Rosh HaShanah, Tuesday AM, October 4, 2016
Rabbi Michael Friedland
What is God’s Agenda for us during the Election Season?
We stand at the precipice of the Yamim Noraim, which we translate literally as Awe-filled days. But we also stand on the verge of an election that many termed just plain awful. Many people are asking at this critical time in our nation’s history, in this great nation of 300 million people, really, these are the two best choices we have to lead our nation at this vital junction? Now, part of me feels this critique is too facile – one cannot get to this point in politics without significant ability. Nevertheless our country heaves a great sigh as we weigh the choices before us.
But here is a fascinating bit of trivia that is not so trivial. I am pleased to say that there is something that I now share with both presidential candidates: And it is not, unfortunately for the synagogue, that we have all raised over 100 million dollars. No what I now share with the Presidential candidates is that we all three have Jewish sons-in-law.
Let that sink in for a minute. Donald Trump whose daughter Ivanka converted to Judaism is married to Jared Kushner and they belong to an modern orthodox synagogue in New York. Hillary Clinton’s daughter Chelsea, who is not Jewish, is married Mark Medvinsky, whom I have been told belongs to Temple Emanuel, a Reform synagogue in New York. And AJ Varon is married to Tali Friedland who will be visiting Sinai Synagogue, a Conservative synagogue for Sukkot. I am partial to the last couple.
But let’s just pause and acknowledge what a remarkable moment in Jewish cultural history this is. A month ago at the Michiana Jewish Historical Society Hands on History event, our youth heard from some of our veteran members that Jews were restricted from membership in Morris Park Country Club not 50 years ago.
It is no longer unusual to note the rise of Jews in politics or to be leaders in their professional disciplines. Jews have held numerous cabinet positions and if the leadership of the United States Senate was committed to doing its job, there would now be four Jewish justices on the Supreme Court, almost a majority. But for the two Presidential candidates to have Jewish sons-in-law tells us something significant about the comfortable position that we Jews have found in the fabric of our society. Jews have held positions of influence in many of our Diasporan settlements, and it may be that Jews even married into prominent families but never have Jews who married into prominent political families openly practiced and acknowledged their faith. This election is a unique moment in Jewish history in America.
Now I tell you what I would like to do today but I can’t. Like Hasidic rebbes and evangelical ministers, I would love to tell you who you should vote for. But I can’t and I won’t. I can’t because it’s illegal if our congregation wants to keep its non profit status. How the Hasidic rebbes and the evangelicals get away with it I don’t know but it is Rosh HaShanah and I am not going to openly break any laws, Jewish or Civil.
And I won’t tell you whom to vote for because I have too much respect for the people in this room. You are all intelligent discerning individuals and you can all make up your own minds. As long as you vote. Voting is one of the few sacred duties we have as Americans. Feel like you are choosing the lesser of two evils? Fine, figure out which is less evil. But I hope you will be able to vote for someone.
Finally I am not telling any of you whom to vote for because given my track record over the years of influencing people to keep kosher, observe Shabbat and take off work on Sukkot, Pesah and Shavuot, I am afraid if I told you who to vote for the other candidate would win.
So let’s talk about something more mundane and germane to the specialness of the day. Let’s talk about prayer and its meaning. Usually we think of prayer as presenting our hopes and our needs before God. But the great Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that prayer is about God laying God’s concerns before us. In a sense Jewish prayer is God’s agenda for us.
On a certain level it seems odd to say that. Our prayers stay the same for the most part generation after generation and yet we do not. Our culture is not the same, our sensibilities change, our reality is so different from our ancestors, how can we say that the Divine agenda in the prayerbook is the same for us that it was for our ancestors? We are living in a world in constant turmoil and danger: Climate change is threatening to destroy the world as we know it like no other force in our memory. The world which has known strife and ethnic conflict from time immemorial, now offers technological advances to terrorists, ethnic and religious warriors, that bring brutality and destruction into our living rooms, and permit mass killings by single individuals who can slip through the most intrusive security apparatuses. And our nation which has known bitter political battles, is now so poisoned by partisanship that Congress is almost completely paralyzed unable to enact any significant legislation.
Yet remarkably by looking carefully at the Rosh HaShanah mahzor we can uncover a Divine agenda even for our own day and one that can even assist us as we think about what is at stake in this coming election.
I will limit our tour through the Mahzor to just three key elements that mark the special liturgy for the day. They are found in the Musaf service that we will recite in just a few moments. These are the sections known as the Malchuyot, the Zichronot and the Shofarot. Each section consists of an opening statement, followed by 10 verses from Scripture on the theme, and concludes with a blessing.
What is the agenda that the first section, the Malchuyot, places before us?
Malchuyot is related to the word Melekh, King. This section speaks of the Kingship of God. The opening section is familiar to us all, it is the Aleynu which begins, “It is incumbent upon us to praise the Lord of all, to acknowledge the greatness of the Creator.” We state in the prayer “Hu Eloheinu ayn od” “He is our God, there is none else”. We acknowledge that we look forward to the day in which “L’taken olam b’malchut Shadai”, the world will be repaired under the authority of the Mighty One.
Solomon Schechter wrote that the concept of the Kingdom of God, with its emphasis on holiness, righteousness, Justice and mercy, was intended to teach human beings that any form of human government that aspired to these principles was part of a movement to bring the Kingdom of God, the malchut Shadai, into the human universe. This concept was universal in scope not limited to only Jews.
Thus if we are part of a process that is working towards the ‘repair’ of the world, tikkun, than we are following that Divine Agenda. The opposite would be to act in ways counter to this goal. Living up to this agenda is what we Jews refer to as kiddush HaShem, sanctifying God’s name. The opposite is Hillul HaShem, to desecrate God’s name.
The Talmud states that the only unforgivable sin in Judaism is Hillul HaShem, the desecration of God’s name. Only death can complete the atonement process for one who commits such a heinous act. And what constitutes this grave sin? Mass Murder, idolatry? The great Talmudic sage, Rav insisted that he would be committing Hillul HaShem if he didn’t pay his butcher on time (Yoma 86a). That’s it? That is the heinous sin for which teshuvah is impossible in one’s life time? The Talmud explains that while such a transgression seems trivial for most people, coming from Rav, it would reflect badly on Torah scholars. The essence of the sin of Hillul Hashem occurs when someone who should know better acts in a fashion that is perceived to be beneath him or his office and in so doing condemns God and God’s agenda. The behavior is not only an embarrassment to the individual but to God as well. Such behavior causes people to say, “That’s how Jews act?” or “That’s how religious people act?” Each of us must look at our own deeds and consider not only the consequences of our actions but how our other perceive us and what we represent.
Candidates for political leadership in this country can be held to this standard also. Does the candidate act in a way befitting sanctification of the Divine Name? Or the opposite- does the candidate act in a way that is a Hillul HaShem, a desecration of the Divine Name? Do the candidates policies or behaviors constitute Hillul HaShem? Just as we should strive to never be guilty of such a transgression, let us keep from voting for such individuals for ultimately they bring disgrace to God, to us and to our nation.
The second item on God’s agenda for these Days of Awe can be found in the Zichronot section.
The word Zichronot means memories. In Biblical Hebrew it can have the nuance of acknowledgement or taking notice and acting on behalf of another. After Noah and his family are on the Ark for 150 days, the Torah states, “God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and domesticated animals that were with him in the Ark”. What does that mean “God remembered”? Did God forget Noah? His was the only family left, kind of hard to forget about them. Rather the term "VaYizkor” here means God took notice of Noah after the 150 days and took action to get him and the family out of the Ark.
The opening prayer in this section notes that God is omniscient and knows each of us intimately. “For the record of every creature comes before you – his or her deeds, works and ways, his or her thoughts and schemes, plans and motives”. Some become paranoid and fearful at such a belief; others see it as a vestige of a traditional God belief they no longer hold. But the real value of this message is to teach us that all of our deeds matter. And not only our deeds – our thoughts and motivations count too.
Often we hold too strongly to the notion that in Judaism, it is actions not thoughts that matter. But this is not true. According to Maimonides, the greatest Jewish philosopher of the Middle Ages, what one believes is essential. He authored the 13 principles of Jewish belief that you can find in many prayer books. According to Maimonides, belief is what mattered as a foundation to doing good work. While it may be true that Mitzvot do not require proper intention and that it is better to give tzedakah grudgingly than not to give tzedakah with a pleasant countenance, nevertheless Maimonides understands a truism of human behavior: without proper motivation and belief, it is very hard to sustain proper behavior.
Rabbi Yehiel ben Yekutiel of Rome in his ethical treatise Maalot HaMidot taught that words of comfort to a disadvantaged person can be even greater than the tzedakah itself. And when one gives tzedakah, great care must be given so as not to embarrass the person. Better to lie and tell the receiver that you are offering him a loan without telling him you have no intention of asking for it to be returned.
The agenda of Zichronot is that we acknowledge that all of our deeds matter and our thoughts and our motivations. Today our nation is more polarized by partisanship than at any time in recent memory. What our political leaders do to advance the cause of bringing us together is crucial as this nation turns on the fulcrum of its history. In 1861 in his first inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln closed by stating, “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.” He then appealed to a restoration of unity in purpose, calling on “the better angels of our nature.” That is what we all hope for in our political leadership – to call forth the better angels of our nature so that we can act rightly.
Social scientists will agree that prejudice and fear of the other diminishes when citizens get to know that ‘other’. Studies have shown that the more Muslims people know the less prejudiced they are towards Muslims. That’s how it was for us Jews – at the Michiana Jewish Historical Society Hands on History program David Piser told a story about the breaking down of the restrictions against Jews at Morris Park Country club – a Jewish person was voted down for membership and another member stood up and said, “you mean to tell me that everyone in this room would let that man operate on you (for the Jewish person was a well known doctor) but you won’t let him play golf with you?” Personal relationships break down walls of fear and enmity and let our better angels show through. When we walk into that voting booth, let’s ask ourselves which candidates aspire to our better nature and which prey on our fears and dissension? Let us stay away from fear mongers – for the Sages teach us that the reason the Jews had to be protected on the night when the first born of Egypt were to be destroyed is that once the angel of destruction is unleashed no one is safe. Fear mongering is corrosive to all and in the long term benefits no one.
Finally, the third item on our agenda for Rosh HaShanah is the Shofarot. Shofar as we all know is the ram’s horn that we blow on this holiday. There are many reasons offered for the blowing of the shofar – it is a spiritual alarm clock demanding that we wake from our moral slumber; it is a reminder of sacrifice of the Ram in the Binding of Isaac story, a reminder of Abraham’s faith, and a reminder of God to be merciful to us on account of that faithfulness; it is the sound of the coronation of the King of the Kings of Kings, this day we re-new our fealty to the Divine. Saadia Gaon, the great Babylonian sage of the 9th century had a list of 10 reasons for shofar.
But in the Shofarot section, the emphasis is on the act of Divine revelation. God revealed God’s self at Sinai with the sound of a Shofar and at the end of time God will reveal God’s self again for the universal redemption with the sound of the Shofar.
What is so mysterious about this image is that our mahzor states, “You revealed yourself in a cloud of glory to your Holy People. From the heavens they heard your voice, and You manifest yourself to them in clouds of purity.” To reveal oneself is a visual image or metaphor; but the symbol that our mahzor chooses to invest in is the shofar, an aural symbol. Not only a symbol. It is a mitzvah on Rosh HaShanah to hear the shofar. The hearing must be pure – you cannot hear an echo, you cannot hear an accidentally blown note. In this case intention is required. The baal tekiah must intend that his or her shofar sounds fulfill the mitzvah of hearing the shofar for those listening.
This is why our last section which speaks of divine revelation uses an auditory symbol – because you have to be able to listen, to hear what is going on around you, to be open to the possibility of God’s presence in order to sense it and feel it. And of course we know scientifically that sound is made by waves, you can feel the sound of the shofar if you stand close enough.
In a discussion with FEAST parents at the opening of our FEAST program, I asked the question if or when did anyone in the room sense God’s presence. Betsy Rossow spoke of how there is not one place in time or space but that if she is open to it she senses God at home with the kids, in the synagogue or in the hospital wards where she works. If our ears are attuned, the revelation of the Divine Presence is possible at all times in all situations.
The last two years I have been taking Clinical Pastoral courses offered by JTS in Chicago. The skill of listening is paramount in clinical pastoral care. One of the members of the class is a chaplain in Chicago hospitals. She paid a visit to a young African American male who was suffering a debilitating illness. He was angry and cantankerous. He refused the nurses help in getting up and moving around. When the chaplain arrived the nurse was about to leave, the nurse was frustrated with the man and as she left he yelled after her – this is the devil’s playground and God’s footstool. What? The nurse asked and then walked out tired of the man’s obstreperousness. But the chaplain asked the patient what does that phrase mean to you? And thus began a 20 minute conversation in which this man, in emotional as well as physical pain shared his life story with the chaplain. It was a painful story of abandonment and abuse, but after sharing the story, he experienced a moment of relief. A relief from emotional pain that extended to his physical condition.
The Talmud attempts to determine for us how the sounds of the shofar are to be blown. The discussion centers on how to translate the cry of a mother for her son into musical notes. Is it a wailing or a sighing? Who is the mother around whose cries the discussion revolves? Rachel? Sarah? No, it is the mother of Sisera, Sisera, a foreign general one of the Jewish people’s enemies during the period of the Judges. Sisera is killed and when his mother, waiting to welcome her son in victory hears he has died, she cries out. That is our model for the shevarim and the truah the last two shofar sounds.
If the sound of the shofar will be the sound we hear at Final Redemption, if it is to be the sound of Meshiachtzeit, the sages seem to be telling us, to reach that stage we must be able to hear the cry of pain of the other. If we close ourselves off to the suffering of others, even our enemies, then we are not ready for the final redemption. Milton Steinberg stated that the shofar is a call to humankind “to hear the sound of weeping humanity, to feel …the unspeakable pain of the world, and to resolve to do battle against all those forces working for humankind’s oppression and subjugation.” (in Louis Jacobs, A Guide to Rosh HaShanah).
We need on this day to begin our own redemption and that begins with the ability to listen and to hear the sound of weeping humanity. If this is true for us, should it not also be true of our elected leaders? When we survey the choices on the ballot, do these politicians listen? Do they seek counsel? Can they hear the pain of others? Not only others who are like them but even others who are not?
This is God’s agenda for us as revealed in one significant portion of the Mahzor. When we act in the public realm do we bring honor to God and our people, or shame and scorn? Do our words and actions inspire others to goodness or lead to animosity and divisiveness? And are we willing to listen to others, to hear their desires but also their fears and anxieties? This is a good agenda for us Jews whether we lived in the second century of the common era or today. Let us pray that the future leaders of this great nation share in that agenda. Amen.