Thursday, September 21, 2017

"Who are we and how did we get here?" - Rosh Hashanah Evening Sermon 5778 - September 20, 2017 (Temple Beth-El, Las Cruces, NM)

Shanah Tovah to all of you who have joined us tonight.
This night provides us with a special opportunity.  It is available only to people who celebrate Rosh Hashanah as the New Year. 
    For most of the world, tonight and tomorrow are primarily identified as days in the year 2017.   This calendar year has challenged our sense of truth, justice, hope, security, trust and peace.   It has pitted people against each other who could, if they only tried, find something in common.   2017 has subjected us to moral whiplash, verbal exhaustion, mental confusion, and communal despair.   And some of you will understand if I say the words “duck and cover,” because who hasn’t thought about that, even for an instant, in light of the actions of North Korea?
     Here at Temple Beth-El, and in the Jewish world, we do mark the year, on one level, as 2017.  We haven’t been totally sheltered from all that is happening around us.
    But we do, still, have a special opportunity tonight.
    We get to turn the page.
     Not a page in a book. 
     We have turned our Jewish chronological page to a new year.   It’s now 5778.
     Everything that happened in the Jewish year 5777 will still be with us when the High Holy Days are over.
     However, because we have turned our page, we have the chance to help ourselves and the world make a change towards renewal, building on the moments when our best gifts emerged in 5777 so that 5778 will be different. 
   In our service tonight,  we are about to read the prayer for holiness.      
   During this last year, the notion of holiness seems to have been far from many people’s minds.
    Or, the word “holy” may have been employed in the sense that some people see themselves as holier than others, believing that their faith makes them better, more righteous, more saved, more deserving of God’s blessing.
    Judaism teaches that, if we seek to be trustworthy, respectful, peaceful, honest, and hopeful, then righteousness and holiness will naturally follow for any person.  
     Rosh Hashanah provides us with a time to refocus, to remember that our heritage demands that we hold ourselves to a high standard of behavior that is reflected in the prayers of the Machzor, the High Holy Day Prayerbook.  There are specific values at the foundation of Judaism which we still teach and discuss and by which we are called to live so that we can serve as exemplars for everyone around us. 
    During these High Holy Days, as we use Mishkan Hanefesh for the first time during several of our services, I want to take the opportunity to consider the meaning and implications of one particular reading in each service.  Tonight, it is the reading on page 48.   My title for my remarks tonight was “Who are we and how did we get here?”   This reading and the prayers that follow actually answer my question.
     Our prayers and our tradition teach us that we are here because God put us here.  There are many ways to express that belief, but when we speak of such things in Judaism, even our prose, which seems literal, is poetry.  Acknowledging God as our Creator requires of us a great measure of humility.  We have developed our own power, but it’s not ultimate by any means.   Our natural setting, our beautiful sunrises and sunsets that often present a colorful collage in the sky, and the great eclipse - all of these elicit in us a sense of wonder and amazement.   The word YIR’AH in the holiness prayer can mean fear, but it can also mean awe and reverence.   The first part of the holiness prayer says, “We yearn for connection with all that lives, doing Your will with wholeness of heart.  Awe-inspiring is Your creation, all-encompassing is Your transcendent name.”  
    Every faith group has its own belief about how to mirror God’s will in an approach to people and to the natural world.   There are some of our fellow Americans who believe that only they know God’s true will, which gives them special privileges.  A movement called Dominionism accepts only people who profess a certain type of Christianity as being worthy of positions of leadership in our nation because of their supposed moral and spiritual superiority.   The yearning for such power and control would lead to a fulfillment of only one narrow view of a divinely ordained mission as applied to citizens and to the lands that are our national treasure.   It also rejects interfaith partnerships that could bring people closer together.
    There are other people who take a much different approach.  In Las Cruces, for me, that is realized in small group settings, one with clergy, and another every Friday noon with a group of lay people and ministers who come from the Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Baha’i traditions.  Our book discussions enable us to share our beliefs in a cooperative and enlightened spirit.
    Dr. Andrea Weiss of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City activated a network of her fellow scholars of religion to create the “American Values, Religious Voices” campaign that developed letters to send to our national leaders for the first 100 days of the new administration.   The breadth and depth of the resulting expressions about the principles that emerge from our faith groups was breathtaking.  I believe that God wants us to be equal partners in sustaining not only creation, but also in developing stronger ties with each other across our differences.  The divine essence in each of us and all of us is holy, and when we discover that spark in ourselves and in others, holiness happens all around us.   Such sacred partnerships in the greater community and the world should be our goal.
    The second part of the Holiness prayer on page 50 speaks of Jews all over the world.  The note at the bottom of the page explains, “This prayer…reflects for the Jewish people - often marginalized, misunderstood, and despised – a yearning for honor and recognition, a secure place among the nations.” 
    We probably think of ourselves as secure now. Or, with recent events, perhaps not.   
     Last January, I was first invited to the Friday discussion group which I attend to teach about Jews and Judaism in America.  We used as our text my teacher Dr. Jonathan Sarna’s book, AMERICAN JUDAISM.   In that chronicle of history was this paragraph that described the status of Jews in relation to the rest of the population nearly a century ago: 
    “Immigration restrictions that sought to restore the nation's ethnic mix to its nineteenth-century white Protestant character also aimed directly (though by no means exclusively) at Jews. The House Committee on Immigration received a report prepared by Wilbur J. Carr, the director of the Consular Service, and approved by the secretary of state, that described Jews who desired to migrate to the United States as being, among other things, ‘undesirable,’ ‘of low physical and mental standards,’ ‘filthy,’ ‘un-American,’ and  ‘often dangerous in their habits.’ Resulting legislation - the 1924 Immigration Act- [targeted but] never mentioned Jews, and it restricted… immigrants like Italians and Slavs no less stringently, while Asians were barred entirely. ‘Chauvinistic nationalism is rampant,’ Louis Marshall, the foremost American Jewish leader of his day, recognized. ‘The hatred of everything foreign has become an obsession.’”
     Libby Garland, in her book AFTER THEY CLOSED THE GATES, detailed how the restrictions of the 1924 Immigration act put in jeopardy many Jews in Europe, who had already acquired legal visas to come to the United States.   They had left their homes believing they could safely embark on their journey, only to discover that the new immigration act would delay their entry because quotas for the nations from whence they came had been filled.   Many of those Jews wishing to join family members who were already here were forced to resort to a wide range of means to enter in a timely way.  If they saw the anti-Semitic handwriting on the walls of their European towns and cities, we shouldn’t be surprised if these despairing Jews listened to anyone who promised to get them to America.  Sometimes they found out too late that the pathway they were taking was illegal.   Libby Garland was only able to chronicle the stories of those whose efforts were thwarted by American officials.  She estimated that tens of thousands of Jews immigrated “under the radar” to the United States from Europe, quietly circumventing a system that was dedicated to keeping their numbers to a mere, insignificant trickle.
   That was a long time ago, but echoes remain of prevailing attitudes of that time.  The “unite the right” rally in Charlottesville in August reminded us of that.   In the flurry of discussions, reporting, and activity surrounding the events of those tragic days last month, the chants of “Jews will not replace us” and the originally Nazi slogan, “blood and soil,” and descriptions of armed right-wing demonstrators standing across from the Temple in Charlottesville, were almost drowned out.   But not for us. We heard.  We mourn the death of Heather Heyer, whose passion for values that resonate with the heart of Judaism led her to attend the counter protest.  We are fortunate to be in a position to make our voices heard when such hatred is expressed from wherever it may come, including specific campaigns against the State of Israel that employ classic anti-Semitic language and imagery.   Sometimes we don’t know where to turn, other than to the core of our heritage:  the teachings of the Torah, the wisdom of the rabbis, the give-and-take discourse that characterizes Jewish tradition, where we should be able to sit with one another and talk as equals with humility and utmost mutual respect.    That goes for us, and it should go for Jews all over the world, including  those who gather in the precincts of the Western Wall, the Kotel.  At that historic site, women who seek to pray aloud in reverence and joy, and the Orthodox women and men who protest their monthly public worship with whistles and catcalls, should, because they are all Jews, be able to find a way to admit that, even with their differences, they are part of the same community.   In the words of the holiness prayer in MISHKAN HANEFESH, “May the sparks of David, Your servant, soon grow bright enough for us to see a beam of light in the darkness, a promise of perfection.”  Hopefully, there are ways in which that light still can shine down on us, so that fellow members of the Jewish community who live near and far will be able to fashion and maintain sacred partnerships that will take us into a bright future.
    The final section of the holiness prayer, according to the note on page 51, “envisions a future in which good people will see the reward of having held fast to their ideals: a world in which righteousness prevails.” 
     A brief story.  On Wednesday, August 2,  I had a number of different places I could have been.  My choice for that day was to work on some congregational projects and to take our major High Holy Day mailing to the post office.
    As I left the building, three high school students came by Temple.  I asked them if they needed help or if they were just passing by.  They said they were fine, so I continued walking to my car, but I looked back and saw them eyeing our outside display case.  I approached them again, and they told me they wanted to know more about Temple, Judaism and what was inside.  So, I opened the door and let them in. Don’t worry, they were NOT a security risk.  I could tell that they were having an inquisitive moment.    For me, it became a teachable moment.   I showed them the Sanctuary and explained the various symbols around this sacred space.  I opened the ark and took the cover off the middle Torah.   As I set it for the portion for the coming Shabbat, I explained to them:  “You are here in a good week to see what’s in the Torah.  Here are the Ten Commandments and here is the statement of one God, the Shema. Both are central to Judaism.   Had you come at another time, I wouldn’t have been able to show you these important passages in the Torah so readily!”  Perhaps God works in mysterious enough ways that I was reminded, as I spoke to these students, that we do have something very special and crucial to offer the world.   It’s why much of what I have written in the last year in local publications has been about values that many people share.  Principles for life require us to dedicate ourselves to human decency - to menschlichkeit, so aptly highlighted by Global Character Day creator Tiffany Schlain ( in the material that was the centerpiece of our Selichot Discussion last Saturday night.  It wasn’t only that Torah reading of the first week of August that contained central tenets of Judaism.  In the following week’s parashah was this passage from Deuteronomy Chapter 10:   
 And now, O Israel, what does the Eternal your God demand of you? Only this: to revere the Eternal your God, to walk only in divine paths, to love and to serve the Eternal your God with all your heart and soul, keeping the Eternal's commandments and laws, which I enjoin upon you today, for your good.  Mark, the heavens to their uttermost reaches belong to the Eternal your God, the earth and all that is on it!  Yet it was to your ancestors that the Eternal was drawn out of love for them. Cut away, therefore, the thickening about your hearts and stiffen your necks no more.  For the Eternal your God is God supreme and Lord supreme, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who shows no favor and takes no bribe, but upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing food and clothing. You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
     This was the vision in Deuteronomy of how we can bring righteousness in the world.   That was then.  In 5778, who are we?  We are still people called upon to open our hearts, to take the teachings of our heritage and apply them in our relationships with each other and with all of the human family, with a sense of God’s presence guiding us along the way.   Practicing these values could begin to assure, in the words of our prayer, that we will live in a world where “evil has no voice,” where “the stunning sight of arrogance” will be “gone from the earth,” and where the God of holiness will be made holy through OUR righteousness.
       One last question is, how did we get here? That is still a mystery on some levels, and it raises another question:  What or where is “here,” which can also include the notion of “now”?   For the moment, “here” is tonight, as we find ourselves at the beginning of a new Jewish year.   “Here” is a world that is so intricately connected that we can converse with people halfway across the planet in an instant.   “Here” is a national and global situation when disagreement and conflict could tear humanity apart. 
      But “here” can also refer to this moment, this new year, that gives us an opportunity to turn the page, to carry over the best of our past, as we seek to explore among ourselves what Judaism can give the world:  a sense of blessing, hope, justice, righteousness, and peace.   May we walk together in sacred partnership as we move forward into the future, joining with others to discover the spark of God and godliness in one another that will lead us all to a MAKOM KADOSH, a holy place, wherever we may be. 


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