Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Rosh Hashanah 2019/5780 - Three Pillars Everything Rests On

There’s a joke about the rabbi who at the end of his career gets up and says, “you all either know what I’m going to say, don’t care what I’m going to say, or think you could say it better, so I’m just going to skip it.  Shanah Tovah.”  And then there’s the sermon that at least at some point every rabbi must consider giving (and hopefully not give) saying what you really think of everyone and everything. 
I’m not doing the first, and I hope I’m not quite doing the second.  But I do feel today will be a little bit of a risk, and so stay with me.  Today I’m addressing climate change, antisemitism, guns, drugs and politics… Yes, I think that’s everything.  And how Judaism suggests you might be wrong in what you think about all of them.  Judaism’s answers aren’t at least primarily, and I truly believe this, the types of things we so often here.  The answers aren’t about tikkun olam or the coming of the messiah.  Jewish concepts to be sure, just not the main ones, the proper ones, for considering such weighty world issues. 
For not only are those the wrong “first concepts,” but in laboring under the notion they are, we do damage to Judaism and to religion, and worst, to real living people - making their lives worse and not better because of our errors. 
Because, and I stake my reputation on this --- if religion, if God, is positioned as being the solution to some issue and then doesn’t address that issue – well what good is it?  And if, as I deeply believe, there are issues in your life and in the world that are not being addressed – issues religion could help with, but is failing to do so, even when the pain and emptiness of those in need is profoundly apparent – then we are radically failing to meet people where they are!
Judaism’s answers to all these dilemmas are the same.  And they can be summed up as Torah, Avodah, and Gemilut Chasadim – the three things we are taught upon which the world stands.  Torah here means Jewish thinking and belief and striving to flesh out and fill in how the teachings of our ancient path guide us today.  Avodah is practice of Jewish rituals and observance in our lives.  And I’ll be a heretic and say not necessarily even in a halachic way but in a “full” way.  That is to say – Jewish customs and practices imbue one’s daily life.  Maybe inconsistently and incoherently, but fill it up, nonetheless. 
And finally, Gemilut Chasadim – means “acts of lovingkindness” but that kind of language is too malleable to wrong impressions.  Judaism’s concern has always been anchored in what the individual can do for another individual.  And what the community can do within its reach.  That’s not to say funds didn’t exist even in ancient times to ransom captives carried over the sea by pirates, for such things were known and did exist, but unlike how tikkun olam is often used as a Jewish call to save all the world,  the tradition is actually very thin on setting that as a goal, while it is brimming with examples and calls to do gemilut chasadim, and I think there is a reason why. 
Because while it is a call to help those in our own group, those like us, to be sure, it is even more the call to see the person across from us, even our enemy who we despise, as still being a human being who deserves a very basic level of respect.  And what is that basic amount of respect?  That if we saw they were in need of help with something difficult that we would help them!  That we must help them!  Despite how different, how repulsive they might be to us – we would help them lift their burden.  Could you do that today?  Could you help the pro-choice person?  The Trump supporter?  The gun-owner?  The progressive, the conservative?  Now the truly “evil” person – for there are such in the world, while we are called upon to fight evil, even here, we mustn’t relish, we mustn’t delight, in defeating or even when necessary, destroying the evil.  But all too often in our lives – our “enemies” aren’t “evil” they are people we don’t like, and that is who I address your attention to.   
“Healing the world” is noble to be sure.  But as used today, it is not often presented as including helping the despicable, the forgotten - but gemilut chasadim is, and that is why I encourage its consideration today.
So far, you may not disagree much with me.  You might be thinking, yeah, those things are all important.  But I hope you will have questions, disagreement, argument, with my suggestion that they are the answers to all of our current contemporary issues.  Let me now spend some time saying why. 
Let’s jump right in with climate change.  Judaism’s feelings on climate change are old.  Because even before people could cause climate change,  the story in the Torah of Noah’s Ark is a warning from the very beginning that our ancient ancestors knew people would ruin the environment around them, would, through their violence, through their very nature, bring about the destruction of the world:
קֵ֤ץ כָּל־בָּשָׂר֙ בָּ֣א לְפָנַ֔י כִּֽי־מָלְאָ֥ה הָאָ֛רֶץ חָמָ֖ס מִפְּנֵיהֶ֑ם
While that is the key for the rest, that’s not it about climate change.  Because climate change is old, too.  And I mean anthropogenic climate change – climate change caused by people – has been around for hundreds and hundreds of years.  
And in response to even those changes, we can see in the record of Judaism over the history of anthropogenic climate change, going back as far as 700 years ago, that Judaism’s original message about human violence has remained at the core of what it teaches to us today. 
What do I mean?  There is a rather convincing set of arguments that the world experienced what we call the Little Ice Age, a time of cooling around, back in the Middle Ages, in part due to the massive loss of population caused by the Black Death, which itself came about as a result of increased human populations their interactions and density of settlements.  The world’s population decreased from around say 500 million to around 300 million.  Around 100 to 200 million people died in the course of the Plague’s major outbreak between 1347 and 1351!   Can you imagine?!  As many as a fifth of people alive were killed.  It must have felt like the end of world - because it was.
The result was the reforestation of great swaths of previously cleared land allowing for the capture of more carbon and a cooling of the earth leading to the “Little Ice Age” – “Man-Made Climate Change.”
Some suggest the impact was continued by the European arrival in the Americas causing the further deaths of some 10 to 100 million people, something like 80 or 90% of the indigenous populations of the Americas.  Again, a massive and relatively quick depopulation which also caused reforestation and temperatures to cool., etc. 
Now scientists do argue whether or not human actions contributed to the Little Ice Age and even quite how to categorize what that climate event was.  But our lesson, Judaism’s lesson, is the same.
For myself, I do believe in the negative impact of human behavior on the environment.  But what I believe in even more, based on the dismal numbers I just shared, is that the “solution” humans are likely to offer to climate change has at least as much chance of looking like it did during the LIA than anything “happy” - and probably more likely than less. 
Just think about it – from the 1340s to the 1540s as many as 300 million people, something possibly approaching a half of humans, died from human spread diseases and violence?  Not promising. 
And what was Judaism’s response?  Much the same as it had been before such things happened.  The historian Susan Einbinder wrote about just this in her book, After the Black Death and notes the “great diversity in Jewish experiences of the plague… Most critically, the continuity of faith, language, and meaning through the years of the plague and its aftermath. Both before and after the Black Death, Jewish texts that deal with tragedy privilege the communal over the personal and affirm resilience over victimhood.”
How did Jews respond?  They rallied together and relied on their traditions and beliefs for comfort and meaning in the face of a violent and cruel world and never gave up on helping others even if it couldn’t turn back such violence. 
Jews were murdered for causing the Black Death.  And for bad winters.  And droughts and everything else – and their response was to say their prayers and stay loyal to their heritage.  They relied on Torah and Avodah and Gemilut Hasadim, to endure the literally unendurable. 
I’ve no doubt shared before with you and likely will again how a congregant of mine from the Former Soviet Union once, in speaking about some current event commented, “you Americans always think things will turn out okay.” 
It’s another way of saying what Genesis said to us about people in Noah’s time.
Understand me – my point is that we need to take the Jewish tradition’s point of view.  A point of view of reality, the long view, of the all too often bleak nature of humanity.  We do nothing to prepare ourselves for the world as it is when we willfully ignore this. 
We do everything when we face the world as it is - change what we can, by embracing Torah, the scope of Jewish beliefs, Avodah, Jewish practice, and Gemilut Hasadim, the Jewish emphasis on helping locally and those difficult to help.
What about antisemitism, my next topic?  After what I’ve said, do I really need to go into great lengths explaining this to you?  Has not an entire history of Judaism been replete with people who hate us for who we are and even continue to hate us when we try to stop being who we are, still wanting to kill us? 
While we yet live in one of, if not the most welcoming non-Jewish country in human history for Jews, we also see how right there, close at hand, ready to reach out and grab us, antisemitism is even here. 
Again, we see the wickedness in human hearts fully on display with antisemitism.  And again, and again we know – now first-hand, the response of the Jewish community to it.  When Tree of Life Synagogue was attacked on Shabbat, the next morning we had over 100 people here for a special service – one of many held in our larger community in response.  And while I believe I do in fact do a lot to fight antisemitism, I also know that in 2000 years this is not going away, yet my will to fight goes on.
You may have seen the article just recently of the Holocaust survivor who hid a shofar with him in Auschwitz.  That!   That is what I want you to take away from the fight against antisemitism.  Exactly that level of commitment to Jewish Practice, Jewish Belief and Jewish Helping.  We fight such hatred best by proudly, even defiantly, relying on our tradition and what it offers us. 
Over the summer I had recommended to me a book which I read called White Fragility.  It argues the inherent racist nature of white society in America.  It was a challenging book to the say the least, but what did it make me think about?  That pressing moral issues of our day, like gun control, like opioid drug addiction, issues that have become national issues -  that they’ve become so only at this time because now, they are impacting white communities, with whom, let’s face it, we Jews tend to have way more in common when it comes to things like this. 
Even though the majority of people killed with a gun are not killed in a mass shooting or even by homicide – but rather through suicide.  And even among homicides you are far, far more likely to be killed by a gun if you are a non-white American than even a Jew sitting in synagogue. 
And yet it is now that we are “up in arms” about this.  I mean, I guess better late than never. 
Hearing that, don’t you feel just a little ashamed that you didn’t think to be upset by any of the gun violence before it was white people and white kids getting shot?  I mean, maybe you were, but I feel like probably not. 
Or as the comedian Dave Chappelle observes, white opioid addiction is considered an emergency of health in America now, while black crack addiction in the 80s was about crime and the helpful advice of, “just say no.”  Seems like maybe we are failing our fellow human beings, let alone our fellow Americans.
So when I express, brazenly, on behalf of Judaism, that Judaism probably wasn’t really helping you figure out how to help people who were suffering anyway, because if it were, you would have been outraged long before now, I think that’s appropriately brazen. 
And when I further suggest that a deepening of our attachments to Judaism, to life punctuated by moments of holiness so we are keen to notice the holiness of the world around us and of the people around us, to a Judaism that recognizes the image of God in all others - To a Judaism that recognizes the suffering that all people carry and endure in a world - as I feel I have taken great pains to demonstrate is too often a terrible place given what we do to each other – that is what we need more of. 
We need a world where you light Shabbat candles every Friday and just as regularly put money in your pushke, your tzedakah box, as our ancestors did.  We need to see our Rebbe’s Tisch revitalized to feed the needy who have never gone away in our community.  Do you know Long Island has a problem with human trafficking?  I did not until I attended a meeting of the Sherriff’s Chaplains Council, but in fact many people, many women and children, are treated like slaves right where we live!  That is outrageous and shameful.  And furthermore, I think that is something if we worked together, we could actually do something to significantly address. 
We need to act passionately in the right ways.  And we must recognize sometimes we will try and not be able to help – and yet still try.   
And that brings me, finally, to politics.  Carrying on from where I was – just like my summer reading was making the case that being a white person and not ever seeing, or interacting with, or having friends, or even caring at all about people of color isn’t so far of a jump from actually just being racist against people of color for whites – I would imagine that not knowing or talking to or being friends with or caring about people who are really, really, really different from you on political issues is probably not making it any better for you to be able to work with those people to solve things. 
Now, if you want to take my bleak assessment of people and say, “well there’s no point because bad people are bad” I really think that’s disingenuous when it comes to people of opposing political views.
And here’s why.  Judaism teaches beyond a doubt the following:
1.  People are full of pain and hurt and fears and burdens just like you.  They have lost, they have had dreams completely crushed, they have been hurt in ways they may not even realize by people who should have never hurt them.
2.  They are also creatures of God like you.  None of us asked to be created.  And none of us is better than any other.  And as we are praying about today, none of us is free of “sin” (you know I know that you love it when I talk about you all being sinners).
And so, if those things are true, and we have them in common, couldn’t we be just a little more thoughtful and kinder towards each other?
What do we do in the face of a violent world?  A changing world?  A world full of so many hurt and broken people?  We can acknowledge that we don’t have nearly the answers and nearly the influence necessary to address all issues, perhaps not even to understand those issues.
But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.  We are taught “not to abandon the work even if we cannot finish it.”  I don’t want you not to care, not to try – just to realize that may be all you can do, and that’s okay. 
Because ours is not the mission of only one life.  Ours must be a mission that embraces the history of humanity of which we are only a part.  On that scale we can only hope to nudge things a little this way or that.  And for such a mission Judaism is perfectly fit.  Teaching us gemilut chasadim, seeking to lift up the burdens of others, Torah and Avodah, of study of Jewish belief and practice of Jewish ritual. 
In this year ahead that I suspect will be challenging and hard for us as a nation, for us as the Jewish People, for us as the world, and most likely for us – let our lives be enriched and inspired by the mystery and majesty of Torah, Avodah, and Gemilut Chasadim and recognize in them – in Jewish Thought, Jeiwsh Practice, and Jewish Helping, the tools for meeting all life’s challenges.     

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