Inspirational

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5777 Rabbi Steven Z. Leder

Rabbi Steven Leder
Founded in 1862 as Congregation B’nai B’rith, Wilshire Boulevard Temple is one of the most highly respected Reform congregations in the U.S. and the oldest congregation in Los Angeles. The Temple building, built in 1929 and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1981... Read More

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5777 Rabbi Steven Z. Leder

Simone Zimmerman, the former J Street campus activist hired as national Jewish outreach coordinator by the Bernie Sanders campaign, wrote on her Facebook page for all the world to read: “Bibi Netanyahu is an arrogant, deceptive, cynical, manipulative asshole.”

Knesset Member Moshe Gafni called Reform Jews "a bunch of clowns who stick a knife in the holy Torah." Women holding liberal prayer services at the Western Wall in Jerusalem were pelted with rocks and debris, and the police who tried to protect them were called “Nazis” by the Orthodox rock throwers.

The Iran nuclear deal brought out the worst in us—Jews on the left and the right hurling insults back and forth. Most of the public arrow-slinging was done by rabbis and community leaders who never read the agreement, and hold no degrees in nuclear science or foreign relations.

And what of our campuses? When a Jewish group invited the Mayor of Jerusalem Nir Barkat to speak at San Francisco State, the police were instructed not to remove the disruptors, but to stand by and watch the event be completely shut down.

“Get the F*** off our campus, get the F*** off our campus,” the mob yelled with bullhorns, indoors, over and over. “We waited and waited for the disruptors to be removed so the event could proceed,” noted one attendee, “but it never happened.”

Let that sink in. Officers were instructed to stand, watch, and do nothing, as freedom of speech was replaced with whoever-shouts-the-loudest-wins.

The recent 47,000-word Black Lives Matter manifesto accuses Israel of committing genocide. Genocide!

Of course, this outrageous hatred and this terrible lack of civility is far from just a Jewish problem. What of this presidential race to the bottom we witness day after day?

Our country has such serious problems and instead of thoughtful solutions, we get finger pointing. The far left points to Wall Street, to the 1%, most of whom work hard, pay their taxes and keep our economy going, while the right points to Muslims, gays, gun control advocates and immigrants, most of whom also work hard, pay their taxes and keep our economy going.

Each side sticks to its version of the truth, neither listens to the other, each shouts louder while the country continues to suffer, to bleed.

“The world, that understandable and lawful world, was slipping away,” wrote William

Golding, in Lord of the Flies. It’s easy to feel that way these days.

In the Babylonian Talmud, Rabbi Yehuda Nesia argues that the character of a generation reflects that of its leader. Other rabbis say just the opposite, that the character of the leader reflects that of his or her generation. However you look at it, the Talmud is telling us that there is a correlation between a generation and its leaders, or to put it another way, we get the leaders we deserve.

If we get the leaders we deserve—let us think deeply about why we have two people running for president with the highest unfavorable ratings, and considered the least trustworthy since polling began in 1936. Forget what this election says about Trump or Clinton. Ask instead, what does it say about us?

What would the ancient prophets have to say to us today about our Jewish infighting and our national bickering? They would remind us that the Second Temple in Jerusalem fell not because of Roman occupation but because of sinat chinam—Jewish infighting.

They would remind us that the plague of darkness in the Passover tale was “A darkness so dark that people could not recognize the humanity in each other.”

The prophet Zecharia would shout to us across a thousand generations “’Not by might and not by power, but by God’s spirit shall people live in peace.” Might and power alone mean little if uninformed by the spirit of God, by the spirit of a genuine peace that comes from a genuine respect for the other.

What is this genuine peace the rabbis encouraged us all to pursue? The great Slonimer Rebbe explained it this way: “The shalom that our Rabbis placed on such a high spiritual level cannot simply mean the absence of disagreement and conflict.” The rabbi’s point is that real peace is so much more than the lack of differences. Real peace is a wholeness, an ethic, a marriage, a family, a workplace, a city, a country, a world that values and respects and honors different points of view and different human journeys.

Do we pursue that kind of peace; the peace that comes from respecting and caring about the other?

What does it say about us when I get a call from a long-time Temple member who says: “You have lost your way Rabbi and I am leaving the Temple? I don’t give a damn about the Blacks and the Koreans. I care only about Israel.”

Here is what I told him. There are two things needed for Israel and the Jewish people to thrive. Yes, strength is one of them. We ought never to forget Prime Minister Begin’s answer when asked about the lessons of the Holocaust.

He said, “If an enemy of our people says he seeks to destroy us, believe him. Don’t doubt him for a moment. Never pause to wonder what the world will think or say. The world will never pity slaughtered Jews. A Jew must learn to defend himself. He must forever be prepared for whenever threat looms.”

Yes, military might and an unvarnished view of our enemies is crucial. But from whence does real strength come—does it come from might alone? If it does, I told this now former Temple member, we are in real trouble because we are a tiny people. Yes we have enemies, but we also have friends and we would have a lot more of them if we made it a priority to reach out, to know and to love our neighbors.

Do we? Do we know our next door neighbors let alone our neighbors from other parts of the city? How many of us go out of our way to create real relationships , real friendships with people who are of a different religion, or color, or life-style, or socio economic station? Have you signed up for our interfaith Bible study with our sister African American church? Have you signed up for our Jewish Muslim dialogue? Have you volunteered at the Karsh Center? Some people believe saying “some of my best friends are black, or Hispanic, or Asian, or Muslim, or Christian to be patronizing. I consider it a mitzvah of the highest order.

There are 436 congressional districts in America. Half of all American Jews live in just 37 of them. There are not enough of us to go it alone. We need the people in those 399 districts where few if any Jews live to care about Israel and to care about us. But why should they if we do not care about them?

What does it say about us as a nation when we have to point out that black lives matter and that blue lives matter? Really? We need to be specific about whose lives matter when the Torah teaches we are all born of the same two parents and the biologists remind us that we are all 99.9% genetically identical? Have we forgotten that no one’s blood is redder and that when you prick us we all bleed?

[Hold up Talmud] This is the Talmud; the collection of laws that have defined the essence of Judaism for 2,000 years. Do you see all these columns and sections? Each is the opinion of a different school of scholars and individuals. Every argument is recorded, considered, respected. This was the ancient rabbis’ model for us to prosper as a people for the next 20 centuries--—by appreciating and respecting each other’s views—not by demonizing and disregarding them.

Do we work at appreciating and respecting each other’s views? Is our on-line news and Facebook feed so carefully curated to our liking that we never read or hear the contrary opinion? Are our TV news habits so ingrained that we never switch from Fox to MSNBC, or MSNBC to Fox? Have we nothing to learn from each other?

The greatest, the most mature, the most powerful people know that theirs is not the only truth. Without affirming there are many paths to many truths, without seeing and listening and respecting our neighbors near and far, without accepting that sometimes we are the one who is wrong…we are lost.

Consider the man telling his doctor he thinks that his wife needs a hearing aid. “I’ll give you a simple test,” the doctor offers, “that will help you diagnose the severity of your wife’s hearing problem. When you get home tonight walk into the kitchen when your wife’s back is turned and ask her what’s for dinner. If she doesn’t hear you, walk a little closer and ask again. If she still doesn’t hear you, get right behind her and shout ‘What’s for dinner?’ Then you’ll know how bad the problem is.”

So the man walks into the kitchen while his wife is facing the sink and asks, “What’s for dinner?” No answer. He walks a little closer and asks again, “What’s for dinner?” Still no answer. Finally, he walks up right behind his wife and shouts, “What’s for dinner?”

His wife shouts back in desperation, “I told you three damn times already—chicken!”

Why is it we always think that someone else is the one with the problem--that someone else is the one who is not listening, not hearing, and not understanding us?

Two famous study partners in the Talmud named Resh Lakish and Yochanan challenged each other on virtually every point of Jewish law. When Resh Lakish died Yochanan sank into deep grief. In order to help him, Yochanan’s friends found him another study partner who was a brilliant young scholar. When they studied together, each time Yochanan made a point, the young scholar gave 24 reasons why Yochanan was correct. This only worsened Yochanan’s grief as he wailed, “Oh where is my dear friend Resh Lakish to tell me when I am wrong?” Not long after, Yochanan also dies.

It’s simple really—with friends to tell us when we are wrong we arrive together at the truth. Without them, truth dies.

Each year, Rosh Hashanah comes as a friend to challenge us. It is meant to cast doubt on our behavior and assumptions; to help us see the world through the eyes of those we have hurt. The commandment of Rosh Hashanah is not to blow the shofar, if i t was we would have to have two-thousand of them here for tomorrow morning’s service. No, the command is to listen to the shofar. The supreme mitzvah of Rosh Hashanah is to listen with an open mind and an open heart.

Despite their radical differences on the bench, Justices Antonin Scalia (one of the Supreme Court’s most conservative members) and Ruth Bader Ginsburg (a liberal judge, and one of the Court’s three Jewish Justices) were fast friends. The two brought their families on vacations together, regularly went out together, and met up each New Year’s Eve. "Call us the odd couple," Scalia said. "She likes opera, and she's a very nice person. What's not to like?"

Then there’s this too-often forgotten letter from George H. W. Bush to Bill Clinton, found sitting on the desk when Clinton first entered the Oval office as President:

“Dear Bill,

When I walked into this office just now I felt the same sense of wonder and respect that I felt four years ago. I know you will feel that too. I wish you great happiness here. I never felt the loneliness some Presidents have described. There will be very tough times, made even more difficult by criticism you may not think is fair. I’m not a very good one to give advice but just don’t let the critics discourage you or push you off course. You will be our President when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well. Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you. Good luck. George.”

Those of you who were here last January for the incredible Martin Luther King Jr.

Weekend Shabbat service heard me mention that in 1942 Rabbi Minda in my hometown of Minneapolis gave the commencement address at West High School--an all-white school full of boys who within months would be marching off to war to fight the Nazis. Seventy-four years ago Rabbi Minda asked the graduates, “What makes America beautiful?”

He pointed out that there are more beautiful and more spacious skies elsewhere in the world, and that if you have ever seen the Alps or the Himalayas, you would have to agree that other lands have superior mountain ranges of purple majesty.

What about amber waves of grain? Having just returned from the Ukraine in 1942, Minda noted that there were grander amber waves of grain in the Soviet Union than the plains of our own country.

“America may be beautiful,” Minda admits, “for her spacious skies, her fields of grain, her fruited plains and her purple mountains’ majesties, but all these do not constitute the uniqueness and distinctiveness of America’s beauty. America becomes the beautiful when she crowns her good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea.” Brotherhood is America’s unique beauty.

 

Look up at the dome and see the words our ancestors chose to tower above us at all times in this sacred space. It is the Shema. The Shema is not a prayer. It is not addressed to God and it does not ask for anything. “Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad—Listen O’ Israel, Adonai our God, Adonai is One.”

What is the Shema and what is Rosh Hashanah if not powerful reminders to listen to each other, to respect each other, to know that true oneness, true peace is not the absence of dissent but the wholeness that comes from treating each other’s views with dignity and respect—in our families, our congregation, our offices, our classrooms, our city our nation and the world.

Let us not give in to the coarseness and carelessness of our time, lest we reap what we sow. Let us heed instead those words above us, to listen and to embrace more deeply and truly than ever before the brotherhood and sisterhood that are surely our greatest hope.

(Congregation rises and sings America the Beautiful)

O beautiful for spacious skies For amber waves of grain

For purple mountain majesties

Above thy fruited plain

 

America, America

God shed his grace on thee

And crown thy good with brotherhood From sea to shining sea

 

O beautiful for pilgrim feet Whose stern, impassioned stress A thoroughfare for freedom beat Across the wilderness

 

America, America

God mend thine every flaw Confirm thy soul in self control Thy liberty in law

 

O beautiful for heroes proved In liberating strife

Who more than self their country loved And mercy more than life

 

America, America

May God thy gold refine

Till all success be nobleness And every gain divine

 

O beautiful for patriot dream That sees beyond the years Thine alabaster cities gleam Undimmed by human tears

 

America, America

God shed his grace on thee

And crown thy good with brotherhood From sea to shining sea

 

*(I am indebted to Barry Shrage and Jerry Silverman both of whom provided some of the source material and phrasing reflected in this sermon)