remembered.
My hope is that this will be a year when our eyes and our arms and our hearts are open to those who flee from poverty, violence, and discrimination. And to ensure that those who arrive in my state never find a new layer of hatred when they arrive.
This hope is represented in Jewish teachings in many different ways. Perhaps most familiar is the classic text from the Mishnah (Pesachim 10:5) and the Passover Haggadah: "In every generation, a person is obligated to see him or herself as though s/he came forth from Egypt."
And, in more recent times, the Orthodox scholar Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik teaches the principle in a powerful way, drawing on the most important sage, Maimonides: The standard text reads, “In each generation, one is duty-bound lirot et atzmo, to consider himself, as if he had been delivered from Egyptian bondage.” Instead of the reflexive verb lirot et atzmo, signifying an inner experience, Maimonides substitutes the verb, l’harot et atzmo, to demonstrate, to behave in a manner manifesting the experience of finding liberty after having been enslaved for a long time.4
This is what we must do right now: not just remember slavery, but behave in a manner reflecting the experience of having found liberty. In this new year, let us see the faces of those in desperate search of liberty, freedom, dignity, and opportunity.
There are 68.5 million forcibly displaced person in the world today.5 Another way to consider this number is that 1 out of every 110 human beings on the planet is displaced.
Hearing Dr. King’s cry of the “urgency of now”: one person is displaced every two seconds! [Pause…..] 5 more people just became displaced…exposed…vulnerable…in need of protection.
4 Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, Festival of Freedom: Essays on Pesach and the Haggadah
Let us respond in this new year. Let us show that we are the generation that has the power and the will to say “No more!” When we ask ourselves “What is the New York I want to see?” let us say that our state, our city, and our congregation will embrace those who come in search and in desperate need.
This past year, TBK created a formal partnership in support of No One Left Behind. Join our team, which is healing the world one person at a time, one simple act of loving kindness after another.
Take part in the advocacy work of our Religious Action Center and the important efforts of the Interfaith Immigration Coalition. I can provide you with emails, phone numbers, background material and talking points.
Cast your vote in November and continue writing and calling our elected officials, reflecting the urgent need and our vision of a country that saves the lives of those who come in search and in need.
Today, we set out to write the next chapter in our autobiography. Let the pages of this year record that we created hope and opportunity. Let this be a chapter that shows that we are a generation of builders, adding to the peace of the world.
Let this, for one and all, be a year that is filled with goodness. Lshana tova tikateivu!