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The Sermon on the Mall

04/06/2015 08:27:00 AM


The Sermon on the Mall
Yom Kippur 2010, 5771 by Rabbi Edward Feinstein

I want you to share a thought experiment with me. I want you to imagine that the economic situation in the country doesn’t improve in the next year. Instead of turning toward recovery, the world economy, and our national situation gets worse. Much worse. How this can happen? ….could be any number of causes: the Chinese could decide to stop buying our national debt; a terror attack on the Saudi oil fields halts the flow of energy; a biological blight wipes out food supplies. Just imagine that the situation deteriorates. Unemployment today in the US is 9.6% -- imagine it goes to 15%, where it was in 1940 at the end of the Great Depression, or 25% in 1933, at the depth of the Depression. Gasoline today costs about $3 a gallon. Imagine it goes to $6, what gas costs today in France and Holland. Imagine food supplies becoming tighter, supermarket shelves are half- empty. We line up to get milk and eggs and meat and bread. For want of funding, public services contract – libraries and parks close, schools cut their schedules, police and fire protection are restricted. Medical care is harder to come by. Just imagine that things get really bad. 

What would happen to social order? Would we pull together, help one another, share our resources….or would we erect even higher walls of privacy and isolation to defend what we have from others…or would we turn on one another in rage and jealousy? 

What would happen to our political system? Would we preserve democracy, with all its messiness? Or would we turn to a demagogue who promised to solve our problems quickly and efficiently? Would we elevate a dictator who promised to return the security of law and order? 

What would happen to our culture? Would we continue to be an open society, guarding freedom of speech, freedom of opinion, a diversity of cultures and faiths? Or would we divide, us against them, our people against those people, real Americans against suspect Americans? Would we accept responsibility for our problems? Or would we blame and castigate the other, the alien, the immigrant, the foreigner for our suffering? 

What would happen to us? To our values, our sense of life’s worth, of life’s purpose? Would we work harder, continue to dream and look forward to better days, or would we despair? Would we escape to alcohol, drugs, irresponsible sexual behavior? Would we turn to entertainment ever more violent and brutal, or pornographic and lascivious to distract us? 

If we lost the security of a growing economy and promising tomorrow, how much confidence do you have in the stability of American democracy? If we were forced to live with a lot less – less material comfort and convenience, how much faith do you have in the resilience of the American character? 

I worry about America. I worry about its future. I worry about its character and its values. The generation of the Great Depression and the Second World War made enormous sacrifices to protect what is precious about America in times much tougher than these. I don't sense that strength, that toughness, that depth of conviction in us. 

And we, American Jews, have a special stake in this nation. In America we have found a home that is more welcoming, more secure, more comfortable than any diaspora in 2000 years. We've lived in many lands, and even flourished there: In Babylonia we created the Talmud; in Medieval Spain, we knew a golden age; in Eastern Europe, a flowering of Jewish learning and literature; in Iran, we shaped a powerful culture. But in the Jewish experience, America is unique, because America did much more than tolerate our presence. America invited us into its heart, invited us to shape the national character. Our voice, our values, our vision, even our humor, have shaped American culture. America is unique because our America character is not an ethnic or cultural identity, Americans are a remarkably diverse population of many identities and culture; it's not faith, Americans are a mosaic of faiths and traditions, believers and non-believers; it's not even personal values. What brings Americans together – e pluribus unum -- into this remarkable nation is the story we all tell. We are united by a common story. And it is the loss of that story that threatens our future. 

As much as I disagree with their politics, I resonate with those Tea Party protesters. I share their anxiety. I agree with the Tea Partiers that the character of America is threatened. I agree that America has drifted far from its core values. I agree that we must recover and teach American civic virtue. I agree that the American story must be re-told, with new pride and new faithfulness and new enthusiasm. On all that the Tea Party is right. The problem is that the Tea Party tells the wrong American story. 

The real American story of our origins is told on the fourth Thursday of every November, when we gather as family and friends around tables to celebrate Thanksgiving. The table will be set with turkey and stuffing, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes with little marshmallows on top, green beans suspended in a white gelatinous solution, corn bread, and pumpkin pie. [Sorry, I know you're hungry.] Before we partake of this feast, we will recite a holy text: In the year, 1620, our pilgrim ancestors escaped the tyranny of England to seek a new life in a new world. They crossed the mighty Atlantic in a ship called the Mayflower. Arriving at Plymouth, Massachusetts in the winter, they would have died had it not been for the gracious help of the natives, who showed them how to survive in this new land. The following year, the Plymouth colony celebrated their first harvest with a feast, just like this one. They gave thanks for the bounty of this land, for the kindness of the natives, and for God's providential protection. And so we gather year to year to give thanks to God for all the gifts of this great land. And let us say, amen. 

We all do that, right? Thanksgiving is the greatest American festival. And its story is the American master story. It's not entirely historical. It's not empirically correct. It's more important than history. It's true in a deeper way – it's myth. It is our deepest truth told as story. If you're an American, you tell this story in the first person, no matter where your ancestors really were in 1620! Because all of our national character is contained in that story. Who we are, where we came from, how we got here, and most of all, what is expected of us. 

And if you're Jewish, you celebrate this story, because it's so familiar. Look: they chose a turkey, thank God. Had they chosen a ham, we'd be in trouble. Expressing gratitude to God in a ritual feast with symbolic foods, a prescribed annual ritual, shaped by custom…this is the American yontiff. And more than devotional, the ritual educates. It has its own curriculum, its own hagaddah. It informs the community; it inculcates the next generation into our values. 

Most importantly, the story is resonates. The escape from tyranny, the perilous crossing, the arrival in a promised land, the gift of providential protection. This is our master story. It is no coincidence that we feel such a stake in America as Jews. There is a remarkable congruence between the American story and the Jewish story. The pilgrims were deeply informed by the Hebrew Bible. They read their experience as a Biblical story of redemption, an Exodus. And they celebrated it, just as we would. It's the values of that story that need to be re-asserted by all Americans. That story informs our national identity, our sense of purpose and our courage to pursue that purpose. 

1. Who are we? 

Last year, Alan Greenspan, the former Fed chairman, testified before Congress about his role in the deregulation of banks and financial institutions, a deregulating that precipitated our financial crisis. Greenspan said apologetically that he never imagined that bankers and Wall Street traders would engage in deals so risky that they would intentionally jeopardize the very institutions they worked for, indeed, the entire financial system, in order to generate quick short-term profits. He never imagined they would be that selfish. That's a remarkable statement for an economist. Because it's not a statement about economics, it's a statement about ethics. He never imagined people would be so hypnotized by short term gain that they would engage in behaviors that were blatantly self-destructive in the long term. He never conceived of people so transfixed in reaching for their own gain that they would bring down the entire economy, and the entire society in the process. And then, even after he testified, they did it again. The bankers working for very institutions bailed out by public monies, received bonuses larger than the ones they got before the crisis! 

There is a strain of radical individualism in the American character. We imagine that each of us born into the world a free, independent, autonomous self. We are self-contained. We don't need anyone else to survive. We enter into relationships only to pursue our interests. But we do so only cautiously and with suspicion. Every relationship places claims upon us, and those claims diminish our freedom. And because freedom is our most cherished gift, those claims diminish us. This culture of individualism is at the heart of America. Our icons are brave individualists: the explorer, the pioneer, the rebel, the entrepreneur -- heroes unafraid to strike out on their own, cutting ties that bind them, to follow the road less traveled, and to live by their own rules. Superman, Batman, the Lone Ranger, Shane, James Bond, Dirty Harry, Luke Skywalker, Coby Bryant. 

The novelist, Henry James once said, in a wonderfully pregnant phrase, that America is a “hotel culture.” A hotel is a place we sleep and a place we eat but we don't live there. We don't set down roots there. It's not ours. In a hotel we never fully unpack. We can leave a mess, and someone anonymously comes in the middle of the day to clean and straighten. In a hotel, we don't care who lives next door or across the hall. Their affairs, their needs, their dreams are none of our business. If we're unsatisfied, we just check out and move on tomorrow. 

The Thanksgiving story is not the story of individuals. It is the story of a community. You have to be a very good student of history to know the name of even one of the pilgrim ancestors. Their individual names have dropped out of the myth because the Thanksgiving story is all about how a community pulled together to survive by sharing, caring and protecting one another. And it is about welcoming the outsider, in this case, the native Americans, into our circle to share the bounty of the land. The Pilgrims saw themselves as a covenantal community. They signed a compact before disembarking affirming their communitarian values, affirming not their rights, but their responsibilities one to another. 

In the mind of the Bible, a sense of self that ends at the tip of one's nose, is too small and too sad a definition of a human being. Self is a circle of care and concern and commitment. And the bigger one's circle of caring, the more people, the more of the world that we are committed to, the bigger, more human is the self, and the more meaningful is my life. Relationships bring claims. I am accountable to my wife, to my family, to my community. But those claims don't diminish me, they don't vitiate my freedom. Through those relationships I can reach farther, accomplish more, dream bigger; I am freer because of those relationships. And because of those relationships, my life matters. 

God's circle of caring encompasses all. To open up the self in relationship, is to rise in holiness, in Godliness. That's what we Jews call “mitzvah.” When a child comes of age in the Jewish tradition, we don't celebrate the arrival of new rights and privileges. We have a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, a celebration of responsibility and the dignity of responsible living. We teach our kids what the tradition calls, “simcha shel mitzvah,” the dignity, joy and meaning that comes from a life of caring, giving, serving, healing, helping. The truth of mitzvah is that in performing a selfless deed, I discover the true nature and the true value of my self. 

“Don't tread on me!” was once the national motto, and it's still shouted by the Tea Party protesters. American individualism served us well when we were a frontier culture. It served us well when we were a growing industrial nation. But it no longer serves us. It has destroyed our economy and now threatens to destroy our culture. America has a bill of rights. If we are to survive, we need the Thanksgiving covenant of communal responsibility. 

2. What are we here for? 

Before a kid steps to the bima for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah I meet with them. I want to know them. I ask about school, about their interests, their dreams. I ask what they do to have fun. Kids mention sports, they talk about doing drama or art. And inevitably, they love to hang out with their friends, at the mall. 

The mall. Someday, 10,000 years from now, archaeologists will excavate our civilization and they will come to the conclusion that the mall must have been a place of worship, a holy place. Otherwise, how does one account for the central place of this institution in American suburban culture. The gods of the mall, an archaeologist will write, were known as Abercrombie and Fitch, an idol portrayed as a young virile man displaying his impressive abdominals, and a fertile young woman displaying….well you get the idea. 

The mall has a culture. It inculcates a set of values. It teaches. What is the message of the mall: Life is an endless cycle of acquisition and consumption. Your happiness, your sense of personal worth, your personal identity are found in the clothes you wear, the gadgets you own, the trinkets you possess. You are what you own. And the process never ends. There is always something new to acquire. According to Parents Magazine: 

Companies spend $14.4 billion dollars annually to advertise products to kids. 

Children become brand conscious by age 3, and half of them ask for specific brands by age 5. 

Children 18 and under spend $150 billion dollars each year. 

Americans under 25 spend 5 times more money than their parents did at that age. 

The culture of consumption once had a place in American life. After the Depression, and after the Second World War, the cascade of consumer goods was a welcome relief, a reward for a thrifty culture that had sacrificed and committed so much to save the world. But today, it is neither environmentally nor economically nor humanly sustainable. 

We have marked our progress in America by an ever-rising standard of living, each generation surpassing its parents. My father worked seven-days a week to send my brothers and me to college. (He told us that way we wouldn't have work on Shabbos and Yom tov. Am I am fool?) Suppose that for some extended period of time, the economy stops expanding. Suppose that the next generation and the one after that will not even match, much less surpass the material success of their parents. How will we define personal success? Where will we find satisfaction? How will we motivate kids to go to school, to take a job, to build? 

It's not entirely facetious to say that Abercrombie and Fitch is our idol. Idolatry is, by definition, a false answer to a real human need. Human beings need food and water and air. They also have spiritual needs. They need a sense of purpose, the connection of human community, a sense of appreciation. To live without purpose, connection and appreciation, is to live with a hole in the soul. Instead of pointing our children toward true sources of fulfillment, instead of cultivating spiritual lives, the mall fills that hole with distraction – consumer goods, fashion, shopping, an addictive life of acquisition that can never be satisfied. Instead of offering true measures of aspiration and accomplishment, the mall perpetuates the idea that you are what you own, and the more you own, the more you are. It really is an idol. 

For all the feasting, Thanksgiving is not about consumption. On the contrary, it is about the cultivation of spirit. It is about gratitude, and specifically gratitude for the simplest of blessings – life, family, friends, and the liberty to enjoy them. The message of Thanksgiving is taken directly from the Bible: Life and all its blessings are a gift. Not an entitlement. Not something we're owed. And not as something we earned or created on our own, no matter how hard we worked. It is all a gift to be appropriated with reverence and appreciation. The richness of life is measured not by the quantity of our possessions, but by the quality and depth of our appreciation. Aizehu ashir, who is rich? asks Pirke Avot, ha-sameach b'helko, the one joyful in what he has. That's the secret of a happy life. 

In his first inaugural address, delivered in 1933, the depths of the Depression, Franklin Roosevelt declared, 

“Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. The joy and moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits. These dark days will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men.” 

The great American tragedy is that the very next day, the Friday after Thanksgiving, is the biggest shopping day of the year. Like we couldn't stay away from the mall for even a day. 

3. What can we do? 

The most important part of the Thanksgiving story is what they called themselves. They weren't refugees, immigrants, or illegal aliens. Nor were they tourists, or traveling salesmen. They called themselves pilgrims. A pilgrim travels from a place of lesser sanctity to a place of greater sanctity. A pilgrim seeks the presence of God, ascends to a promised land, a holy land, for the purpose of being transformed. 

Pilgrimage is an external ritual performance of an internal process of tshuva, turning, changing. Sometimes in life we get stuck. We need to begin anew, to re-assess and re-assert our purposes, to change direction, to re-imagine our goals and dreams. The pilgrim leaves home for a long, contemplative trip. It's meant to be slow. There is time to think, to dream, to review and to imagine. The pilgrim meets prayers and dreams. By the time the pilgrim arrives at the holy place, the inner journey has taken its course. The God he meets at the shrine is only a reflection of the renewal he has found within. 

Pilgrimage is a statement of hope. It is a powerful way of dispelling despair. It is a way banishing that awful sense that what is, is meant to be, that nothing can change, that we are trapped. The pilgrim takes one step and comes to understand the power of t'shuva, the power of transformation. We are not stuck forever. We are not trapped or bound or cornered. If you can move your feet, you can move your heart, and you can move your fate. In the Torah, we are invited by God to make pilgrimage to Jerusalem three times a year l'heraot, to appear before God, to be seen, to know that we are visible, that we matter. L'heraot, to see ourselves differently, in a new light, with new possibilities, with new opportunities, with new potential. 

Our ancestors on the Mayflower called themselves pilgrims so that we might embrace this hope. So that we might realize our own powers of renewal. So that we might move forward with courage. I miss that note in current American culture. 

In the most famous line of Roosevelt's address he declared, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” In truth, there was much to fear in 1933. Unemployment, social unrest, the unraveling of American society and disintegration of the American dream. But Roosevelt believed that American had the wherewithal to overcome, as long as we did not succumb to what he called “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” We are a strong national community, Roosevelt asserted. Neither economic catastrophe nor external invasion can threaten us, as long as we do not succumb to fear. The politics of fear is the only real danger to this nation. Fear of an uncertain future. Fear of change. Fear of the new. Fear of our own government. Fear of the other. Fear of the stranger, the one who thinks and lives and dreams differently. Fear makes us timid, small-minded, angry, suspicious and hateful. Fear steals our virtues and our wisdom. 

It's an election year. And those who organize elections know that we respond strongly to negativity. So in the days to come we're going to be assaulted with claims and counter-claims. And all of them playing upon our fears. All of them telling to be afraid. Put away your wisdom, and be afraid. Put away your ideals and be afraid. Put away your dreams, be afraid. Put away your values, and be afraid. Put away your compassion and be afraid. Just like the Wall Street traders who destroyed the economy, the political consultants who create these campaigns, and the candidates who run them, are more concerned about winning in the short term than about the serious and lasting damage they cause our democracy in the long term. 

Be wary of the politics of fear. From every party. Be wary of the politics of fear, because Roosevelt was right. We have it in us, we can find the resilience and the courage and the power to persist and persevere in the face of economic decline. As long as we don't succumb to fear. So when you are bombarded with all their dire warnings, their vicious claims, their fear….just tell them in response, you know, we're Americans. We're better than that. We are made of stronger stuff. We are, after all, the descendants of pilgrims. 

In the word of a prayer written by a Jewish immigrant from Europe who served as a private in the American army in 1918, and later changed his name from Israel Baline to Irving Berlin… 

"While the storm clouds gather far across the sea, 
Let us swear allegiance to a land that's free, 
Let us all be grateful for a land so fair, 
As we raise our voices in a solemn prayer. 

God Bless America, 
Land that I love. 
Stand beside her, and guide her 
Thru the night with a light from above. 
From the mountains, to the prairies, 
To the oceans, white with foam 
God bless America, My home sweet home."

* This document, or any portion thereof, may not be reproduced without the written permission of the author.


Sat, August 15 2020 25 Av 5780