Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Rosh Hashanah 5780/2019 - What Lincoln Talked Schechter

L’shanah Tovah Tikateivu.  There is an important story for us to remember tonight – about a Jewish leader betrayed by other Jews while at a meal attended by twelve people. 
You are probably thinking of a different supper with twelve, or I guess thirteen people in attendance.  This one happened about 610 years before that one, thus nearly 2600 years ago – in the year 582 BCE and tradition tells us it happened on Rosh Hashanah.  It is a meal, an event, whose lesson touches on a chapter of American history, on our Conservative Movement’s birth, and demands our attention today.  For as much as it is a story of hope smashed and peace that never came to be – it is still a vital reminder and warning to us to fight for such things, to risk it all even.
The meal was held in the holy city of Mitzpeh, and during it, Gedaliah, the Jewish governor of Babylonian controlled Judah, was assassinated.  This event, just four years following the destruction of the First Temple and conquest of Judah by the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, who had left Gedaliah as his governor, would end any semblance of Jewish autonomy in Israel for a lifetime.    
The story appears in 2 Kings and in Jeremiah and in great detail in the writings of Josephus.  We learn that Ishmael ben Netaniah, a member of the Jewish royal family, with backing of the king of Ammonites, was given an audience with Gedaliah, the Babylonian-appointed governor who, while appointed by the Babylonians sought to maintain Jewish life in the region (he for example was an ally and the guardian of the prophet Jeremiah).  Gedaliah had been told Ishmael had nefarious designs but refused to believe it.  Once the party got going, Ishmael struck, killed the governor, the Jews and even Babylonians with him and then fled to his allies in Ammon, across the Jordan River. 
Now some would argue that Ishmael was a Jewish patriot killing a collaborator, though it is far more likely he was a tool of the Ammonites seeking their own power.  Further, Jeremiah the prophet vouches for Gedaliah as being loyal to the Jewish cause and working under highly compromised circumstances for the best of Jewish People.  Even the fact Gedaliah refused to believe a fellow Jew would try to kill him, and that he would not act preemptively against Ishmael, tell us his values. 
The Jews, at least all the remaining leadership, fled to Egypt, the Babylonians rival for regional dominance.  They rightly feared the Babylonian reprisals which did come for the murder of the Babylonian appointed governor.  And ignoring his insistence to remain in the Holy Land, they took Jeremiah with them.    
Writing much later, Maimonides wrote, “the day on which Gedaliah ben Achikam was slain, the ember of Israel that remained was extinguished, causing their exile to become complete” (Mishneh Torah, Fasts 5:2).
To this day, we mark the day following Rosh Hashanah as Tzom Gedaliah, the Fast of Gedaliah.  An important day not because we care about Egypto-Babylonian politics, but because while exile did become complete for Gedaliah’s generation, the memory of men like Gedaliah, would serve to inspire others to not give up hope and bring together the Jewish People. 
It is a needed lesson today for Israel, where not so long ago, the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin by a fellow Jew tragically, tore from the great tome of Jewish history, the promise of a chapter that might have contained peace for Israel but remains unwritten to this day.  Let us pray tonight such a chapter is eventually written.
And a vital lesson for us sadly today in America.  And one that also has parallels to the American past.  Booth’s assassination of Lincoln following the Civil War occurred at a time like that following the destruction of the First Temple, or Israel in the 1990s – a fragile and perilous time where the possibility of restoration and peace was dim at best and through Lincoln’s murder, that hope was dashed, changing American history forever.
Lincoln was a hero to Solomon Schechter, founder of Conservative Judaism in America.  Schechter spoke of reading about Lincoln in Romania as a youth (he was 18 when Lincoln was shot) and the American President remained a source of inspiration for the red-haired rabbi.   Speaking about Lincoln to the Seminary’s graduates over a hundred years ago, Schechter quoted words attributed to Lincoln’s Inaugural in 1861 he said they “rise to the heights of a mystical hymn,” and I think Schechter was right. 
Lincoln said: ‘we are not enemies but friends.  We must not be enemies.  Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.  The mystic cords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union when again touched, as surely, they will be, by the better angels of our nature.’  With Lincoln, as with Rabin and Gedaliah, we see another time when that flame was extinguished.
It should be meaningful to us that the founder of our own Movement, Schechter, thought so highly of Lincoln.  Schechter understood the drive leaders such as these had, even if they were unable to achieve their goals in their lifetimes.  He understood the severe damage disunity could have.  Schechter lived this ideal.  He never sought to found a Movement – his name for what we are (arguably an even worse name than “Conservative Judaism”) was “Catholic Israel” –because he felt that all Israel, all Jews, from very liberal to very traditional, should all see and think of each other as “friends not enemies” and relate to each other guided by “our better angels.”
He would approve of the lesson we learn from the Talmud that on Rosh Hashanah, a person who has already heard the shofar can nevertheless blow it for another Jew who has yet to hear it, because, “every Jew is responsible for every other” kol Yisrael aravim zeh b’zeh (Shev. 39a).
Even though generally if you’ve performed a mitzvah you can’t “do it again” for someone else, we nevertheless make an important distinction when it comes to the shofar, it is a mitzvah that “isn’t done” until everyone has heard it. 
It makes Rosh Hashanah a Day of Unity, then.  For what else is a day on which we ask for forgiveness and give it in return, and work to mend relationships, but a Day of Unity after all?  Showing us in fact the ingredients necessary for Unity – to forgive and to be humble.
For us as Jews as well as for us as Americans, remembering this is critical.  Remembering the lesson of today Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Unity, contrasted with Wednesday, Tzom Gedaliah, the Day of Disunity – is a lesson to carry into this new year and every new year.
Maimonides also wrote, “Notwithstanding that the blowing of the ram's horn trumpet on Rosh ha-Shanah is a Torah statute, its blast is symbolic, as if saying: "Ye that sleep, stir yourselves and examine your conduct, turn in repentance to your Creator! …It is necessary for everyone to imagine throughout the whole year that you are evenly balanced between innocence and guilt, and that the entire world is evenly balanced between innocence and guilt;  and thus, if you commit one sin, you will tip over, and the whole world will tip over to the side of guilt, and be destroyed.  But that the opposite will be true should you do one good deed and thus save the world, for as Proverbs say, ‘The righteous are an everlasting foundation’" (Hilchot Teshuvah 3:4).
Let this be a year in which the spirit of Rosh Hashanah prevails over the spirit of Tzom Gedaliah.  The spirit of Schechter continues to guide us, Schechter’s spiritual children.  To be motivated by unity.  To see in every interaction the opportunity to bring people together with the power of forgiveness and an attitude of humility, to make friends out of enemies, to remember those, like Gedaliah and Rabin and Lincoln, who risked even their lives to achieve unity and peace in times of trouble and strife, and see to it their spirits live on.
Shanah Tovah

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