Erev Rosh Hashana 5780
Temple B’rith Kodesh
Rabbi Peter W. Stein
President Abraham Lincoln, an incredible communicator, was known during the Civil War to attend a church not far from the White House on Wednesday nights. The preacher, Dr. Gurley, allowed the president to sit in the pastor’s study with the door open to the chancel so he could listen to the sermon without having to interact with the crowd.
One Wednesday evening as Lincoln and a companion walked back to the White House after the sermon, the president’s companion asked, “What did you think of tonight’s sermon?”
“Well,” Lincoln responded, “it was brilliantly conceived, biblical, relevant, and well presented.”
“So, it was a great sermon?” “No,” Lincoln replied. “It failed. It failed because Dr. Gurley did not ask us to do something great.”
Rev. Dr. Stephen Bluman (Christ Church, NYC) cited this anecdote in a radio spot some years ago on WCBS 880 Radio. He ended his spot with this line: “When was the last time someone asked you to do something great?”1
1 Thanks to Rabbi Bruce Block for sharing this account
Recognizing the conceit in offering up Lincoln’s response (brilliantly conceived?!?), I want to begin my remarks by taking up Rev. Bluman’s challenge...to offer us the chance to do something great, something important and impactful, in this new year.
“Be the one” Singer songwriter Alan Goodis wrote a song with this name, building on work that was done with this theme at one of our URJ summer camps.
The central idea is that each of us should work hard to not be a bystander. Rather, we should try and be upstanders...ones who stand up. This is an idea in bullying education, but is, I think, a concept that has broad and powerful possibilities.
Are we standing by when we know of needs in our community, assuming that someone else will respond? Or, are standing up and taking responsibility?
Be the one. Every individual, each one of us, has the ability to bring about positive change in the world...feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, protecting our environment, educating all our children, ending gun violence, supporting refugees...the list is long. But, to paraphrase the Talmud, we don’t have the obligation to finish this work, but we do have the responsibility to engage in it.
50 years ago, our congregation said that we would be the ones to have a direct impact on housing those in our community who might otherwise end up homeless...and our Tempro program has, for a half century, provided tens of thousands of safe and secure nights to families in need. We are the ones who stood up and saved lives.
Tempro is but one of our important efforts. Over the last several years in particular, our congregation, Sisterhood, school and social action volunteers have been involved in many projects throughout the city. To name just a few: we have entered into a formal partnership with our friends at Third Presbyterian Church and the Rochester Area Interfaith Hospitality Network (RAIHN)2 , we have been a major support to No One Left Behind (now known as Keeping our Promise)3 , and we have played a significant role in creating the Religious Action Center of New York State (RAC-NY)4 and raising our voices for justice in Albany. And there are many more places where our members are active.
2 Check out www.raihn.org. We volunteer for a full week every quarter of the year.
3 Through this program, we offer a variety of support to newly arrivede Afghani and Iraqi refugee families.
4 Check our www.rac.org for information on both the national efforst and the new state level organizing.
I don’t list these projects simply to celebrate our achievements, although it is certainly a proud part of our identity. I don’t name these efforts to recruit more volunteers, although that is certainly always important.
Rather, I speak tonight out of a broader concern. We are living in a time of extraordinary toxicity, in language and behavior. We are living in a time with tragic levels of violence and hatred.
This is not a partisan statement. Rather, it is a statement that I make in the hopes that we will once again do as we have done throughout our history, and proclaim that we will be the ones who counter this trend.
Consider the example from Torah of Abraham standing up at Sodom and Gomorrah. 5 He argues with God’s decree that the cities will be destroyed, concerned that those who are innocent will be lost along with those who are guilty. He knows that the most powerful way he can honor the covenantal intimacy he has crafted with God is to speak up and fight. He knows that his sacred responsibility is to speak up when he sees injustice brewing.
So too for us. If we are to honor God’s presence in our lives, we must take personal responsibility when it comes to how we speak and how we listen, and whether we truly see those who are in need.
5 Genesis 18:16 ff
The greatest catastrophe in Jewish history, until the Holocaust of the twentieth century, came in the first century. The Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed after the Roman invasion, and the people were ultimately ejected from the land of Israel. It was an unparalleled existential crisis, one that dramatically transformed every aspect of our national identity and our religious life.
The early rabbis, in responding to this, focused their teaching and leadership in an important way. They didn’t focus on the actions of the Roman Empire. Nor did they focus exclusively on what was lost in Israel.
Rather, the rabbis reflected on the behavior of the people leading up to the destruction, and taught about the sin of sinat chinam. The term, found in the Talmud6 , means gratuitous or baseless hatred. Figuratively, it is a term that describes the people tearing one another apart through polarization and intolerance of those who are different.
Antisemitism coming from outside the Jewish community is certainly a heinous example of hatred that threatens to destroy us. In no way do I minimize the rising threat of violent antisemitism in our time when I speak about sinat chinam. Rather, I lament that the crisis of our times has two elements. Yes, I have great concern about specifically antisemitic discourse and actions...how could I not after Charlottesville and Pittsburgh?
But, there is also a destructive divisiveness in our society in general, including within our own Jewish community. In this new year, I hope that we will be the ones who begin to counter this. It is urgent that we find ways to learn to listen and learn to speak, especially with those who may have different worldviews or different perspectives.
Among the greatest scholars of modern Israel, one whose work started in pre state Palestine, was Dr. Nehama Leibovitz. Born in Riga, she moved to Palestine in 1930. She was a professor at Tel Aviv University and also taught at Hebrew University. Her great contribution to Jewish learning came through her “Studies”...sheets of questions on the weekly Torah portions that she would send out personally to any individual who was interested. The renowned scholar would ask those who received the study sheets to return them to her for review, and she would then send back her comments. She engaged with countless students in this way, one by one, across Israel.
She didn’t hold forth in great auditoriums or massive lecture halls, although she did attract a large following when she would teach on the radio. Instead, she lived with a commitment to personal learning. She sought to impact one person at a time, believing that each person had something valuable to share, each curious person had wisdom to share. She became a unifying influence in Israel because a cross section of society engaged with her...religious and secular, old and young, city dwellers and kibbutznikim. She believed in the power of the one.
Leibovitz has a beautiful teaching about the Torah passage we will hear tomorrow morning, the episode of the Binding of Isaac. She reminds us that the chapter begins by describing the moment as a test, “God tested Abraham…”7
Leibovitz writes that “all the different [scholars] agree that the trial is not meant to prove anything to the Almighty who is allknowing....the purpose of the trial is to...train him in doing positive good and realizing to the full his own spiritual potentialities.”8
8New Studies in Bereshit/Genesis, by Nehama Leibowitz, page 191
Abraham, who had already stood up to potential injustice at Sodom, still needs to learn that he has the ability to do good...to help put an end to violence and destruction...to realize that he has the ability implanted within him to save lives, one by one. Abraham can be the one who saves the world.
We can be the ones who save the world, one life and one action at a time. Be the one means that we will raise the bar on what is acceptable or normative behavior.
Many of us have learned this year from Deborah Lipstadt’s important book about antisemitism.9 In it, she describes four kinds of antisemites. Only one is actively performing acts of physical violence…what she calls the extremist. The spectrum she describes, though, is a reminder that hatred and violence come through many small steps of normalization.
9Antisemitism Here and Now, by Deborah Lipstady
I won’t offer all of the definitions right now, but my hope is that we will be the ones who call out all of them, not just the extremists. We will confront those who are enablers of hatred and violence, through their actions and inactions, through their words and through the ways that they turn a blind eye.
I close with a prayer.
In this new year, I hope that we will each be the one
Be the one who ends social isolation
Be the one who will not accept the lack of equal opportunity
Be the one who will model civil discourse
Be the one who reaches out To build relationships across lines of identity
And through those relationships,
we will each be the one to say “never again”
to those whose hatred leads to violence…
and to act in such a way
that there is no place for hatred to survive at all.
When we do, we will be the ones who create a world of safety and opportunity, a world of genuine closeness, a world of love and of peace.
Ken yehi ratson, may this be God’s will.
Amen and Shana Tova!