Our Jewish obligation of promise-keeping calls to mind the old joke about the dying man who gathered his lawyer, his doctor, and his rabbi at his bedside and handed each an envelope containing $25,000 in cash. He made them promise that they’d place their envelopes in his coffin, so that he’d have enough money for the hereafter.
A week later the man died, and so it was that three envelopes went with him to his grave.
By chance, the three friends met several months later. The rabbi, feeling guilty, admitted that there was only $10,000 in the envelope he put in. Rather than waste all the money, he gave the rest to Israel.
The Doctor, moved by the rabbi’s sincerity, confessed that he too had kept some of the money for a worthy medical charity. His envelope had only $8000.
By this time the Lawyer was seething with self-righteous outrage. He expressed his deep disappointment and announced: “I’m the only one who kept his promise. My envelope contained the full $25,000. I know, because instead of using cash, I wrote a personal check!”
The doctor, the lawyer, and the rabbi. They are all of us. Even though we are well-intentioned, we all struggle to keep our promises.
Tonight we give thought to the promises we make as a Jewish community…questions that get at the heart of the covenant that exists between God and the Jewish People.
At the center of that covenant is Moses, and the turning-point-moment in his life when he encountered the Egyptian taskmaster brutally beating an innocent Israelite slave.
The French Jewish philosopher, Andre Neher, wrote of this moment: “Witnessing […] injustice and […] degradation, Moses feels the blow dealt to the other as though it were directed against himself. […] He discovers his neighbor. It is this discovery […] that brought about the Exodus. […] Before, all men were strangers, bearing not evening the slightest resemblance to himself. Now, all men are neighbors.”
The laws of the Torah constitute Moses’ invitation to our ancestors: Join me, he said, in building a Jewish community that brings the needs of others into the center.
Our ancestors responded by saying na’aseh…we will follow your example…nishmah…by listening to one another, as we grapple and discuss human suffering and what we can do about it.
Tonight, we assess whether we have kept our promise.
As we have gotten to know each other, I have experienced this community to be extraordinarily engaged in the pressing issues of the day. Members of our synagogue are donors to issue-related organizations; many of us advocate for causes that are near and dear to our hearts; and others serve on the Boards of non-profit organizations that are healing our world. All of this is meritorious. Such generosity and service bring honor to our congregation.
But all too often, this involvement is separate from Scarsdale Synagogue and your connection to us.
I stand before you tonight to explore the Jewish covenantal promise that we have made with each other for a thousand generations: to use the voices, values, and space of our synagogue community to grapple with the great questions and issues of the day.
Let me be clear: these conversations cannot and should not be partisan. Party-specific partisanship has no place in any synagogue or non profit organization.
But values-based conversations are not partisan. Our Jewish values have a tremendous amount to say on all sides of the great questions of the day. And we do a disservice to this community, and the relationships we are creating with one another, when we mute ourselves. As long as we engender a respectful and safe space, where every opinion is honored as authentic, we can begin these discussions together.
Why have our synagogues been historically silent around these issues?
Perhaps we can trace it back to Y.L. Gordon, one of the architects of the Russian Jewish Enlightenment. To encourage assimilation, Gordon advised: “Be a man on the streets, and a Jew in the home.”
Gordon seems to be advocating for a bifurcated identity: regarding our public personas…blend in. Be a good, rule-following citizen of your country. And in private: well, that’s your business. You want to light Shabbat candles? Fine. You want to make a gift to a fringe political party? Fine. Just remember: make good choices about what you do publicly. And whatever you do privately: keep it to yourself.
This approach was also adopted by German Reformers who didn’t want to draw attention to themselves by being “too Jewish.” I wonder how much our historic silence around the issues of the day has to do with our desire to avoid controversy or drawing attention to ourselves.
But Gordon’s approach presumes that Jewish ethics can be bifurcated like our identities.
I respectfully disagree.
The ethical values that teach us how to relate to those in our private lives…they are the same values that inform how we might Jewishly consider the geopolitical events that are playing out at home and abroad.
Three times the Torah reminds us v’ahavta l’rei’acha k’mocha - we are to love the stranger as ourselves, for we were once strangers in the land of Egypt.
To what degree does that principle apply to the hundreds of thousands of refugees pouring out of Syria at this moment? How does that principle apply to racial prejudice, which still afflicts our American society? And to what degree does that principle speak to the question of how we as American Jews should be thinking about the agreement that our country and five others are finalizing with Iran?
There was perhaps a time, earlier in our history, when we could have used the excuse of distance to create a buffer between ourselves and these difficult issues. If it’s not in my personal backyard, then perhaps I don’t have to engage directly with it. But that approach is no longer tenable, given the interconnected world we live in today.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, writing in his masterwork To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility, notes: “Why should we feel morally implicated in the problems of ethnic conflict, mass poverty, [and] famine relief […]? - when these are happening far away to people we have never met, with whom we have little in common, and whose consequences will touch us only tangentially […]?”
Sacks answers by quoting John Donne, who once wrote: ‘All mankind is of one author, and is one volume…No man is an island, entire of itself…” Sacks’ point: that in the world we live in today, what happens 100 miles or 5000 miles away might as well be playing out in our own backyards.
There are a long list of ways that we could respond as a community to the refugee crisis, the plight of racism, and the Iran question. We could encourage members to philanthropically engage with organizations that advocate around these issues. Our Board could study and debate an issue, and then vote on resolutions that would enable the synagogue to take non-partisan positions. We could organize groups to travel to Albany and Washington to lobby government officials about how we hope they will vote. And we could engage our community’s online social networking platforms to invite our friends and allies to do the same.
But we can’t do any of this before we start talking about these issues…right here, in our synagogue.
To do that, we need to create a space where members on all sides of a charged topic can come together and feel safe in knowing that their views are going to be heard respectfully.
“Safe” is not a word that can be used to describe the debate on the Iran deal this past summer.
What could have been a thoughtful exchange among Jewish leaders about the best interests of Israel, and the West, devolved instead into public mudslinging.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a longtime Jewish supporter of Israel who supports the Iran deal, was called a kapo on his Facebook page (referring to a Jew who supported the Nazis). And Senator Chuck Schumer, a Jewish opponent of the deal, has been on the receiving end of hate-filled invective. And there was equally disturbing rhetoric hurled at rabbis on both sides of the issue as well. So, yes, it’s possible for us to disagree with one another by making it personal and by reverting to name-calling.
Or we can build our community, by creating a space where there is never one right answer to life’s most difficult questions.
We can build such a community here at SSTTE, and we can be a role model to other synagogues around the county and the country, by following in the footsteps of our earliest rabbis. For the Talmud reports: “Although the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel were in disagreement [on every important Jewish legal question of the day]- nevertheless, the House of Shammai did not refrain from marrying women [of the families] of the House of Hillel [and vice versa …]. This should teach you that they showed love and friendship toward one another, thus putting into practice [the Bible’s] injunction, ‘Love truth but also peace.’”
They were able to be friends with one another - even though they passionately disagreed.
Forget for a moment how one feels about the Iran deal. Our synagogue is well-served by the Reform movement’s recent acknowledgement that American Jews can legitimately find themselves on either side of the question. No one person or group has a monopoly on truth.
I spoke on Rosh HaShanah about the importance of relationship-building in our community. One way for us to get to know each other, and what we each stand for, is to engage in respectful dialogue together around the issues of the day.
Our Jewish mystical tradition goes so far as to suggest that the successful creation (and revitalization) of a community depends on it.
The famed Jewish mystic Isaac Luria wrote that before there were planets and people…all that existed was God’s Unending Presence. Everything was the same. There was literally no space for difference. It was cosmic sameness, devoid of creation and life.
Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav observed that when God created the world…it only happened because of God’s ability to allow for pluralistic diversity to come into it. God’s Unending Sameness was contracted, and limited, in order to allow for difference to come into the world.
My teacher, Dr. Avivah Zornberg, sees this understanding of Creation as a metaphor for us, and for our conversations. She teaches that “The very purpose of discourse [in a debate is] to create the world.”
We dialogue together in order to create something new. New relationships. New understandings. We dialogue in order to create the world anew. And our differences make that possible.
Conversations with those who see the world differently are never easy. The 20th century Jewish philosopher Emanuel Levinas described being in relationship with another person as a “traumatic upheaval in experience” because the shock of encountering someone different is so profound and complete.
I stand before you tonight to invite and encourage you to take a position…on the Syrian refugee question…on the question of America’s ongoing racial challenges…on the Iran question…and on all of the other pressing Jewish American questions of the day. But don’t hold on to it privately. Bring that part of yourselves…the way you see the world…and your vision for how to make it a better place…bring that here, into our midst. So that we can learn from one another, and be inspired by one another’s passions.
I am ready, willing, and able to be your nonpartisan guide through the values and principles of our Tradition. But only you can decide for yourselves how those values should be applied to the pressing questions of the day.
Again: that reflection process can happen in the privacy of your own homes, or in quiet meetings between the two of us.
But our community will be enriched if we can respectfully have that dialogue with one another as a larger group.
Join me as we begin that process with two Saturday evening salons that I’ve scheduled for October 24 and January 9th. This year at the salons we will be looking at current events questions through a Jewish lens. It’s my hope that they will be the beginning of a shift in the culture of our congregation that will permit more conversation, rather than less, about the most important issues of the day.
Speaking to the hesitations that so many of us feel about Jewishly entering into the political arena, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote: “We affirm the principle of [the separation between] church and state. We reject the separation of religion and the human situation.”
Like Heschel, Moses understood that our tradition spoke deeply to human suffering in the world. He felt so strongly about the centrality of this value that he made our ancestors swear a promise to honor it in every generation.
On this night of Kol Nidre: we confront that promise.
Na’aseh v’nishmah was our ancestors’ response.
We, too, can answer na’aseh v’nishma. We can accept the obligation, by listening to one another.
Of course, promising to do this work is not enough. To fulfill the promise will require action. As Menachem Mendl of Kotsk noted: “Do not be satisfied with the speech of your lips and the thought in your heart, […] rather you must arise and do!”
Join me in the coming year on the ‘doing’, as we seek to open a respectful conversation about the pressing issues of the day, so that we can create a new world….a new space that will allow for new relationships, perspectives, and ‘solutions to the pressing challenges of our moment’…to be born.