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.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, A Letter in the Scroll

David Harris: “Time to Affirm Jewish Pride” – https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/#search/AJC/FMfcgzGkZkQTDHZplfwPqPzrngDxVLKh

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