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Rabbi Marc E. Berkson - Yom Kippur - 2010/5771

Yom Kippur Morning-5771

Just over a couple of years ago, Common Core, an education advocacy group that encompasses the political spectrum, published a report entitled STILL AT RISK:  What Students Don’t Know, Even Now.  Based upon 33 carefully chosen questions directed at a national sample of 17-year-old high school students, the report attempted to gauge the state of American education today.  And the first couple of paragraphs of the report’s cover letter give a reflection of what many of these high school kids remembered:

Senator Joseph McCarthy investigated people who protested the war in Vietnam,better known as the Second World War.  Fortunately, that war was over before Christopher Columbus sailed to America; otherwise, we might have never experienced the Renaissance.

To be more specific: Almost 20 percent of these students did not know who our enemy was in World War II, and more than a quarter thought Columbus sailed the ocean blue after 1750. Half did not know whom Sen. McCarthy investigated or what the Renaissance was.

Among the reports specific findings were the following:

  • Nearly a quarter of those surveyed could not identify Adolf Hitler; 10 percent really thought he was a munitions manufacturer.
  • Fewer than half could place the Civil War in the correct half-century.
  • Nearly 20 percent of respondents did not know who the U.S. fought in World War II. Eleven percent thought that Dwight Eisenhower was the president forced from office by the Watergate scandal. Another 11 percent thought it was Harry Truman.
  • Only 45 percent could identify Oedipus-and, no, he was not American.

One could wish that those 2008 juniors reflected an exceptional class.  Yet countless other comparative surveys, particularly to the education received by students in many other countries, corroborates this report.  We Americans simply do not know our geography or our history or even our Constitution.  At times one wonders if many of us could find ourselves on a blank world map.

Yet before we feel sorry for poor Johnny, that infamous American school kid, and feel smugly proud that we can look at a blank world map with our children and find the United States without a marker proclaiming “You are here!”, pause to consider that most of us are less familiar with Jewish history than Johnny is with American history.  Did you know that the story which so many of our kids tell has the Israelis in the desert known as the Sahara for 40 days and sometimes 40 nights, going from Israel to America with the high point the crossing of the sea.

There can, however, be no Jewish future without a Jewish past.  For memory is at the very core of being Jewish.  To be Jewish is to remember.  To remember is to believe.  Remember-in Hebrew Zakhor-and the subject of Yosef Yerushalmi’s elegant and influential work entitled Zakhor:  Jewish History and Jewish Memory.  Dr. Yerushalmi had long been the Salo Baron Professor of Jewish History at Columbia and his death this past December brought me back to his book.  Remember-the Hebrew root z-kh-r–is mentioned, in its various declensions, at least 169 times in the Tanakh.  For memory is at the very core of being Jewish.

So, consider for a moment, what is it you remember, what is it that comprises your Jewish core?  A few of you may still remember Milwaukee’s West Side.  You may still be schlepping some ethnic baggage with you from our early days in America.  Packed into your memory is some Yiddish, some Eastern European foods, Borscht Belt humor, and a densely populated Jewish neighborhood where your cousins lived down the alley and your grandparents either in the apartment above you or around the block.

More of us remember anti-Semitism; the shoah could never allow that memory to fade.  So we sought out anti-Semitism in every nook and cranny.  We built great defense organizations and gave generously to their budgets.  In fact, the most successful of all the American Jewish organizations over the past decades has been one created using the language and imagery of the Shoah to fight anti-Semitism–the Simon Wiesenthal Center.  Again and yet again, we proclaimed, “Never again!”

And we all remember Israel.  Israel was the miracle of 1948–the resurrection of our people out of the ashes of the Shoah.  And the Six-Day War back in June of 1967 awakened a renewed sense of pride throughout the American Jewish community.  Israel was our definitive reflection of “never again.”  So moving was Israel’s memory that one chair of an Israel fund-raising drive in northern New Jersey spoke of “handing the task of raising money for Israel to my children and grandchildren, so that they will remember that they are Jews.”  In a different context, Rabbi Daniel Gordis suggested two photographs that many of us know so well as illustrations-the first from the Warsaw Ghetto of a young boy dressed in his best clothes with his hands up in the air facing Nazis with their guns trained upon him and the second of Israeli soldiers with tallitot and tefillin next to and on top of their tank.

Yet disappearing ethnicity, external hatred, and vicarious inspiration are surely not the memories of which the Tanach speaks in its 169 declensions.  Nor are they memories which in any way resonate in a United States dramatically different from the United States of 1924 or of 1948 or even of 1967.  Ethnicity may linger just a bit as a fading memory.  Jews are just perhaps a century or so out of the ghetto or shtetl and already-surely here in America–we are all Jews by choice.

True, we can try to continue to allow those who hate us to sustain us, to define our memories.  Yet Torah does not speak of those who hate us as our teachers.  Nor can continued reliance upon an Israel not a miracle but an established fact for all Jews born since 1967.  Think about it.  Someone would have to be almost 50 to remember the Yom Kippur War; almost 60 to remember the Six-Day War; and almost 80 to have learned of the Holocaust in real time.  As Leonard Fein put it almost two decades ago, “a little boy here and a little girl across the street will notice the emperor’s nakedness, will ask, in innocence and sadness, ‘What is this parade of hobblers with breaking crutches who move only in circles, whose banners read ‘Survive!’ whose leaders chant curses against our enemies but do not see nor say what tomorrow is for?  What are they about?”

I know-the words seem very hard, maybe even too harsh.  Yet the words are nowhere near as hard or as harsh as those we have heard over the course of this past year culminating, perhaps, in Peter Beinart’s article this summer in The New York Review of Books.  Entitled “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” Beinart puts his own spin on the changing relationship between Jews here in America and Jews in Israel.  He particularly emphasizes the great distance felt by younger, non-Orthodox Jews from Israel, even among those deeply involved in Jewish life.  Consider, for example, just this one paragraph:

This obsession with victimhood lies at the heart of why Zionism is dying among America’s secular Jewish young.  It simply bears no relationship to their lived experience or what they have seen of Israel’s.  Yes, Israel faces threats from Hezbollah and Hamas.  Yes, Israelis understandably worry about a nuclear Iran.  But the dilemmas you face when you possess dozens or hundreds of nuclear weapons, and your adversary, however despicable, may acquire one, are not the dilemmas of the Warsaw Ghetto.  The year 2010 is not…1938.  The drama of Jewish victimhood-a drama that feels natural to many Jews who lived through 1938, 1948, or even 1967-strikes most of today’s young American Jews as farce.

For so many of us-for me– Israel’s existence was and remains a miracle.  For that matter, that Israel is a fact is, in itself, for me a miracle.  But secular memories are not among those 169 times that Torah commands “Remember.”  We are commanded to remember that we were slaves, strangers in the land of Egypt.  We are commanded to remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.  We can never forget that the Eternal is our God, the God of our ancestors, the God of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel and Leah, the God who created us, the God who brought us out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, to bring us to the land promised us, the God of history.  We remember Abraham’s covenant, Isaac’s meditations, Jacob’s vivid dreams; Moses’ patience, Miriam’s ecstasy, Bezalel’s artistry; David’s passion, Solomon’s wisdom, Elijah’s spirit; Isaiah’s warnings, Micah’s ethics, Ezekiel’s visions.

And what we should remember is what we are about!  The memory of our slavery teaches us that as long as one person is enslaved, we are not yet free.  The memory of our being strangers leads us to help the stranger in our midst.  The memory of our homeless wandering in the wilderness of Sinai (not Sahara) for 40 years leads us to reach out to those wandering lost and homeless in their own wilderness.  Our fast on Yom Kippur brings to mind Isaiah’s warning to fast the fast God desires–to share our bread with the hungry.  And the remembrance of the Sabbath day, week in and week out, keeps alive in each of us the hope of that day to come when God will be One and God’s name will be one, when unbelief shall disappear and error be no more, when evil and suffering shall be gone, when all shall become one in spirit and one in friendship, forever united in God’s service.  That is the promise of redemption by God to us-and the obligation to do the messianic work by us in partnership with God.  Torah is a set of instructions-and the land promised to us by God, the land of Israel, the laboratory in which to do God’s work.

These few short words today were originally meant to be about Israel; instead, they became all about us.  Ha-Tikvah is, of course, Israel’s national anthem.  The word tikvah is Hebrew for hope.  But Rabbi Irwin Kula teaches that it may well come from the same root as a Hebrew word for “tension.”  In other words, “it is the bow just before the arrow is released; poised, suspended, determined, but not there yet.  Tikvah emphasizes the yearning side of hope. Tikvah hope is taut, dynamic.  Will the arrow hit the target?  Tikvah is a holy anxiety; an incremental revolution; a messy messianism.”

Remember, we were strangers, slaves in the land of Egypt.  The Eternal, our God, freed us from there with a mighty hand and led us through the wilderness of Sinai for 40 years until we reached the Promised Land of Israel.  The high point of the Exodus-when God, in love, gave us Torah on Sinai.  As redemption came in the past, so, too, will it come in the future as we ever prepare for the coming of the Messiah.  This is the story which defines us as a people; this is the story we remember.

But better you should hear the story from those who live it every day.  Mert and Dottie Rotter have long been among the leaders in our community; their two daughters live in Israel.  To see them and their families, Mert and Dottie travel between Milwaukee and Israel on a regular basis.  Rarely will a community trip leave without a Rotter on it.  And Mert and Dottie made sure that our congregation would also begin trips to Israel.  Thanks to their efforts, we have already shared two congregational trips with them.  There is a custom that, when one is leaving for Jerusalem, those who remain behind give that person tzedakah to distribute in Israel.  Such helps ensure their safe arrival; such also allows them to help make this the world God wishes.  Today’s custom is to give those departing dollar bills.  But rather than giving Mert 800 dollar bills to distribute, send him to Israel with $800,000 worth of pledges to purchase Israel Bonds.  Mert…

– Rabbi Marc E. Berkson

Sat, February 24 2024 15 Adar I 5784