The Earth Doesn’t Care Whose Fault It Is – Yom Kippur 5782

Mi va’esh u’mi va’mayim.  Who by fire and who by water?

We are halfway through what is already one of the worst fire seasons around the globe. More than 2.2 million acres have burned here in California so far, exacerbated by drought. Large swaths of land around the Mediterranean burned. In July, the town of Lytton, British Columbia, in Canada, reached a record 121 degrees Fahrenheit and literally burst into flame.

Less than one month ago, Hurricane Ida wreaked devastation from Louisiana to the Northeast, leaving at least 115 people dead and causing more than fifty billion dollars in damage.

Two months ago, record rainfall in Western Europe caused massive flooding, killing at least 220 people, and washing away an entire town in Germany.

Mi va’esh u’mi va’mayim. Who by fire and who by water?

The most urgent issue facing humanity is our imbalanced relationship with the earth. It outweighs every other concern: Covid, freedom, democracy, racism, poverty, education, and Israel.

Our out of balance relationship with the earth puts our species at risk of extinction. If that happens, nothing else matters – at least from humanity’s perspective.

Every one of us must do better when it comes to the ways that we utilize the earth’s resources. And since none of us can do everything, we can direct our efforts towards those issues which seem most urgent to us and which we have the greatest capacity to influence.

There are so many ciritical issues, including for those who do not believe human beings cause climate change. Much of the western United States is in extreme drought conditions. Microplastics are everywhere, from the deepest seas to the highest mountains. Humanity’s encroachment into unoccupied areas, called WUI, the Wildland Urban Interface, puts people at greater risk from disasters like fire. The oceans are acidifying.

I plead with all of us.  Pick at least one thing that you care about and do more than you are already doing.

Who is to blame for how things have gotten to be the way they are?

You may recall a famous ad that appeared regularly on television in the 1970’s. The scene opens with a Native American man paddling down a bucolic river in a canoe. His hair is in braids and he is wearing a leather “Indian” outift. The camera turns to the water. A single piece of trash floats by.  Now we see an industrial nightmare.  Large factories, container ships, and pollution spewing smoketacks dwarf the small canoe.The Native American drags his boat to the shore, where more trash litters the ground.  As he begins walking, a voiceover proclaims:

“Some people have a deep, abiding respect for the natural beauty that was once this country.”

He is now at the side of a busy highway. As the traffic zooms past, a driver carelessly throws a bag of rubbish out the window. It lands, scattering garbage across our hero’s feet.  The voiceover continues:

“And some people don’t.”

As the camera zooms in on the Native American’s face, a single tear rolls down his cheek and we are admonished,

“People start pollution, and people can stop it.”

This ad, which came to be known as the “The Crying Indian,” is considered by the Ad Council to be one of the “50 greatest commercials of all time.”

By every measure, it was super effective. 

Part of a campaign by a nonprofit organization called Keep America Beautiful, it helped lead to the reduction of litter by 88% across 38 states. But that was not the real goal of “The Crying Indian.” As they say: follow the money.

The nonprofit Keep America Beautiful was not founded, as its name might suggest, by a bunch of do-gooder hippies. It was created in the 1950’s by the American Can Company and the Owens-Illiniois Glass Company, which were later joined by the likes of Coca-Cola and the Dixie Cup Company.

The goal of Keep America Beautiful was to oppose the influence of environmentalists.  Prior to its founding, packaging was typically reusable.  If you bought a Coke, you paid a deposit and then returned the bottle so that it could be sterilized and reused.  In the 1950’s, as the plastics industry was taking off, bottlers and container manufacturers began to aggressively – and successfully – push single use packaging.

In the 1960’s and 1970’s there were increasing moves to enact legislation to limit the production of throwaway containers.  So Keep America Beautiful began to sponsor ad campaigns like “The Crying Indian.”

The cynical strategy was based on the simple economics of supply and demand.  If we want to do something about litter, we basically have two options: focus on the people who make the stuff or focus on the people who use the stuff.  The suppliers, or the demanders.  Supply or demand.

“The Crying Indian,” with its final message, “People start pollution, and people can stop it,” places responsibility on the demand side of the equation.

The suppliers of all of this packaging would shrug their shoulders and say, “we are just giving our customers what they want. It’s not our fault.”

In fact, it was their fault.  Through a decades-long marketing strategy, they shifted public consciousness to center all of the blame and responsibility on the demand side. The result is that there were few limits placed on supply. The companies avoided having to pay the costs of pollution and disposal, and they earned billions and billions of dollars while the plastic accumulated.

I go to Costco and discover apples on my shopping list. Organic apples.  But those apples come in a plastic clamshell.  Now I, the consumer, am stuck with this piece of plastic that I do not want, but that is now my responsibility to deal with.Does it go in the trash or the recycling bin? Well, it’s got the triangle thing on it, but I recently heard that those triangle thingies are not reliable.  Plus, the third world countries to which we used to ship all of our plastic are starting to say, “no thank you. We don’t want your trash.” As it turns out, much of that plastic heading for recycling was just being dumped in open air landfills.

Who is the manufacturer of that plastic clamshell?  Who knows. What is their legal responsibility? Nothing whatsoever.

It is because Keep America Beautiful‘s ad campaign worked.  Our economy does not include the price of disposal in the cost of manufacturing. The suppliers are off the hook.

By the way, the Indian who appeared in the ad was an actor who went by the name “Iron Eyes Cody.”  His real name was Espera De Corti. He was a second generation Italian American. 

What is your personal carbon footprint? How much CO2 and methane do your actions put into the environment? This is a question many of us have asked ourselves in recent years.

I can easily go online and find a website that will ask me to estimate the number of square feet in my home, my annual vehicle mileage, the number of airplane flights I take per year, and so on.  Enter all the data, click next, and presto – my carbon footprint!

Where did the idea for the carbon footprint come from? Follow the money.

The ad agency Ogilvy started the campaign in 2005 on behalf of its client, British Petroleum. Just like “The Crying Indian,” BP wanted to keep the moral responsibility for oil production on the demand side rather than the supply side of the equation.

So BP encourages us to calculate our carbon footprint and then offers suggestions for how we can reduce it, knowing that we will not actually follow through in any economically substanative way.  Meanwhile, BP will be there for us to supply all of the oil that we demand.

For its part, BP has made no effort to reduce its own carbon footprint. Quite the opposite – it has continued to expand its oil drilling, including a current multi-billion dollar project called “Thunder Horse” to construct an oil platform 150 miles south of New Orleans in the Gulf of Mexico. When all eight wells are completed sometime this decade, it will produce 250,000 barrels of oil and 200 million cubic feet of gas per day.

But it is our responsibility.  After all, BP is just meeting our demand.

This strategy has been used over and over again – by the petroleum industry, tobacco companies, sugary beverage producers.  “It’s not our fault. We are just giving the people what they want.”

But it is their fault.

Or maybe not entirely.

One of the most prominent sections in our Mahzor is the Vidui, the confessional. We recite Ashamnu and Al Chet. For the sins we have committed, forgive us and pardon us. We strike our chests in contrition. 

Both of these prayers are alphabetical.  The Ashamnu lists a single verb for each letter. Al Chet is a double acrostic, with two sentences per letter. We recite a litany of sins. Some are specific actions, while others are general attitudes of selfishness or duplicity.

All of the verbs end with -nu, which is the 1st person plural.  We did all of these things. Surely not! I have definitiely screwed up a lot this past year, but I’m not that bad.  I didn’t commit every sin on the list. For example, I know with certainty that I did not charge interest to anyone in 5781. I categorically reject that characterization.

We Rabbis will often explain this expression of collective guilt as a way to provide cover, to help those of us who might actually be guilty of one of these sins to face up to it. 

Or maybe, in another sense, we actually are accountable for each other’s sins. These confessions are not personal admissions.  We, as a collective entity, take responsibility for all that has happened in the lives of our congregation.

Or perhaps we, as Jews, take collective responsibility before God for all that the Jewish people have done.

Or if we widen the lens further, perhaps humanity is in some sense collectively responsible for all that we do as a species.

After all, we cannot avoid the consequences of each others’ actions. This has been made devastatingly clear during the Covid pandemic. Maybe the language of guilt and innocence is not the most helpful paradigm. Maybe it would be more constructive if we framed it this way:

There are actions that individuals and groups take which impact the lives of others. That is an unavoidable fact. When that happens, like it or not, we become responsible.

Humanity is responsible for humanity’s relationship to the earth.

As much as we might like to assign blame, the fire and the flood certainly don’t care whose fault it is.

Whether from a theological, ethical, or self-interest perspective, we are responsible for treating the earth appropriately.

Unfortunately, traditional Jewish law is somewhat deficient as a source of practical guidance. The basic categories developed two thousand years ago, at a time when there was no awareness of an interdependent global environment. Human beings did not know about chemicals that could not be seen or that could dissipate into the upper atmosphere.

Also, Jewish law tends to focus on the actions and responsibilities of individuals, not governments or corporations. In other words, on the demand side of the economic equation.

Nevertheless, our present situation is not entirely without precedent. In his twelfth century law code, Maimonides includes a section called Hilkhot Sh’khenim, Laws of Neighbors. He addresses a situation in which a person wants to build a feature or conduct business on his property that produces pollution that would travel beyond its borders. 

If a person constructs a threshing floor in the midst of his (property), or builds an outhouse, or does work which raises dust, particles of earth, etc., he must move far enough away so that the pollution does not reach his neighbor and cause harm. Even if the pollution is carried by the wind, he is obligated to move far enough away…

Rambam, Laws of Neighbors 11:1

Jewish law deals with directly identifiable harm. And we can see from the examples that Maimonides gives that the pollution in question is all what we would characterize as “natural” byproducts.

But when the harm is indirect, such as plastic in the ocean or CO2 in the atmosphere, Jewish law has no explicit prohibition. And the earth itself has no standing to sue.

I wonder, if he was writing today, what other forms of pollution Maimonides would have included in the law.

The lack of specific legal precedents does not mean that Judaism is ambivalent. A famous midrash expresses humanity’s ideal relationship with the natural world.  

When God created the first human beings, God led them around the garden of Eden and said: ‘Look at my works! See how beautiful they are — how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it.’

Midrash Kohelet Rabbah on Ecclesiastes 7:13

Notice a few details. Human beings are the purpose of creation, but the world still belongs to God.

Detail two – All of the beautiful and excellent things in the world can be destroyed, but the damaged world itself will continue to exist.

Detail three – there is nobody else to repair it. We are on our own here. God will not step in to save the earth from our mismanagement. 

Let’s take this a step further. In the Torah’s language, adam, humanity, is created in God’s image. That is a theological statement.

A scientist would ask if homo sapiens is fundamentally different than any other species. The answer is no and yes.

Every living thing is comprised of the same chemical materials, and is formed and behaves according to its DNA encoding.

We share the same survival instincts as all life forms, from the great whale to the spot of mold on a rock. We are drawn to that which helps our particular genetic material reproduce and repelled by that which puts it at risk. Most animals know instinctively that fire is dangerous and it is best to run away from it. We would call this “biological knowledge.”

On the other hand, homo sapiens is the only species that can understand how the combination of dry conditions, heat, heavy winds, and a lightning storm increases the chances of a forest fire. A philosopher or scientist would call this “explanatory knowledge” – the ability to tell stories or develop formulas or ideas that explain why things are the way they are.

Those explanations may or may not be true, but they do enable a human being to approach a choice and consider, for example, “What is the ethical thing to do?” Religion, science, the arts – these are all made possible by humanity’s capacity for explanatory knowledge.

This is what makes us unique among living creatures on earth, if not the universe. Shifting back to theological language, we might say that our capacity for explanatory knowledge is what it means to be made in God’s image.

That capacity has made it possible for us to develop civilization and technology, to learn how to live in environments in which our bodies could not survive with biological knowledge alone.

This quality has enabled us to spread out across the world, to reach a global population of nearly 8 billion people, to harness the natural resources of the planet such that humanity has thrived beyond what its mere biology would allow.

This quality is also what puts our continued survival on the planet at risk.  And it is the quality that makes us the only ones who can restore the balance and save ourselves.

Whether from a theological or a scientific perspective, we are the ones who must radically change directions. Can we do it?

This afternoon, we will read the story of Jonah, the most successful prophet ever. 

Although he tries to escape his mission, Jonah eventually realizes that there is no avoiding God. Reluctantly, he marches off to the giant metropolis of Nineveh, a city so large it takes three days to walk across. He climbs up on his soap box and proclaims, “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overturned!”

The people respond immediately.  They declare a fast, and put on sackcloth and ashes. When word reaches the king, he gets off his throne and he joins them, ordering everyone to participate, humans and even animals. God sees and forgives.  Disaster is averted. 

Can you imagine?

An entire society, top to bottom: the rich, the poor, the politicians, people of all ethnicities and religions – everyone recognizes the danger, accepts responsibility, and fully commits to change – overnight.

If only.

My children are really worried about whether the planet is going to be livable when they are adults.

While it would be nice to hold the greatest polluters accountable, I am afraid that it is up to humanity collectively, and us individually.

If you are in a position to make a difference on the supply side of the equation, you are our best hope. If you can influence the decision makers in government or are in government, or if you are in a position in your company to change policies and practices to be a better environmental steward, our children and grandchildren are counting on you.

Most of us are on the demand side of the equation. Whatever you are already doing, do more. If you can, install solar panels on your roof. Get rid of your gasoline powered car. Ride your bike or take public transit more. Rip out your lawn. Buy less stuff. Eat less meat. Move into a smaller space. Protect undeveloped land from human encroachment. We each have capacity, and we know best what we are capable of. Let others know what you are doing and celebrate each other’s actions. That is how we will make a difference.

May we be worthy of the trust given us by God to take care of this beautiful world with all of its excellent creations.

G’mar Chatimah Tovah.

What Happens Behind Closed Tent Flaps – Rosh Hashanah 5782

When the Sofer was here last weekend to complete our new Torah scroll, he pointed out something that I had not thought about before. He asked, when in the Torah do Abraham and Isaac talk to each other?

The answer is, only during the story of Akedat Yitzchak, the binding of Isaac, which we read this morning. 

Abraham receives the call from God, a test, to “take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you.”  (Genesis 22:2)

With alacrity, Abraham sets off on the journey, a donkey, two servants, Isaac, and wood for the sacrifice.  On the third day, Abraham leaves the two servants with the donkey and continues up the mountain.  He places the wood on Isaac’s shoulders, and himself carries the knife and the flint.

We now hear Isaac’s voice for the first time.

Avi – “Father”

And Abraham responds, hineni v’ni – “Here I am, my son.”

Hinei ha’esh v’ha’etzim, v’ayeh haseh l’olah – “Here are the flint and the wood, but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?”

Elohim yir’eh lo ha’seh l’olah b’ni, Abraham answers – “God will see to the sheep for the burnt offering, my son.” (Genesis 22:7-8)

And they continue on together.

That’s it, the only dialogue between Abraham and Isaac in the entire Torah.  

The angel comes to stop Abraham at the last minute. Indeed, God does see to the sheep for the burnt offering. Abraham looks up and sees a ram with its horns caught in a thicket, which he offers up in place of Isaac.

In reward, God reiterates the blessing to Abraham. His descendants will be as numerous as the stars in heaven and the sand on the seashore. They will seize the gates of their foes, and the nations of the earth will bless themselves by them.

Since ancient times, Jews have read the Akedah as highly significant. Although it might seem surprising to us, it is traditionally portrayed positively, the ultimate test and proof of Abraham’s faith, a test that he passes with flying colors.

But the scene ends on an ominous note — depending on how we read it.

Abraham then returned to his servants, and they departed together for Beer-sheba; and Abraham stayed in Beer-sheba.

Where is Isaac? He is neither seen nor heard from. 

Midrashim suggest a few possibilities. Abraham thinks to himself, “Everything I have is due to my commitment to Torah and mitzvot. I must ensure thay my offspring always maintain their faith.” So he sends Isaac off to study in the Yeshiva of Shem (Noah’s son).  (Genesis Rabbah 56:11)

Another midrash claims that Abraham partially slaughtered Isaac on the altar. So Isaac goes off to the Garden of Eden to recuperate for the next three years.

Other midrashim connect the Akedah directly to Sarah’s death, which follows at the beginning of the next chapter. In one legend, Sama’el, otherwise known as Satan, frustrated that Abraham passed God’s test of faith, goes to Sarah and asks her,

“Do you know what has just happened?  Your old husband has taken the lad Isaac and sacrificed him on the altar.  He cried and and wailed but there was nobody to save him.” Hearing this, Sarah herself began to cry and wail, three long gasps like the tekiah of the shofar, and three broken howls like the shevarim.  Then her soul departed.

Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer 32:8

Even though the Akedah is traditionally seen as a “win” for Abraham, we still find notes of discomfort – a recognition of its painful and potentially alienating repercussions — if not for Abraham, then for Isaac and Sarah.

But I would like to come back to our initial question? Do we really think that this was the only conversation that ever occurred between Abraham and Isaac?

Of course not. 

Yes, old Abe was surely an intense guy, but I imagine they might have gone out to throw the ball around at some point.

Maybe, just maybe, they would get together from time to time over a beer and laugh about that time when Dad almost sacrificed his son.

And while the conspicuous absence of any reference to Isaac coming down from the mountain does seem ominous, we might be overreacting.

Is it possible that Abraham and Isaac had a more normal relationship than we generally assume; that the Torah’s story of their three-day father-son camping trip might not be representative of their relationship?

After all, we know only what is shown to us on the outside.

We make a lot of assumptions about the meaning of a story like the Akedah. How much do our assumptions mirror our own concerns and viewpoints rather than describe what [quote unquote] happened? This is true as well of our relationships with one another. We do not know what happens behind closed doors, or closed tent-flaps, as the case may be.

We have spent much of the past year and a half physically-distanced.  We cannot yet understand the full impact of this isolation. But let’s acknowledge for a moment some of the difficulties we have faced behind closed doors.

Much of our interactions have been by way of a two dimensional screen. We catch only partial glimpses of one another, and reveal just a fraction of ourselves, superimposed on a fake background of a tropical beach. The ability to mute ourselves or turn the camera off at will provides a further means of creating distance. Even when we have been together, we see just half of one another’s faces. We have been unable to see out of town family and friends. People who have been ill have had to spend their time in the hospital alone. Those who have lost family members have been unable to say goodbye in person. There are those who have experienced forced isolation with a sigh of relief. The removal of the pressure of social interactions has come as a blessing. Others have found their stress and anxiety levels rising. Parents have struggled to support their children, who have had to attend school from home and stay apart from friends. Often, we have been at a lost as to what to do when we see our children falling behind in schoolwork, withdrawing from friends, and suffering. We have coped with stress in ways both healthy and self-destructive.

Human beings are often quick to judge.  Quick to come to conclusions based on what we see on the surface. But just as when we read the Akedah, our judgments of others are just as if not more likely to be a reflection of ourselves than an accurate depiction of the other. Let’s keep in mind: A person who appears confident could be terrified. A friend who seems happy could be suffering. Someone who seems normal may be experiencing abuse at home.

To really see another person requires that we set aside our ego, that we be open to learning something we did not already know and could have no way of knowing. This is difficult under normal circumstances, and even more so lately.

We do not know what goes on behind closed doors, whether the physical doors of a home, or behind the doors into the soul of another person.

What we encounter of each other is limited, but God sees what is beneath the surface, perceives that which is hidden and invisible from one another. God remembers all of the forgotten things, taking note of that which we do not see, which we fail to take into account.

This day of Rosh Hashanah is a celebration of grandeur, of Creation and renewal. But as we celebrate such grandeur, we turn inward, to the innermost parts of our selves, the parts that are hidden from each other, that may even be hidden from us.  In the poetic language of the mahzor, however, all is revealed before God, for God is fundamentally different.

Atah hu yotz’ram, v’atah yode’a yitzram, ki hem basar va’dam – It is You who are their Creator, and it is You who knows their inclination, for they are flesh and blood.

This expression comes in the context of describing how God is waiting, every day of our lives, for us to turn in teshuvah. Each one of us is imperfect and mortal, our origin is from the dust and our end is to return to the dust. And the infinite God knows our innermost thoughts and feelings. The God of the universe, who surely has bigger, more important things to worry about, pays attention to the souls of each one of us. As we pray repeatedly during these holy days, God’s nature is forgiving and understanding, always willing to give us another chance.

Perhaps that is a lesson we might take to heart. The qualities we ascribe to God are those ideal qualities that we aspire to in ourselves. 

We do not know what is going on beneath the surface.  What happens inside homes, between family members. Behind the computer or smartphone screen. But it is safe to assume that there is an entire world. Each human being is an olam katan

So before we pass judgment on what we think we see, let’s make that extra effort to be compassionate, just as we ask God to do. To try to understand, with patience. To give each other the benefit of the doubt, a second chance, a third chance.

With so much alienation and distance between us, we need each other more than ever. May this new year be a year in which we open our eyes and open our hearts to one another.

Shanah Tovah.

Proud To Be Jewish – Rosh Hashanah 5782

I will admit, I have been feeling a bit down Jewishly. It feels like we have taken a beating these last few years. Jews have been murdered while praying in synagogues.

Extremes on the political left and right have been asserting themselves more boldly. Strangely, they seem to find common cause in some of the same ancient stereotypes and lies: Jews are moneygrubbing, control the media and the banks, have dual loyalty, profit on the suffering of the poor, prey on children, etc.

During the recent fighting between Israel and Hamas, anti-Israel protests frequently spilled over into Jew-hatred, in which Jews are held collectively responsible for the actions of the state of Israel. Jews were physically attacked in New York and Los Angeles, not to mention cities all over Europe. Synagogues and Cemeteries have been vandalized.

The FBI just released its data on hate crimes in 2020.  Of all crimes that targeted someone because of religion, 57.5% were against Jews.

Antisemitism shares much in common with other forms of hate: racism, anti-Muslim bias, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, and so on.  But as the most ancient form of hatred, it also has unique characteristics.

I worry that these trends have caused many of us to hunker down, to even internalize some of the criticism.

With notable exceptions, it feels like we have been less willing to put ourselves out there. 

Is there a solution? We are not going to change the minds of those who already hate us. But in reality, they are a small, albeit loud number.

The majority is simply unaware. In a recent poll, 46% of Americans could not identify or could barely identify the term ‘antisemitism.’

But this is not a sermon about antisemitism. This is a sermon about Jewish pride.

I am proud of what the Jewish people have given the world. I am proud of who we are as a people. This Rosh Hashanah, I would like to share with you why.  I would encourage you to answer the following two questions yourself:

“Why do I choose to be Jewish?”  “What makes me proud to be Jewish?”

The late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks would often say “that non-Jews respect Jews who respect their Judaism, and non-Jews are embarrassed by Jews who are embarrassed by their Judaism.”

I cannot stop other people from Jew-hatred. But I can stand up and declare “I will not let it change how I feel about myself and my people.”

I do not believe in triumphalism. It is possible to be proud of one’s own people and history, its impact on the world, without denying the greatness of other cultures and religions and their positive influences on human civilization.

In fact, Judaism’s message is not meant for all humanity. It is a covenant with the Jewish people only. God does not prescribe a singular way of worship, nor claim that there is only one path to truth. God loves diversity. I appreciate and give thanks for what other peoples have given humanity.

Let’s start with origins.  Egypt: 1300 BCE. Ramses II is the greatest Pharaoh of the greatest dynasty the world has ever known, now at its peak.  Under his reign, Egypt is a military powerhouse, expanding its territory and influence. He directs the building of vast monuments, temples, and storehouses.

Living in Egypt are a poor, stubborn, and moody group of foreigners called the Hebrews. They have been brutally enslaved by the Egyptians and put to work building the storehouses of Pithom and Ramses.

If we ask an observer the following question: “Which of these two groups, the Egyptians or the Hebrews, is more likely to still be around in 3,300 years? What would the answer be?

Our ancestors gave the world the original model of freedom from tyrrany. The Exodus from Egypt is our people’s birth story. It has inspired countless freedom movements around the world.

Rooted in both the creation of the world and the exodus from slavery, Judaism gave the world the sabbath, a day on which we do not exert our control over nature, or over other people.

The Torah introduced monotheism to the world, replacing a world view that saw the gods as the personifications of nature waging a constantly recurring amoral and selfish battle.

The God of the Torah acts with justice and mercy. The Torah introduced the idea that all human beings are created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God.

With this spark of divinity residing within every person, Judaism brought a recognition of the value and dignity of every human life, whether rich or poor, free or oppressed, citizen or stranger. 

The God of the Torah commands, transmitting Divine law through Moses the lawgiver.   Underlying this concept is the recognition that something outside of humanity is the ultimate arbiter of justice. Morality is not relative. There is such a thing as good and evil, and humans have the ability to tell the difference between the two.  But it is not always obvious or easy.

Moses knew what to say to our ancestors when they were about to leave Egypt.  Three times he predicts that their children will come to ask them about the rituals of Passover.  And he tells them to “explain to your child on that day, ‘It because what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt.'”

Forty years later, as those very children are poised to enter the Promised land, Moses again tells them, “And you shall teach them to your children and you shall speak of them when you dwell in your home and when you go on your way, when you lie down and when you rise up.”

From the very beginning, our secret for survival was the transmission of our story and our knowledge from each generation to the next.

We did not build great colosseums, amphitheaters, or pyramids. The physical evidence for the existence of our Biblical ancestors is scant and relatively unimpressive compared to the architectural marvels constructed by the great Empires of the ancient world.

But where they left behind colossuses of stone and themselves disappeared from the earth, we have a living Torah that parents still pass down to their children.

The word Torah means instruction. It comes from the same root word as teacher, morah, and parents, horim. This is not a coincidence.

When I talk about Judaism to groups of non-Jews, I love showing them a page of Torah in which the commentaries surround the sacred text in the middle: Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Nachmanides, and others, disagreeing passionately with one another over the meaning of Torah.

It suggests that while the truth might be right in front of us, its discovery can only come through exposure to different ways of thinking. No human being is capable of understanding the Divine will, and we should never be too confident in our own knowledge – but it is possible to get closer to Truth.

Jews have always treasured learning. It is amazing to me that, when I study 2,000 year old writings of the Talmud and midrash, I join thousands upon thousands of other Jews who are studying these same ancient words on a daily basis. 

Not just university professors or old rabbis with long beards; common Jews, eager to understand how our ancestors related to the same texts that we hold sacred today.

Every seven years, Jews fill Madison Square Garden, not for a concert or a basketball game, but to celebrate the completion of learning the entire Talmud, one page at a time.

This democratizion of learning seems rather unique.

You are undoubtedly familiar with the statistics – 22% of Nobel laureates have been Jewish. 

Albert Einstein said:

The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, an almost fanatical love of justice and the desire for personal independence—these are the features of the Jewish tradition which make me thank my stars that I belong to it.

To be Jewish is to belong to a people. As much as we argue and fight with one another, the Jewish sense of belonging is special.

The word Yisrael applies to several things. It is the acquired name of the Patriarch Jacob.  It is the word that describes the Jewish people.  And it refers to the land promised to our ancestors. It means “the people that struggles with beings Divine and human and stays in the game.” That sounds about right.

We are an incredibly diverse bunch – we come from different lands and speak different languages. We have different skin colors. We welcome those who choose to join the Jewish people as full members, but we never proselytize. 

Despite such diversity, we have a shared identity that uniquely connects us. Kol Yisrael arevim zeh lazeh. All of Israel are interconnected with one another.

Judaism does not foster an extreme individualism, in which each person is alienated from the other.  Nor do we promote a total collectivism, in which the uniqueness of each person is subsumed under the identity and interests of the group.

We freely quote the proverb of Hillel the Elder, but I must admit I never really gave much thought to its profundity before. “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I.”

It expresses the tension between autonomy and responsibility for others.  Where is the line demarcating the border between self interest and duty to others? It is in this tension that human dignity can be found.

I love that the Jewish concept of charity is tzedakah. It is not a voluntary act of generosity, but a matter of tzedek, justice. It is a commandment incumbent upon every one of us. We cannot escape our responsibility towards one another.

We are a people of memory. Much of that memory has to do with mourning past tragedies: the destruction of the first and second Temples; multiple expulsions; the Crusades; blood libels; the Spanish inquisition; the Chmielnitsky massacres; pogroms, and the Holocaust.

These are not just distant events. We tell them as our stories. These happened to people in our own communities, to our families, to us. 

We do not allow ourselves forget, but neither do we allow ourselves to be buried by our history.

For nearly two thousand years, we were a scattered, diaspora people. 75 generations of Jews directed their prayers towards a country of Israel that did not exist. 

We always prayed and dreamed for a time when things would be better. We continued to struggle with God and humanity with stubbornness and hope. We maintained a sense of humor throughout.

The establishment of the modern state of Israel, after the catastrophe of the Holocaust, is a testament to that historical optimism. It has brought new opportunities and challanges for the Jewish people that for 2,000 years were merely theoretical.

Rabbi Doniel Hartman applies the term “the troubled committed” to those, mainly American, Jews who are lovers and supporters of Israel while at the same time are deeply disturbed by “the enduring gap between ideals and reality.”

I am proud of the thriving democracy Israel has developed, its incredible flourishing in spite of so many forces working against it.  I am proud that Israel is a technological giant, that it managed to be the first nation in the world to bring widespread Covid vaccinations to its people, that it is always among the first to send delegations of aid workers when disaster strikes impoverished countries. And so much more.

These are examples of the best of what a country founded on Jewish values can achieve.

And I am extremely troubled by Israel’s unequal treatment of Palestinians and continued occupation of the West Bank. The blessing of Jewish power must be guided by righteousness, and I worry that this is not always the case.

The failure to always meet its ideals is not a reason to abandon the first Jewish state in nearly 2,000 years. We can take pride in what Israel has acheived and support it to better live up to its potential.

Because to be Jewish is to acknowledge the world as it is, while living with hope for what it could be. 

On the High Holidays, we appeal to God to forgive our sins and inscribe us in the Book of Life, to remove our sorrows and troubles and bless us with prosperity. Superficially, we are asking God to intervene in whatever physical fate awaits us in the year ahead.

When the holiday is over, what do we think is going to be different? Will our destiny somehow be changed because we spent hours upon hours in prayer? 

What happens to me physically in the upcoming year will depend on some combination of three factors: what happens in nature, what other people do, and what I do.

Of those three, I only have any control over the last one. The possibility of teshuvah, of repentance, is a fundamentally optimistic approach to being human. It is the Jewish approach. Each of us can change, at any time.

Judaism believes in free will. Moses explains that in front of each of us there is a path of life and blessing, and a path of death and curse. While God has a preference for which path we take, the choice is ours.

In another metaphor, The Talmud teaches that humanity was created with the yetzer hatov and the yetzer hara, the good and the evil inclination. But the evil inclination is often misunderstood. The Rabbis recognize that “were it not for the evil inclination, no one would build a house, get married, have children, or engage in business.”

The struggle for every one of us is to direct the yetzer hara, the ego-driven aspect of ourselves that always wants to expand and grow, towards the service of the good.

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov asks “If you are not a better person tomorrow than you are today, what need have you for a tomorrow?”

For thousands of years, Jews have prayed for the coming of the Messiah. But we are not looking for God to send someone to miraculously save us from all of our troubles. What we are really striving for is to build a world that is worthy of saving. So to answer the question, “when will the Messiah arrive,” the Jewish answer is “Not yet.”

I could go on, but those are some of the reasons I choose to be choose.

I do not anticipate that the pressures facing the Jewish people are going to let up in 5782. 

This moment calls for us to remember who we are.  Let’s each ask ourselves: 

“Why am I proud to be Jewish?” And then act like we mean it.

May this year be one of strength and renewal for us and the Jewish people.

May we be inspired by the commitment of past generations to live with hope and faith as we face the opportunities and challenges of the present.

May we be worthy of transmitting all of that which makes us proud to be Jewish to future generations.

L’Shanah Tovah.


Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, A Letter in the Scroll

David Harris: “Time to Affirm Jewish Pride” –