A look back at
High Holy Days 5783/2022
Rosh Hashanah Morning 5783
Rabbi Michael Zedek
Last night I offered a few stories along with the assertion that they weren’t just some tales out there but also and especially in here, in us, for most, if not all.
And that recalls a long-ago experience before becoming a Rabbi when I spent a brief time as a teacher of English and writing. In that capacity, I learned and taught the scholarly conceit that there are only seven – some say six – basic plots. All else falls into the category of elaboration and detail. But you may also know the great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy’s provocative emendation. To wit, there are really only two stories. The first story begins “A stranger came to town.” The second story, “I went on a long journey.”
It’s a remarkable insight as his construct embraces just about any and every story imaginable, from the Odyssey and Moby Dick to Easy Rider and Thelma and Louise and everything in between. In fact, the entire biblical endeavor, the history of our people may be expressed/summarized with just a modest revision. Not I but we are on a long journey, and we are the strangers you come to town.
As to those travels, it started with Abraham and Sarah, found its voice, a mission, our destiny in the Exodus drama as that shaped our people and without doubt changed the world. For we are the vessel through which freedom enters the human endeavor, and that experience marks us as a remarkable community, the first in history with a mission. To clarify, the first people with a mission that did not insist that we are superior to others or have a limitless license to conquer, despoil or eliminate any others. Rather, we understand and embrace that mission to be a light to the world, a holy nation.
Notice the indefinite article – incredible and incredibly important – a light, a holy nation, not the as an exclusive or only. We have no monopoly; others can and should join in that work. But to be part of the adventure of the Jewish people is to embrace the job description, which means not that we are better than others, rather that we are called to be better than we are.
But it is the other aspect of Tolstoy’s insight that I would direct our attention. For we are so often viewed as the strangers who come to town.
Consider how we view or treat the stranger. For most, the concern runs to
categories like suspicion and fear. Some suggest that point of view is why the
Torah instructs us over and over, “You know the heart of the stranger for you
were strangers in the land of Egypt.” After all, were that a natural or
normative response, there would be no need to restate, to remind, as tradition
tells us 36 times, a significant and provocative number in Judaism.
It is 2×18 or double chai.
More commonly, it is dangerous to be the stranger who comes to town. To
use a less than high culture image, recall the old Clint Eastwood spaghetti
westerns, as the man with no name (Eastwood) rides into town. The good
folk are put on edge by this mysterious stranger seemingly appearing out of
nowhere. But there is always the female lead who will fall in love with the
exotic newcomer. Alas, it will prove futile as by the end of the film, he will
ride on to the next adventure.
And the Jewish experience fits all too precisely in that formula or, as someone
offered, “Some praise me for being a Jew; some condemn me for being a Jew.
But all think about it.”
Well, in reflecting on that thinking it seemed inescapable that one of these presentations needs to focus on a rapidly replicating virus, an ancient ailment we call anti-Semitism. Be it extremes from the political left or right, it is loose in the land, in our world. For so it has been always, especially at times of economic and social upheaval, at times like these.
So this morning I propose to examine with you two issues. First, an exploration of some of the substance the provides the environment for this always present virus to infect, replicate and grow. After all, there have been and always will be those who hate us. After all, we are different and some need to blame others for their disappointments, their failures, frustrations and pain. It’s never their fault. It must be some other, and we are reliably convenient target at all times. How much the more so at times of social and economic dislocation? Evidence be damned. I know what I know. And it must be the Jews.
Listen closely. “… In the sight of… fanatics, Jews can do nothing right. If they are rich, they are birds of prey. If they are poor, they are vermin. If they… favor war, that is because they want to exploit the bloody feuds of Gentiles to… profit. If they are anxious for peace, they are either instinctive cowards or traitors. If they give generously – and there are no more liberal givers than Jews – they are doing it for selfish purpose… If they don’t give… then what would you expect of a Jew? If labor is oppressed by… capital, the greed of the Jew is… responsible. If labor revolts against capital as it did in Russia… then the Jew is to blame for that also. If he lives in a strange land, he must be persecuted and pogromed out of it. If he wants to go back to his own, he must be prevented.”
A perfect composition when then British Prime Minister David Lloyd George presented it more than 100 years ago, its currency attest to the remarkable tenacity of this disease to resist any and all immunization. In brief, there will always be those who hate us, and that hatred is independent of anything we do or don’t do. Rather it is a function of who we are and what our presence in the world meant and continues to me. And with that in mind, I want to share what I consider the most cogent and forthright analysis of why we are targeted.
I first encountered this argument from Doctor Roy Eckhart, of blessed memory, a Lutheran Minister and Professor of Religious Studies at Lehigh University. After World War II and the Holocaust, he was among the first to insist that Christians had no business trying to convert Jews. But he went much further. He recalls growing up with the certainty that Christianity is superior to Judaism. After all, from the perspective of Christianity, one is born a pagan; you become a Christian. Then he asserts that one is simply born a Jew; he follows that “argument” with the notion that a matter of commitment is superior to an accident of birth. However, Hitler came along and taught him a very powerful lesson. How did he know that Israel of the flesh (his name for Jews) would be his mortal enemy? His response is that Moses lives in us; the story of freedom breathes through us. No doubt, that is why every dictatorship, without exception, has persecuted our people. If one wishes to take away freedom, then one must isolate and, in Hitler’s mind, eliminate the living embodiment of liberty.
But among the reasons I admire Eckhart so fully is he pushes the argument.
Specifically, if Israel of the flesh is the mortal enemy that Hitler knew he had
to eliminate, would that not also be true of Israel of the spirit (his name for
Christians)? And, yes, many Christians died in the concentration camps for the
courage of their convictions. But he points out that one can always stop being
Israel of the spirit. One cannot stop being Israel of the flesh.
Further, it is impossible for any Christian to suggest that Jesus would not have
gone to the concentration camps to relieve the suffering there. But deeper,
even had he determined not to go, he would have been sent, for he was a Jew.
But what is the sermon in this discussion? I don’t want us to be Jews because
others hate us. I never have been convinced by Doctor Emil Fackenheim’s 614th
commandment. “Thou shalt not give Hitler posthumous victories.”
No, we need this adventure because it is the oldest and newest story in the
world. We need this adventure because it offers deep roots and strong wings.
We need this adventure because our broken world needs our courage, convictions and action to move ever closer toward healing and wholeness. And our tradition makes a chutzpadik, an outrageous claim that God, the sacred, all that is holy calls to us, invites and urges us, needs us.
It’s a dangerous mission, and should we accept it, embrace it, unlike a Mission Impossible, neither it nor we will self-destruct in 15 seconds or in an eternity of days. For we are and we shall be – no matter the circumstance – a force for good, a light to the world, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
After the Six-Day War, the essayist Milton Himmelfarb wrote, “The number of Jews in the world is smaller than a statistical error in the Chinese census. Yet we remain bigger than our numbers. Big things seem to happen around us and to us.” And I would add big things happen because of us. So I am proud to be part of our story, to contribute to its continuity. Not because there are those who view us as a threat. Not because the world won’t let us escape. Rather, this is a wondrous calling, a mission that gives meaning and purpose to every day, be it a mundane moment of routine or an exceptional moment of challenge or achievement. Or as I love to suggest, our task for as long as breath resides in us is to embody the conviction – holiness all around us, a sacred dimension in us, in all people, all of us. Now let’s get to work. And may the year 5783 be filled with that good and noble and blessed action. For then, no matter the world’s indifference or action, you and I will fulfill Abraham’s mission. Veyay B’racha-- to be a blessing, a blessing. Keyn Yehi ratzon.
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Book of Remembrance
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This year's Book of Remembrance will be available for congregants to pick-up on Yom Kippur. We are also working on a way to mail the book to those who will not be attending services in person. Thank you.
Tikkun Olam - Repair the World
Emanuel Congregation is working with the following organizations before and during the High Holy Days in an effort to help repair our world:
Care for Real - To help our neighbors in need this winter, we will be collecting items needed by Care for Real to help serve their clients this winter. More information to come.
Shalva - When you donate a used cell phone or iPad, Shalva sends them to a recycling company and then receives money to help fund their much needed services to women healing from abuse. If you have a used cell phone or iPad that you would like to donate to Shalva, please email firstname.lastname@example.org to arrange a time drop it off at Emanuel. For more information about Shalva visit shalvaonline.org.
The Ark - Annual Food Drive. The Ark is collecting kosher, non-perishable foods to distribute to its clients for the High Holy Days and beyond. More information about The Ark's Annual High Holy Day Food Drive coming soon.
Mazon - A Jewish Response to Hunger. Click HERE to learn more about this organization.
Machzor (Prayer Books)
Emanuel Congregation uses Mishkan HaNefesh, Machzor for the Days of Awe. Should you wish to purchase your own copy, they may be purchased from the publisher, CCAR Press, or they might also be available at Rosenblum's in Skokie, 773-262-1700.
Emanuel Congregation has some machzorim to loan to those who will be attending services in person. Large print versions are also available.
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