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The Day After - Rosh Hashanah 2016/5777

06/10/2016 12:37:49 PM


You won’t find this holiday in the Torah. If you look into the book of Numbers, this is all you’ll find: The first day of the seventh month will be yom truah, shofar-blowing day. That’s all. No apples and honey. No book of life. It’s not even Rosh Hashanah, the first of the year. So where did all this come from?

In 586 BCE, the Babylonian Empire conquered Jerusalem, destroyed the Holy Temple and exiled the leaders of the community back to the imperial capital of Babylon. In the middle of the city of Babylon rose a great man-made holy mountain. The zygarrat, literally the Tower of Babel, was the center of the city. It was Bab-El, the Gate of god, the place where heaven and earth touch.  On the first of Tishre, the Babylonian empire celebrated their festival of the new year by renewing their covenant with Marduk as patron god of the empire, crowning the emperor as Marduk’s son, and sanctifying the empire’s conquest of the world.

Our ancestors witnessed this rite, and were overwhelmed. So they borrowed the festival, washed it clean of its pagan symbols, and made it a Jewish holiday, Rosh Hashanah. As an answer to the narrow nationalism of the pagan rite, we will crown no earthly king today. Each one of us is created in God’s image.  So today we will crown God ruler of the universe – melech kol ha-aretz. And we will sanctify our people, our community, not to conquer or rule or subjugate humanity, but to serve an ideal of the oneness of humanity – mekadesh yisrael.

Melech kol ha-aretz mekadesh yisrael – today we affirm two Jewish commitments -- sacred tribalism and sacred globalism.

It is a human need to belong. Belonging is a deeply-ingrained human impulse.  Our species was born in Africa. For half a million years, our human ancestors lived as nomads on the plains of East Africa. It was a harsh life. Only as a tribe could early humans survive. Sheer existence demanded cooperation, solidarity, loyalty. Over time, evolution selected out those who abided by the imperatives of tribal cohesion. Tribal loyalty became biologically coded within us. According to brain science, human bonding, human connection releases neurochemicals oxytocin and dopamine into the brain, and that give us a sense of safety, satisfaction and well-being. An infant is soothed when held. Kids find each other on a playground and organize spontaneous games. Home, family, community, connection, communion are universal sacred values because they are deeply rooted in human biology. Connection is a biological imperative. We are programmed biologically to live in tribes.

When I was a kid, I loved watching Westerns. Cowboys and Indians. In those movies, the cowboys were the good guys. They were civilized. They lived in towns. They had tools and guns and law. The Indians were always portrayed as evil savages, living off the land, half-naked, attacking the wagon train with bows-and-arrows. It turns out that the history is more complicated than the movies I watched.

In 18th-century America, European colonial society and Native American society lived side by side. Colonial society was in fact technologically advanced and by material standards, much wealthier. But remarkable, no Indian ever defected to join colonial society, while many colonists went to join the Indians.

The colonials occasionally tried to welcome Native American children into their midst, but they couldn’t persuade them to stay. Benjamin Franklin observed the phenomenon in 1753, writing, “When an Indian child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and make one Indian ramble with them, there is no persuading him ever to return.” During the wars with the Indians, many European settlers were taken prisoner and held within Indian tribes. After a while, they had plenty of chances to escape and return, and yet they did not. In fact, when they were “rescued,” they fled and hid from their rescuers.

Sometimes the Indians tried to forcibly return the colonials in a prisoner swap, and still the colonials refused to go. In one case, the Shawanese Indians were compelled to tie up some European women in order to ship them back. After they were returned, the women escaped the colonial towns and ran back to the Indians. Even as late as 1782, the pattern was still going strong. The French explorer, Hector de Crèvecoeur wrote, “Thousands of Europeans are Indians, and we have no examples of even one of those aborigines having from choice become European.”

Native cultures were communal. In the tribe, life was shared. It was a life of mutual support. A life that resonated with a deep human need for connection and solidarity and closeness. The Europeans brought notions of individualism, autonomy, privacy. But the more we progressed and the more prosperous we became, the more we separated from one another. The more divided and isolated we became. The more we distanced ourselves from the deep human need for tribal connection.

According to author Sebastian Junger, 1/3 of American vets returning from Afghanistan and Iraq have filed for permanent disability due to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Only 10% saw combat. What is the source of this stress? Speaking to veterans, Junger heard stories of the comradery, the bonding among soldiers, their devotion to the collective purpose, the sense of identity within the platoon. A platoon is a tribe – men and women working selflessly to protect one another, put their lives in each other’s hands. Each one is needed. Selfless loyalty is expected. Semper Fi. Valor, self-sacrifice, duty is honored. Upon returning home, these soldiers encounter a very different experience. Soldiers went from a world in which they were united, interconnected and indispensable to one in which they felt isolated, without purpose, without identity, and bombarded with images of politicians and civilians screaming at one another. It is the contrast that drives them crazy.

We humans are programmed to lives as tribes. In moments of great adversity, we return to that sensibility, we become a tribe again.

A young friend of mine asked me a few weeks ago, what it was like in the days following the terrorist attack of Sept 11, 2001. "Must have been scarey, huh?"

Actually, it was remarkable. In the days following 9/11, all the boundaries that separated us were suddenly gone. We were no longer strangers to one another. For a brief and shining moment, we were a national community.  Waiting in line at the bank or the supermarket, people talked with one another. There was a sense of solidarity, and a sense of courtesy. People were just nicer to each other. And when we sang, "God Bless America," we meant it. We felt it. There was something remarkable in the air. 

Trauma brings us together. Trauma brings us together because in a moment of disaster we remember how much we need one another. We find comfort in each other. We recall a deep human memory -- we are a tribe. 

We know this. We Jews have lived as a tribe since our beginnings. There was no room in American culture for a tribal identity, so as we settled here we called ourselves a religion and built a communal home in the synagogue. But religion for Jews is secondary to a much deeper connection – the sense that we belong, that we are responsible for one another, that we share history and destiny, we share stories and ways of living. How was it that my mother could board a cruise ship and within half an hour know who all the Jews are? Call it peoplehood, community, culture – we are a tribe.

We gave the world a language for this. Mamlechet kohanim v’goy kadosh. Said God to the people Israel – “You shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19). We are the chosen people. Which is to say that we discovered divinity in our tribal solidarity, in our bonds.

Here is the genius of the Jewish heart. I begin in the tribe. I am born into security of my tribe. My identity is nurtured in the tribe. My sense of efficacy, of personal significance, my place in the world, are fostered by the tribe. And I am rooted in the tribe so I return here to my tribe, every Rosh Hashanah to renew and restore my connection. But the tribe is my spiritual beginning, not my destination. To live exclusively in the tribe, and exclusively for the tribe is parochial, narrow, narcissistic. If I give myself solely to the tribe, the tribe becomes an idol I worship.

The Talmud teaches, Ha-omer sheli sheli, v’shelcha shelcha, zeh midah beynoni. The one who says: What is mine is mine and what is yours is yours, this is the ethic of ordinary people. But then it goes on to comment, zeh midat Sdom, No, not ordinary. This is the way of Sodom, the ethic of destruction. When I draw lines, and say these are mine and these are not.  When I declare: these I care for, and these aren’t my problem. When I say: I know who I am, because I know who I’m not. I bring destruction. When I draw these lines through humanity, I bring destruction. I bring death.    

Here are the founding words of our people, our divine mandate: Lech lecha, m’artzecha, m’eretz moldetcha,

God said to Abraham, and to you and to me:
Go! Go from you home, your birthplace, your father’s house. Leave your tribe.
To the land that I will show you.
2I will make of you a great nation,
And I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
And you – Be a blessing!
3I will bless those who bless you
And curse him that curses you;
And all the families of the earth
Shall bless themselves by you.”

The Jewish people was born the day Abraham heard the call the leave the tribe and enter the world. To be a blessing – but a blessing to whom? Not to his nation, not to his tribe, not even to God. Be a blessing to all the families of the earth.

Judaism gave the world sacred tribalism. It also gave the world sacred globalism. The tribe is sacred because it has a purpose beyond itself. Its purpose is to fashion human beings into vessels of divine blessing for the world. The tribe’s purpose is to form responsible global citizens.

Rabbi Schulweis taught us this. The unique contribution of Judaism to human consciousness was the worship of a God of all Creation. Loyalty to the Creator of all demands concomitant responsibility on the part of the believer. We worship a God of all by accepting responsibility for all. Anything short of that diminishes God. The traditional formula for our liturgy reads, “Blessed are Thou O Lord our God, King of the universe.” Melech ha-olam. Not melech yisrael. Ours is no tribal god. And our vision is not restricted to our own. We are the custodians of the world and its inhabitants.

For Christianity, this is Anno Domini, the Year of Our Lord.  For Christians, the new year is counted from the birth of Jesus as the Son of God. Muslims begin their calendar differently, with 622 A.D., which dates back to Mohammed's Hajira, his flight from Mecca to Medina.   But the Jewish calendar celebrates not the birth of a Jewish savior, not the birth of a Jewish redeemer, not even a Jewish event such as the Exodus out of Egypt or the revelation of the Law at Sinai.  Rather, Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, celebrates the birth of the universe and humanity.  Hayom harat olam, today is the birthday of the world.

The first eleven chapters of the book of Genesis do not deal with a Jew--not with Abraham nor Isaac nor Jacob nor Moses nor Aaron, but with Adam, the archetype of humanity. Adam is not a Jew--his name is derived from "adamah" which means "earth.” The sages ask, "From which place in the universe was this earth taken? Was it from Athens or Rome or Jericho?" The answer is that it was taken from four corners of the earth: north, south, east and west. And what was the color of this clay that formed the human being? Our sages answered, "It was black, and white, and red and yellow."

There were other traditions that believed that some people were formed by God. The Egyptian Pharaoh believed that he himself was God. The kings of Sumeria believed that they were gods. But in Judaism, every single human being is created by God – rich and poor, mighty and weak. Adam is not created as different species or kinds. Adam is one. There is only one humanity and only one universe and only one God and only one universal obligation.

In the Midrash it is written: "When the Holy One, blessed be He, created the world, He took Adam around to see the trees of the Garden of Eden, which included the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge, and He said to Adam, ‘Behold My work. All this I create for you. Take care you do not destroy it, for if you do, there is no one left to repair it.’ " This charge is addressed to every man, to every human being, so that every human being can say, "For my sake was the world created." For when the rabbis asked, "Why did He create Adam singly, by himself, and not as part of a family?" the rabbis answered, "So that no one should say, 'My ancestor is superior to yours.'"

Taught Rabbi Schulweis: Judaism gave the world not ziggurats or pyramids or mausoleums, but compassion and responsibility. We gave the world a sacred universalism.

Are we tribal or are we global? Yes.

Globalism grows in the soil of the tribe. From the tribe, I learn who I am. From the tribe, I learn that I belong, that I am valued, that I can touch the world and change it. From the tribe I learn to value and care and protect the other. Because my tribe and its ways are precious to me, I respect and cherish the gestures of every other tribe. I know what the shul means to me, so I respect the Church and the Mosque and the Ashram. I cherish Shabbat candles, the shofar and apples and honey, so I respect holy communion and Ramadan.  From my tribe, I grow into a citizen of the world. If I am not for myself, who will be? But if I’m only for myself, what am I?

The religion of my tribe is global consciousness. If I say to my child, value the tribe, he or she will ask me, why? Why be Jewish? Why this culture? If I say to the child, through this tribe and its ways, I learn to shape the fate of the world, the child understands. If I say, this tribe holds me responsible for all people, the child understands. We have heard that the young of this generation are self-absorbed and self-involved and indifferent, with their noses pressed firmly into video screens. That’s nonsense. They are waiting. Waiting to participate in a grand project of redemption. Waiting for a chance to save their world. And they wanted it to be expressed in a Jewish narrative.

We are global and we are tribal. Tribalism is the way to globalism. And globalism is the way to protect tribalism. We cannot be anything but both. Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheynu Adonai Ehad. Listen Jews – Adonai, the god of our tribe, the God who called us into being, shaped and protected us, is Elohim, the god of all.

This is an election year. And you want to know what your rabbi thinks, what Judaism thinks about all this.

This election really isn’t about Secretary Clinton or Mr Trump. It’s about change -- how we live with change, how we cope with change. Consider that past 20 years. In 1997, Bill Clinton was inaugurated for his second term, the Internet was in its infancy. Yahoo was founded in 1994, same year IBM released the first smartphone. Amazon, e-Bay, and Craig’s list in 1995. Google was launched in 1998. Twenty years ago, if you were “tweeting” you were a bird. Instagram, Snapchat, texting – these words didn’t exist. Google was a mathematical term, and a noun, not a verb.

Twenty years ago, manufacturing employed the greatest number of people in the U.S, followed by retail trade, health care, and hotels and food services, according to the Census data. Between 1997 and 2012, the largest employment growth occurred in the health care and social assistance sector, which added 5 million jobs and is now the top sector in employment. Meanwhile, manufacturing saw the largest decrease in employment, with a loss of some 5.5 million jobs, a plunge of 32.9 percent. Where did the jobs go? Some went overseas. Many more were automated out of existence, and many more yet will. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, over the next decade, with the development of artificial intelligence, we can expect to see automation assume 45% of work activities currently performed by paid employees. Even today – when I check out at Ralph’s, I use a self-service terminal, no cashier. When I make a deposit at the bank, I use the ATM, no teller.  Anyone take Uber to shul today? In a year or two, that will be a driver-less car.

In 1997, we were still a solidly white majority nation. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2014 there were more than 20 million children under 5 years old living in the U.S., and 50.2 percent of them were minorities. Parents who identified their child as Hispanic origin were the largest minority, making up 22 percent, followed by African American children, who make up 15 percent. The minority population, currently 38 percent, will rise to 56 percent of the total population in 2060. When that happens, "no group will have a majority share of the total and the United States will become a 'plurality' [nation] of racial and ethnic groups," the U.S. Census states.

The economy has changed. The population has changed. The culture has changed. How do people experience this? The diner on the corner is now a sushi bar. Where the hardware store used to be there’s now a yoga studio. They’re building a mosque in a neighborhood over. It took us almost 300 years to end slavery in this country. We’ve gone from civil rights to feminism, to marriage equality for gays and lesbians, to acknowledging the transgendered and differently-gendered, all in 50 years.

What happens to people when they feel nothing is familiar anymore? When they feel like strangers in their own world? When they feel homeless in their home towns? When happens when they feel they’ve lost control of their world? They turn inward, they turn tribal. It’s not a trauma like 9/11, but it’s trauma nonetheless. At this moment, a large portion of the American electorate is turning to the tribe. When people feel threatened, when they experience a diffusion of identity, they get fearful. They hunker down to protect what’s left. They get resentful and angry. They seek security by dividing the world into neat binaries: Us/Them. Our kind of people/Those people. Citizens/Aliens. And they push out the dreaded other.  It’s all a defense against the dizziness and disorientation of a world out of control.

Build a wall. That’s has been the one consistent message of the Trump campaign, the line that gets him the loudest applause. I understand it. A wall isn’t just about keeping people out. It’s about keeping something in. In previous eras, towns had walls not just to keep out invaders, but to create a bounded community, a place that is mine, that is familiar, a place where I matter, where I count, where I am someone. A place I can control.   

It’s not going away. The day after the election, no matter who wins, we’re not going backward. If anything, it’s going to get more acute. Many more jobs will be lost to automation. There will only be much more diversity – in the demographics, in culture, in lifestyle, in values. For that portion of our population – it will seem only more unfamiliar, more confusing and more threatening. Whoever gets elected next month will face this. That’s the biggest issue facing America today.

We Jews, we can teach America our secret. We understand tribalism. But over our generations, we have learned to cultivate a generous tribalism. We are a tribe turn outward. A tribe dedicated to healing and protecting and serving the world. A tribe which refuses to be indifferent. A tribe which will not castigate, nor vilify, not seek to destroy the other, because we were slaves in the land of Egypt, and we know the soul of the stranger.

America knows this. Deep down, American know this because America was founded on Biblical principles. What makes America great? We are the only nation in history that used its enormous power to rescue and redeem other nations, and asked for nothing in return. The only nation dedicated to serving an ideal of democracy above our particular economic or political interests. The only nation bound together, not by ethnicity or faith or language or culture, but by a narrative about human freedom and the dignity of all people. That’s American exceptionalism. It is that narrative that our next president must teach us all again. That narrative must become the driving theme of the 45th presidency.  Otherwise, we will see the disintegration of this project called America – and don’t for a moment think that is impossible.

The last time we were this divided, the last time we were this wounded, it took a great president to call us together. It was his vision, his iron will, and his heart that united us and healed us. In his second inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln offered this prayer --  

“With malice toward none, and with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Let these sacred words be inscribed upon the White House. Let them be the platform of our next president. Let them make us once again a united states of America.

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Sat, August 15 2020 25 Av 5780