RH 1 Sermon 5778
Rosh Hashanah, Day 1 – 5778
Rabbi Michael Mishkin
Temple Beth Israel
How To Move Forward In Times of Fear
Or, What Does Our Tradition Say at This Particular Moment in Our History?
[On August 21st,] the United States basked in the glory of a total eclipse—Here is how it was described, later that day:
“[The] moon’s shadow swept from the rocky beaches of Oregon, to the marshes of South Carolina.
Over an hour and a half, along a 70-mile-wide ribbon of land . . . the world appeared to hush for a few minutes, as the moon stood up to the sun, perfectly blocking its fierce light except for the corona, the halo of hot gas that surrounds it.
Darkness descended, the summer air caught a quick chill, Venus and some stars appeared in the near-night sky and, in Depoe Bay, Oregon one of the first places to fall under the shadow, a flock of confused sea gulls began to call out—[as if it were the end of the day.]
Even humans — who knew what was going on — were left to hunt for words to describe the spectacle.” (The New York Times, August 21, 2017)
What an amazing occurrence!
Those of us who could not travel to a one of the many wonderful cities that experienced a total eclipse (like St. Louis, MO), still experienced a wondrous event—in New York 70% of the sun was covered.
Leading up to the eclipse, everyone was filled with excitement and great anticipation—. . . . but eclipses have not always been celebrated.
According to the Talmud (Sukkah 29b), eclipses are a sign of divine DISpleasure. “Our Rabbis taught: When the sun is in eclipse it is a bad omen for the whole world. To what can this be compared? To a king of flesh and blood, who made a banquet for his servants, and put a lamp in front of them. When he got angry with them he said, ‘Take the lamp away from them, and let them sit in the dark.’”
The Talmud is filled with deep wisdom, eternal values, and valuable teachings, BUT it is a human document -- that is 1,500 years old. When it comes to science, sometimes its understandings and/or assumptions miss the mark.
Today, we understand that eclipses are natural, predictable phenomena. As such, they are wondrous celestial events to be celebrated -- as they remind us of the great wisdom built into creation, and help give us some proper perspective regarding our place in the universe.
While there was a lot to celebrate with the eclipse, we should not let this historic event pass, without reflecting on some of its symbolism.
A solar eclipse brings darkness, and a total eclipse brings a lot of darkness. This eclipse-- which came towards the end of the Jewish year 5777 -- came at a time when there is a moral eclipse happening. Morally-speaking, there is great darkness in the world.
It’s a darkness of ignorance, indifference, hate, cruelty, pain, and murder. It’s a darkness which has created challenges, tragedies, and crises--
Let’s start with Global Issues:
Today, with the war of words between the United States and North Korea, it feels like we are closer to the possibility of a Nuclear War than we’ve been in decades. In addition to the nuclear threat, there are the catastrophic consequences that have started, and will continue to develop, because of global warming.
Of course, there are other horrific problems afflicting the world. Today, there are more refugees in the world than at any other time since the end of World War II. This has been a problem for years, and tragically, the problem continues to get worse.
Millions of people are fleeing wars and famine. Many hundreds of thousands have been displaced by fighting and violence. On top of all that, there is a new refugee problem stemming from the ethnic cleansing, which is taking place in Mayanmar. The Rohingya—a Muslim ethnic minority group are being forced out of their homes. The brutality of the Mayanmar military is causing hundreds of thousands of Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh.
Another aspect of the world today, which casts a great darkness, is living under the threat of radical Islamic terror. ISIS followers and members of other fundamental Islamic groups continue to target their fellow Muslims and Westerners. While the West is fighting this scourge, as of now, tragically, there seems to be no end in sight.
Related to this is the great darkness, which comes from Iran. While Iran has temporarily stopped its attempts to produce nuclear weapons, it is still one of the worst—if not THE worst—actor in the world today. The world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, Iran also foments unrest throughout the Middle East.
When we look at Israel,—Thank God—there is so much to celebrate. However, Israel continues to face grave dangers—both externally and internally.
Externally, Israel is surrounded by radical Islamic groups, which have the stated purpose of Israel’s destruction. Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, and if Iran and Hezbollah have their way—it’s important to note that this has not happened yet--Hezbollah on the border of the Golan Heights in Syria.
Internally—Israeli politics are causing great harm to its relationship with the Diaspora community. This past June, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s cabinet voted to renege “on its commitment to enact a much-anticipated compromise regarding prayer at the Western Wall, that would have given enhanced access to all streams of Judaism. The agreement, which was painstakingly brokered a year and a half ago, was heralded at the time as proof -- that despite our religious and political divisions, American Jewish and Israeli leadership could work together in the name of The Jewish People.” (The Jewish Week, June 27, 2017)
This list of problems, crises, and catastrophes is enough for us all to say—Oy (among other words)!!!! But, the darkness is even greater because this is not an exhaustive list of the world’s challenges, and I haven’t even begun to mention the problems in the United States.
Domestically, the American people have not been as divided as they are today -- in a long time. As a country, we seem to be divided over almost every single issue that comes before Congress.
This morning, I want to speak about 2 issues, which transcend politics, and are particularly dangerous and scary.
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What does it mean for us -- as individual citizens, for us as Jews, and for our country – when facts don’t matter to a large group of people?
What does it mean for our country -- when respectable news outlets are verbally attacked and called “The Enemies of America?” It’s more than dangerous! If it continues, if it grows—we are planting the seeds of our own destruction. No civilized society can continue to flourish, if facts can be dismissed out of hand, and good journalism (whether it’s got a rightward slant, a leftward slant, or down the middle) is dismissed as fake news.
It goes without saying -- a free and healthy press is vital for the preservation of Democracy. A free press is the greatest check we have on our government officials, and on people with power.
And what about the real fake news? -- Which is bad name for it—especially since real news is being labeled—or should I say Libeled—as fake news.
Real fake news should be called “made-up stories that people want other people to believe.” On Social Media, we have been inundated by these made-up stories. A good part of these stories were hatched by Americans for ideological reasons, or to make a quick buck. However, we recently learned that a lot of these made-up stories were also the product of professional trolls, being paid by the Russian Government.
How do we deal with this threat to our public discourse? At this moment in time – we are far away from having the answers we need. Certainly, each of these threats to the media, and public discourse, should be examined and, God willing, actionable steps to resolve these problems will emerge. In the meantime, we should all subscribe to one or more newspapers, support one or more Jewish newspapers, and be careful not to spread fake stories on Social Media.
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The other domestic issue I want to address today is the ascendancy of hate groups in America. Neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan, White Supremacists, White Nationalists –they have all been around for a long time. But there is no question—in this current era, in which we are living --new life has been breathed into their cause.
Charlottesville was not the beginning of this problem, but it certainly brought to the fore how empowered these groups feel and how brazen they are in spreading their vile messages.
The rally was a horrible stain on America. Not so much that hate mongers gathered and had a rally—that’s happened throughout the history of the United States.
What was particularly disturbing was the lack of preparation, or resources, or desire—it’s unclear--on the part of the city of Charlottesville and the State of Virginia—to ensure that all people expressing their First Amendment rights would be safe.
The protesters and counter-protesters should have been kept apart from each other, with police in riot gear separating them. Tragically, that’s not what happened and it led to the murder of Heather Heyers, as well as other brutal attacks.
The lack of an adequate police presence had another consequence as well—this time affecting the Jews who were praying in Charlottesville’s lone synagogue.
Alan Zimmerman, the president of Congregation Beth Israel, wrote an article about what had transpired on that Saturday morning. He said, “[the morning of the rally], I stood outside our synagogue with the armed security guard we hired after the police department refused to provide us with an officer during morning services. (Even the police department’s limited promise of an observer near our building -- was not kept).
Forty congregants were inside. Here’s what I witnessed during that time.
For half an hour, three men dressed in fatigues and armed with semi-automatic rifles stood across the street from the temple. . . Several times, parades of Nazis passed our building, shouting, ‘There's the synagogue!’ followed by chants of ‘Seig Heil’ and other anti-Semitic language. Some carried flags with swastikas and other Nazi symbols.
When services ended, my heart broke, as I advised congregants that it would be safer [for them] to leave the temple through the back entrance, rather than through the front, and to please go in groups.
This is 2017 in the United States of America.” (Published on ReformJudaism.org, August 14, 2017.)
After all of this evil had transpired, the country needed its leaders to provide us with strong words of moral clarity. Following the rally, Democrat and Republican members of Congress spoke out in powerful ways, condemning the hate groups. Unfortunately, President Trump did not – and has not – and this is a failure of moral leadership.
An unwillingness to fully and completely denounce hate groups can have dangerous consequences.
So, we are living in a time with great darkness.
How do we move forward in a constructive and positive way?
What does our tradition tell us at this moment?
To begin to answer this question, I would like to share with you a beautiful teaching of Rabbi Shai Held. Rabbi Held is a co-founder of Mechon Hadar, a co-ed Yeshiva in Manhattan. He is one of the leading Rabbis in America today.
Rabbi Held teaches:
Judaism does not ask us to ignore the reality of darkness, nor the sense of doom it might [stir] in us. On the contrary, it asks us to face them squarely, and then, ultimately, to defy them. But how? . . .
In Genesis, God takes Abram outside and says, ‘Look toward heaven, and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ And God adds, ‘So shall your offspring be’ (Genesis 15:5). On the surface, the meaning of God’s promise is clear: the children of Abram will be so numerous as to be beyond counting. But the Chasidic master Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, known as the Sfat Eemet, offers a very different and arresting interpretation of God’s promise.
God’s promise, he says, is not quantitative, but QUALITATIVE: to be a Jew is, like a star, to bring light to places of vast darkness. Thus, even—and perhaps especially—when Israel descends into the darkness of Egypt, its mission is clear—to light up the darkness of the most depraved and immoral parts of the world (Shemot, 1878).
Rabbi Held continues:
To take the covenant between God and Israel seriously is to affirm that we can, and must, bring light into otherwise abandoned places, that we can bring moments of meaning and companionship to places overrun by heartache and devastation.” (Rabbi Shai Held, Hadar.org, Chanukah 5774)
How do we bring this light to darkness? Very simply—we light a candle through our actions. Even small actions for good have a big impact. As Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson teaches: “Remember that in a hall of perfect darkness, totally dark, if you light one small candle, its light will be seen from afar; its precious light will be seen by everyone.”
So in this time of darkness, let us not retreat, but move forward. There is a lot of light and action needed in this moment. Here are some steps we can all take:
- We Must Stand Up to Hate--
If you witness a hateful act or see hate graffiti, you should report it to the police and to the Anti Defamation League.
There are wonderful organizations whose mission is to combat hate—most notably The ADL, The Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Simon Wiesenthal Center—visit their websites, use their resources, and support them.
I am happy to tell you that members of the Reconstructionist Synagogue have created a new group—called “Shamor”—which means “To Guard.” Shamor is committed to fighting anti-Semitism on the North Shore of Long Island. They have hosted forums on combatting hate, they are ensuring that the ADL’s Peer Training Program at Schreiber High School continues, and they are asking for others in the community to join them in their efforts.
- Let’s Strengthen Our Community--
There is a saying, “Ahavah gorreret Ahavah” – “One act of love leads to another act of love.” We strengthen our families, our peer networks, and our community by doing acts of Gemilut Chasadim—Acts of LovingKindness. Doing an act of lovingkindness lifts up the receiver of the kindness, as well as the giver. Doing acts of lovingkindness can create a chain reaction and lead to many other acts of lovingkindness.
Some of the most foundational acts of lovingkindness are:
Bikkur Cholim—Visitng the Sick. If someone is sick, visit, call, or text them. Ask if there is a way you can help them.
Nichum Aveilim – Comforting Mourners. When someone suffers a loss—be present for them. Our presence—with an open ear and big heart—is one of the best ways to offer comfort. Help make a shiva minyan to ensure that mourners can say Mourner’s Kaddish in their home.
Come to the TBI prayer services—including on Sunday mornings—to bolster our minyans. In addition, you can feel spiritually uplifted, and connect with great people.
We have many opportunities to fulfill the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim—welcoming guests. If you see new people at TBI, school, work, or in your neighborhood –welcome them, bring them in, and connect them to other people.
Give of your time to help people in need. We have a wonderful group—BAM—which stands for “Be A Mentsch.” It is run by Gail Seiden and Debbie Mishan and receives great support from Louise Cooper and others. Please get involved with this important group.
- Let’s Get More Involved in the Issues We Care About--
With so many issues demanding attention, there are many causes for us to choose from. However, the sheer number of challenges --and their complexity-- can lead to a feeling of being overwhelmed and paralysis. But not getting involved should not be an option. We must live up to our covenant with God to be sources of light for good in the world. Pick one cause, or two, that you care deeply about, and figure out how to get involved.
I am happy to announce that TBI is forming a new Social Action group to get involved in some of these issues that I mentioned. Working to help others and bring more justice into the world, is a little easier and when you do it with friends other members of the community. Please be on the lookout for information about this new and important group at TBI. If you would like to get involved with this group or with BAM, please contact me or the Synagogue’s main office after the Holidays.
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The problems facing us are so severe, we could turn to God and say, “God, can’t you do more, to help us out.” But I imagine God would turn to us and say, “Can’t YOU do more, to help the world out.” But in fact we do this work together.
In an ancient Midrashic work (Pesikta de-Rav Kahana), Rabbi Acha teaches:
“Israel is like an olive tree. And the Holy One is like a lamp. What use is made of olive oil? It is put into a lamp, and then the two together give light as though they were one. Hence, the Holy One will say to Israel: My children, since My light is your light, and your light is My light, let us go together—you and I—and give light to Zion [and beyond].”
May we join with God—and with one another—to bring light to our families, friends, community, the Jewish people, and the world.
And let us say: Amen.
Shanah Tovah Tikateyvu v’Teychah-teymu—May we all be written and sealed in the Book of Life, for a year full of health, happiness, and blessings.