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Rabbi Marc E. Berkson - Rosh Hashanah Eve - 2014/5775


What Are You Going To Do For God?
Rosh Hashanah Eve—2014/5775

Eleven years ago, at this point in the service, I shared with you this poem by Rabbi Jules Harlow entitled “Yearnings:”

            So much this past year has threatened
            To break my spirit.  Help me, O Eternal,
            For I have been very low.
            I stand here, weary,
            Empty and dry.
            In thirst and hunger I stand,
            Seeking comfort, even joy.
            Transform my sorrow, Eternal;
            Help me to renew my faith, my hope,
            As I raise my soul toward You….

Weary, empty, dry.  That began my sermon as we began 5764.  But this year, 5774, brought something else this summer, something far more disturbing than weary and empty and dry. Maybe it was the war with Hamas in Gaza with the tunnels digging into Israel and with the rockets fired from so many civilian sites and with so, so many deaths.  Maybe it was the return, it seems so profoundly, of anti-Semitism in Europe with so many words of hatred spewing forth no longer even cloaked in the guise of anti-Zionism.  And, yes, maybe it was even the more than subtle hints of hatred no longer hiding on some of our college campuses and in parts of some of what we once labeled the mainstream churches as the debate raged over boycotts of and divestments from and sanctions against Israel.  For some, the evidence of this summer confirmed that nothing had ever really changed, that the world was out to get us.

So there was a moment this summer when, for the first time in my life, a feeling of vulnerability—as a Jew—came upon me.  Never had I felt—as so many of my elders once did— so weighed down, wary and worried as a Jew.  And then I looked up the Hebrew word for vulnerability–פגיעות. The root of the word means to touch and, in other forms, it means to wound.  Thus its direct connection to  פיגוע, the Hebrew for a terrorist attack.   Wary and worried and wounded.   And then Leibel Fein died.

Some of you knew or knew of him.  Professor and author, brilliant and fearless, a devoted American and a profound Zionist, Leibel grew up as a Labor Zionist in Baltimore, the son of a teacher at Baltimore Hebrew College.  While he may have been a Conservative Jew, he changed our movement forever when he, along with four others including our own Herzl Spiro, wrote Reform is a Verb.  He brought his commitment to justice to his service as the Chair of our movement’s Social Action Commission, in the process expanding the work of our Religious Action Center.  And he was a builder—founding Moment Magazine back in 1975 and, with Harold Schulweis, creating Mazon ten years later.  Many of us continued to learn from him and to hear his voice through his columns in The Forward and, as a progressive Zionist, a true lover of Israel, through so many articles and organizations.  He may have been an academician, a professor, a scholar, but he was a man of action, a man who understood the unique gifts we were handed as Jews in America and in Israel during the second half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century.  And he told great stories, one I shared with some of you when I got back from vacation this summer, the story which brought the healing balm.

That story I first read back in Moment in the early 1980s.  Leibel stopped telling it for a while.  Then, in a column for The Forward a couple of years ago, he shared it once more.  And it was true even if it did not happen.  In Fein’s words: 

“It was 1860, or maybe 1861, in Minsk, or possibly in Pinsk. Wherever, whenever, there were a dozen Jews who used to get together every Tuesday evening for some good talk.

What did Jews talk about? Why, about what it would be like one day — what, that is, Jerusalem would be like. In exquisite detail, they would imagine Jerusalem, its climate, cuisine and culture. Their elaborate, continuing conversation had long since developed a near ritual character, including its periodic interruption by the one skeptic in the group, a fellow named Berl.

Every few months, Berl would say: “Can’t we please, just this once, change the topic of conversation? Really, it’s quite tedious by now. I mean, if we’re really that interested in what it’s like in Jerusalem, why don’t we pack up and go? If we like it, we’ll stay. And if we don’t like it, we’ll also stay, and make it into something we like.”

To which the others would inevitably respond, “Berl, Berl — don’t be so naive. Don’t you realize how much easier, and how very much safer, it is to sit in Minsk or Pinsk and talk about what it might be like than to go and confront the reality?”

And Berl, because he was a sociable fellow, would again drop his complaint and join in the talk.

This was, for those times and places, a rather sophisticated group; indeed, they had some non-Jewish friends. Once upon a Tuesday, they invited one of their non-Jewish friends to join with them.  [When, at the end of the evening the friend got up to go,] they said, “Before you go, we do have one question we’d like to ask.” “Our question is…” — here there was an awkward pause, and much clearing of throats — “what we’d like to know is, What do people like you — if you know what we mean — think of people like us — if you know what we mean?”

“Oh,” their guest said, “you want to know how we feel about Jews.”

“Yes, that’s right, you have it. You see, we are usually so isolated, and we have so little opportunity for feedback. You don’t mind telling us?”

“No, not at all. I think you’re a wonderful people — passionate, generous, literate. I have only one problem with you.” “A problem? What kind of problem?”

“Well,” the guest replied, “there is one aspect of Jewish behavior that really annoys me. You people seem to believe — why, I can’t imagine — that you’re morally superior to everyone else. Don’t get me wrong — I don’t think you’re any worse than average. But I can’t understand your moral conceit, and I find it frightfully annoying.”

To their credit — for they knew it was so — his hosts did not deny the accusation, but sought instead to explain their “conceit.”

“As you yourself observed, it’s very late, so we can’t give you the whole etiology of our sense of moral superiority. We’ll explain it instead by way of an example, — a metaphor, if you will: … the reason we do is that we don’t hunt. You people hunt, and we don’t hunt, and that makes us better than you.”

Their guest guffawed, and then stormed at them: “You silly, trivial people; of course you don’t hunt! We don’t permit you to own guns!”

And then Leibel continued: That is where the story ended, or, more accurately, rested. I hesitate to tell the story these days, because I can no longer be certain that those hearing it will get the meaning of “We don’t hunt,” that those words will resonate as they always did 30 or so years ago.

There is a postscript, however, and it is because of the postscript that I retell this true story. The very next morning, the men came to Berl, the skeptic, and said to him, “Berl, pack up. We are leaving to go up to the land, to set out to prove that even with guns, we will not become hunters.”

Is the story a bit naïve?  Of course.  Scholars as diverse as David Biale and Ruth Wisse have noted that Jews have always possessed power, albeit what we might call “soft power;” the rabbis in the Talmud found ways to exercise Jewish communal power within the context of a larger non-Jewish entity always placing God as the supreme force.

And is the story really about guns or hunting?  Of course not–which is not to say that it is not about guns.  Writes Rabbi Jonathan Sacks so eloquently in the current Forward about this difficult year, “Even the most lukewarm among us knows that it is infinitely preferable to have a State of Israel and the condemnation of the world than to have no Israel, no Jewish home, and the sympathy of the world.”  

Rather, the story was meant to illustrate the dramatic change in the historic Jewish condition–here in America, there in Israel.  For the first time in Jewish history, at one and the same time, we have an independent Jewish state in the land of Israel and a truly free Jewish community in most of the lands where Jews live, particularly right here in the United States.  As Fein himself explained it, “the story is how, in our generation, the Jews have come to power…and about our response to that transforming change in the historic Jewish condition….It is the question of what this people does once it has a choice about what to do—for coming to power means, in the end, nothing more or less than having and making choices.”

Yes, Israel lives in a very dangerous neighborhood that seems to becoming more dangerous every day.  But Israel’s existence is simply not at stake.  Instead, Israel’s challenge is to ensure that power does not become an end in itself but is used appropriately to ensure that the state of Israel remains Jewish AND democratic.
In fact, right now, it is not Jewish lives which are endangered; rather Muslim and Christian lives are threatened throughout the Middle East and North Africa.  Estimates of up to 190,000 Muslims have been killed in Syria’s civil war in just three years.  And one can only begin to guess at the number of homeless refugees from Syria and Iraq—as we see the pictures of them in refugee camps in Turkey and Jordan.  As for the Christians in the Middle East and North Africa—the Copts and the Maranites and the Assyrians among them, they are raped and sold into slavery, exiled and murdered. 

As for the question Berl and his colleagues so hesitantly put to their non-Jewish friend, “What do people like you — if you know what we mean — think of people like us — if you know what we mean?” we already have an answer.  The answer rests with the Pew Research Center which asked the same question using these words, “We’d like to get your feeling toward a number of groups on a feeling thermometer.  A rating of 0 degrees means you feel as cold and negative as possible.  A rating of 100 degrees means you feel as warm and positive as possible.  You would rate the group at 50 degrees if you don’t feel particularly positive and negative toward the group.”  In their study completed, yes, in 5774, on how Americans feel about religious groups, guess who came out right on top?  The Jews!  They like us, they really like us!  Want even more evidence—simply read (he of Bowling Alone fame) Robert Putnam’s American Grace

As 5774 becomes 5775, we are privileged to share in the two greatest experiments in Jewish life and maybe even in world history—the birth and growth, after 2000 years of prayers, of the modern state of Israel and the opportunity to be citizens of a land dedicated to the revolutionary notion that people of different religions and races and ethnicities and geographic origins can live together equally and in peace.  How Jewish—and how American.  So what are you going to do with the power you have?  What kind of choices will you make in this new year?
Some, I would suggest, you have already made.  You have made a choice to be here this day, to share in the lives of all of these people, to share in the life of this congregation, perhaps to connect with God.  So choose to invest your time and your energy as we continue to build a Jewish congregation for 21st century America, inclusive and participatory, as we have moved from the worship experience to our sacred space and now to a new model of membership commitment.  Other choices should be easy.  Join ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America, our movement’s Zionist arm, to help work at building a just and democratic and Jewish Israel.  And be sure to take a form and a postcard so you can register to vote for the upcoming 37th World Zionist Congress to ensure that our voices will be heard.  Join us on our next trip to Israel, a special trip for families with children through ARZA World Travel which will take place in December of 2015.

Other choices may seem harder—but they, too, should come out of vulnerability, at those times when and where we know that others depend upon us.  So, two more stories, one that happened and the other true.  Of the three Israeli teens who were kidnapped and murdered, Naftali Frankel, Gil-ad Shaar, and Eyal Yifrach, it was Rachaeli Frankel, Naftali’s mother, who made choices.  In the midst of her shiva, she reached out to the family of Muhammed abu Khdeir, the Arab teen kidnapped and brutally murdered by Jews.   Said Rachaeli’s brother on behalf of the family, “there is no difference between those who murdered Muhammed and those who murdered our children.  Those are murderers and these are murderers.  And both must be dealt with to the full extent of the law.  And members of Muhammed’s family stopped by the Frankel home.  But note what Rachaeli said while her son was still missing.  She was at the Wall and, when she saw some girls praying on her behalf, she said, “Prayer is very powerful but it’s not a guarantee for anything.  But you have to understand, God does not work for us”—we work for God.

And the true story—a man comes before the Divine Throne and says, “God, I have a complaint against You.  There is so much evil and suffering in this world.  There is starvation and war and poverty and hatred.  And, near as I can tell, you do nothing at all about it.  Why, God?  Why don’t You do something to combat all of these bad things?”  And God responds, “I did something.  I sent you.”

In a few moments, we will rise for the Amidah, for the Tefillah, the central prayer of the worship service.  And, since this is Rosh Hashanah, we insert a special benediction right in the middle of the prayer.  Entitled u’v-chen, the first word of each of its three paragraphs meaning “and therefore,” the prayer is ascribed to Rabbi Yohanan ben Nuri who lived in the middle of the 2nd century of the Common Era.  In it, we ask God to make things better in the new year.  Go ahead; take a look at u’vechen, beginning on page 32 of your mahzors, of your prayerbooks.  Reflecting our covenantal relationship with God wherein God created the world—remember this is the world’s birthday–and selected us to redeem it, the first paragraph reflects its universal hope that  all humankind will become a single family making this the world God so desires.  But the second paragraph, in the words of Rabbi Larry Hoffman, “narrows the focus.  As the chosen people endowed with a mission to strive for a realization of the vision expressed in the first paragraph,” we pray for honor and for happiness in the land and joy in Jerusalem.  But that particularistic request is again subsumed to the universalistic hope when, in the words of the prayer itself, “the just shall see and exult, the upright be glad, and the faithful sing for joy.  Violence shall rage no more, and evil shall vanish like smoke; the rule of tyranny shall pass away from the earth.”

What are you going to do with the power you have?  What kind of choices will you make in this new year?  What are you going to do for God? 

Rabbi Harlow ended his poem with the words:

Open your lips within us, Eternal One,
That we may speak your praise—   

As we rise for the Amidah, p. 30.  

Tue, June 18 2024 12 Sivan 5784