Main idea: our tradition has a framework about idolatry that can be helpful for us to understand how to deal with the question of Confederate statues in America – arrogance and anger
RH is the day when we talk about sins. One of the greatest sins in Torah is idolatry, as probably even the most distracted student in Hebrew school knows. But bowing down to an idol, a statue, is not something that we are likely to do nowadays, is it? Well, hold on to your pews: I want to talk about idolatry because there have been a lot of talk regarding statues lately, particularly in the South, but also regarding the statue of Teddy Roosevelt in the front of the Natural history Museum in New York. And our tradition can help shedding light on these issues.
What defines idolatry?
In Torah, idolatry is defined by the existence of a belief in a power that is not God, and that power is representable with an image, whether a statue, a painting or something else.
This idol, when properly taken care of, controls nature and human behaviors for the advantage of the follower. It is a form of manipulation of reality, of people and of nature.
Many of us believe that the laws regarding idolatry really do not apply to us anymore – after all, most Americans are not idolaters, we are Jews or Christian or Muslim or nothing. If we think about idolatry at all, we tend to reimagine idolatry as the blind following of money, status, or a charismatic person in detriment of higher values and intimate relationships. Those are all real forms of idolatry, do not get me wrong. But this is a step above the initial idea of idolatry.
Idolatry stays in human consciousness for millennia as a system connected to images.
We all know that images are powerful. An image is worth one thousand words. And an image well placed in space and time is worth ten thousand words. Polytheistic idolatry gets that – think about the gods of the Romans and the Greeks, and the great sculptures that survived to this day, and where they were placed.
Several thousands of years after the Torah kernel about idolatry, the Talmud will discuss it in detail, as it discusses everything in detail.
One of the questions it raised is – what is idolatry and what is decoration? At a certain moment, even the Greek and Roman pagans are using their own statues as decoration and not necessarily worship. The example given is a bathhouse in which a statue of Aphrodite is set in. Can a Jew still use that bathhouse? The answer might surprise you: yes. Why?
Because no one says “let’s make a bathhouse for Aphrodite, they say ‘let’s make an Aphrodite for the bathhouse”. So statues can be just decoration, or they can be something else entirely.
So let’s talk about that “something else entirely:” the rabbis will connect idolatry to two human feelings and ideas. Arrogance is the first one: God and the arrogant cannot dwell in the same place, because an arrogant person leaves no space for God, given that they are so full of themselves – the arrogant person, the Talmud says, is like someone who worships idols. Why? The idea is that self-worship, putting yourself above all other humans, is idolatrous itself. After all, Genesis tells us we are all created in God’s image. So any time you hear someone putting down some one else because of how they were created, beware – this is idolatry, just disguised in arrogance.
A famous story in the Talmud is about a rabbi, who is full of himself because he studied so much Torah. That rabbi sees a hunchback, who greets him with “Peace upon you, my teacher and rabbi” – a very proper and educated greeting. But the rabbi says back “oh, you empty one! Are all the people in your town as ugly as you?” To what the hunchback, obviously used to this kind of treatment, but hurt nonetheless to receive this from a rabbi, answers: I don’t know. But you can go ask my Maker and complain about the ugly vessel He made!”
The rabbi immediately realizes his sin, throws himself on the floor and begs forgiveness.
Why? Because being an obnoxious arrogant person, the rabbi knows, is tantamount to being an idolater.
Anger is the second feeling connected to idol worshiping in the Talmud. It is similar to arrogance in that you see yourself as the center of the universe; it is different than arrogance in that you can be consumed and controlled by anger, which most often leads to destruction. Anger can make you destroy things, relationships, and human lives. It can make you say and do things that, weren’t you under the control of anger, you would never do. Anger can also become a form of manipulation since it is used to intimidate and submit others – this is particularly true in abusive relationships, but more and more we see people using anger to make others bow down to their desires. Anger can even become a habit – there is a side of indulging in that feeling of being powerful.
Now when we think about statues set in certain places, and people protesting the presence of those statues, and others defending the presence of the statues, we have to put all those thoughts together. What does the presence of the statues of Confederate leaders tell African Americans? How can we understand what they mean and what their messages are?
The first thing we have to understand is the story behind those statues, and when they were erected, and why. When people say “you can’t change history” they are right. But you can choose what pieces of history you glorify – because that is one of the functions of statues.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center there are 1747 memorials to the confederacy in America. 718 of those are statues. Most of those are in the south, but not all. Now that you are reading this online in the blog, here is a link: https://www.splcenter.org/news/2018/06/04/splc-report-more-1700-monuments-place-names-and-other-symbols-honoring-confederacy-remain
Now I imagine we all agree that the Confederacy’s most important goal was to keep slaves in slavery. Alexander Stephens, the vice-president of the Confederacy, gave the Cornerstone speech in 1861. He said that maintaining slavery was the immediate cause of declaring the Confederacy. And then he adds – and I’m just quoting here – “the proper status of African Americans is subordination to the superior race.” This is White Supremacy distilled in 12 words. Sure, in the same speech he talks about states’ rights. But we should notice that when the Northern states passed laws to protect runaway slaves, the southern states did not care so much about states’ rights and wanted the federal government to override these laws. So really Confederacy was about slavery, and the claim that the Confederacy was about states’ rights is the sieve trying to cover the sun.
You know the dates better than I do. We all know that the civil war ended in 1865, and that year also mark the founding of the KKK – no coincidence there, as is no coincidence that many of those statues depict Confederate leaders that were also members of the KKK.
But here is the interesting thing about the history of these monuments: according to the Southern Poverty Law Center most statues were actually erected and placed between 1900 and 1920. And that coincides with something that was shocking to me when I learned, after I arrived in America: the establishment of the Jim Crow laws. There is a more appropriate name for them, which is Black Codes, because Jim Crow does not really do justice to what it is: slavery mutated into law.
And here is a link to see the chart that shows the dedication of these statues through time: https://www.cnn.com/2017/08/16/us/confederate-monuments-backlash-chart-trnd/index.html
The presence of those particular statues, just like those particular laws, are about reasserting White Supremacy in the South. The chart of the Southern Poverty Law Center shows that there was another wave of putting up those statues in the South, smaller, but truly there, happened in the 60’s as a response to the Civil Rights movement. Which was another piece of American history that blew my mind when I learned about it. Brazil had slaves in much larger numbers than America, but when slavery was finally abolished in Brazil it came with rights for all, women included. Here we needed Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr, among other millions of people fighting then, and still fighting today to make sure that Blacks are treated with a modicum of equality in terms of civil rights.
Those statues, in truth, represent both arrogance and anger. The arrogance of believing that a human is essentially better than another solely because of how they look, and anger at the loss of status and power. Take those two periods of history together and here we see that those statues are to keep Black people “in their place” – because those are the messages of that particular set of images. It is a message of power and of oppression.
If you remember a little of the story of the Maccabees, the one we tell near Chanukah, you will remember that the point of no return was the placement of an idol inside the Beit HaMikdash, inside the Temple. It was a message of power and of oppression: we, civilized, Helenized Syrians, will force you to adopt our view of the world by hook or by crook. Because where and when a statue is placed sends a message to all those who look at it.
And if you don’t believe me, ask yourself – how would you feel if any place in America decided to erect a statue of Adolf Hitler, claiming that it is just telling history how it was?
This thought experiment can only happen in America, because you know, in Germany you do not have any statues or busts of Nazis. No matter how many German soldiers fell, no monument celebrating the Nazi forces are found – but all Germans know of Germany’s past, and all have learned in a long, difficult and hard process, but a process that made Germany a better country.
The point is: Statues do not teach us history; they teach us what values we glorify using history. The statue that I always connected with the Natural History Museum in New York will be coming down soon. I have to say that I have a soft spot for Teddy Roosevelt, in part because he was the father of the National Park System here in America.
But the statue itself, erected in 1940, shows Roosevelt carrying a rifle, on a horse, followed by an African American and a Native American, both half naked, barefoot and unarmed. It was commissioned a few years after his death, in 1925. And just by the description you can tell what values that statue is supporting, and how troublesome it became for the museum in light of our awareness of today.
No one is perfect. We can’t expect from historical figures the values of today. But we can and should decide what values stay as bedrock for our society, and what values do not, what values we glorify today in order to create a country closer to its ideals of giving bigotry no sanction and persecution no assistance, what actions we will take to bring about healing and an America that truly gives everyone a fair chance.
When we use symbols and statues and images to oppress people, arrogantly maintain our own power, and angrily ascertain our supremacy, we are committing idolatry. Maybe not the idolatry of bowing down to an idol and offering it food, drink and animals, but the idolatry of anger and arrogance. The idolatry of thinking that the other is necessarily worse than me.
When we embrace those ideas – anger and arrogance, we forget that the very first chapter of the Torah teaches us that all humans are created in the image of God. A midrash in a collecton called Yalkut Shimeoni tells us that when God was about to create the Human, God took land from all the corners of the world. God took black soil, and green soil, and red soil and yellow soil, and each of those were used to make a part of the body of that first Human being, and so no part of the earth could say “humans don’t belong here”.
The Talmud goes one step further: all people are descended from a single human so that no person can say, “My ancestor is greater than yours.”
As we revisit our actions and values this Rosh Hashanah, as we search for ways to heal personally and collectively from a very difficult year, may we revisit our relationship to idolatry and what it means. May our hearts be open to listen, understand and have compassion on all human beings, all created in the same image – the image of God.
Main idea: lessons from zochreinu lechayim, remember us for life, the basic add-on for the ten days of teshuvah, repentance
Shanah tovah! Welcome to our second night of Rosh Hashanah, led by Cantor Axelrod. I want to thank her for being with us, and for Cantor Re’ut Ben-Ze’ev for the wonderful service yesterday and for what I am sure will be a wonderful service tomorrow morning.
To say that life was hard this year is the understatement of the millennium. Living life showed itself to be not for the faint hearted. I won’t go onto describing every thing that was not easy because if I’d do so we would be here until Yom Kippur.
And precisely because of this I want to spend a few moments with a piece that we add in our prayers: “zochreinu lechayim” – remember us for life.
This addition to the prayers begins on RH and lasts until YK – on those ten days of teshuvah, ten days of returning to the best we can be, this addition accompanies us. It repeats four times the word “life” but there is no qualification for life: “remember us for life / oh King that desires life / and write us in the book of life / for Your sake, God of Life.
Let’s look closely to these words, because when we get to Yom Kippur they will be like Aleinu, one of our best friends. You know, there are so many unfamiliar prayers in the high holidays that when we get to Aleinu in the middle of the service is like we find a friend in a multitude. Zochreinu lechayim should become a good friend too.
The first thing I want to point out is that the word life is repeated 4 times in this prayer. Four is never a number that happens by accident – because it is a number of birth and renewal. We have 4 cups on Passover, which points to renewal and rebirth. We have 4 foremothers: Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah – all giving birth. Rosh Hashanah itself has 4 different names: Rosh Hashanah – the head of the year; Yom Truah – Day of the Truah sound; Yom Zikaron – Day of Remembering and Yom HaDin – Day of Judgment. God, the very essence of Life, has a name with 4 letters, yud, hey, vav and hey. So by repeating Life four times we are connecting with all those layers of meaning.
Now to the text itself: Remember us for life – Why are we saying remember us? First, is God not only compassionate, merciful, and patient, but…forgetful, too?
And second, why the plural? Why not remember me for life?
One of the explanations is that we are reinforcing our collective memory in this prayer, and reminding ourselves that we are all in this together. When discussing why one should keep mitzvot, the sages offer one scene: imagine yourself in a boat with all the people you know. And one of them is making a hole under his or her own seat. Of course everybody gets upset: why are you doing this? To which the person says: what is it to you all? I’m making a hole under my own seat!
So, by using the word “us”, in this moment in time when we as individuals are really thinking about how to be better, the tradition wants to remind us: you and I can only be better if we are aware of our togetherness in the world.
Becoming a better person is not an independent learning project. It is completely dependent on dealing with other people, and remembering that we are all in the same boat. We all share this one planet, and this one human family. I don’t think I need to remind you, but I will anyhow, that when the Torah opens it makes abundantly clear that we are all brothers and sisters, all created in the image of God, and all siblings to the rest of the natural world. Planet earth, in Jewish thought, is not our mother, it’s better than that, the earth is our sister! So we are all in this together, as this and most of the other prayers of the High Holidays will remind us. And also, we are here to learn from each other. That person that drives you crazy? Well, he or she might be the best teacher about your own reactions. We need each other to grow, even if sometimes growing is painful. We are dependent on our meshigases to push each other forward.
Now – can God forget? Why is this prayer asking God to remember?
The idea of remembering is everywhere in RH prayers. Memory is so powerful a theme that the day is called Yom HaZikaron, the day of memory, the memorial day. But differently than the other memorial days, we don’t remember the dead – we ask God to remember the living, and we try to remember our lives this past year.
But now think about the moments you remember: there is always an element of judgment, of comparison of the past and the present. And emotion, too. Dr. Maya Angelou said “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Because strong memories are always intertwined with feelings.
Now in our prayers of Rosh Hashanah we read verses about God remembering, they are called the zikhronot verses, the verses about memory. And if you read them closely, all the verses in context have to do with God taking action somehow: God remembers Noach and dries up the land, remembers Rachel and causes her to become pregnant, God remembers the covenant and takes us out of Egypt. So the idea of remembering, in terms of God, is much closer to actualizing God’s merciful side.
Just as we are expected to do teshuvah and return to our best selves, we remind God that God’s mercy is there, and please be merciful to us – and so we call God “oh King that desires life”.
We are living difficult times. There is no lack of bad news, violence, anger, war and sickness. Don’t we need remembering that God desires life? And not just life for us, individuals, but for all human beings?
And not just for human beings, but for all other forms of life in this planet? And not just for all other forms of life, but for the planet itself?
And write us in the Book of Life, the prayer continues. Now, that is powerful imagery right there. What is this book like, we wonder. Are we talking length of days, a long life, a book that never ends, or are we talking about quality of life, a life not just lived but fulfilled meaningfully? Are certain lives that we lost this year lesser because they ended or were painfully ended, or are they even larger because they ended how they did, and brought about an awakening with their end?
I had no idea who George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were before they were killed, and I am willing to bet that neither did you. And I will say it right now, I wish they were still alive.
Not only because they would be filling their lives with meaning, but also because it would mean that police would be less violent.
But their names are certainly written in the Book of Life, even if because we are infusing their deaths with meaning, by wanting a different world, by searching for ways to make this a more equitable, truthful, and just place.
So of course this prayer goes on to connect memory with writing. How could we have one without the other? Memory always has a side of judgment, and with action on the part of God. Maybe this year we will have the courage to remember and act as a collective, being written in the Book of a Life lived with integrity, meaning and justice.
The prayer closes with “For Your sake, oh living God” – what do we mean? Is God also interested in us, in our lives?
Most of us were trained, from childhood, to believe that God gets nothing out of this deal – a God that is all powerful, all knowing, everywhere, a God that needs nothing from us. But apparently, the prayer wants to remind us that there is something in it for God too.
What does God get out of the deal of creation? I really don’t know, but I have lots of opinions. The opinion I am holding closer to my heart this year – give me a few months and I will change my opinion – is that God gets to give us the opportunity of continue creation, gets to see us grow and change throughout our lives.
Only parents and teachers get this in a heart and soul level: there is nothing more awesome than seeing your child or your student rise up to the challenge, develop new abilities, become a mensch, a decent human being.
So we close by ask God to write us in, to ‘keep us in mind’ our struggles as we confront ourselves, our personal history, and as we take responsibility for what we’ve done (and haven’t done), for who we were and the effort to shape ourselves into the person we hope to be – because our struggle to become better and make this a better place is God’s, too.
This prayer brings up the Big Questions of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Zochreinu lechayim – In what ways in the past year have you felt forgotten? Who in our community has been forgotten about, overlooked or not included?
Melech chafetz bachayim – In what ways do the mistakes you’ve made and have yet to fix, or steps you’ve taken and cannot walk back, lead you to feel like your life is being less than fully lived?
What wrongs can you fix that could make you feel more alive?
Vekotveinu besefer hachayim – What is the story you are writing in the book of your life? How meaningful is it?
Lemaancha Elohim Chayim – In what ways your Teshuvah, your return, is for God too?
Sometimes, in some conditions, we can despair of the answers. But despair is not an option. God believes in you, in your light and in your capability of stepping up to the plate. God has given you another day to live, regardless of your circumstances. How will you infuse that day with meaning?
I want to close with a story from Rabbi Israel Salanter. He went for a walk in the neighborhood one dark winter evening. Along the way, he saw a small house with a dim light in the window that glowed in the darkness. The light drew him to the house, and he entered it. In the faint light he saw a shoemaker fixing shoes in a hurry; hitting the hammer at full force.
The rabbi asked him: “Why are you working this late at night to repair shoes?” The man replied: “As long as the candle is burning there’s still time to work and repair.”
The Rabbi left the shoemaker’s home and went to back to his neighborhood walk. But as he was walking, he began reciting the shoemaker’s words first to himself and then aloud for everyone to hear: “Dear Jews: As long as the candle is burning, there’s still time to work and repair.”
So my friends, let’s continue to work and repair: the light is still burning.
Main Idea: What we need for our salvation is right in front of our eyes, we need to act and adapt, that’s how we survived many other plagues.
Our services were vastly different this year, I know, from whatever you experienced last year. I know and I was not even here. Since I began as the rabbi of Adath Israel, services have been quite different for daily minyan and Shabbat – whether on zoom and in-person. And how could it be any other way? Only fools don’t adapt when there is a plague.
The name COVID just gives us a shield to what this really is – a plague.
But what you may know is that our people survived many plagues in the past. This is in part because of our laws and customs, and in part because they knew to adapt. Our kashrut laws, for instance, make it harder to live with mice and other critters in a kitchen; our custom of having a bath in honor of Shabbat and washing hands before eating were seen with askance by many Europeans.
In Portugal, I can assure you, doctors in the 16th century thought that more than two baths a year was actually harmful to your health. Imagine how crazy they thought Jews were. When the Portuguese met Brazilian natives, who took many dips a day in the rivers, they couldn’t wrap their heads around it!
And adaptation is the hallmark of our people, as is survival to plagues. We know that because of diaries or memoirs that some left behind. The manuscript of one of those was published in 1918, the year of yet another plague, and it describes what it looks like a form of mumps in Bohemia, particularly in Prague, where you might know Jews lived in the ghetto of Prague. The plague spoken in the diary happened in 1680, or 5440 in the Jewish calendar.
This morning I will tell you that story, and will show to you how it connects to our RH Torah reading – because we know everything connects. Our sages say “hafoch bah, hafoch ba, shekulei bah” – meaning, search Torah, search Torah, because everything is in Torah – by which they mean guidance for everything is in Torah.
Our hero, the person who wrote this memoir, remains unnamed despite giving a wealth of information about his family. By the time of the plague he is a boy of 11 years old. He does not live in Prague, he lives in Lichenstadt with his father and the father’s second wife. The first thing he tells us is that, when the plague surges in Prague, several people flee the city to the country, to Lichenstadt. We have seen in our own times people fleeing the big cities to the country, and being amazed at how much more money can buy if you’re not paying city prices.
A friend of mine did just that, in April, and is still amazed that her one bedroom apartment in New York means a whole house in the outskirts of Philadelphia.
But then the writer gets the plague. The month is Tammuz, and this is the middle of the summer. His fever is very high and his neck swells on the right side. He, like many at that time, almost dies. To compound the problem, his father is friendly with the Count, who protects the Jews, as was then common. The Count has built a two-room house in the middle of the forest about a mile away from the castle and if anyone gets sick in the castle they’re sent there immediately. The Count stops leaving the castle, our author says, and only a few people are allowed come in, those who the Count trusts are not sick and have no sickness in their houses.
Among these few is the author’s father, because according to the author his father was “very clever and the Count liked to talk to him, so he stayed most of the day in the castle.” The father is in no position of saying to the Count he can’t go: not going is tantamount as endangering the Jewish population.
Notice how they already knew, in the 17th century, that if a plague breaks out you’re supposed to stay indoors and keep minimal contact with the outside.
We call that quarantine.
I want to remind you that there was not even the concept of vaccines or disinfectants. Soaps and vinegar were around as cleaning products, but detergents and the first disinfectants were only invented in the 19th century. The first vaccine was tested in a 13-year old child in 1798. But our unnamed hero is far away from all that. And he is very sick.
Everyone in the house is scared, and no one wants to take care of him. His own mother died years before in childbirth, another common occurrence, when our hero was just four. Now the Count had told the father that, should anyone get sick in the house, the entire family should be banned to the house in the woods, and should the father hide anything from the Count, they Count would permit the gentiles to steal all his possessions and burn the house down with everyone in it.
Yes, the Count does not come across as a very nice person. And he is powerful. And when the father comes home, and realizes that the plague is there, he is doubly afraid. Because carrying out the orders of the count also means putting his own family in danger, everyone knows of thieves and murderers that live in the woods.
According to the author, where they to see a Jewish family without the protection of the Count, that family would be killed and all the possessions stolen.
In that sense, historically, we Jews have our own collective traumas in relation to plagues, and it is important for us to know and acknowledge that. We suffered the effects of the plague with the general population, but then, suffered also because of antisemitism – people blaming the plague on Jews or using the opportunity to seize property. The fears of the father reflect that double wammy, to use a technical term.
The solution that the family arrives to is to hide the hero in a room, and to have the grandfather take care of him. We call that hospital stay, but they didn’t have hospitals as we know them back then.
Our hero eventually recovers, but the plague spreads, according to him, because people get tired of keeping away from each other.
We call that Corona fatigue.
On Tishrei 5441, which is the month of the High Holidays, everyone thinks the plague stopped. There are no more deaths. But the plague returns with a vengeance in the next two months, which is by then winter, and the ground is hard as marble and the snowfall is great. In some villages around the castle, our hero tells us, almost all the men died and only a few women are left. And they have no way of burying the bodies, so they hide them under the snow.
We have seen that this year, too, as the number of deaths in big cities overwhelmed the burial services.
In the case of Bohemia in the seventeenth century they also had no backhoes or trucks of any sort.
The plague, according to our hero, finally ends with the end of the month of Kislev, which is the month of Chanukah. There is no way for us to know how many people died in that particular plague, but last week the numbers in America were the equivalent of 65 September 11th attacks. Both plagues were devastating.
Our hero then decides to change his ways and to dedicate himself to the study of Torah, which his father has not been diligent about. At age 11 our hero does not know how to read or write Hebrew. And as if to prove how much this experience changed him, the original is written in Hebrew. You can find the entire text, both the Hebrew original and a translation in the archives of the Jewish Quarterly Review, available online.
In part I wanted to tell you this story because it is so similar to our experience, and even though having to deal with a plague feels new to us, in our collective memory we survived things like this, in times that were less favorable. Nowadays we have science, we understand and know so much more than they did. We know what precautions to take, and how to keep social distance. In that sense, what we need for our salvation is in front of our very eyes. We just need to act on it.
In our reading this morning, we have one of the saddest moments of Torah, in my opinion. That is the scene of the banishment of Hagar and Ishmael. Abraham, despite his own feelings, listens both to Sarah and to God and sends them away with a wineskin of water and some bread. After what could be a few days, the water is gone and obviously the bread was eaten. They have nothing.
The mother, Hagar, can’t carry Ishmael anymore. By all accounts, Ishmael now is a teenager, even though he is seen as a boy by his mom: yeled. She says “let me not see the death of the boy.”
And what parent hasn’t looked at their grownup son or daughter, and still treated them like the child they used to be? Hagar sets down Ishmael under a bush, in the little shade available, and sits away, an arrow’s throw. If you look in the traditional commentaries, they mostly criticize Hagar, branding her a “bad mother”.
But rabbi Jacob J. Schacter, with whom I had the pleasure to learn this piece recently, sees Hagar in a different light: she is overwhelmed by the prospect of losing her only child. Unable to act. Paralyzed by the mere idea. And how many of us wouldn’t feel the same on those circumstances?
She then raises her voice and screams out. And that, too, we’ve seen in our times. Just remember the images of raw grief of parents who lost children in the past eight years due to gun violence. All parents know that fear since Sandy Hook, but no one was more public in that grief than Richard Martinez, whose only son was killed in a shooting rampage in 2014. He is the one behind #NotOneMore. His face is forever etched in my mind, as he struggles to speak and cry out coherent sentences asking for change.
All American parents are afraid of becoming another one of those parents, because despite the hashtag there have been many more. These parents, we know, lose a piece of their lives, a part of their hearts and all of their future. And Hagar feels that fear so deeply that she is overwhelmed to the point of inaction.
It is then that the angel comes up to her, and God opens her eyes to see what is already there – the well. She just needs to act on it.
The text does not say – God created the well. God made a well appear. No, the well is already there, she just needed to open her eyes. All she needed for their salvation was already there. The midrash, when looking at Hagar’s story, affirms: every person is under the assumption of being blind until the Holy One of Blessing opens their eyes.
Tomorrow will be the time of Abraham to almost see the death of his own child, in a text that many find very problematic and many see no problem at all.
Wherever is your position, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel described his experience of a child who heard the Akeda for the first time, in his book “Vietnam: Crisis of Conscience:”
Isaac was on the way to Mount Moriah with his father; then he lay on the altar, bound, waiting to be sacrificed. My heart began to beat even faster; it actually sobbed with pity for Isaac. Behold, Abraham now lifted the knife. And now my heart froze within me with fright. Suddenly, the voice of the angel was heard: “Abraham, lay not thine hand upon the lad, for now I know that thou fearest God.” And here I broke out in tears and wept aloud. “Why are you crying?” asked the Rabbi. “You know that Isaac was not killed.” And I said to him, still weeping, “But, Rabbi, suppose the angel had come a second too late?” The Rabbi comforted me and calmed me by telling me that an angel cannot come late.
Heschel the writer, a grown up activist, then concludes the piece: An angel cannot come late, but man, made of flesh and blood, may be.
We may have what we need in front of our eyes and not use it. We may refuse to change. We may give into grief and despair and not act.
But for Heschel, “The greatest heresy is despair, despair of people’s power for goodness, human’s power for love.” Because goodness and love are the light we carry within.
Robert Louis Stevenson, best known for “Treasure Island”, “Kidnapped,” and “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” has a beautiful personal essay, “The Lantern Bearers.” In it he talks about a game he played in childhood, more or less at this time of the year, for the night begins earlier. The boys of the fishing village would carry inside their coats a lantern, which they keep lit, but not show the light at all. From the outside, they look like any other person, walking about the evening, but when they meet each other, they raise the edge of the coat.
The essay goes on to trying to understand why the game was so significant. But just think about the symbol: the light you need is inside you. “For as dark as the pathway may seem to the observer,” writes Stevenson, you know you have a lantern in you. All you need to do is to raise the edge of the coat. Our power for goodness, our power for love, our light are just under our coats.
In the story of the pandemic of Bohemia, our unnamed hero also has his salvation within his household: his grandfather takes care of him, and both survive the plague. And the grandfather, as unlearned as he might have been, passed to the boy the idea that his survival was not happenstance, not a coincidence, but a gift, an opportunity – and the boy acts on his experience, and sure he does not become a scholar, but becomes a much more learned Jew than he would ever be. He sees and acts.
And our adaptations of the service, too, are happening because this is a different time. We knew what we need to do, and we are doing it.
We have to open our eyes and see that all we need is already there: ways of shortening the service because of shaa’at hadkchak, pressing circumstances. The wearing masks and humming. The distance keeping. The far away hugs. The zoom services. All we need – including zoom – for our salvation is right here. We just need to open our eyes and act on it.
And maybe this year we will finally begin the ever postponed building of a better world and a better future for all.
Main idea: growth and meaning, together, in our 500-page journey depends on each of us embracing intentionality in our practice
Welcome everyone to our first virtual RH evening service. Adath Israel has worked very hard to make this possible, to enable each and everyone of us to have a machzor at home, to make sure that the platform works as it is supposed to, and that we can offer a live service during the day for those who wish to attend in person, and for those who wish to stay at home and still be connected, all the while thinking about the safety and comfort level of everyone.
I want to give our collective thanks to the Jonathan Shapiro, our president, Carly Hoss, our VP, every single member of the board and particularly the ritual committee who not just worked hard but embraced the need for creativity and renewal given the circumstances of COVID. This is extremely hard work, and we are thankful, as a community for all this – zoom, livestreaming, in-person services – to have been made possible.
I want to thank Cantor Axelrod for this night, and for tomorrow’s night which we know will be wonderful. I want to thank Cantor Ben-Ze’ev for what I know will be an unforgettable experience for all the in-person services.
And I want to thank you, for embracing change and for reminding yourself and everyone else that the heart of the community lies on our relationships, in our love for each other and our love for Torah and mitzvot. COVID has reminded us that our community is larger than the building and is stronger than a pandemic.
I also want to remind us to be grateful, for everything we have: family, community, tradition.
Now I want to share a few thoughts about the process of tonight and the next ten days.
We are going to use a book that we only open on these three days, which are so fundamental in the calendar that they get a special book, the machzor.
Machzor means cycle, which is an interesting word to use for the prayerbook of RH and YK. That special name is a reminder that the approach to time in the Jewish tradition is that of a cycle, a spiral going up, and not a timeline, a straight line clearly going only forward.
The cycle we are inserted in is the cycle of growth as human beings, and that is also symbolized by the challah of these days, a round bun going up. And by the shofar, which is blown looking up. And by the melodies we use, many in the high register of the High holidays. All those symbols are reminding you that you aren’t to stay still as a soul.
The same way your knowledge of math has changed since you were a six-year old, your knowledge of Judaism and God, and your thoughts about God, and your relationship to the community, to Torah and to God need to have changed and grown. Your soul needs to grow and develop as well.
Every single one of us came tonight to find meaning, as we do every year. We are all searching for meaning: meaning for our lives, meaning for our struggles, for our pain and for our achievements. This moment of the year, our tradition says, is the moment of being aware of that need for meaning. Living meaningless lives is not really living. As Zalman Schachter Shalomi once said: if you live many years without awareness and purpose, you are not living longer, you are just postponing your death longer.
And here comes the struggle that we have every year: how can we make those hours during services meaningful? How can they have an impact in our lives, so we will come out changed for the better?
How can we will be able to look at ourselves in the end of this process and say: maybe I have changed a little, maybe I am higher than I was before, I can see myself as someone new?
The answer to that is intentionality and practice. You have to be intentional in your growth and in your practice. Another way to call this is “deliberate practice.”
Nowadays we know that those who are great on anything are those who spent around one hundred thousand hours doing whatever they do, practicing baseball or music or running or soccer or writing before they are great.
But it’s not just a matter of hours clocked doing the thing, it’s the matter of doing it intentionally, looking for ways to get better at it. Reviewing the actions, the results and doing it over and over with the goal of healing weaknesses and strengthening abilities.
The same thing applies to becoming better people, to reaching the next rung of your growth. You have to be both intentional at it, and practice it. The Machzor is here to help – the prayers and the songs are here to remind you that you can do it. And as I have already said countless of times, my job and the cantor’s job is a different type of job than your job.
Your job is to connect. Your job is to grow with that connection. Your job is to embrace transformation and be transformed by this process. My job, along with the cantor, is to move things along. There are words to be said and songs to be sung.
I don’t have a set of expectations regarding what you connect with. How you understand God is none of my business, as long as you are not bowing down to idols, I’m ok with however you understand God to be today.
We will read about Abraham’s life tomorrow. And I want us to remember that we, just like Abraham, cannot have a true relationship with God if we are stuck in old definitions of god that don’t fit us anymore. NO one can have a real relationship with God without breaking the idols first. Abraham had to smash the idols of his father, and so we have to go through the same thing. We have to smash the idols of our childhood in order to get to a more mature God.
My grandfather did not really believe in God. He didn’t because he was stuck with the God of his childhood, a long bearded guy living in the sky, sitting on a throne with a scepter, zapping those who would misbehave.
And I know that because that is what he asked me, after I had flown my first airplane trip: had I seen God up there? No, I said, bewildered, since all I saw were clouds and stars. That is the proof, he said, that God doesn’t exist. He was 71 then, and today I would have a great conversation with him, because I, too, do not believe in that God.
Already back then I did not believe in that God, but I was not about to disrespect my grandfather and tell him so.
Any idea of God means having a relationship of some sort with that concept. Philosophers with their “omnis” – God is omni this, and omni that, ominipresent, omniscient, all powerful, all seeing in all places – you get the idea – Greek philosophers with all their omnis took away the idea of relationship, because they were sold on a deity that needed no one and nothing from us. By positing a God that was all-everything, they made the relationship into nothing.
The real search for meaning passes through the heart, through an emotional connection far deeper than the intellectual one.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I can’t have a relationship with a distant intellectual idea. Relationships are more concrete, and so we need metaphors, words that will help us achieving that.
Our tradition used to offer: father, king and judge – but after Freud, father is a lot more complicated, and after democracy, king is not so hot either, and judges, after all, are seen with suspicion too.
So we need to recreate the meaning of those words, because the connection is still there: God as the life force of the world, as the parent of us all. God as the rule-giving, reminding us to do good and chose life. God as the awareness inside us, helping us to find where we messed up and try to make it better. God can be seen, in other words, as the life force in the world calling, cajoling us to be better today than we were yesterday, and this year than we were the previous year. We can have a connection, because the life force operates in us: we don’t beat our own pulse, our own heart.
The tradition is giving you the gift of stopping for a few days and listen to that pulse and that life force inside you.
Can you hear the kol dmamah dakah, the still small voice?
That is the voice of God knocking, incessantly, asking, begging, cajoling, nagging you to be a better person and to make this world a better place. The melodies are here to remind you that you long for meaning, for connection, for love. That longing is everywhere in the universe, and it is inside you too.
The tradition gives us a word for all this, which is God. It is a difficult word, in part because it has been used and it is still used to oppress and force people to behave in certain ways. But this Machzor tries to break these ideas a little, and to open spaces for you to think and find yourself in these pages, because they added great commentary on the sides.
Remember, throughout these days that we will be together, singing, praying, directing our hearts to the next rung in our growth, your job is to find your connection and your way to do all these things.
Use the machzor, use the melodies, use the words to find your own path forward. My path is not yours, it’s mine. I can learn by looking at your path, and you can learn by looking at mine, and that is true for each human being born in this world. Who is wise? Our tradition asks, and answers: the person who learns from everyone.
Here we are, walking together, one foot after the other, intentionally, towards growth.
Let’s do this. Shanah Tovah.
In the Dark is a great podcast, which is ending, but is an incredible trip on how racism plays a part in the justice system of the South. The case made its way to the Supreme Court this past July.
Curtis Flowers, from Mississippi, endured nearly 23 years behind bars, six trials, four death sentences and, most recently, months of house arrest for murders he always maintained that he didn’t commit.
The last episode can be found on Facebook, you can also follow them on Instagram and Twitter, and make a donation to keep the team researching and making truth come to fore:
New episode of the podcast out this morning, based on Friday's decision by the Mississippi A.G. to drop all charges against Curtis Flowers.
Episode 19: Freedom
— In the Dark (@InTheDarkAPM) September 5, 2020
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In a 7-2 ruling, the Supreme Court reversed Curtis Flowers' conviction. The justices concluded that the white district attorney, Doug Evans, who had prosecuted the case from the beginning, had violated Flowers' constitutional rights by intentionally removing African-Americans from the jury at the sixth trial, in 2010. It was the fourth time Flowers had his murder conviction reversed. The majority opinion was written by Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
This is a great story for inspiring us for the hard internal work for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Enjoy!
Alexander the Great came to the king of Katzya, and was shown much silver and gold. Said he: “I didn’t come to see your silver and gold; I came to see your laws and customs.” As they were sitting, two people came for litigation before the king. Said one of them: “My master, the king! I purchased a ruin from my friend. I demolished it and found a hidden treasure inside it. So I said to him: ‘Take your treasure. I purchased a ruin, not a treasure.’”
And the other one said: “Just as you fear the punishment for theft, so do I. I sold you the ruin and everything in it—from the depths of the earth to the heights of heaven!”
The king summoned one of them and asked him: “Do you have a son?” Said he: “Yes.” He then summoned the second one and asked him: “Do you have a daughter?” Said he: “Yes.” Said the king to them: “Let them marry each other, and the treasure and the ruin shall belong to the two of them.”
Alexander was astounded. The king asked him: “Did I not rule well?” Alexander answered: “No, you did not.” “Well, if such a case came before you in your country, what would you do?” Said he: “I’d cut off both their heads, and send the treasure to the royal palace.”
The king of Katzya then asked that a meal be brought for them. The meal was a chicken made of gold, in a pot made of gold, with vegetables made of gold and grains made of gold. Alexander the Great asked “Will we eat gold?” The king answered: “You would destroy people just like that, and you tell me you don’t eat gold? It is only because mercy is found in my country that we have this much gold.
The king of Katzya continue to say to Alexander: “Does the sun shine in your country?”
Said Alexander: “Yes.”
“And do rains fall upon you?”
“Perhaps there are cattle and herds in your land?”
“Yes, there are,” said Alexander.
“Learn from this!” said king of Katzya. “It is for the mercy that God has on the animals, it is just for the sake of the cattle and herds that the sun shines for you and the rains fall upon you, as we read “God saves both humans and animals.” (Ps. 36:7) All the more so you should be merciful to humans!
Yerushalmi, Baba Metzia 8a-b
Happy TU B’AV! Today is the 15th day of Av, which, according to the Talmud is one of the most joyous days of the Jewish year.