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A Letter to My Children (Rosh Hashanah Sermon 2017/5778)


Rosh Hashanah Sermon 2017/5778

To my dearest children,

There comes a time in every family’s life where the playthings and the good times must be put on hold for a short time so some serious words can be said. There comes a time in every Jewish family where parents have to sit down with their children and speak of what it means to be a Jew in a Gentile world. My parents sat me down to have this talk as did their parents before them and theirs before them. I wish I would never have to, but now is the time to speak of what has unfortunately become, in the case of the Jewish People, an eternal truth.

We are a small people in this vast world, and while you have Jewish friends in every corner of your lives and it might seem that everywhere you go, there is always someone Jewish, the truth is that we only make up small fraction of the world’s population. Only about two tenths of one percent when it’s all said and done. That means that there are billions upon billions of people who have never met a Jew. They don’t really know us. And because of that and other reasons I would like to share with you -- why some of them hate us and why some of those that hate us want to do violence to us.

Part of me wants to tell you everything - all the details about what has happened. That’s because I was told everything. I did not just grow up with anti-Semitism, I grew up on anti-semitism. Anti-Semitism defined my Jewish life. It was reason to be Jewish. It defined us as much as it threatened us. Which is why there is an urge within me to tell you about the expulsions and the libels, the gas chambers and the ovens. There was a time not to long ago when anti-semitism greatest expression came roaring out of the earth like a demon. The Shoah, the Holocaust, a moral failing so large that that two out of every five Jews were murdered then, including 1.5 million children. For my parents and grandparents, and even myself and maybe even now, our community has still not fully worked out our grief.

But I do not want you to put stone in your heart either. I see in your Jewish eyes a spirituality that is overflowing with love and joy. A Judaism so full of color and dancing, a people vibrant and thriving. I watch you sometimes from the windows upstairs playing basketball or just running around or dancing our folk dances. It is a flourishing of Jewish life that I will not ruin for you.

I do not wish for your first question about spirituality to be “Where was God in Auschwitz” as it was for my parents and grandparents. Because I believe that only now, in this generation, are we able to see that see Judaism’s internal pulsations of truth and meaning so brightly that no smoke stack could dare to overshadow it. God is so much bigger than war, so much bigger than one global catastrophe. So powerful a force in the universe is the Divine, that I want you to feel as I do that the fires of hate cannot destroy the Creator of love and justice.

So I will not mention everything but there are few things you need to know about me and our family.  

I was a little older than you when, living in Texas, I was first targeted for bullying because I am a Jew.  

I was a little older than you when I was first called a Kike and a Jew Boy, both evil names.

I was a little older than you when I felt anti-Semitism for the first time on my body in the form of punches and kicks from the other boys at school.

I was a little older than you are when some of the boys at my school would tell me this joke.

“Why do Jews have crooked backs? Because they spend so much time picking up pennies.” I didn’t really understand that in their laughter, they didn’t mean for me to laugh with them at the joke. To them, all Jews are greedy and money-obsessed.

Don’t let anyone ever tell you that “sticks and stones can break bones but words can never hurt you.” It is simply not true. Sticks and stones can leave their marks on your body, but there is a reason why the most important part of a joke is called a "punch-line.’’

Words hurt in places that others cannot see. They punch on your soul and your heart and leave bruises that last much longer than sticks and stones.

Perhaps the worst anti-Semitism our family ever faced in this country was when I was a sophomore in public school. I have clear memories of my father standing to make Kiddush on Friday night to the sound of eggs splattering against the windows. One night I was awoken at three in the morning by the sound of loud pops and bangs in my front yard. When my father walked outside he found that several pipe bombs had been exploded in the front of our house, and our brick mailbox was sitting in the middle of street, broken into pieces. Part of the lawn was on fire. The street filled with flashing lights, and hazmat suits. The authorities wanted to make sure the substance burned into our grass wasn’t a chemical agent. On my sister’s car, hung like a flag, was a t-shirt with swastikas painted onto it with phrases like “Get Out Jew” and “We know who you are.”

More than the violence, the bombs, the fire, it was the words that scared me and scarred me the most. “We know who you are” felt worse that getting a new mailbox. Especially because, at 15, I barely knew who I was myself. Sure, we did Shabbat dinner and went to synagogue a few times.  We kept kosher in the house with three sets of dishes - meat, dairy and treif. Yet, I didn’t know who I was deep down. I did not know our history, nor did I know much about the wisdom of our Torah. “We know who you are” was a scary because I did not know who I was. The anti-Semites wanted to define us as Jews, and we could barely define ourselves. Which is why I write this letter, to help you think through who you are as a member of our family, as an American, and part of an ancient people.

I do not mean to scare you, my children. The first thing you should know is that you are safe. I want you to know that we are safer now than we have been in 2,000 years of Jewish history. Our home is safe, and our community is safe. You live in one of the largest communities of Jews in the world. You go to school behind walls with armed guards who are here to protect you. I have the Chief of Police on my phone’s speed dial.  

Not everyone in the world is an anti-semite either. Nor should you go walking down the street assuming that anyone who looks funny or looks at you funny is one either. Diversity is one of God’s greatest blessings. The rabbis teach that there are infinite number of God’s images stamped precisely onto the soul of every unique human being. (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5) Jews are loved in this country. According to sociological studies, in fact we are the most loved.

More than any particular study, or the strength of our numbers, or the height of our walls, there two foundational reasons why you should feel safe right here, right now.

The first is where we live, in The United States of America, the greatest democratic experiment the world has ever known. It has its problems with hatred and anti-Semitism, racism and xenophobia. Americans, including Jews, have enslaved other people, and committed unspeakable acts of violence upon the property and bodies of others. But know this - there has never been a place in the history of the world that has the promise of America for all people. Those promises have to be secured through democracy, through power struggles, even through protest, but the short history of this country has shown that it has always progressed towards a more perfect union.

And there has never been, in the long history of our people, a better diaspora home than the United States. In fact it was a Jew in 1787, named Jonas Phillips, who was the only person in the newly-freed colonies to dare petition the Constitutional Convention. What he asked of these illustrious scholars and statesmen who were drafting our country’s foundational document, was that there be no religious test for citizenship, nor for federal office holders in the burgeoning United States.

Phillips is little known to us, but because he was a Jew who put his Judaism on the line in public, his influence helped to secure one of the cornerstones of our success and the success of all faiths in America. For he was willing to speak truth to power and challenge the fledgling government to protect all religions and all peoples. And he did so, as a Jew.  The imperfect country that is America has its problems, but while we live here and if we continue to speak up, we can help secure our safety.

You are also safer today than at any time in history because we have a true homeland in the State of Israel. Like America, Israel has its share of political injustices. It is not even close to perfect with its poverty, social inequality and the occupation of another people. Israel, like America, is an experiment in self-determination. Israel is the collective attempt of Jews globally to make Zionism, the yearning to live free as other people do, manifest in the world.

It is a refuge to millions of Jews.

It is a cultural heart that throbs at the center of who we are.  

It is strong and thriving with an army, a social safety net, universities and hospitals and a diverse culture within a Jewish democracy.

Israel has given every Jew in the world the confidence like never before to stand up for our Jewish beliefs.

Because of America, because of Israel, you belong to the safest generation of Jews in history.

There is, however a gathering storm-on many sides-that threaten these two foundations that safeguard our well being. And while they are small, they are loud and are growing. It is now our generation's turn to make sure in our own way that these forces are defeated. According the Anti-Defamation League, anti-semitic occurrences have risen dramatically. Up 86% from last year alone. On a Friday night last month a group of white-supremacists gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia. As they carried torches and marched around a statue, they chanted over and over again “Jews will not replace us.” It was the largest organized hate rally this country has seen in over fifty years. Just a few days ago, in St. Louis Missouri, a synagogue came under threat during a protest against police violence. On Twitter, anti-semites tried to rally their friends to intimidate shul. The hashtag #Gasthesynaouge was a trending on social media for the next few hours. Today there is a synagogue in Texas that is meeting in secret for the sacred holidays because they fear of being confronted by anti-semites. And unfortunately without unequivocal condemnations of hate from the most powerful office in our country, these gathering winds of hate will grow into a full-blown gale.

Do not think, however, that anti-semitism is held only by white men. Amongst progressives, many whom are of differing ethnic descent, there is a rising trend of anti-semitism in a new form of anti-Zionism.

As I said before, criticizing Israeli policy is fine. That is right of anyone who wants to fight for justice. But anti-semitism is more than criticism. It is the denial of the right of collective life of Jews to live as everyone else can.

This past summer, women who were at a march to support rights for gays and lesbians were told they could not march with Jewish symbols on their flag because they were told that the Star of David is a symbol of aggression and oppression.

They might claim that they don’t hate Jews, but in their response to the  outrage their actions spurned, the organizers redoubled their position writing, “Zionism is an inherently white-supremacist ideology. It is based on the premise that Jewish people have a God-given entitlement to the lands of historic Palestine and the surrounding areas.”

Their reasoning is that Jews are not indigenous to our homeland, and that we as Jews are a collective of white colonialists who have come to subjugate and to displace those indigenous people that live there.

This version of anti-semitism denies that half the population of Israel is not white, coming as refugees along the Silk Road, from Arab Countries, from Iran and from Africa. They think that our history does not matter. That Egypt and Auschwitz are simply myths. These anti-Zionists try to compare oppression as if it was some kind of contest in which winners take all. And they align, in the most disgusting of ways, words like “Zionism” and “white supremacist,” and “Nazi” to mean the same thing.

You have to ask, “What is happening in the mind of a white man who spews hate about such a people so small?” Why do liberal activists attack Jews in the guise of attacking Israel’s right of existence? Anti-semitism is not about you, or me. It is not your fault that they hate you. Please know that. It is entirely theirs.

That’s because anti-semitism is not really about Jews. We might be the object of hatred but we are not its true cause. It’s ok not to like Jews. You don’t have to like everybody. It’s human to disagree with people. It’s human to not get along with everybody. It’s human to not like every country, even Israel. That’s our prerogative in a democracy. All the more so in a Jewish democracy. We should call out our own people for their transgressions, as Rav Papa teaches in the Talmud that if you are able to protest against the transgressions of one's household and you do not, you become liable for those sins. (Talmud Shabbat 54b)

Anti-semitism is different than this. It is not simply a criticism of policy. It is the denial of existence of Jews to live like anyone else.

Anti-semitism is based on a sense of scarcity. There is never enough in the world, the line of thinking goes. And so the world is a struggle between “them” and “us.” It is based on a paradigm of either/or. Either I am right or you are right. Either I can live or you can live. Either I will succeed or you will succeed. If I am good, then you must be bad. Either I have it all or you have it all.

Either/or is what lurked in Cain’s heart when he slayed his brother Abel.  Either/or says that you are not your brother’s keeper, or your neighbor's keeper, or your nation’s keeper, or a global keeper. Either/or says that everything in the world is scarce including love and God’s grace. Anti-Semitism is based on this either/or paradigm.  

It says what is “us” cannot be “them.”

It says what is “mine” cannot be “yours.”

It says that “Your” oppression cannot be included in “My” oppression.

It says that “You” will not replace “Us.”

For those on the right, anti-semitism is justified in their minds because Jews control everything, and therefore are the gatekeepers to their own prosperity. It’s what the psychologist Julian Rotter coined, “Locus of control.” If someone has an internal locus of control then they believe they can influence the events in their lives. If they have an external locus of control, then they believe that they have no influence over the events in their lives. Instead of asking, “Where could I have acted differently?” or “How can I improve myself?” Anti-Semites externalize their locus of control to ask only “Who did this to us?” It’s an easy way to distract them from deeper issues within a community. We as Jews know this type of anti-Semitism. We have ancient muscles to deal with it, we’ve seen it before. This is good old-fashioned American anti-semitism. On the left, anti-semitism is justified because we have political power in the form of Israel, that they believe we don’t deserve.

On the right, Jews are evil because we are not white (even though many are).  

On the left, Jews are evil because we are white (even though many of us are not).

On the right, anti-semitism tries to attack democracy in America.

On the left, anti-semitism tries to attack Zionism in Israel.

On the right, anti-semitism attacks the Jew in our safest diaspora home.

On the left, anti-semitism attacks the Jew in our homeland.

Both of these forms of anti-semitism come at us by attacking the two foundations of our well being - America and Israel - and we can’t let them.  Not on our watch. Not in our time. Not today. Not ever.

Rabbi Schulweis was the first to teach me that if anti-semitism is based on the either/or paradigm then the task of responding to anti-semitism must from a place that overcomes the either/or paradigm. We need both/and thinking that comes straight from our tradition. Every Jewish day, every Jewish holiday begins at night. “In the beginning,” the Torah teaches, the world was an admixture of light and darkness. Just as there was darkness, so too there was light. It was God who felt through the darkness to find the light. Just as there is evening, so too there is morning.

It was at night when they have come for us. It was at night when the Nazis marched against us. It is at night when they broke the glass of our houses of worship, our schools, our business, our homes. It was a night when the tophets glowed the brightest.

But there was evening and there was morning. In the morning we now come out of hiding. In the morning, we now rise. In the morning, we gather, we shout, we sing for our people. In the morning we fight.

In the morning, joy will come. In the morning, for only in the morning, after a long night, in partnership with other people, together, do we dare say it will be good.

I’ll be damned if we ever go back into the long night.

To overcome hatred and bigotry, we must have a fuller heart than those who wish to deny us our place in the world.  

The first paragraph of the Shema, our holiest prayer begins, v’ahavta et Adonai elohecha bchol levavcha, uvechol nafshecha. “Love Adonai your God with all your heart and might.” The word for heart, lev, is spelled with two bets. The rabbis teach that each bet is meant to teach us something different. The Jewish heart has two chambers that beat as one.

Do not let anyone, my children, split your Judaism with your Zionism. The Jewish heart has two chambers that beat as one. Justice, the Torah teaches us, is something to be ever pursued. It is that aspiration of Moses for his people. It is what God wants every human being to know and love. Jews aspire to Justice. And fight for justice.

Zionism is the aspiration to be a free people, self-determined in our own homeland. Drawn together by the hopes and dreams of our ancestors, Justice and Zionism beat together in a single heart. To live free, and to let others live free. Two chambers, one heart. B'chol Levavcha u'vchol nafshecha. Both/and. Never either/or.

We must also look deep into our souls, my love, to overcome either/or. We must take our own actions into account. There are many places in our tradition where we categorize our lives as “us” and “them.” As we emerge stronger and more powerful in this century than in any previous one, we must do our part to look within our own community and look to see where our hatred lies. Do we shame others? Do we oppress others? Do we make others invisible by our own actions?

I believe the answer to these questions is found in the forging of relationships with people who do not look like us and do not think like us. I’ve been out of the house a lot lately. I hope you forgive me for that. I think it is important to tell you what I’ve been doing. I spend the time in churches and mosques in parts of the city you would not recognize. I am meeting with pastors and imams. On a regular basis we are working to end a crisis of homelessness in this city, but after Charlottesville, we added to our workload. This pressing hour calls for solidarity not silence.

You see, there was supposed to be a march in Venice Beach by the same people who chanted terrible things in Virginia just a few weeks later. It took us by surprise. So we went to work leveraging our existing relationships - black, white, latino, valley, city, Jew and Gentile, and we got their permit revoked. We got that march canceled, there will be no hate in this city because as as I said, this pressing hour calls for solidarity and not silence. For it is solidarity and not silence which is the only anvil upon which the bell of freedom can be forged.

The only way to defeat organized hate is with organized love. To do that, you must overcome either/or in order to embrace the both/and.

When I was child, the word "Jewish" was said with a whisper. Every time we would go out and start speaking about Jewish things we always did so in an undertone. In our day, the response to anti-semitism cannot be whispered. That fateful night when the Nazis bombed our house, changed our lives. We wanted to not go to school the next day, because if there was ever an excuse to not go to High School, I thought being a victim of hate crime was it!  He said to us that we had to go, if for no other reason than show that the anti-semites amongst us could cow us into submission or force us to leave. My father, your zayde, was right. This pressing hour calls for solidarity and not silence.

We must be more public about our Judaism not less. More ready to gather as Jews, not less. More willing to try out doing Jewish things, not less. Do not let the anti-semites say “We know who you are” if you do not know yourself. Try going deeper with our tradition. Put on a kippah in public. Wear your tallit in synagogue. Try eating kosher for while. Set for yourself a course of study to learn more about our tradition.

Do not let anti-semites define you. Do the work to define yourself.  

And remember most of all never apologize for loving your people as you love all peoples.

Never apologize for pursuing justice.

Never apologize for loving Israel.

Never, ever apologize for being a Jew.

I hope you take these words of wisdom into your heart so that the next great Jewish flourish already at hand can continue to grow with you and through you. I leave you with the final words of the psalm dedicated to the high holidays. Kaveh el-Adonai, hazak v’amatz libecha v’kaveh el-Adoni. Hope is the most godly value we have for it strengthens the heart and resolves the will. I have great hope for our future. It gives me strength to see Jews stand up for themselves as Jews in public. It is our inheritance and our future.

I love you more than you will ever know, Shana Tova U’Metukah. May it be a year of sweetness, of pride, and goodness for all of you.

Love, Aba

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Sat, July 11 2020 19 Tammuz 5780