Here is a text version of my sermon from first day Rosh Hashanah, 5779 –
It is with a deep sense of gratitude and that I welcome you all and wish you this morning a shana tova, a happy and healthy new year. My gratitude comes from the understanding I have – that grows stronger year by year – of how lucky I am to be serving this congregation, with the wonderful staff that we have, the incredible lay leadership, and most importantly of all, the warm congregational community. Most of all today I am grateful to be celebrating this Rosh Hashanah with all three of our children in town – the first time in many years – and with both my parents and Becky’s parents with us as well. I can’t imagine a sweeter way to begin a new year.
This is now the 21st year that I have led services at Beth El during the High Holy Days, for many years in the Offit, and the last decade here in the Berman-Rubin Sanctuary. And for four years before that I officiated at Yom Tov services as a rabbinical student, so all told this is my 25th year in the pulpit during the fall holidays. In all that time I cannot remember a year in which the country has felt more divided than it does right now. And it is that sense of division that I would like to spend some time thinking about with you this morning.
I understand that this is an uncomfortable topic. But I also believe that one of the only ways to deal with things that are difficult and challenging is to put them out in the open, name them, and talk about them. There is an old saying that the job of a preacher is to afflict the comfortable and to comfort the afflicted. I might do a bit of both this morning, thinking with you first about what divides us in this year of division, in a country that feels more and more divided. Then I hope also to remind us all of what unites us, of what brings us together. But we must begin with afflicting the comfortable, as it were, and thinking about the divisions that are pulling us apart.
That is a long list that seems to just get longer and longer. We have Democrats and Republicans, Fox News or CNN, the NY Times or the Wall Street Journal, liberals and conservatives. We have AIPAC and JStreet, blue states and red states, pro life and pro choice, and of course this being baseball season, we must acknowledge one of the deepest divisions of all, Red Sox and Yankees fans. I know there are some of both sitting in the room this morning. There are economic divisions, racial divisions, and educational divisions. Those on one side or the other side of just about any issue today are more entrenched in their views, and far less likely to listen to someone who thinks differently. Many of us feel it has become virtually impossible to talk about the issues of the day in public, particularly with people with whom we might not agree.
It is important to say, first of all, that we have all participated in fostering these divisions, whether consciously or unconsciously, we are all at fault. More and more we live in our own intellectual and political silos, only exposing ourselves to news and views that support what we think, and shutting off any idea or program or opinion that does not jibe with what we believe to be true. We have allowed ourselves to become trapped in a cycle that hardens our views and deepens the divisions between us. What I am wondering today is if it is possible to get out of that trap, to break that cycle? Or, if we have to live in it, what is the best way to do so?
Many of you ask me at this time of year about how my sermons are coming along. ‘Have you started writing them yet, rabbi?’ (July) ‘Did you finish your sermons rabbi?’ (August) ‘What are you talking about rabbi?’ ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ The truth is it differs year to year, but there are some elements in terms of my process that are always the same.
One of those is that each year Becky and I visit Gloucester, MA, the small fishing town where Becky grew up and her parents still live. Those visits are usually mid to late summer, so the HHDs are very much on my mind, and I often talk over sermon ideas with my father in law, whom many of you know is a rabbi as well. And this past summer – just a little more than a month ago – my father in law and I sat in Gloucester at the kitchen table one evening, sipping a bit of scotch, and we talked about this sermon. And we had, what in Jewish tradition, is called a mahloket, a disagreement. There was, between us, about this sermon, a division.
You see I am by nature A an optimist, and B, probably a bit naive. So I said I wanted to talk in the sermon about divisions, but what I wanted to do with it ultimately was remind everyone that there is more that unites us than there is that divides us. That we have common values as Americans and as Jews that bind us together, that we have a shared history, that there are shared beliefs that are still there, that we just need to recover those in order to create a common ground we can stand on together. I wanted to use a line from the Mahzor, one of my favorites, ויעשו כלם אגודה אחד – we will all be bound together, in common purpose, and בלבב שלמ – with a unified and full heart. Little did I know it at the time, but in Senator John McCain’s last statement to the American people he would write this: “We are three-hundred-and-twenty-five million opinionated, vociferous individuals. We argue and compete and sometimes even vilify each other in our raucous public debates. But we have always had so much more in common with each other than in disagreement. If only we remember that and give each other the benefit of the presumption that we all love our country we will get through these challenging times. We will come through them stronger than before. We always do.” That about sums up where I wanted to try to take this sermon.
But my father in law, older and wiser than I, (and also less naive) had a different perspective. And he argued, quite persuasively, that it actually may not be true anymore that there is more that unites us than divides us. That in fact the divisions that we feel every day cannot be banished by sitting around the camp fire and singing kumbaya together, and remembering shared values and easier times. That the real question is not how we bridge the gaps and diminish the divisions, but rather how each of us will choose to live in this new world where the divisions are so deep.
That idea of choice – of choosing how to live, of being in control of our own actions and our own words and our own lives and even our own destiny – is a powerful idea in our tradition. The Mahzor reminds us of that time and time again. We choose between right and wrong. We choose how we relate to our spouses and our children and our parents and siblings, and to friends. We choose, when we are angry with someone, to simply walk away from them or to let them know. And then we can choose how we will let them know. And when someone believes something we don’t believe we choose how we react to that. We can listen or argue, we can be silent or walk away. We can treat that person with dignity and respect, or treat them with disdain and disregard. Those are choices that we are compelled to make. And so in my father in law’s view the question is how will we choose to live in this divided world?
Among the books I read this summer was a slender volume written by the Israeli writer Yossi Klein HaLevi, entitled ‘Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor.’ In a series of short essays, he writes to the Palestinian family that lives just over the green line and beyond the security fence, literally a stone’s throw from his backyard, a family he has never met.
He is not naive, HaLevi, fully understanding how deep the divisions between Israelis and Palestinians truly are, and how starkly different their narratives. He is not an optimist, either, and he offers no quick fix prescriptions. Instead he arrives at a place of accepting that the divisions between the two peoples will remain in place for many years, if not forever. And if that is the case, he wonders – if the gap is unbridgeable – what possibly can be done? He writes this: “There may well be no way to bridge our opposing narratives… Even as we seek a two state solution, we will likely remain with a two narrative problem…. Accommodating both our narratives, learning to live with two contradictory stories, is the only way to deny the past a veto over the future.”
I still hold out hope in my heart that the words that Senator McCain penned before he died will prove to be prophetic, and that the deep divisions we feel today in our country will be healed by a sense of common purpose and citizenship. I am old enough to remember a time when we began each day in the public school I went to by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. We stood and saluted while facing the flag, and I suspect many of you still know the words by heart, as I do myself – I pledge allegiance to the flag, of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands – ONE nation…INDIVISIBLE…
But until that time comes, if it ever does, we must learn to live in a world with contradictory values and accept that there are many more narratives than the one to which we subscribe. And how we deal with that reality will be the true test of this country and of each of us.
If you think about it for a moment the very experience of the High Holy Days is predicated on an unbridgeable gap. On the one side is God, eternal, righteous and just, and ultimately unknowable. And on the other side we stand – imperfect and flawed, frail and limited, struggling and unsure at the start of a new year. But as impossible as it is to bridge that chasm, nevertheless, here we are. And we softly pray, reciting ancient words and also words unspoken in our hearts and souls. And we send our thoughts and prayers across that great gap of time and space.
And God’s response comes, as it says in the Unetane Tokef, in a kol d’mama daka – in a still, small, inner voice, a Presence that judges us as we are, and yet invites us to turn and to return, through acts of righteousness and charity to ideals that uplift and ennoble us. To chose kindness over anger, generosity over self indulgence, respect over scorn, and love over hostility. May we choose well and wisely, so that we, our families, the Jewish world, and this country, can be blessed in this new year with gracious deeds and peaceful hearts.