Rabbi Shira Wallach and Rabbi Adam Roffman
Yom Kippur 5780
Shira: Dear Hannah, my precious first born: I hope that you’ve been holding onto this letter for a good long while. And now that you’re finally reading it, I trust it means that God granted us the gift of a long time together, in which I had the opportunity to watch you and your sister grow into the strong, compassionate, curious, loving women that we always knew you would be. We shared a lot of meaningful conversations throughout our lives, moments in which our souls encountered one another. I heard you learn to articulate yourself with wisdom and insight beyond your years, and I hope that you always felt heard and validated. But as I took stock of the ideas we often broached together, I realized that there were things left unsaid.
Adam: Dear Rebecca: I pray that despite the grief and sadness you’re feeling, that opening this letter and seeing how long it is has brought a little bit of a smile to your face. After spending so many years watching me go on and on and on in front of a crowd at important moments in people’s lives, you must have known, of course, there’s no way I’d pass up the opportunity, at this moment of transition, to write one last sermon for you. Without a doubt, you and your sister were the greatest sources of pride in my life. And despite the tough road that we sometimes put in front of you, I hope that you were proud to be my daughter. But we both know that there were many times when I could have done better.
Shira: As rabbis, it was so important to your father and me to project success—because our success represented the success of our Jewish community and of the Jewish people. But just like everyone else in my generation, I was guilty of editing my story so that people only saw the happy times, the times when it looked like we were in control and everything was going great. When I was your age, we had this thing called Facebook, which was created for that very purpose.
Adam: Failure was not a word we used a lot in our house. Your mom and I never wanted you to feel defeated by missed opportunities or ill-advised decisions. We never wanted you to hear us admit that we had failed, because we didn’t want you to carry the burden of our mistakes with you. But what I realize now is that this too was a mistake. Because, ultimately, what we came to understand was that our success was, very often, predicated on remembering our failures and learning from them.
Shira: Judaism is the most enduring success story in human history. We survived as a people for 4000 years despite the persecutions, the exiles, the destructions, and the threat of losing our identity to the cultures that surrounded us. But if you look closer, you’ll see that we’ve had to admit to and own our failures many, many times over the generations. Only then could we undertake the soul searching necessary to earn our place as a light unto the nations, or lagoyim.
The book of Genesis tells us where we came from: three generations of patriarchs and matriarchs who were courageous and tenacious in their steadfast faith in God, but as parents and siblings, not so much. Abraham basically tried to murder his son on the top of some mountain without consulting with his wife—by the way, for the record, whenever I wanted to murder you, I always ran it by your father first. Isaac, at the end of his life, was blind and impotent, outsmarted by his younger son Jacob who stole the blessing he meant to give to his elder, Esav, and Rebecca not only allowed this manipulation, but gave Jacob this idea in the first place! Not exactly the Partridge Family (sorry, you won’t get that reference. Actually, that part was your dad’s idea. I’m also too young to get this).
Adam: At the end of Jacob’s life, after being reunited with his long-lost son Joseph in Egypt, Pharaoh asks him a simple question—how old are you? —and Jacob gives a very revealing answer. “I am 130,” Jacob replies. “Few and hard have been the years of my life, and they cannot compare to the lifespans of my ancestors during their travels.” What he’s trying to say is this: Here I stand, at long last, beside a son I thought was dead, as he stands at the right-hand of one of the most powerful people in the world. I should feel like shouting from the rooftops! And yet, I can’t dismiss the profound failure in my life that has led to this moment.
We are called B’nai Yisrael, the children of Jacob, not Abraham or Isaac. Why? Because like Jacob, we admit that there were times when we struggled with the angels and lost. But also, like our namesake, we have seen that on the other side of that struggle, was forgiveness, kindness, redemption, and unparalleled success.
Shira: Like Jacob and his descendants, who came down to Egypt seeking sustenance during a time of scarcity, our ancestors came to this country, famished and diminished from years of hardship, only to build their own versions of the American Dream. The story we inherited from our grandparents and our great-grandparents is remarkably similar to that of the 70 who came down to Egypt: incredible resilience in the face of obstacles that most in our generation never had to overcome. Starting out as poor peddlers on the streets, they sold their wares to eke out a meager existence for their families, but within a generation, they owned their own department stores, grocery chains, scrap metal businesses, you name it. The path to success was a straight line to the top.
And because we’ve had to reinvent ourselves so many times in order to survive, we don’t talk about our failures. Just like your father and I always had to project success in the microcosm of the communities we served, it’s not difficult to imagine why our people always had to hold ourselves to impossibly high standards: so that we’d never have to admit defeat, so that we’d never be targeted by the rest of the world for our shortcomings. So that we wouldn’t fall victim to the paralysis of fear. We couldn’t afford to fail.
But as powerful as these stories are, they are incomplete. Of course there were times when our forebearers made wrong decisions that led to loss of friends, money, security, and power. And though those stories of failure may not have reached us, or may not have been spoken about with the same sense of pride, nonetheless, I’m sure they played a central role in shaping the journey that led to their ultimate triumph over adversity.
Adam: You know that one of my favorite things to talk about from the pulpit is that the rabbinate was my second career, that I spent several years after graduating from college in training to be a musical theater actor in New York. I so often spoke, longingly, about what I gained from that period in my life and how my training as an actor informed my work as a rabbi. But I don’t think I ever told you this story of the exact moment I knew that I was never going to make it as a professional actor.
Once, after a train wreck of an audition, ruined by a terrible accompanist, I collected my things, and walked back out into the crowded New York city streets and stood there, staring into space for maybe 20 minutes. I had been dragging myself to audition after audition and, no matter how well they went, I just wasn’t getting anywhere. I was leaving each one feeling worse than I had felt walking through the door.
I went into the theater business thinking I would find community, companionship, meaning and connection. But the life of an actor, even for the successful ones, is often one of isolation and merciless competition. In order to succeed, you have to be CEO of a one-man company, to constantly sell and promote yourself and make yourself heard above the hundreds and hundreds of voices often competing for the same job. Standing there that day, alone in a sea of people on the streets of Manhattan, I thought to myself, “I just can’t do this.” But then, almost immediately, I realized, “Maybe not, but that doesn’t mean I can’t do something with this.”
Community, companionship, meaning, connection—surely, somewhere in my life, I had found all of these things together in one place. It was the crucible of that failure that clarified for me what I was really looking for. And one year later, I had enrolled as a student at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem on my way to Rabbinical School.
Shira: Over the course of his life, I watched your father tear himself down and build himself back up more times than I can count. And each time he emerged closer to the rabbi he wanted to be, the father he wanted to be, the person he wanted to be. With renewed energy, creativity, and a sense of purpose, he found focus and clarity about where he wanted to go next. And by the time you were born, that’s the man that you saw and came to love. But at the most difficult moments, I would often remind him of one of my favorite rabbinic teachings about the creation of the world.
The Torah tells us that God commands light to come into existence, and the cosmos responds immediately and with perfection. But the Torah only transmits to us the story of God’s success. Only the wisdom of the rabbis fills in what’s so often missing from these narratives: that God created and destroyed a thousand worlds, failing each time to come up with just the right combination of forces and elements, until finally God created this one. What the rabbis understood is that even God couldn’t create the world without trying and failing. And the only way God could learn enough to bring the version that we know into existence was to try and fail all those times before.
Adam: As a people, how many times have we Jews remade ourselves after a national catastrophe? How many times have we rebirthed ourselves after suffering loss, destruction, or losing our way? When the Second Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 CE, we faced what should have been the end of the story of the Jewish people. The Temple was the center of our lives, spiritually, economically, and nationally and suddenly, it was gone. We were lost.
But through interpretation, our sages turned the Torah on its head in order to create an entirely new world, centered around prayer, study, and acts of loving kindness. Where before our lives revolved around just one holy place, now every home was a temple, and every synagogue was a Holy of Holies. Kings and priests had destroyed our way of life with sinat chinam, corruption and senseless hatred. But it was their mistakes that gave rise to to these audacious rabbinic pioneers who ensured that every Jewish home had an altar at its center, a Shabbat table where we salt our challah in remembrance of the sacrifices of old. That every Jewish child could create their own connection to God when they covered their eyes and recited the shema, as we did with you, when you were a child, every night before we went to sleep.
Shira: You know that your father and I started dating in Israel when we were studying to be rabbis. And when I think back on it, I’m not surprised that being in such a magical place helped me recover from one of the worst years of my life.
Just a couple of months before we left for Israel that year, I called off my engagement. I had a ring and a dress, we had picked a wedding date, we (my parents!) had placed deposits on a venue, a caterer, and a band. And when it was revealed that he wasn’t the person I thought he was, I felt my life unravel. Of course I was sad that the relationship was over, but mostly, I just felt ashamed. Mortified that I had let my family and my friends become so invested in a choice that I had made and then had to undo. I was convinced that everyone around me saw nothing but my failure and because of that, I stopped trusting myself and believing that I could ever give myself over to love again. If I couldn’t even trust my own judgment, how could I trust another person?
Adam: The first time I asked your mother out on a date, she was shocked. Not because such a handsome, intelligent, funny, and eligible bachelor like me would take an interest in her, but because she couldn’t see past the failure of the relationship that she had just ended. She thought everyone looked at her and felt only pity. I knew that she had recently broken off an engagement, but what I saw when I looked at her wasn’t a person who was broken, but a kind, talented, ethereal angel who was waiting to be made whole, who deserved to love and be loved. The fact that she had tried and failed only made her more alluring to me because she had been in a broken relationship and therefore would know even more how to create one that would be enduring and nurturing.
What she perhaps didn’t understand at the time is that there’s a big difference between failing and being a failure. This is something that I had to remind myself of and many others every year on Yom Kippur. I was so often asked: rabbi, why do we need to spend 25 whole hours beating our breasts, repeating the same confessions over and over and over again? Why are we presenting ourselves before God as people who are so completely inept, immoral, unkind? Am I really supposed to feel all that bad about myself? Are all those things we say in the machzor really true?
Of course they’re true, I would say. But just because you’ve sinned, that doesn’t make you a sinner. Yom Kippur is supposed to be a joyful day because we are unburdening ourselves, letting go of our failures one by one. We read over and over again that if we repent God will take us back in love. And why does God do that? Because God knows making a mistake is the prerequisite for teshuvah, for understanding how and why to make a better choice.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that “man’s sin is his failure to live what he is. Being master of the earth, man forgets that he is the servant of God.” When God created the Garden of Eden for Adam and Eve and gave it over to their stewardship, he took quite a risk. Contained within the Garden was all the good that God created in six days, but God also knew that Adam and Eve were imperfect beings, subject to temptation. And so it would only be a matter of time before their curiosity caused them to fail. Why then, knowing that this was inevitable, would God place that temptation at the forefront of their consciousness, warning them not to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil? Perhaps part of the plan all along was knowing that Adam and Eve would fail. And not just that, but that God would be there for them to love and comfort them as they learned the lessons of their failure. After Adam and Eve discover with their newfound knowledge that they are naked, God removes their shame by harnessing the very creation they had corrupted—the leaves of the Tree—and lovingly fashioned clothes to cover them. Their mistake became their redemption.
Shira: My sweet Hannah, you know that your father and I had so much nachas from you, that our hearts exploded with joy every time that we saw you succeed: the first time we saw you take center stage in your ballet tutu with a huge smile on your face, so composed, so filled with light. When your academic record was so stellar that you earned a FULL scholarship to college so that Mommy and Daddy could pay for all the cars that your younger sister wrecked. And when you discovered for the first time the incredible joy of what it is to love another person and to earn their love in return, when you were 37 and not a day younger!
But Hannah, don’t discount the times when you would come to us crying, broken, and afraid after you had bombed a test or ended a relationship or let a professional opportunity pass through your fingers. Just as our parents did for us, we wiped your tears and held you close and sat together and said, ok now what? And then, a day, a week, a month later, you showed us all what the answer to that question was. That my love, is the very definition of pride.
Adam: Rebecca, as you find yourself telling our stories over these next many days, I know that people will encourage you to share the good times, of the things we did to raise you with love and strength, and also the efforts we made to strengthen the Jewish people with love. But, don’t leave out half of the story. Don’t leave out the times when we got it wrong, when we misjudged, when we let you and others down. Because chances are, that behind every success story that you tell is also a story of learning to harness the lessons of failure and how powerful it is to emerge on the other side, after a long period of introspection, purified and reborn, ready to begin again.
Shira: Hannah, as the days of my life are coming to a close, I am reminded of the words we said each year at Ne’ilah just as the gates of heaven were swinging shut, marking the transition from one year of life to the next: kerachem av al banim, ken terachem Adonai aleinu. Just as a parent has compassion upon her child, so too God will show mercy unto us. We have held each other, you and I, many times, weeping, hoping that the love we hold for each other in our hearts will transform the sins of our past into the merits of our future. In my absence, I hope that God will hold you in a similar embrace and remind you to have compassion on yourself, to believe that every failure is an opportunity to draw closer to those in your life who will show you the way to goodness.
With all my love,
Adam: With all my heart,
Adam & Shira: Mom/Dad
Yom Kippur AM Sermon 5780
by Rabbi Ari Sunshine
After seventeen years of marriage, a man dumped his wife for a younger woman. The downtown luxury apartment was in his name and he wanted to remain there with his new love, so he asked his wife to move out and said he would buy her another place. The wife agreed to this, but asked that she be given three days.
The first day she packed her personal belongings into boxes and crates
and suitcases. On the second day, she had the movers come and collect
her things. On the third day, she sat down for the last time at their candlelit dining table, soft music playing in the background, and feasted alone on shrimp (yes, full disclosure, this is not a story of traditional Jewish origin) and a bottle of Chardonnay. When she had finished, she went into each room and deposited shrimp leftovers into the hollow of her curtain rods. She then cleaned up the kitchen and left.
Her husband returned with his new girl, and all was bliss for the first few days. Then it started; slowly but surely. Clueless, the man could not explain why the place smelled as it did. They tried everything. First, they cleaned and mopped and aired the place out. That didn't work. Then they checked vents for dead rodents. Still no luck. They steam cleaned the carpets and hung air fresheners. That didn't solve the problem. They hired exterminators; still no good. They ripped out the carpets and replaced them. But the smell lingered.
Finally, they could take it no more and decided to move. The moving company packed everything and moved it all to their new place. Everything. Even the curtain rods.
On one level this story may seem amusing, and fair. The wife, who was certainly a victim, gets her revenge on her unsuspecting ex. But is revenge what we should be looking for in a case like this? Granted that the short time frame captured in this story doesn’t even begin to allow for the process of healing to really begin, in principle, instead of looking to “get even” on some level when we have been hurt by another person, even someone close to us, over time we are better off pursuing a different, and more noble, value—FORGIVENESS.
Our tradition places a huge emphasis on the importance of forgiveness. We may be aware that, during this time of year, it is customary to approach people whom we have wronged during the past year to apologize for what we have done and ask them for their forgiveness BEFORE we can try to repent to God. But we may not all know that our tradition goes a bit further than that. You see, if you have the strength to approach someone three times in sincere repentance to ask them for their forgiveness, and they refuse to grant that forgiveness all three times, then the burden shifts to them and you are free to continue on your path of teshuvah, return, to God. This particular law in our tradition teaches us two important things: ONE—it is vital that, over time, we move to forgive others, otherwise, why would this law assume that three real attempts at an apology ought to clear the slate; and TWO—forgiving can be very difficult—otherwise, why would this law acknowledge that it might take three legitimate attempts before an apology would be accepted!
The command to forgive IS a difficult one to fulfill when we have been wronged or hurt, and we are certainly not the only ones who have struggled with what might seem to us like an unrealistic obligation. Going back in history, let’s just take two examples of people who simply refused to forgive when someone did them wrong, and made that point very publicly.
One was Michelangelo. Michelangelo was one of the greatest artists who ever lived. Not much debate on that front. He could carve incredible statues that still amaze us whenever we look at them to this day. He could paint pictures that still fill our souls with wonder. But there was one thing that Michelangelo could not do. He simply could not forgive anyone who had hurt him.
A friend of his once dared to criticize one of his works of art. How did Michelangelo respond? When he painted the Sistine Chapel, he used that man’s face as the model for the devil. So that everyone who enters the Sistine Chapel to this day looks at a work which is a testimony to Michelangelo’s genius as an artist, but which is also testimony to Michelangelo’s smallness as a human being.
For another example, how about Dante? Dante was arguably the greatest poet of the Middle Ages. And yet, Dante had a major flaw. He could not forget, and he could not forgive anyone who crossed him. And so when he wrote his masterpiece the Inferno, he described the terrible torment that those who suffer in hell will endure, and he used the names of his enemies as the examples. So whoever reads the Inferno sees the work of a man who was a brilliant poet, but not so noble in his character.
So if we’re having trouble with forgiveness, we’re in good company. If Michelangelo, who was an artistic genius, and Dante, who was a remarkable poet, could not forgive someone who hurt them, then maybe we shouldn’t feel so bad? How can I be expected to forgive, if they couldn’t? And yet, our tradition is replete with examples of people who showed remarkable strength of character in their decisions to ultimately forgive. Here, too, let’s make mention of two such examples, both from the Torah.
The first is Joseph—many of us may be familiar with the general nature of his story; Joseph, the dreamer, the bratty, and even arrogant, kid brother, was sold into slavery by his jealous and hateful older brothers. Some years later, when the fortunes of both parties had turned completely—Joseph was the viceroy of Egypt and his brothers were suffering through a famine in Canaan—Joseph found himself in a position of power over his brothers who had come to Egypt to beg for food for their family and did not recognize that they had come face to face with the little brother they had once victimized. Joseph faced a dilemma—exact vengeance and make them pay for their sins against him or forgive and reconcile. When they were willing to trade themselves to redeem the youngest brother Benjamin, Joseph recognized that they, in fact, had been redeemed—they had changed. And with that came forth the emotional cry from within Joseph—“I am Joseph. Does my father yet live? Come near to me, I pray you. I am Joseph, your brother, whom you sold into Egypt.” Joseph had finally reached the moment when he could let go of the memory of the wrong they had done him. Under the circumstances, reconciliation had to have been extremely difficult for Joseph, and yet he showed us that forgiveness can triumph.
For our second example, let’s turn to our tradition’s greatest prophet and teacher—Moses. Was there ever a Jewish leader who was rebelled against more often, who was betrayed more often, who was criticized more often, than he was? His brother, Aaron, and his sister, Miriam, both spoke out against him; his cousin, Korach, tried to overthrow him, the people of Israel rebelled against him over and over and over again for forty years in a row! Moses had to put up with this nonsense for 40 years! And yet, somehow Moses was able to forgive his people and to continue to lead them and love them until the end of his life.
And on the day that he died, the Midrash says that Moses made the rounds of the twelve tribes, hugged each one of them and accepted their apologies, and gave them his apologies. The Midrash says that they said to him, “We are sorry that we rebelled so often,” and he said to them, “I am sorry that I was so hard on you,” and they made up with each other and then he died.
Could any of us have done what Moses did that day? If we were in his position, could we have forgiven the people that harassed us mercilessly for forty years? Deep down we can admire Moses for having been able to forgive his people, for it couldn’t have been an easy thing to do.
Long after Moses lived, an anecdote was told about the life of one of Judaism’s Talmudic sages, Mar Zutra. Each night before he went to sleep, Mar Zutra would say, “I forgive all who hurt me today”. He understood that people weren’t perfect, and he genuinely forgave those who had hurt or disappointed him. He gave the gift of forgiveness freely to others as well as to himself. He knew he would sleep better and live happier if he had removed the bitterness and hatred from his heart.
And that’s just it—as Steve Goodier, who shared the story with which I began, analyzed the story this way: “The problem is... we can't carry a grudge and carry love in our hearts at the same time. We have to give one of them up. It's a choice we make. Some resentments are large; they've built up over a long time and will not be easy to part with. Some have been fed by years of pain and anger. But all the more reason to give them up. When we're tired of the anger and resentment and bitterness, we can choose a better way. We can be forever unhappy, or we can be healthy. We're just not made to carry a big grudge and a heart filled with love at the same time”.
I think that the truth is that we don’t like to forgive, because there is something inside of us that enjoys the taste of revenge, like the woman in the story. Let’s be honest. On an instinctual level, it feels good to get back at someone who has hurt you, doesn’t it? Refusing someone’s apology gives us a certain amount of power over that person and that power feels good.
It is tempting to nurse a grudge. And yet our tradition is emphatic in telling us not to do it. Here are three important reasons why: The first reason: When you hold on to a grudge, who does it hurt: your enemy or you?
Rabbi Harold Kushner, a Conservative rabbi and world-renowned, best-selling author, tells the story of how a woman once came to him, and poured out in detail her anger against her husband for how he left her for another woman, and how he had mistreated her and their children. What advice did Rabbi Kushner give her? “Let it go, not for his sake, but for yours. For ten years this has been burdening you. If you wouldn’t let him live in your house, rent free, why on earth do you let him live in your mind rent free?”
What harm does it do to the one who has hurt us for us to brood and wallow in our anger and in our self-pity? It is better for us to get on with our lives, and not let the one who has hurt us continue to control our lives and pull our strings and drive us crazy.
The second reason why we ought to forgive can be illustrated by a brief story, told by Rachel Naomi Remen. Years ago, she went to a Yom Kippur service to hear a well-known rabbi speak about forgiveness, thinking he would be speaking about God’s forgiveness. Instead, as she tells it, “he walked out into the congregation, took his infant daughter from his wife, and carrying her in his arms, stepped up to the bimah. The little girl was perhaps a year old and she was adorable. From her father’s arms she smiled at the congregation. Every heart melted. Turning toward her daddy, she patted him on the cheek with her tiny hands. He smiled fondly at her and, with his customary dignity, began a traditional Yom Kippur sermon”. The baby girl started grabbing his nose; he freed himself and went on; then she took his tie and put it in her mouth. Everyone chuckled. The rabbi rescued his tie, and then said to the congregation—“Think about it. Is there anything she can do that you could not forgive her for?” After the nods and murmurs of assent came from the crowd, he went on—“And when does that stop? When does it get hard to forgive? At three? At seven? At fourteen? At thirty-five? How old does someone have to be before we forget that everyone is a child of God?” We are all God’s children, part of the same family; we expect forgiveness from God, for anything we do, and God’s children, our family and extended human family, deserve that same forgiveness from us.
Finally, here is a third reason why we should try to forgive, and that is: That the truth is—although we don’t like to admit it, that we have slandered just as much as we have been slandered; that we have insulted, just as much as we have been insulted. We have said and done hurtful things to friends, co-workers, loved ones. The only difference is that when WE do it, we justify it, and we rationalize and we forgive ourselves. But when it is done to us, we get upset, and we want retribution.
It is much easier to think of times when we have been wronged than it is to think of times when we have done wrong. Somehow the human mind works that way. We have a selective memory, and so we find it easier to remember the times when we have been hurt than it is to remember the times when we have hurt.
And so I pray that this year you and I may work on developing not only our memory skills, but, as my colleague Rabbi Jack Riemer terms it, a good “forgettery” as well. Because without a good “forgettery” we really cannot live. If we hold on to every insult, and every harsh word, and every misdeed that has ever been done to us, we become so weighed down by this burden that we can barely walk or breathe or live.
The truth is that, with no exceptions, everyone has his own baggage and there is no need for any of us to add any more to each other’s pain and suffering; on the contrary, there is a need for comfort and companionship. Let us try yet again this year to minimize the hurt that we cause with our words and deeds; but, when inevitably we slip up, AND WE WILL SLIP UP, may we learn how to let go of the anger that we all carry around inside us that chokes us and that does not let us love. And let us forgive, so that we may truly live.
May this new year be a good year, a peaceful year, a year in which we offer forgiveness to our family, friends, neighbors, fellows, and God, and a year during which we receive that same powerful, sacred and healing gift of forgiveness in return. And to this, may we all say: AMEN.
Yom Kippur Sermon 5780
Rabbi Matt Rutta, M.A.Ed.
When I was in the fifth grade, I read a book which, unbeknownst to me then, would eventually change my outlook on life. It was “Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury. It is a book about a dystopian future in which books are outlawed and firemen are civil servants who don’t put out fires but instead cause them, destroying any books that can be found. According to the chief fireman, the reason all books were banned is that some people started to complain about books that challenged their own worldviews and the practice spread like, well, wildfire. In the words of philosopher Francis Bacon, Scientia Potentia Est, Knowledge is Power, and oppressors will try to control knowledge to protect their power. Ironically, this book about banning books is one of the most banned books in US History due to the fact that one of the books burned by the firemen is the Bible.
When Ray Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 in 1953, he saw it as a vision of America in 1999 - which is now 20 years in the past! I realized upon learning world history, especially Jewish history, that this is not a vision of a dystopian future but a retrospective of a very real dystopian past.
Book Burning is not a new concept. For as long as words have been written on flammable media they have been burned. Jewish history goes back to words carved into stone and our written words have been frequent victims of destruction. If you look at the Wikipedia article "List of book-burning incidents" the most frequent books listed are Jewish, starting from the Judean King Yehoyakim burning the scroll written by the Prophet Jeremiah and when Antiochus IV ordered all Jewish books burned - a causus belli for the Hanukkah story.
Today we are about to recite the Eleh Ezkera which begins with ten of the Rabbis who were martyred by the Romans; one of these rabbis was Hananya ben Tradyon. He violated the capital crime of teaching the Torah and he was burned, wrapped in the Torah scroll with which he was caught teaching. He tells his horrified and heartbroken students that, though the parchment burns, the letters of the Torah are flying back up to their Author in Heaven.
In 1242, urged by Pope Gregory IX, the Talmud was put on trial in Paris and found guilty of blasphemy against Christianity. The Pope was allegedly shocked to learn that Jews did not solely follow the Old Testament but also the Talmud! 24 cartloads of an estimated 10,000 volumes were burned that June. This was especially staggering considering this was 200 years before Johannes Gutenberg invented his movable printing press so many of these volumes were handwritten and forever lost.
It is perhaps the ubiquity of books after that point that, last year, Time Magazine, commenting on the 85th Anniversary of Hitler’s 1933 Berlin book burning, wrote,
“the idea that you could get rid of the books you didn’t like seemed impossible. That is perhaps [...] why it took a little while for the wider world to understand what the Nazis were up to. Some authors initially felt pride to have been included in such a bonfire, [and that] that some book lovers in English-speaking countries expressed a certain wistfulness that in Germany books were thought to hold such power. But the Nazi authorities really were out to close off society to certain ideas, and they were unfortunately far more successful at it than many expected.”
The very same Time Magazine in May of 1933, prophetically dubbed this book burning “The Bibliocaust”. A few years ago, I saw the words of 19th century Jewish German poet Heinrich Heine inscribed in that Berlin plaza, The Bebelplatz, “That was but a prelude; where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people as well.” How tragically correct he was!
With the creation of electronic media, the Internet, and the Cloud, it once again seems that the written word is indestructible and eternal, much like it must have seemed at the development of the Movable Printing Press. While government agencies may try to control and block information people also successfully find ways around blocks and fight for Net Neutrality.
While one war may be fought in the clouds another is taking place on the ground and in ivory towers. Go to any college campus in America today and you will stumble upon something counterintuitive. You will see people protesting for their own freedom of speech while simultaneously denying another’s ability to share their own worldviews and exercise their own free speech. I, myself, have been involved in such shouting matches.
From 2001 to 2005, I was an undergraduate at Columbia University, a place that has been well-known as a hotbed of debate since the days of Alexander Hamilton. Before he dropped out to fight in the American Revolution in 1776, Hamilton engaged in heated debates on a campus evenly-split over Independence vs Loyalism; Hamilton supported Independence but decried the ubiquitous mob violence.
I entered Columbia University in the City of New York only a week before everything changed on 9/11 and things got even more polarized and vocal on campus. In 2004, voices crescendoed when a documentary was released, Columbia Unbecoming, which created a firestorm about allegations of academic intimidation in Middle Eastern department classes. The David Project interviewed a number of Israeli or pro-Israel students, many of whom are my close friends, about cases of Muslim anti-Israel professors in the department being explicitly prejudiced against them for their nationality, religion, or political views; these range from professors not allowing contrarian students to share their views to a professor asking an Israeli student how many Palestinians he murdered when serving in the IDF. Both sides claimed the other side was academically intimidating them and it launched an investigation and ultimately dismantled the Middle Eastern department.
One of these accused professors, it should be noted, is Rashid Khalidi, a founder of the BDS (Boycott, Divest, and Sanction) movement which attempts to eliminate all dialogue in favor of completely shutting down the Israeli side. Thankfully, his and others’ attempts to bring BDS to Columbia have been repeatedly and overwhelmingly thwarted by students and administration, both in my era and in recent months. However, it seems that things have changed for the worse. Whereas, 15 years ago, we would be very vocal in our defense and support of Israel, today’s students, particularly those who are pro-Israel, are engaging in self-censorship. They are remaining silent so they will not be attacked or bullied by those who oppose their view. Instead of the wise child or even the wicked child, many are now the child who does not know how to ask, how to speak up for themselves!
In my final month as an undergraduate, in my capacity of serving on the Executive Board at the Columbia/Barnard Hillel and being the chairman of Koach, the Conservative movement’s group, I was invited to be one of the two representatives of the Jewish people at Barnard’s first annual Interfaith Summit. It was an event explicitly created in order to create healthy dialogue in the wake of the Middle Eastern department controversy. In the very same issue of the Columbia Daily Spectator that covered this event in which I was pictured having deep theological discussion with Hare Krishnas, the grumbling began against the pulling down of flyers advertising a speaker who was about to arrive on campus: US Attorney General John Ashcroft. He was invited by the College Republicans and, very quickly, a group formed, calling themselves the “John Ashcroft Welcoming Committee,” composed of members of the College Democrats and the ACLU.
In college, I was fortunate to be present for speeches by luminaries such as the Dalai Lama, Natan Sharansky, First Lady Laura Bush, and Senator John McCain. Somehow, I got a ticket to the free, but sold-out, event with John Ashcroft. I didn’t go to support nor to protest, I went to hear him speak, more out of curiosity than agreement or disagreement with his policies, positions, or deeds. After all, he was an important government official who had just left the administration! I came to listen. Others came to scream at the top of their lungs. They said they would protest outside and some got tickets, ostensibly, in order to ask hard-hitting questions. This was meant to be a dialogue but what happened is that the “Welcoming Committee” didn’t even let him speak. I was shocked and dismayed at what I was witnessing, what I was hearing and what I was not hearing due to the attempts to drown out the speaker like we drown out the name of Haman on Purim! Here I was, weeks away from earning my Bachelor’s Degree, majoring in American Political Science and I was suddenly becoming disillusioned by politics! Roone Arledge Auditorium became an echo chamber that night and I was not having it.
In college, I was also a member of the Philolexian Society, Alexander Hamilton’s own college literary & debate society given a name, a name which translates as “lovers of discourse” and our raison de’ȇtre was to engage in friendly debate and never take ourselves too seriously. What was happening that night was completely anathema to my identity and my college pride. Where was the Columbia of vigorous but respectful debate, the one where I witnessed the healthy protests and counter-protests during my prospective-student visit in high school during the confusion three weeks following the 2000 Presidential Election, the events which made me want to be a Political Science major in the first place? Columbia’s motto is “In Lumine Tuo Vidibimus Lumen,” from Psalm 36: “BeOrcha Nireh Or,” “in Your Light we shall see light.” And yet, Columbia was becoming a place of darkness. Ashcroft’s speech, or, more specifically, the disrespectful reception that silenced him, really struck me that day. I decided then-and-there to listen to everybody and make my decisions - not by agreeing with a partisan slate of positions and political platforms - but by learning to listen to everything and everyone and making educated decisions. We may not be burning books today but we ARE definitely burning bridges!
I should feel the same way about the students shutting down Attorney General Ashcroft as I do toward the professors and students who intimidate and bully the Israeli, Zionist, and Jewish students. Free speech swings both ways! We live in a country where freedom of speech, expression, religion, assembly, press, and petition are enshrined in the First Amendment of our Constitution. As much as we treasure that right for ourselves, it would be hypocritical to deny it to those with whom we disagree.
Other countries don’t have that blessed right. Take Iran. A year after the Ashcroft debacle, Columbia invited the President of Iran, Mahmud Ahmadinejad. Now, let me make it clear that I wouldn’t have invited him (nor fellow Holocaust-denying anti-Semitic Malaysian President Mahathir bin Mohamad a few weeks ago) to have an unqualified bully pulpit at my alma mater, however, I was thrilled to see him get defensive when the university’s president, Lee Bollinger (who argued free speech cases in front of the US Supreme Court) asked Ahmadinejad about the mistreatment of homosexuals in Iran. Ahmadinejad was flabbergasted and flustered! “In Iran we don’t have any homosexuals. In Iran we don't have this phenomenon. I don't know who has told you we have it,” he exclaimed to the derisive laughter of the audience. In the wise words of an elderly King Solomon in Ecclesiastes 9:17, “Words spoken softly by wise people are heeded sooner than words screamed by a foolish leader.” As long as there can be fair dialogue is it that dangerous to hear from a plurality of opinions, to open a dialogue and perhaps learn something new and teach something new? Open dialogue is very Jewish.
In fact, our own Jewish tradition is a strong proponent of us attaining as much knowledge as possible from as many sources as possible. The very first reference to knowledge in Judaism is Etz HaDaat Tov v’Ra, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the middle of the Garden of Eden. Ancient Greece warned against Prometheus giving the world fire, Pandora succumbing to curiosity, and they executed the great philosopher Socrates for corrupting the minds of Athenian youths and not believing in the gods. In our own story, Christian interpretation calls the eating from the Tree “Original Sin” with which each and every baby, a descendant of Adam and Eve, is born into the world tainted by sin and must be purified by the waters of baptism. It seems to me that Judaism not only does not denounce the action of Adam and Eve but supports it! In God’s perfect Paradise where would a disobedient snake have come from and why would God tell us about an easily seen and accessible tree that could have been hidden or locked far away? It could be open for debate that God never intended us to remain in the blissful ignorance of the Garden of Eden! For the early rabbis, the idea of Paradise in the World to Come is the ability to learn directly from God. Eating from the tree was not an Original sin; on the contrary, eating from the Tree is the beginning of the Jewish tradition to learn and teach as much as possible to the next generation.
We are commanded, in the Shema: Veshinantam Levancecha v’Dibarta Bam, “You shall repeat them to your children and speak of them!” It is a paramount mitzvah to teach Torah to your children. The first petition we make in the weekday Amidah, Chonen HaDaat, is asking God to give us knowledge, wisdom, and understanding. God is pleased with Solomon when the newly crowned king asks God for wisdom. Among many other aphorisms about wisdom, Solomon writes in chapter three of his book of Proverbs:
Happy is the man who finds wisdom, the man who attains understanding. Her value in trade is better than silver, Her yield, greater than gold. She is more precious than rubies; All of your goods cannot equal her. In her right hand is length of days, in her left, riches and honor. Her ways are pleasant ways, and all her paths, peaceful. She is a tree of life to those who grasp her, and whoever holds on to her is happy. (Proverbs 3:13-18)
You might recognize that we just sang these last two verses in reverse as we put the Torahs away: עֵץ־חַיִּ֣ים הִ֭יא לַמַּחֲזִיקִ֣ים בָּ֑הּ וְֽתֹמְכֶ֥יהָ מְאֻשָּֽׁר׃ דְּרָכֶ֥יהָ דַרְכֵי־נֹ֑עַם וְֽכָל־נְתִ֖יבוֹתֶ֣יהָ שָׁלֽוֹם׃
Just this past Shabbat we read in Parashat Vayelech (Deuteronomy 30:19) that God places before us life and death, blessing and curse and we are commanded to choose life. We are invited to return to Paradise with unfettered access to the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life. We weren’t expelled from the Garden to protect the Tree of Life; in fact, it wasn’t eternally forbidden fruit, we just weren’t ready - but we are now and God commands us to choose it!!
In the context of Proverbs chapter 3, King Solomon is not just talking about Torah but wisdom in general! Knowledge and life are inextricably tied together! There isn’t meant to be esotericism in Judaism. Modern tradition may restrict the study of the mystical Zohar to men above the age of 40 but this tradition isn’t universal and has nothing to do with one’s caste or level of wisdom. Even the more forbidden fruits should be tasted, as in the Talmudic story of the student hiding under his rabbi’s marital bed to learn about sex. Upon being chided by his teacher the student responds, “This too is Torah and I must learn it!”
We are commanded to acknowledge and learn from those with whom we disagree. It’s Debate 101 and Judaism 101! The Mishnah and Talmud, the fonts of Jewish law, record multiple opinions and often don’t come to conclusions or resolutions. You may have heard of the famous debates between the schools of Hillel and Shammai, but there was never any acrimony between the two. In Talmud Eruvin 13b we read: “Rabbi Abba said that Shmuel said: For three years the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel disagreed. These said: The law is in accordance with our opinion, and these said: The law is in accordance with our opinion. Ultimately, a Divine Voice emerged and proclaimed: Eilu v'Eilu Divrei Elohim Chayim Hen, both these and those are the words of the living God... v'Halachah k'Veit Hillel, However, the law is in accordance with the opinion of Beit Hillel. The Talmud asks: Since both these and those are the words of the living God, why were Beit Hillel privileged to have the law established in accordance with their opinion? The reason is that they were agreeable and forbearing, showing restraint when affronted, and when they taught the law, they would teach both their own statements and the statements of Beit Shammai. Moreover, when they formulated their teachings and cited a dispute, they prioritized the statements of Beit Shammai to their own statements, in deference to Beit Shammai.” That’s how you win a debate!
Indeed, we can - and should - learn from everybody. We can’t just preach to the choir. The editor of the Mishnah and Rabbi par-excellence Yehuda HaNasi says in Pesachim 94b that, contrary to popular belief, even Rabbis don’t know everything. In fact, Rebbe says that there are things that gentile scientists know that we don’t know and that we should learn from them as well! We should learn about other faiths not only to be good global citizens but also so we can dialogue and respond when someone tells us something that challenges our faith or understanding. I teach a class to my 8th graders that includes significant time learning Comparative Religion. They will certainly meet people who aren’t Jewish. A former student of mine told me that a girl on her soccer team asked her about Isaiah 7:14, a key text for Christians from the Hebrew Bible, and she was not only able to identify the verse but successfully refute the teammate’s claim. If we refuse to learn from one another, to learn about one another, to dialogue, we don’t have a chance as individuals, as Jews, as Americans.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel remarked, “man is a messenger who forgot the message.” I realize now, as I realized back in college, that one of the purposes of life is to gather information and to learn as much as possible, not just to win hundreds of dollars in HQ Trivia (though I’ve done that) nor to appear on Jeopardy! (still waiting on that) but so I can be an informed citizen of the world and know as much as possible.
The very first mishnah of Pirkei Avot, the Lessons of our Sages, says one of the three most important things for a rabbi is to raise many students. In a battle between quality vs. quantity, one might think that quality is the better ideal. You might have a few great students, but with quantity everyone has a chance. I’d like to think I do the same with my students, I’m never gonna give up on them and there’s always a better chance of finding a diamond in the rough if I teach many than if I only teach a few. So too with content; even if you think you will never need math or science or a random sugya of Talmud, you never know what you might do with your life that will require it.
In Ray Bradbury’s fictional America of 1999, the country was burning down, page by page. Twenty years later, in 2019, it doesn’t seem so far-fetched. They tried to incinerate our knowledge.“That was but a prelude; where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people as well.” However, all is not lost! We can learn once again from the rabbinic pair of Hillel and Shammai:
A gentile came before Shammai and said to Shammai: Convert me to Judaism on condition that you teach me the entire Torah while I am standing on one foot. Annoyed, Shammai pushed him away with the measuring stick in his hand. He then came before Hillel. Hillel converted him and said to him: That which is hateful to you do not do to another; that is the entire Torah, and the rest is its interpretation. Go study.
We have the ability to learn and to teach. You can be a Shammai, shutting down and chasing away anyone who is disagreeable to you. Or you can be a Hillel, welcoming in people of different opinions and starting a dialogue with them, even if they annoy you. The world is filled with Firemen and Shammais, burning down the world and pushing people away. In a world where there are no Hillels be a Hillel! Create the brilliant light of learning that will burn even brighter than the fires of those burning books. Let there be light.
G’mar Chatimah Tovah.
Kol Nidre Sermon 5780
Rabbi Ari Sunshine, Rabbi Adam Roffman, Rabbi Shira Wallach
L’Eyla u’L’Eyla. Higher and Higher. These are the words that we utter in the Kaddish prayers during these Aseret Y’Mei Teshuvah, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and the days in between. We add an extra word “L’Eyla” to our customary recitation to remind us that during this 10-day period God is elevated even more beyond the prayers we human beings can offer in God’s praise. And during this High Holy Day period we also try to lift ourselves up to commit to being at our most godly going forward into the New Year.
Last year during this Kol Nidre Service in all three of our sanctuaries, the rabbis shared the same message about a way our community could elevate itself while at the same time elevating someone else in need in the way our teacher Maimonides once instructed us. We are proud of David Corn as he completes a year in our Ladder Project program. Since January, David has been paying his own rent and utility bills, and just renewed his apartment lease for another year. He has worked steadily since last November at Studio Movie Grill, where he has been promoted to a team leader -- both training new employees and supervising the teams who maintain and prep the theaters in between showings.
But what we have learned is that $12/hour is not enough money for David to live on since he is currently paying court-ordered child support for one of his sons, leaving him no ability to put aside money towards obtaining and maintaining a car, which is his #1 goal. David recently passed his driver’s test and is excited about being able to drive. We are asking congregants to let us know if they can offer David a full-time job that pays a minimum of $15/hour AND donate a used car to David, which would significantly change his life. Reliance on public transit greatly limits where, and how often, David can work. We feel confident that David can reach a new level of financial self-sufficiency with a new job and a car.
As you are hopefully aware, David joined us for Rosh Hashanah services last week and was extremely proud to be celebrating his new life -- a life far away, physically and emotionally, from the homeless shelter he lived in for several years before meeting us. He speaks often of the generosity and caring hearts of this congregation -- his spiritual family, as he calls us -- that made all of this possible. We are grateful for all of your support in helping David this past year.
We look forward this next year to further success for David and to hopefully welcoming a new person or family to our program. Our Ladder Project Executive Committee is currently searching for candidates and we have had a couple of possibilities, but we are doing due diligence to make sure we pick someone who is ready to be helped.
Just as last year the three Shearith rabbis decided to give a unified message, so, too, this year we also decided to speak about the same topic this evening. And the choice of topic will likely not come as a surprise to anyone in any of our three sanctuaries. One of our congregants recently commented on Facebook that this was the first year our congregants were ever asked to come to a security briefing before High Holy Day services. Who would have even thought this was necessary a decade, or perhaps even five years, ago? 250 congregants attended six briefings in total, which speaks to how concerned folks are with recent trends in anti-Semitism and violence, both here in the United States, and around the world as well. Why are we concerned?
We’re concerned because of October 27, 2018, a Shabbat morning in Pittsburgh, which could have been a Shabbat of shalom and joy and community like every Shabbat before that one and every Shabbat we hope to celebrate in the future, but instead was a Shabbat that bore witness to the murder of eleven Jews at Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill as the killer shouted, “All Jews must die”.
We’re concerned because six months later, on Shabbat morning, April 27, the last day of Pesach, another shooter visited death on another synagogue, this time a Chabad in Poway, California, taking the life of Lori Gilbert-Kaye and wounding several others including Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, having posted online just beforehand an open letter in the form of an anti-Semitic rant blaming Jews for the “meticulously planned genocide of the European race”.
We’re concerned because, according to the ADL, the U.S. Jewish community experienced near-historic levels of anti-Semitism in 2018—1,879 attacks in total, the third-highest year on record since the ADL began tracking data in the 1970s, a number not far off from the 1,986 incidents reported in 2017, 48% higher than in 2016 and 99% higher than for 2015. 59 people were victims of 39 anti-Semitic assaults in 2018, almost three times as many victims and twice as many incidents as in 2017.
We’re concerned because anti-Semitism thinly veiled as anti-Zionism continues to rear its ugly head. This extends from the United Nations, on down to college campuses through the pernicious BDS movement which constantly forces our students to have to defend the right for a Jewish state to exist, and has even seeped into the halls of our U.S. Government.
And we’re concerned because we’ve read in the news locally that a Jewish convict named Randy Halprin was sentenced to death by Judge Vickers Cunningham who allegedly called him “that [expletive] Jew”, and much worse, during the trial. Saying nothing of Halprin’s guilt or innocence, it seems incredulous to us that this could happen in a courtroom in the United States. Thankfully Halprin’s attorneys, with the support of 100 Jewish attorneys and numerous rabbis from all over Texas including Rabbi Sunshine, convinced the Appeals Court to stay the execution and remand the case back to a Dallas County court for further review.
Over the past few days, we’ve seen that many rabbis across Dallas and across the nation have also chosen to address the fearsome rise in anti-Semitic incidents in America during this High Holy Day season. What’s notable about these powerful statements from our colleagues is that despite the diversity of communities they serve in areas across the country, many make, essentially, the same three points.
First, if we are to understand the threat we face, we must also ensure that we understand the underlying ideology that fuels it. Anti-Semitism is a specific form of hatred and it cannot be equated with mere ignorance, intolerance, or prejudice. It is born out of an irrational fear of our particular beliefs, values, and way of life. It takes the form of conspiracy theories, double-standards, and scapegoating narratives.
Anti-Semitism is Pharaoh, paranoid that our growing nation would inexplicably rise up against the same land and people that sustained us through a devastating period of famine in the land of Canaan.
Anti-Semitism is Haman and Antiochus Epiphanes, who saw a people not apart, but against. Ironically, for all the charges of dual loyalty that have been laid at our feet, it was their inability to believe that we could, at once, serve a God that was ours, and yet still contribute to the well-being of a land that wasn’t, that inspired them to plot our destruction.
And yes, Anti-Semitism is Adolf Hitler and his Nazi collaborators, who followed in the example of so many before them when they blamed Jews for the economic and political catastrophes their government had wrought on its own people.
Second, though Anti-Semitism has been used as a political tool for more than two millennia, Anti-Semitism is not politics. It is hatred. Therefore, Anti-Semitism cannot be accurately categorized as left or right, progressive, populist, or conservative. It can however, usually be found at the ideological extremes and, terrifyingly of late, it has been countenanced and tolerated, if not yet embraced, by those who claim to speak for the mainstream and the center. It has defiled the cause of those who say they champion equality and social justice and it has profaned the lips of those who argue that they are fighting to preserve and defend our national identity and culture. It has inspired violence both directly and indirectly, and when it is present in the sacred halls of our government or regularly evident in the temples of international diplomacy, it is a sign of impending danger, not only for Jews, but for all oppressed people across the globe.
Finally, should this unsettling trend continue, we would do well to remember that the most powerful weapon against those who would seek to destroy the agency, prosperity, and sovereignty Jews have enjoyed since the middle of the twentieth century, is, paradoxically, that very thing which inflames their hatred of us: our love for and pride in being Jewish. For if we allow our Jewish identity to be defined, principally, by our fight for survival, then we will have already lost. How did we defeat Pharaoh? By recovering our ability to cry out to God in the words of our ancestors. How did we defeat Haman and Antiochus? By harnessing our ingenuity, our wits, and our chutzpah to once again defy the odds. How will we defeat the men who murdered twelve of our fellow Jews as they clasped prayer books in their hands in the House of God? By holding our families close as we light Shabbat candles, by gathering for simchas and sorrows, by teaching our children to love our tradition and to love Israel, and, as we have all demonstrated tonight, despite whatever uneasiness may lurk in our souls, by showing up, as a community, to shul.
Each year, on Kol Nidre, we are gifted a remarkable opportunity: to renounce any vows that we made over the last year that we didn’t have the chance to fulfill. And while we reflect on all the ways in which we were too optimistic or too forthcoming with the power of our promises over the past year, we also use this moment to decide which new vows to make this coming year, knowing just how much weight they carry. In light of recent events, we propose three new nedarim, three sacred oaths that we make to one another in this precarious time.
First: that we must vow lo tishkach, never forget. On the Shabbat before Purim, we read a special maftir from the Torah that reminds us why we must blot out the names of those who try to annihilate us: not just Amalek, but Pharaoh, Haman, Antiochus Epiphanes, Adolf Hitler, and all of those who walk in their footsteps. Those who target us purely because of our identity have a particular appetite for blood; Amalek attacked us from the back as we traveled toward our Promised Land, killing the weakest and most vulnerable among us in order to strike fear into our hearts. And as the blood of our children, our ill, our elderly, called out to us from the ground, what was, and what will be our response? God hopes it will be: never forget, and blot out the names of our attackers from under Heaven. Never think that there won’t be another Amalek or Haman or Hitler. And yet, as long as blood still fills our veins and air still fills our lungs, we have a sacred duty to build a world in which it is impossible for hatred to survive.
But this vow of lo tishkach isn’t only about never forgetting those who are filled with anger and hatred against us. It is also about pledging to never forget those victims who were murdered, defamed, persecuted, and tortured. It’s about telling their stories and devoting our lives to theirs, lifting up not only their mourning families and communities but also the values that animated them. If you go to Pittsburgh today, and visit the Tree of Life*Dor Hadash Congregation, you’ll see first of all the chain link fence that surrounds the building. Then, if you hang around a bit, you’ll notice that the only person who goes in and out of the dark building is the custodian, who maintains the synagogue, until its leaders decide what to do with it. The one thing that is certain: they cannot see themselves ever praying there again, without experiencing violent flashbacks to October 27th, when eleven of their community members were shot and killed. For now, the building remains as a reminder, as a sacred memorial, lest we ever forget, for if you look through the fence at the synagogue’s front door, you’ll see an Israeli flag, a note thanking first responders, a list of the eleven victims’ names in Jewish stars, and a promise: “No day shall erase you from the memory of time.”
Second: that we must vow to protect and advocate for ourselves. We must not be afraid to speak out on behalf of our people and call out anti-Semitic language and behavior when we see it. Unfortunately, we must come to terms with the reality that no one else can be entrusted with this task; there is no one else as deeply entrenched or invested in the destiny of our people. As Rabbi Hillel asked: Im ein ani li, mi li? If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If even we cannot recognize and condemn attacks against our people, then who else will take up our cause?
The blood of our brothers and sisters cries out to us from the ground! When our people are slain in Pittsburgh and Poway, beaten on the streets of Brooklyn, defamed in political ads in Rockland County, we must rise above the fray, attend to our dead and our injured, and speak out against this injustice! We must call out this hatred and this violence for what it is.
Third and finally: that no matter where we fall on the political spectrum, no matter who we’d like to see leading the Knesset, no matter where we like to sit on the High Holy Days at Shearith Israel, that we pledge to uphold our sacred unity above all else.
I don’t have to tell you that we are at our most vulnerable when we are divided. Our factionalism has cost us dearly in the past, pitting Jew against Jew, contributing to the rise of sin’at chinam, senseless hatred, that ultimately caused the destruction of our beloved Temple. We must not let our own ideologies distract us from who the true enemy is.
The Talmud, in Masechet Shevuot (39b), the tractate that addresses the nature and power of our oaths, asks about the difference between those sins that only punish the offender, versus the sins that punish both the offender and his or her world. The rabbis respond: for the sins of swearing and lying, and murdering and stealing, and committing adultery, it is only the offender who has sinned and bears the weight of punishment and responsibility to atone. And with regard to all other transgressions in the Torah, punishment is exacted from the entire world, in which each and every person is inextricably bound to one another, because one person’s sin mars the humanity of everyone else. It was this idea that led the rabbis to say: kol yisrael arevim ze bazeh, the entire Jewish people must serve as guarantors for one another.
As we know, there are a myriad of different ways to categorize and separate Jews. It’s profoundly difficult to see how Haredim have anything in common with Reform Jews and it’s so much easier to look out for our own little corner of the Jewish world. But the rabbis of the Talmud challenge us with the responsibility of KOL Yisrael, ALL of Israel. This means that at all times, but especially during times of threat, we must transcend the boundaries that divide us in order to support the sacred whole.
When Mattathias and his son Judah began their revolt against the Hellenist occupiers of the land of Israel in 167 BCE, they faced overwhelming opposition. But not only from the Greeks, from their fellow Jews, as well. On one side, the Pietists, or Chasidim, believed that if salvation was at hand, it would come from God, not from a band of guerilla fighters from Modi’in. To fight without divine sanction was sacrilege. And on the other side, those Jews who had adopted the Greek way of life, embracing both its scientific and literary advancements, resisted what they saw as an unwise struggle against the natural progression of Jewish life in the Ancient Near east.
The first major victory the Maccabees won was not against the Greeks, it was for the trust of their fellow Jews. By demonstrating both their respect for the ancient wisdom and practice of our Torah and by allowing that practice to be informed by the realities of their time, Mattathias and Judah created a broad coalition of Jews who fought to reclaim the beating heart of the Jewish people, the city of Jerusalem and the Temple at its center.
It is no accident that in this extraordinary Dallas Jewish community of some 70,000 souls, this 135-year-old flagship Conservative synagogue has served as a vital center—a place for those on the right and the left and all those in between, both religiously and politically, to come together. Because in our shul we believe that all those who love our tradition, who love Israel, and who are called to serve and love each other and God should be made to feel welcome.
It was at Shearith Israel that hundreds gathered after the Pittsburgh shooting to grieve, to offer our support to the families of the fallen, and to pledge that we would do everything in our power to fight back against the terror that our brothers and sisters faced that horrific Shabbat morning in October.
And beyond these walls, the contributions of our Shearith members to ensuring that we and others never forget, that we have the means and the strength to fight back, and that will do so as a united Jewish community, are immeasurable. Who had the largest team at the ADL Walk Against Hate on September 15th? Shearith Israel. Who sends the largest delegation in town, every year, to the AIPAC conference in Washington D.C? Shearith Israel. Of the broad spectrum of Jews from across Dallas who have championed and sponsored the Federation’s Community Security Initiative, who often took the lead? Members of this community. And there is no better example of the extraordinary efforts our community has made in the fight against hatred than the time, financial resources, and brilliant vision so many members of Shearith have given to the newest crown jewel among our local Jewish institutions, the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum. And I look forward to seeing all of you at our Shearith Night at the Museum, November 10th, when it will open exclusively for our community so that we can celebrate this remarkable achievement together.
Friends, we can take great comfort, great strength, and great pride in the fact that we are Maccabees—that we have always been and will always strive to be a community that stands together. But more than that, because of who we are, and the consensus we work hard to achieve, we can fulfill this role of being a uniter, not just for ourselves, but for the good of all our fellow Jews in Dallas.
This Kol Nidre, we pledge ourselves to this great cause. To stand as one before the sha’are hashamayim, the gates of Heaven, and cry out before God, for ourselves, and for the martyrs of our people whose voices we must now carry within each of us—Anu ameicha—we are one nation. Anu kehalecha—we are one congregation. Anu nachaltecha—we are the stewards of the legacy you entrusted to us, that no one will ever deny us, Am Yisrael Chai—the people of Israel, whose story, whose destiny will live forever and ever.
Ken Yehi ratzon, so may it be God’s will.
  Sales, Ben. “Reliving the massacre every minute: How Pittsburgh survivors are struggling a year later.” Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Published October 2, 2019.
Shearith Israel clergy, staff and congregants share