And when, in time to
come, a child of yours asks you saying, “What does this mean?” you shall reply,
“It was with a mighty hand that the Eternal brought us out of Egypt, the house
We came across this passage from
Exodus Chapter 13 in our Torah study group several weeks ago. We all know well this question
and answer from the Passover Haggadah, in the section about the four different
types of children. The Torah
cites the slavery of the Israelites in Egypt as a fundamental reason for us to
be welcoming to the stranger in our midst, to open our hearts and hands to
people in need, and to treat everyone with respect.
No, your rabbi is not
confused, thinking that we are observing Pesach tonight and not Rosh
Hashanah. The Seder table is
conspicuously absent this evening, as it should be, but Jewish teachings about
freedom never go away. The message
of that "time of our liberation" finds a place in the High Holy Day
prayerbook along with other values at the foundation of our heritage such
as wonder, love, hope, memory,
respect, and peace. Mi
Chamocha and the prayers around it highlight the importance of liberty as a
daily aspiration and consideration.
In the kiddush for Rosh Hashanah, as well as on Shabbat and our
holidays, we recite the phrase, ZEICHEIR LITZIYAT MITZRAYIM – this is a
remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt.
Even when we are holding in our hand a cup of wine, which represents
joy, we still recall a time of oppression and hardship, so that we can be
thankful for whatever freedom and goodness we have and enjoy at a given
moment in our lives.
When we came across the
verse about the child’s Exodus question in our Torah study group, I mentioned
to my study partners that I had recently found a photo online of Jewish
children who had entered the United States via Ellis Island in 1908 due to
circumstances well beyond their control.
These eight children came to our shores through the sponsorship and
support of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. A note at the top of the photograph read, “Orphan children,
mothers killed in Russian massacre in October, 1905.” That particular was difficult and tragic for Jews in
Russia, as anti-Semitic attacks on a number of Jewish communities took many
lives. Those 8 children were
very fortunate to have made their way to America. In the photograph, a close
look reveals a sense of hope in the eyes of those children, as well as
gratitude for being taken to a land of freedom. I would imagine that the children in the photo
eventually had the opportunity to enjoy, throughout the decades that followed,
celebrations of Jewish holidays and
life events, including reciting those words on Pesach that recall, year
after year, our liberation from Egypt.
do we have in our eyes tonight?
What hopes would we express, living in this country and city, and being
present at this congregation as we welcome the New Year? We come from many backgrounds and
many places. I don’t need to do a
show of hands to know that there are multiple countries of origin and cultures
represented here, as well as various regions of the United States. Some of us were born and raised
Jewish. Some of us chose Judaism
as adults. Some of us were raised
in other faiths and are enthusiastically supportive of Jewish observance and
learning that is an integral part of life at home and, by extension, at this
vibrant Jewish congregation.
And, most important, we see ourselves as One community, where each of us
can enhance Jewish life for each other.
We felt comfortable enough
as a congregation this past spring to share the Jewish culture with the greater
Las Cruces Community at the Jewish Food and Folk Festival, better known as the
JFFF. Our Las Cruces
neighbors learned this past April not only that we put on a great event here,
but that we have warm hospitality to offer, an openness which is embedded deep
in our tradition.
Hospitality, our remembrance of
an ancient liberation, and an appreciation of freedom are among the values
central to Judaism. Many of our
programs and even worship services have attracted people who want to know more
about who we are and what we believe.
Adult Education events on Sundays draw many attendees from the local
community, as do our Torah and Talmud study groups and our Introduction to
Judaism course. This type of participation happens at synagogues, Temples and
Jewish Community Centers in many cities around the United States. We are often like Abraham and Sarah,
who welcomed three mysterious guests to their tent who bore good news for their
future. The guests who
join us here for our events strengthen our ties to the greater human family and
illustrate over and over again the words with which we are so familiar: HINEI MAH TOV UMAH NAEEM, SHEVET ACHIM
GAM YACHAD – Behold, how good and how pleasant it is when people dwell together
There are, however, some
people who are unaware at how hospitality and openness has broadened the
background of people who attend programs at Jewish centers and synagogues. One such person was Frazier
Glenn Miller. A former Ku Klux
Klan and white supremacist leader in North Carolina, Miller had changed his name to wipe out his past
associations as he settled in a small Missouri town. The Federal Bureau of Investigation had given him a
protected status because Miller had testified against some of his former fellow
KKK members, likely in order to reduce his time in prison. On April 13 of this year, a
lifetime of hatred bubbled over.
Miller had not been known to be prone to violent acts, but it is clear
that his testimony against his former hateful associates did not lead him to
recant his bigotry. He went to the
Jewish Community Center in
Overland Park, Kansas on a day when the "KC SuperStar" program,
similar to American Idol, was holding auditions. Reat Underwood, a 14 year old student,
accompanied by his grandfather William Corporan, a retired and well respected
physician, went to the JCC to showcase Reat’s talent. They were the two people that Miller confronted in the
parking lot with his question, "Are you Jewish?" and, not waiting for
an answer, shot them both.
Miller then went to Village Shalom, a nearby retirement community, and
shot Terri LaManno, who had just visited her mother there. It was only the Jewish identity
of the places that Miller saw, rather than the religion or background of the
people he murdered – but it really didn’t matter. As it turns out, Corporan and his grandson were members of a
well-known United Methodist Megachurch, Church of the Resurrection, in Overland
LaManno was a member of a Catholic
Church in Kansas City.
At the recent finals of the KC SuperStar Competition, Mindy Corporan
Losen, daughter of William
Corporan and mother of Reat Underwood, made a poignant appearance. In recent
weeks, two women who have been leaders in the Greater Kansas City Jewish
community for many years formed a dailogue group with women from Church of the
Resurrection that would bring their faith communities closer together to
explore their similarities and differences and, especially, to strengthen their
ties to one another. Their reason for meeting likely assures that their group
will continue to build bridges of understanding and respect for a long time to
The idea of the interconnected
nature of humanity is nothing new for us.
This concept of unity and oneness is expressed in a phrase that we
recite in morning and evening worship, and that we can also choose to say when
we get up in the morning and when we lie down to sleep. That prayer is the Shema - please say
the first line with me - SHEMA YISRAEL ADONAI ELOHEINU ADONAI ECHAD. It is likely that our first inclination
in expressing the meaning of the Shema is to explain that it focuses on God,
especially because it mentions God's special name not once, but twice. The SHEMA, however, is just as much
about us. It begins with the
phrase "Hear/Listen, Israel." ISRAEL refers not just to Jacob the patriarch's new
name, or to the entire Jewish people, but to the meaning of that name. Some translate YISRAEL to mean
"struggler with God."
Perhaps we know what a struggle it can be to try to hold God close and
to recognize a divine presence in our lives. In that sense, YISRAEL truly
encompasses every one of us here tonight.
The name for God in the
SHEMA, spelled YUD HAY VAV HAY, has its own multiplicity of meanings, all of
them pointing to a God who is always existing or causes everything to exist, a
God who is ALWAYS THERE and permeates every corner of existence. In his new book, JUDAISM'S TEN
BEST IDEAS, Rabbi Arthur Green suggested this translation to capture the deeper
significance of the Shema: “Listen,
all you who struggle, all you who wrestle with life’s meaning! Being is our
God, Being is one!” Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson in a new book about Jewish
theology, also spoke of how we are interconnected in ways we are just beginning
to understand through science, reason and religion. Put in another way, we can't get away from each
other or anyone or anything else, for that matter. And to quote a slightly dated popular song lyric,
"Guess it's true - I am happy
to be stuck with you." Judaism directs us to be happy with that reality of all of us
bound together within creation. That is a good reason to have those words above
the ark from Psalm 100 verse 2:
"IVDU ET ADONAI B'SIMCHAH - Serve God with gladness or
happiness." That is who we
are supposed to be, members of a community who live and serve God and others
with joy and who see their lives through lens of this teaching of the rabbis:
WHO ARE RICH? THOSE WHO ARE HAPPY
WITH WHAT THEY HAVE.
The sense of
oneness that binds us together with and within God's Oneness should bring the
human family together in harmony and mutual respect, right? One would hope so, but more and
more that hope seems to be in vain.
Some of us, however, aren't ready to give up.
In her book FROM ENEMY TO FRIEND:
JEWISH WISDOM AND THE PURSUIT OF PEACE, Rabbi Amy Eilberg commented extensively
on what it means to be partners in dialogue within Judaism. She understands that many people
think that all Jews do is argue unabashedly, with no desire for respect or
resolution. That notion, she said,
is not entirely true.
Judaism carefully characterizes the type of conversation that is
appropriate when two parties disagree. One of the essential teachings about how we can
generate constructive and productive discussion comes from this passage in the
Talmud. "Rabbi Abba
said in the name of Sh'muel: For
three years the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel debated a matter of
ritual. One said, "The law is
according to our position," and the other said, "The law is according
to OUR position." A divine
voice came and said, "These and these are the words of the living God, BUT
the law is according to the House of Hillel." Rabbi Abba asked, ‘If these are both the words of the living
God, why was the law set according to the House of Hillel?’ It was because [as we know] the
students from the House of Hillel were gentle and humble. They taught both their own words and
the words of the House of Shammai.
AND not only this, but they taught the words of the House of Shammai
[their rivals] before [teaching] their own." (BT Eruvin 13b).
Rabbi Eilberg explained
that the rabbis of the House of Hillel set an example all should follow because
"they affirmatively taught their own view and the view they rejected to
communicate that both views contain an aspect of truth. Not only this, but when they taught the
two perspectives on the issue at hand, they taught their opponents' position
first, to explicitly acknowledge its value and to give honor to those who
thought that way. Only after
teaching their opponents' view - with understanding and appreciation - did they
proceed to explain why their own opinion was more compelling."
continued: "Many Jewish leaders have suggested that the tradition of Talmudic
debate is evidence of the fact that we are an innately argumentative
people. I disagree. Rather, the
Talmud models on virtually every page the art of living with difference and
conducting passionate debate on vital issues without violating the most basic
Jewish and humanistic values of dignity, respect and reverence for all God's creatures." This is wisdom and an
approach that we definitely need
in our society.
One more passage from
the Talmud cited in Rabbi Eilberg's book was striking to me. It discussed how
community connections, friendships and family ties can and should take
precedence over ideology. “Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba said, ‘If a parent and child or
a teacher and student who are studying Torah in one place become enemies one to
the other, they should not move from there until their love for one another is
restored.’” Rabbi Eilberg explained: "I take this text to mean that when
any precious relationship between two people who love each other very much
becomes endangered by an argument, all other pursuits should stop until love
and connection are reestablished.
The relationship is far more important than the content of the
debate. Such restoration
requires rigorous self-awareness and clarity of vision in order to resist the
powerful temptation to allow the content of the debate to damage priceless
I am not going to suggest
that the Temple doors be locked at this very moment until all disagreements
lingering among us are resolved.
The High Holy Days do strongly suggest that peace and love be restored
between those mired in ideological conflict. Apologies in the spirit of the High Holy Days can
focus on how we communicate our views.
And furthermore, the Jewish tradition would remind us that, even if we
disagree with each other, we are called upon to see any opponent in thought as
a part of a "loyal opposition." Yet, we have to earn that loyalty by expressing our
views in a way that can generate dialogue that can help everyone involved in
the discussion grow in understanding. And, I would add, it's crucial, as members of a
Jewish community, to listen to and explore the teachings of our tradition
features many ancient, time-honored principles that were held by a community
that often faced so many threats from without that they did all that they could
to create mutual respect within.
We ourselves, and people throughout our country and the world, could
learn a lot from the civil discourse at the heart of the Jewish heritage of
learning. One of the
best recent examples of ideological opponents being locked together in a small
space happened due to the reality of the summer ordeal in the Israel-Gaza
conflict. I was
fascinated by the report of a July 12 demonstration against the war in Gaza by
Israelis on the left at Habima Square in Tel Aviv. Right wing counter demonstrators were right
there with them, shouting at them whatever slogans they could muster. Then the sirens sounded. Then,
they all went to a nearby MIKLAT - a shelter - together. Yes, right-wing and left wing
Israelis - in a shelter – together, suspended their conflict for a moment as
they sought refuge from the common existential threat from Hamas. Once the all clear was sounded, they
went back up to the square and resumed their positions, shouting at each other
in disagreement once again.
For a moment, the shelter -
the MIKLAT - was not only a haven and refuge from rockets. It was also a place where these
Israelis automatically, almost unconsciously, set aside their differences and
recognized that they were all part of one community.
Perhaps that experience,
and wisdom from our time-honored texts about mutual respect, can give new
meaning to the blessing we sang earlier in the service: "BARUCH ATAH
ADONAI HAPOREIS SUKKAT SHALOM ALEINU, V'AL KOL AMO YISRAEL, V'AL
Y'RUSHALAYIM" - Blessed are You, Adonai, who spreads a shelter of peace
over us, over all human beings who struggle with God and with life's meaning,
and over Jerusalem, the city of peace."Every place in the world can reflect peace, respect,
compassion, holiness, and love if we offer those gifts from our minds, hands
is we who have the responsibility to spread a shelter of peace over one another
because we live together as fellow members of the human
community. That is who we are:people who have the potential to overcome the fear of difference and who
can reach out to one another to build bridges instead of walls, to offer
acceptance rather than rejection, and to use the gift of understanding and
wisdom to bring all people into a circle of humanity so that the God we call
One will be reflected in the oneness we inevitably share.May that oneness lead us to
a year of blessing and goodness and peace within each of us and with one