Diminishing Distances – Rosh Hashanah sermon text from the New Year 5776 day 1

It’s is just human nature at the beginning of any new year to look back on the year gone by, and wonder if the year that’s beginning will be worse or better than what we’ve just lived through!  You all remember the old joke about the Jewish mother who sends the telegram with 5 words: ‘start worrying, details to follow.’ And as Jews we know that it isn’t a matter of if there will be something to worry about, it is simply a matter of what it will be, and of how much worry it will entail. Last year we sat in shul on Rosh Hashanah and worried about Israel and the Gaza War, about the unsettled Middle East, and about rising anti-semitism world wide. Thankfully those issues have settled down somewhat in the course of the year, but we still come to shul today concerned about Israel and her safety, which we probably will next year, and the year after that as well.  The good news is that Israel had a year of strength, security, and growth, with one of the strongest economies in the world, the most powerful military in the Middle East, and the support of the world wide Jewish community.  Lets hope and pray this year as every year that Israel will only go from strength to strength.

But as we sat last year on RH and worried about Israel, we did not foresee the turbulence and trouble that would strike at our own country, and even right here in our own city.  The death of Freddie Gray in the spring and the riots that followed struck home and thrust Baltimore into the national news spotlight, but we also have come to understand that this was not a unique event in a single city.  In Missouri and Michigan, in New York and Texas and Florida, in Connecticut and California, unarmed black men were killed by police officers, and the hashtag #blacklivesmatter became a nationally known phrase.  The deaths and the riots and protests and then the reaction, both politically and in the national media, reminded us all that there are deep and difficult racial divides in this country that have been swept under the rug for too long.  

And it is that sense of division – of separation and distance – that in my mind marks the year that is ending, and will I think in many ways define the year that is about to begin. There are a series of divisions in our society that are pulling us apart, driving us in different directions, making it more difficult for us to solve the problems that confront us and that concern us all.  The racial divide is the most obvious of them, but we can certainly add to that the economic divisions that mark this country, between the haves and the have nots, that rapidly growing gap between those of means and those without. Religious divisions are growing as well, between a fundamentalist approach to religious life and a moderate and rational sense of what religion’s role should be in our country. And we all live with the fiery and difficult divisions that mark our political discourse, the Red states and Blue states, people for or against gay marriage or abortion or gun control, tax policy or health care, and the list could go on and on.  

In Israel there are growing gaps between the Dati and Hiloni, between the religious and the secular, between left and right, Doves and Hawks, the Ashkenzic and Sephardic communities. In the Jewish community both here and in Israel, we have seen the strident divisiveness over the Iran deal, or the speech by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before Congress. We’ve seen the all too public war of words waged between AIPAC and JStreet, or between Obama’s administration and Netanyahu’s government.

And if that weren’t enough to keep us occupied, I suspect many of us come here today worried about personal divisions that we struggle with in our own lives.  In the course of any year distance can grow between us and the people that we love, our spouses and our children, our parents and our siblings, our friends, and between us and God as well. We may arrive at the new year feeling these gaps are too great, the divides too bitter, the dynamics too complex, for anything to change in the year that is about to begin and for us to repair the relationships in our lives.

And yet when a new year comes our tradition tells us that we have an opportunity for teshuva, and I want to spend a few moments thinking with you about what that word really means.  When we hear the Hebrew the first English word that probably comes to our minds is ‘repentance,’ and that’s the most common English translation.  When we say ‘we need to do תשובה’ what we are thinking is that we have to repent, to show regret, to change our ways, to do better the next time.  But the root of the word שוב – – actually means something quite different – it means to return.  To go back to something – or someone – from whom you’ve grown distant.  So the word תשובה carries a context of closing gaps, of diminishing distances, of opening channels and of standing in someone else’s shoes.  It means saying to someone else ‘you might be right,’ and it means admitting ‘I might be wrong.’  It means understanding that another person’s life experience, or belief, or place in life might be so different from yours that they may see the world with different eyes, in a different way.  And when you do תשובה you return to them, you get a little bit closer to where they stand, to the world they live in, to the way that they feel.

Usually when we think of תשובה we understand it in an individual sense, as an individual process.  But did you ever notice that the language of the Mahzor is plural, that almost every prayer says we, even the lists of sins we’ll read on YK – we never say “I sinned’ – we say “we sinned.”  And maybe this year that is the way we need to think of teshuvah.  To understand it in a communal, as well as an individual sense.  To return not only to particular people in our lives, but to think about how communities might return to one another, how groups of people can grow closer and more united, more understanding and tolerant of one another, better able to see the perspective of the other, more trustful and civil, more respectful.  

There is a well known book about the Holocaust called the Boy in the Stripped Pajamas. It tells the story of two 8 year old boys, Bruno and Shmuel.  Bruno is the son of the Nazi commandant of a concentration camp, and Shmuel is a prisoner in the camp.  Through a series of circumstances the two boys meet and strike up a friendship, arranging to meet every day at an isolated spot along the camp’s fence, Bruno sitting on one side of the fence, free, Shmuel sitting on the inside, in a stripped prison uniform, yellow star upon his arm.

By all rights, the distance between those boys should have been impossible to traverse. One, the son of a German soldier running a concentration camp, the other the son of a poor Jew and a prisoner.  One exposed to the daily propaganda of the Third Reich, the perverse and twisted messages about Jews and Jewish life, the other bearing the brunt of that hateful message, watching the Germans destroy his family and his people.   And yet somehow the enormous distance between them began to diminish.  Through a process of teshuvah – of return, of turning to one another and coming closer – they were able to see the common humanity that they shared, the common cares and concerns that connected them.  And their return, one to the other, time and again in the story, created a sense of hope and life in a place of despair and death.

There are some today who would have us believe that what divides us is greater than what unites us, that the divisions between us and those who are different can never be repaired.  But in fact the opposite is true.  With the black community we share our common humanity and the struggle for civil rights in the 50s and 60s, and memories of what it means to be alienated and marginalized. With our fellow Jews we share history and memory, the values that have guided us and the faith that has sustained us, and the covenant that has united us with God now for more than 3000 years. And with our family and friends it is our shared years, the joys we have celebrated together, the sadnesses we have faced and supported one another through, and what we have created together – families and homes, children and grandchildren, laughter and love –

Tradition teaches us that today is the birthday of the world, when the first human beings, Adam and Eve, walked in the Garden of Eden. They are the common ancestors of all people. They weren’t Jewish or Christian or Muslim, they weren’t black or white or yellow, they weren’t rich or poor, but they were the ancestors of us all. And that idea – simple yet profound – that we all come from the same place – captures the meaning of the remarkable prayer from the amidah that we recite throughout these holy days:, veyeasu kulam aguda ahkat la’asot retzonkha b’lievav shalem – “You God will make us all a single ‘aguda’ to do your will with a full heart.” An “aguda” is a bundle of distinct and different objects. We need not all be the same to strive for a world united for humane ideals.  

And to help us imagine what that world might look like I would like to close this morning with a prayer composed by Pope Francis for all people, published just this past summer – his beautiful vision of what a God inspired world will look like when we determine to build it together:

All-powerful God,
you are present in the whole universe
and in the smallest of your creatures.
You embrace with your tenderness all that exists.
Pour out upon us the power of your love,
that we may protect life and beauty.
Fill us with peace, that we may live
as brothers and sisters, harming no one.
Help us to rescue
the abandoned and forgotten of this earth,
so precious in your eyes.
Bring healing to our lives,
that we may protect the world and not prey on it,
that we may sow beauty, not destruction.
Teach us to discover the worth of each thing,
to be filled with awe and contemplation,
to recognize that we are profoundly united
with every creature as we journey towards your infinite light.
We thank you for being with us each day.
Encourage us, we pray, in our struggle
for צדק justice, for אהבה love and for שלום peace.

May we, in the new year, through our own actions, in our families, in our communities, make that world come a little bit closer, and make God’s light shine a bit brighter in our homes, in our cities, in our world


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Filed under Beth El Congregation, High Holy Days, Rosh Hashanah, sermon

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