Thursday, October 8, 2020

Rabbi Jacob the Son of the Daughter of Rabbi Jacob, Rosh Hashanah 20


What visible scars do you carry with you?  What are the ways in which you are hurt that are impossible to hide?  We seem to collect more of these as we go through life.  First surprised to find them, and then if not resigned, certainly more than aware we will endure them.  While you can think of those physical, tangible, wounds you may carry, that is not what I primarily mean. 

The holidays are about repenting, teshuvah, but the corollary is forgiveness, mechilah and selichah, without which teshuvah is impossible. 

Yet there are many wrongs done to us for which teshuvah on the part of the wrongdoer never comes.  Never offers the healing necessary.  And in those cases, we may bear wounds because of it.  And even when teshuvah has been done, there is still the issue of what happens with the scars, though healed, that we, the wronged, carry with us. 

There is a story I feel an urgency to share with you on this topic.  A story about the power that comes with the ability to forgive, or at least to free oneself, at least to start to heal oneself, to exert one’s own God-given agency over one’s life, and learn to live even with the hurt emotional, mental, spiritual, hurts we all come to carry.

The Talmud is not organized the way you might want it to be.  This great compendium of Jewish law, theology, customs, and stories, does not read like a dictionary, organized A to Z.  It is not the Bill of Rights covering one topic and moving to the next.  It is stream of conscious, it leaves ideas and question unresolved, it doesn’t always make clear who is saying what.  It reads like a Faulkner novel, like a student’s bad classroom notes.  At least on the surface anyway. 

Yet there we can find a subtler organization if we search for it.  We can see the editors put the stories together with thought, just not the thought process you or I might employ.  Nevertheless, in struggle to bring order to confusion, well earned lessons about life reveal themselves.

Around a month and a half ago in the cycle of the Daf Yomi, the practice of reading a folio page of Talmud a day, we encounter a teaching by a sage whose name is Rabbi Jacob the son of the daughter of Rabbi Jacob.  It’s a unique mouthful of a name. 

He presents a teaching on the topic under discussion, which is whether the priests in the Temple should cast lots over which of them received the offerings by the Jews that were given to the priests for their sustenance.  His contribution to the discussion seems to teach that anything that can keep the priests from arguing (in this case, casting lots) over the sacred gifts is worth doing so as not to make a good thing bad and a cause for fighting.

As is often the case, when one teaching of a rabbi is stated, the Talmud will give us more by the same sage.  Doing so gives us a little picture of the teacher – we see perhaps a little of their thought process, get a little story going about them that deepens what they have to say through our knowing them better.

Now we already know something about Rabbi Jacob.  We know something through his name.  Unlike the typical, so-and-so, the son of his father, which we normally get and still do, his father’s name is omitted for a very clunky son of the daughter of the grandfather. 

It’s a name that labels him very clearly as, if not a bastard, then at least, as the Masoret ha-Shas commentary explains, ‘brei’ u’mishum sh’aviv lo hayah hagun, lifichach lo hizkiru, “’son of the daughter’ on account of his father not be respectable, therefore, he is not mentioned.” A person with a wicked father. 

Imagine what he must have brought into every interaction introducing himself that way or being known as such.  Is it like the way one might think of the divorced person, the person who has served time in jail or prison, the person who was abused?  The person towards whom we probably should feel some sympathy and understanding, or towards whom we should not ascribe any particular feelings, and yet, who, even if we can’t help it, we might look at with just a little suspicion, derision, or condescension. 

With that in mind, what is his second teaching presented after the first one? 

וְאָמַר רַבִּי יַעֲקֹב בְּרֵיהּ דְּבַת יַעֲקֹב: כָּל שֶׁחֲבֵירוֹ נֶעֱנָשׁ עַל יָדוֹ — אֵין מַכְנִיסִין אוֹתוֹ בִּמְחִיצָתוֹ שֶׁל הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא

“And Rabbi Jacob, son of the daughter of Jacob, said: Anyone who causes another to be punished on his account, they do not bring him within the court of the Holy Bless One, even if he is right in doing so.”

An example of how this works is given regarding King Ahab.  The beginning of the king’s demise came about when his supporters began to question him.   This came about because the spirit of Naboth, who Ahab had had murdered so as to steal his property, went out and made people believe lies and debasing and wicked things about the king.  Though King Ahab clearly deserved it, nevertheless, we are told, that for doing this, Naboth’s spirit was punished by being separated from God. 

What’s the overall principle here?  We are told, גַּם עֲנוֹשׁ לַצַּדִּיק לֹא טוֹב״” - “Punishment is also not good for the righteous” (Proverbs 17:26), meaning that it is not good for a righteous person to issue punishment.

What do we learn from these two teaching by Rabbi Jacob the son of a son of a…bad man?  That he brings to his teachings a concern for forgiveness and togetherness.  Whether it’s keeping the priests from fighting over what should be their holy privilege, or reminding us that even to punish evil-doers can be a risk to the spiritual welfare of the good person, encouraging unity and fellow-feeling in the most difficult of times is the mission of this man.

Rabbi Jacob, who grew up being scarred by a father who utterly failed to understand this.  Rabbi Jacob, who endured the scorn and looks of those who judged him for the family in which he was born. 

Rather than be imprisoned by his hurts by his sufferings, he overcame them.  He used them as impetus for good and healing. 

Let all of us consider embracing this lesson with regards to our own injuries.  While I cannot compel you to do so, you may choose to.  You may choose to rise about those who’ve hurt you and also be a force for healing and good in the world.  And what an example, what a world we could create!  L’shanah Tovah and Shabbat Shalom!

This Passes, Rosh Hashanah 20


One spring, Solomon challenged his advisors, “find me a gift by next Rosh Hashanah that will make the happy person look at it and become circumspect, and the sad person look at it and become hopeful.” 

The advisors searched all over, until just before the new year one passed a poor old jeweler selling a ring – and this ring was the gift Solomon wanted. 

When it was presented to the king he smiled and thanked his advisors for finding the gift that would teach humility to even the most powerful and richest of man of all.  And what was special about the ring?  On it were written three Hebrew letters: gimel, zayin, and yud, standing for, גַּם זֶה יַעֲבֹר‏‎, gam zeh yaavor, “this too, shall pass.”

It is funny how a story so widely known, one that you’ve probably heard before, one you may have even heard from a guy in Jerusalem who told it to you while selling you just such a ring, isn’t really a Jewish story at all.  Or at least, requires a footnote at the end to give us the correct meaning. 

Because, while it is good to remember that everything passes– certainly, a relief to know in the face of the pandemic and quarantine, and the other disasters and challenges we face.  But if that is the end of the story, that it’s all for naught, that all the joy and happiness in your life is nothing more than a mirage on an endless, flat, featureless, colorless desert, that even the sad and tragic losses and failures and mistakes completely lack in meaning, that seems incorrect.    

Last High Holidays our 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, helped us learn about teshuvah, and much to my surprise, he’s back to help us again in understanding the right, the Jewish, way to read this story.

In his version, from before the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society, basically a state fair, held on September 30th, 1859.  He shares, “It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words, "And this, too, shall pass away." How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! How consoling in the depths of affliction!”

Lincoln said this at the end of a truly marvelous speech, one you should look up after the holiday to see the workings of a master orator, called “Thorough Cultivation.”  To the farmers he was addressing, he begins by noting how great State Fairs are, (and on this point, speaking as a kid who grew up in Illinois and attended my “fair” share of county and state fairs, I disagree) because they--  “bring us together and make us better friends than we otherwise would be.”  This, Lincoln says, is important because, while for much of history, treating the outsider with scorn was allowed and even celebrated, friendship can, “correct the evils, great and small, which spring from want of sympathy [between] strangers, [being it is] one of the highest functions of civilization.”

He deftly starts by stating the obvious.  To his audience that with modern technology a field “thoroughly cultivated” produces more, both in terms of yield and in terms of satisfaction and dignity to the one tilling it.  Having established what is universally understood to be good for fields, “thorough cultivation” – he then says the same is true for human beings as well.  People have the right to be educated, treated with dignity and respect for their innate humanity, and not say --oh I don’t know, maybe Lincoln means – treated like slaves -- our fellow humans will not only contribute more to society, but will gain the reward owed them to live as all should, with equality and respect. 

It is at this point he adds the lesson we need to wrap up his version of the Solomon story:

“And yet, let us hope, it is not quite true. Let us hope, rather, that by the best cultivation of the physical world beneath and around us, and the intellectual and moral world within us, we shall secure an individual, social, and political prosperity and happiness, whose course shall be onward and upward, and which, while the earth endures, shall not pass away.”

None of us is guaranteed that even some of our works will endure forever.  But even so, like Lincoln’s farmer, if anything still matters, and it does, it is the value of kavod ha-briot.  Of human dignity.  Realizing our best lives are lived when we see that what is true for us, that our lives can matter and mean something, is true about the potential of every other human being on earth. 

Our current circumstances should teach us that.  You really want the biggest things you take away from living through a quarantine to be that you watched all of Tiger King and that you can now also not pay attention during remote meetings? 

Wouldn’t it be better to have learned the value of life?  That people we might have belittled, are more vitally important to your life than you ever imagined?  Or that people who don’t look like me or live like me may have problems that make them angry enough to want to destroy things, tear them down? Shouldn’t that matter to me enough to want to at least learn about those people, and maybe even try to help them if they need it and I can? 

As different as I may be, and I may not be that different when it comes down it, but as different as I may feel from the African American protesting in Kenosha, full of despair and anger at a system and a history in our shared country that holds back people who look like him for no other reason than their appearance – I should want to snap out of my complacency, which after all contributes with its silence to the ills of the world, and understand -- and in understanding want to help him or her. 

Like Lincoln, doing so will have its tangible results – making a happy, productive citizen, and yet have deeper, higher meaning -- helping a fellow struggling human being attain their God-given dignity.

That though, seems far more obvious a setting in which wanting to understand and wanting to help, given a well-known history, are the choices one should make. 

More challengingly, at least for me, is a different example.  One that through what I’ve heard and seen, and through my stereotypes and fears, opens a great chasm of distance – for me anyway.  What should I feel towards the white American at a rally in Sturgis?  He or she feels intimidatingly foreign to me.  Their lifestyle is nothing like mine, their faith is nothing like mine.  And my assumptions about them, and my assumptions about their assumptions about me – lead me to want to have nothing to do with them.  Yet, even here, shouldn’t I want to understand and perhaps even try to help that fellow human as well?  For while I believe our country’s history clearly shows the African-American community far more wrong and far  more lacking justice today, does that mean I should give not a thought to whatever fears and anger and even hate the person in Sturgis feels?  And not to be too impressed with myself, would it not be even more of an achievement to seek that regarding one I feel so negatively about?  

The lesson, I think could be taken to apply in many cases for all of, I believe.   

And is it not also an achievement to act with courageous empathy and patience to those who misunderstand me?  And even more listen to those who can help me when I am wrong?  I don’t want to be wrong in life, I want to be good, too.  And I don’t think I’m alone wanting that.  At least I pray I’m not.  Isn’t that a reason to want to understand and reach out even to those with whom we disagree or those we either believe or know are hurting our world?

It’s a huge task.  I don’t know all the steps that will get us there.  Yet I am convinced this is a first step towards becoming, “better friends than we otherwise would be.” 

I love the humility in the gam zeh ya’avor story.  But I also love what President Lincoln, and our own tradition add to it – that even if it passes away, and all the more if it endures, we must bravely follow their advice. Will doing so mean we will always achieve it?  No.  Does it mean we will avoid conflict with evil-doers and evil ideas – certainly not.  Those we must defeat by any means necessary.  But “any means” includes with friendship and understanding, too.

This is not the weak path.  It is the strong one.  Let our strength be to make a stranger a friend.  And to meet with courageous understanding and patience the one who looks at us lacking such strength. 

And let us pray to God, ken yehi ratzon, so may it be. So may it be God’s will we appreciate this in the year to come.  Amen.

Forgive Anyway, Rosh Hashanah 20


One thing about Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur has always bothered me.  And that is forgiveness.  In the way we teach it – everything is about teshuvah.  Teshuvah is returning, teshuvah is repentance.  For wrong-doings, sins, committed bein-adam-limkomo, God and People, God forgives if we atone.  Bein-adam-l’chavero, between People – we must atone to them.  How do we do teshuvah?  We must recognize we’ve erred, we must find the proper way to truly fix the mend in the relationship, seek out the offended party, and when placed in the same position not sin again – and only then have we done Teshuvah properly.  We can’t send a blanket email “hey sorry if I was a jerk this year.”  Most likely, we can’t even just say “sorry” for the stuff that really matters.  And yet we are all aspring to do teshuvah.

But the other side – the forgiving, that I feel is never addressed – unless I missed that day in rabbinical school.  And that disturbs me because with as high a standard for success as teshuvah requires, it seems obvious that a lot of needed teshuvah never happens.  And then if you’re the person who was hurt – it seems like you’re stuck.  Can you forgive people who are, by our definition, “still bad?”  Are we dummies for doing that?  Are we letting ourselves be taken advantage of or failing to help the wrong doer learn an important lesson?  Where is the lesson plan about that? 

Finally, I’m going to try and figure this out – that was my thinking coming to today.  Where is the wisdom in our tradition that would guide us to answers for all these questions?

To begin with, all these questions point to something great about Judaism.  Forgiveness matters.  Tremendously.  It is a treasure that can’t be given away for nothing.  And it can be abused.  It can lead to peace of mind; it can lead to peace between aggrieved parties.  And it can also be a tool maliciously used by those who hurt and who fail to think of others. 


It is perhaps one of the sources of antisemitism as well.  We don’t forgive easily.  Because sometimes justice is necessary, not forgiveness.  Our tradition believes there is evil in the world.  That evil exists even in our failure to take things seriously if doing so leaves others in the lurch or feeling neglected or overlooked.  And so, “justice, justice” we must pursue.  Not, “forgiveness, forgiveness.” 


A number of years ago, the store of a woman called Eva Korr became well known.  She was a Holocaust survivor, a twin who survived but whose sister didn’t.  As an elderly woman, she forgave all the Nazis for what they did.  And a big deal was made of this.  In part, I think, because this fit the prevailing American, Western, Christian, way forgiveness is understood. 


Vehemently, I disagree with her.   And I believe in the maxim that any Holocaust survivor is entitled to any opinion about anything related to God, religion, or evil that they want.  But the statement she made, about which I’m sure she did thoughtfully and with consideration, came across, at least in how it was reported in a way that was wrong.  One simply cannot offer forgiveness to people for crimes they committed against other people.  And for every Nazi, every collaborator, who murdered someone, halachah confirms for us there can be no forgiveness, as the only one who could give it is dead. 


Yet on one point she was right.  True to the notion that bearing a grudge is like stabbing yourself and thinking you’ll wound the other person, a woman like Eva Korr was on to something in doing what she did.  While I believe the extent to which she went was wrong because she forgave even those she never knew and whose crimes were committed directly against others if still indirectly against her -- if what she did freed her from the death camp in which she had remained even decades after having been liberated from Auschwitz, there was value in that. There was righteousness in that for her, and that is no insignificant thing.    


As we are told in the Talmud, if we can forgive others like this, “God in turn will dismiss our sins” (Talmud Bav’li, Rosh Hashanah 17a).  In a modern context, that may well mean freeing us of whatever may stunt us and embitter us, causing us to perpetuate problems.


And our tradition also teaches, the one who strives to be a good person runs the risk of injuring herself or himself if they seek too eagerly to punish even those who deserve it. 


What then is there to learn from all this about forgiveness?  It doesn’t feel like we’ve gotten very far at all in learning anything knew. 


That it seems, is the point.  Forgiveness is an important value in Judaism.  As we started by saying, it can free us from burdens that were placed upon us and that only hold us down – this is true regardless of what the one who has hurt us does or doesn’t do. 


Yet forgiveness cannot, must not, be celebrated as the highest virtue, as the chief-most virtue. 

In our tradition, justice must stand besides forgiveness.  Not forgiving or withholding forgiveness until the right time serves both justice and forgiveness.


Additionally, our emphasis on teshuvah throughout the holidays supports this as well.  The individual may be ennobled, may be freed, by an ability to forgive.  But a society cannot be.  It must not be cruel, but it must teach responsibility towards one another as the cornerstone for survival, as the key that opens the way for God’s presence to enter the world.  That is what the emphasis on teshuvah teaches us, as hard a lesson as it may be.  We can only but live surrounded by others and constantly in relationship to them.    


We Jews are called upon, at our best, to live lives of struggle with the highest of human ideals.  This understanding of forgiveness, as important but not paramount, not when placed besides justice and responsibility, that is the lesson we must live and teach through how we live.

L’shanah Tovah Tikateivu v’Tichatemu, Shabbat Shalom

Torah and Derech Eretz, Yom Kippur 20


What’s the right way to hold this [fork]?  Is there even a right way?  Americans are, or were, taught an additional step to make them slow down when eating, but the original method is to hold it like this, tines curving down, index finger pressing on the stem, and poke into your food while, holding your knife in the right hand in similar fashion, you slice, not saw, through your bite, and then lift it on your fork to your mouth – and then chew with your mouth closed!

Such is how one with “good manners” eats.  For many, the idea of “manners” in this sense can feel dated, antiquated – I really need more than one fork?  I really need a water glass and a wine glass (think of the “wrong glass, sir” scene in The Blues Brothers to imagine that one)?

Yet, as insignificant as it may seem, holding a fork in that way is “the best” way to manipulate such a tool.  Taking the time to learn, know and apply all the knowledge of fork-use is not only efficient, but is, or can be, a little gift you bestow, by acting your best even about small things, too. 

Once, when walking with my rabbi, Rabbi Schimmel, to synagogue, he stopped and sighed a little and, apropos of nothing said, “you know, Germany was such a wonderful place before the Nazis.”  He had grown up there, in Frankfurt am Main, and left around 1935.  Yekkes, German Jews, take the prize for being concerned with “manners,” or as we would say in Hebrew, derech eretz.

Derech eretz, “the way of the land,” like “manners” in English is inclusive of things like holding your fork, but also of so much more – which is why we discuss it now.  Part of why it is such an important feature related to German Jewry is the emphasis placed on it by Rabbi Sampson Raphael Hirsch, one of its great leaders in the 19th century.  He wrote:

“Derech eretz includes everything that flows from the human need to perfect one’s destiny and life, together with society, through the medium of the earth’s bounty. Hence, the term is used in reference to earning a living,  establishing civic order, and to the paths of discipline, manners and refinement that social life require, as well as to everything that touches upon the development of humankind and civility.”

As we will attempt to see, understanding derech eretz is vitally critical to each of us not just surviving during this time in our country, but perhaps even saving it and ourselves. 

Even derech eretz when taken in the “prim and proper” sense teaches us something.  Rabbi Schimmel talked about how going to synagogue in Germany meant wearing a “cylinder,” a top hat.  Or how when Eastern European Jews came to shul with their tzitzit “indecorously” sticking out would be told to tuck them in, or how, when I became his intern, my choice not to wear a robe (as he did) for funerals disappointed some congregants.

All these may seem funny and anachronistic and out of date, but consider – was it trivial to the grieving family who felt their loved one was honored when “the rabbi” wore vestments even into the cemetery, regardless of whether it was dusty or muddy or rainy?  Or to express through how one dresses the importance we feel about some event? Or even as a reason to remember that showing off, even in a religious context, isn’t as pious as having a quiet dignity that doesn’t draw attention to itself? 

As much as all those examples demonstrate how the “small” features of derech eretz can make a difference in our lives, the next few will cement for us how, at a time in our country when all too many around us, when even “us,” are sorely lacking in derech eretz, that we need it. 

Rabbi Schimmel also taught me how, as a baker’s son, he learned the smile on a customer’s face when you gave them something they were sure to delight in was worth more than however many marks they might pay you. 

Or, how about their maid, a young German woman, his father, Elias, instructed my rabbi and his six siblings, “you are not to refer to her as ‘that girl’ and never as “the shikseh.”  She has a name and you will use it.” 

Or the story I’ve shared of how one night Elias found a Nazi party member passed out drunk on their front steps and brought him a blanket and pillow, only for the man, when he came to the next morning, to curse about a “Jew-boy” ever doing something as considerate as that. 

…I can’t comprehend how stories of true derech eretz true menschlichkeit, seem for so many in America today, as antiquated and out of date as the top hat one.  How did we come to live in a country as coarse as ours now?  Driven to our current low state by, of all things, politics. 

All us Americans – so carefully informed and following politics so closely.  Rooting for our side to win and your side to lose ignominiously.  No doubt that’s why House Resolution 5363, which became Public Law #116-91 just before the pandemic must frustrate you all so much.

You know, the one called, “Fostering Undergraduate Talent by Unlocking Resources for Education Act or the FUTURE Act,” permanently authorizing funding for minority-serving institutions of higher education?

How annoying that such a dastardly piece of legislation passed in the House with almost 400 votes and passed by unanimous consent in the Senate.  What were they all thinking to come together on something terrible like that? 

Are we even aware of such things?  And if we are, do they temper our views?  Certainly, there are issues of grave concern over which loyal and patriotic American differ mightily – but does that mean we need to hate each other because of it?  Use insults?  Cast aspersions?  Is it worth all that?  And even if the other side is doing it to you, does it make your side better to return fire? 

Isn’t doing so at least as bad as dressing slovenly to a wedding? Don’t let yourself be manipulated that way!  Whatever TV channel you’re watching, I suppose unless it’s CSPAN or you watch Canadian news or something, isn’t your network at least a little motivated to keep you glued to screen?  Is truth, is thoughtfulness, served by such a motive?

I truly worry for our country on this point.  I worry about this more than any other one thing.  As important as many of the issues we confront as Americans today mean to me, demonizing each other is not going to help achieve success in supporting them.  Is that naïve?  Probably.  Is the person who posts provocative stuff on Facebook any less naïve thinking someone somewhere is saying, “your all caps post has shown me the error of my ways?”

There is a famous saying about “derech eretz, derech eretz kadma la-Torah,” “Derech eretz precedes the Torah.”  How can it be that manners, civility, being a mensch, come before the Torah?  The rabbis explain it with a midrash about Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden: “God drove them out, and stationed east of Eden cherubim and the fiery ever-turning sword, to guard the way to the tree of life.” (Gen. 3:24) – The midrash is that “way” derech eretz, comes before “tree of life” which is the Torah. 

God gifted humankind civility, thoughtfulness, consideration towards others at the very start.  Torah wasn’t revealed to Moses for centuries after that. 

Just as Jeremiah tells us:  For when I brought your ancestors out of the land of Egypt, I did not merely command them about burnt offerings and sacrifices, but I commanded them: Obey Me, and I will be your God, and you will be My people. You must walk in all the ways וַהֲלַכְתֶּ֗ם בְּכָל־הַדֶּ֙רֶךְ֙ I have commanded you, so that it may go well with you.”

If our own tradition teaches us that as important as our prayers and rituals are, at least as important, and maybe more so, is acting properly towards each other – how can you think that your identity as an American, as a Republican, as a Democrat, is ennobled through nasty, debasing words and deeds? 

My friends, I feel obliged to say all this to you.  To do what I can to correct a plague that I hope you will join me in fighting – that of belittling and demonizing others in this country, by treating them respectfully instead.

If Elias Schimmel, a Jew in the 1930s, could offer a blanket to a drunk Nazi, and feel he’d done the right thing even after being disparaged by the very man he helped, can we not bring ourselves to see those who oppose us as generously?  Even if you feel the people on the other side are as bad as Nazis, recall that if you want to put it that way, then both the “Nazis” and the “Bolsheviks” all voted for that FUTURE Act we were talking about.  Sometimes both sides aren’t that bad. 

We Jews brought Torah into the world.  We Jews are meant to be a light to the nations.  But according to the midrash, all human beings deserve the inheritance given to Adam and Eve which is derech eretz – proper, good, holy treatment by others.  And it is a tribute, an honor, a glory we bestow on our departed loved ones to live in such a way as does their spirits proud.  Let us make our success at spreading this universal value part of how we fulfill our particular, our Jewish, purpose in the new year that has just begun.

G’mar Chatimah Tovah!

Eternal Hope, Yom Kippur 20


I believe Messiah has already come.  Actually, two messiahs.  And no, not the loaves and fishes guy, and not, for those of you who like nerdy Jewish references, not Shabbetai Zvi. No, I believe they were Theodor Herzl and David ben-Gurion.  I can give the rest of that sermon another time – very quickly, Jewish tradition offers the idea that when the messiah comes, first there will be Moshiach ben Yosef, kind of a preliminary messiah, and then Moshiach ben David, the actual messiah.  Furthermore, it is not at all necessary that in coming the messiah does any miraculous things.  In fact, one of the key things the messiah needs to do is bring the Jews back to an Israel not subservient to any other power.  Hence – and truly, this is serious for me, they were the messiahs.  No fanfare, no smoke, but making the miraculous, the nearly impossible come to be. 

Because Israel is the realization of a dream.  A dream made reality.  Not always pretty, not always perfect, but a dream, that a miracle would come to pass.  And that miracles don’t require a thunderbolt from on high, they can be brought about by courageous and willing human hands.

The hands of those with dream.  For what do dreams do?  The best dreams inspire us.  Give us hope.   The world today needs more of it.  While Judaism shapes the outline of my dreams, looking to Israel reminds me dreams can become reality, with all that reality implies about being imperfect and in progress – but a dream realized, nonetheless.  That hope extends to my feelings about Israel and the Middle East, to the rest of the world, and back to us here, and even to withinside us – here. 

There is so much terrible in our lives now – the ongoing stress and danger of Covid-19.  The passing of an exemplary American Jew in Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  xamples of miscarried justice as we only just saw in the Breonna Taylor case.  The killing of police officers, civilians, rioting and destruction, that have marred what should have been the patriotic and time-honored American tradition of civil disobedience.  All terrible.  All can cause us to want to give up hope. 

It is said Franz Rosenzweig, the great German Jewish philosopher was on his way to convert to Christianity when he decided to attend Kol Nidrei services.  Hearing the prayer’s haunting melody and its message, directed precisely at Jews like him, who, for whatever reason may feel they had to hide or give up their Jewish identity, and declaring they, too, are beloved by God and part of the Jewish People – Rosenzweig abandoned his previous plan and had what would prove to be a historic change of heart. 

Kol Nidrei which we only just heard, is a call inviting us, however and whyever we may feel distanced from God, that even if we’ve suffered physically or emotionally, even if had to give up or hide our faith, that it is never too late. 

As Americans, this should offer us hope.  The very real troubles of our country can, with effort, with a dream, be overcome.  And yet, as challenging as the trouble in our lives may be, we mustn’t let them blind us to the truly horrible suffering of others around the world.  And for us as Jews, some of that suffering we should feel ourselves forbidden to ignore. 

Around the world in Asia, in a part of China the Han Chinese call Xinjiang, and which is locally called East Turkestan, the systematic persecution, oppression and even murder of the Uighur community is taking place, even right now.  Something like a million members of this Turkic ethnic group have been put in concentration camps.  Some have been sterilized.  Some have had organs taken from them.  Islam, the religion practiced by most of them, has been suppressed.  Mosques destroyed, Uighurs forced to eat pork and drink alcohol.  Han Chinese have increasingly moved into the area as part of an effort to erase the local culture. 

If you want to talk about modern-day parallels to the Jews’ experience in the Holocaust, this is it.  If you want to talk about a dream to help realize, to help make your own, this should be one of them.  And it is with pride we should note that various Jewish organizations, such as Jewish World Watch and the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice (named after and led by the family of Holocaust survivor, the late congressman Tom Lantos) along with others, are already working to help these people.  To devote even some of our energy, a part of our dreams for a better world to helping the Uighurs would be bringing a miracle into the world. 

And it needn’t be with despair that we look on such a situation in Asia, or any of the challenges we face here.  Wherever we look, we can find examples of hard-fought and hard-won hope worthy of inspiring us. 

We saw the Justice Ginsburg lying in repose at the Supreme Court and in state at the Capitol Building.  Saw for the first time a rabbi speak words of comfort and praise, recite prayers in Hebrew, in that most American of settings.  That should be a sign of hope – for any American Jew that should be stirring. 

And if you want to look for signs of large-scale, region-changing, dreams coming true on a historic scale – look to what has been happening with Israel, that constant source of hope for us as Jews.  While Israel struggles with internal political dissension, and a permanent peace with the Palestinians is yet to be had, it cannot be described as anything short of miraculous to see Israel open relations with the United Arab Emirates and with Bahrain.  To already be quietly achieving detente and even cooperation with Saudi Arabia.  And likely to open diplomatic ties with other Arab countries such as Kuwait, Oman, even The Sudan, if stories in the press are to be believed.  So many thought that such a normalization of relations with countries once pledged to Israel’s destruction would never come unless what’s always been called The Peace Process was resolved first.  Now it may very well be that what brings the Peace Process finally to a close, will be the normalization of relations between Israel and precisely those countries who once sought or supported efforts to destroy it. 

Now – the lesson we should derive from all this.  Has everything been perfect regarding the tributes to Justice Ginsburg, certainly as Jews, we can be proud to see how she has been honored, but as Americans we also all know that for such a public and influential person, political fighting would also be part of how she was eulogized and rembered.  Perfect?  Impossible for it to be.  Inspiring?  Certainly – that a woman and a Jew could be honored so, that’s a dream realized.

And the same is true regarding Israel.  Are these agreements ironclad?  Probably not.  Is it surprising how they came about?  Most certainly?  Are there others challenges and less than perfect aspects to these breakthroughs?  Without a doubt.  But even so, you cannot deny that for all who hope Israel can live in peace and with good relations to all those around it, we cannot but be hopeful. 

These then, are the lessons we must take away. Hope in difficult times springs from dreams of a better world, of our own better selves.  Dreams that we refuse to abandon no matter how long it takes to realize them or what challenges we must overcome.  Hope comes from fighting hard to make those dreams reality.  And dreams of hope may one day bring about reality changing miracles – that won’t make the world perfect but make it better.  That won’t happen through supernatural intervention but because some Austrian journalist (Herzl), some girl from Brooklyn (Ginsburg) some daughter of a congressman (Katrina Lantos-Swett) has the chutzpah to think they can make a difference in the world. 

Let all of us go forward from this place and into the New Year, and make our own chutzpadik dreams of miracles realized happen in our lives. 

G’mar Chatimah Tovah