Tag Archives: Abraham Lincoln

#Charlottesville

This a text version of my sermon from Shabbat services on 8/19 –

It was a Shabbat morning, and a small group of Jews – about 40 or so – had gathered together in their shul to recited the morning prayers.  They were there for various reasons – some to celebrate, some for the sense of community, some because they felt obligated – the same reasons why many of us are here today.  The little synagogue was their spiritual home, connecting them to our ancient tradition.

While they prayed storm clouds were gathering outside.  There was unrest in the streets, marchers waving flags, chanting slogans, and spewing hate.  The president of the shul stood outside at the entranceway, with an armed guard the congregation had hired for protection.  For a time three men dressed in fatigues and armed with semi-automatic rifles stood across the street, staring coldly at the front of the building.  Multiple times in the course of the morning loosely organized groups of Nazis marched by the synagogue, pointing at it, screaming out ‘there is the synagogue!’, and anti-semitic slurs, and carrying flags with swastikas on them.  When the services ended, the shul president advised the worshippers that they should leave the synagogue by the back door, and they should walk in groups until they get to their cars.  And so the worshippers had to sneak out of their own shul, by the back door, because they were afraid.

What I just described happened over and over again in Germany in the 1930s.  Who would have imagined that it could happen here in the United States, in Charlottesville Virginia, in the year 2017, just last weekend?  Nazis marched in the streets, openly.  Jews were afraid to go outside, a synagogue was threatened, and as we know later in the day a young woman was killed and others injured by a Nazi sympathizer.  Perhaps things we never expected to see in the United States.  I think we all felt like the nation had taken a step back to a darker and more dangerous time.

The first verse of this morning’s Torah portion is ראה אנכי נותן לפניכם היום ברכה וקללה – Behold!  I put before you this day both blessing and curse.  And we have indeed seen both this week.  The curse has shown itself in the violence and hatred, in the stark reminder from the events in Charlottesville that the twisted tropes of anti-semitism can still be found in the dark corners of our country and in the ignorant minds of the Neo Nazis and White Supremacists who marched last week.  That is the ‘kellalah’ – the curse, that we have seen, that we have been forced to confront.

What is the ברכה, what is the blessing?  It has not come from the White House, and many in the Jewish community have been deeply disappointed by the response or lack of response from Washington.  Perhaps we thought that at least the President’s daughter and son in law, both Jews, would step forward and speak out, but to this point they have not.  So what is the ברכה, and where can we find it?

And the truth is, there have been many rays of light in the darkness.  America’s top ranking military officers forcefully and unequivocally spoke out against extremism and bigotry in all its forms.  Leaders from across the communal spectrum – from both sides of the aisle – were quick to condemn the hate groups.  CEOs from some of the top businesses in the country made it clear they would not stand for anything less than the dignified treatment of all people, regardless of race, color, or faith.  The mother of Heather Heyer, the young woman who was killed during the violence by a man who revered Nazi Germany, gave an eloquent eulogy for her daughter that reminded us all of what we can be at our very best.  Each bright moment helped to counter the darkness, each ray of light helped to restore hope to our hearts, and we were reminded of what makes this country great.

Freedom is at the core of that greatness.  That is why Jews came to these shores, that is why Jews have done so well here, that is why we love this country.  But the key is remembering that freedom cannot exist without freedom for all.  We know as Jews that when some are free and others are not, the freedom is not real. That is the insight that has enabled America to become the greatest country in the world.  We haven’t yet fully realized that vision, but we subscribe to it, we believe in it, we find hope and comfort in it.  We work for it.  And when others try to destroy it, we have a responsibility to speak out.

Those are the values and ideals that we must embrace as a nation and as individuals as we try to move forward from Charlottesville.  If and when we feel hatred and prejudice tugging at our own hearts and poisoning our own minds, we must reject them, categorically.  If and when we see hatred and prejudice in our communities, we must not turn our heads away, but instead walk forward to confront what we know in our heats to be wrong.  If and when we see hatred and bigotry in our nation, we must call it what it is, and discover what our role is in making sure it will not happen again.

You see the berachah – the blessing – is in each and every one of us.  The courage and strength and faith and hope that God gives to each one of us, that enables us to stand up for what we know to be right, to embrace in our daily lives the values of freedom and tolerance and dignity for all that the founding fathers of our nation learned from the words of our Torah.  When we ignore those values we fall short, and we are all diminished.  But when we embrace those values we become the blessing, and we fulfill our destiny as human beings and as Jews.

In 1861 Abraham Lincoln concluded his first Inaugural Address with the following passionate words:  “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”  May we together follow those angels to a more peaceful, tolerant,  and just world for all.

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Charlottesville

I sit typing these words just a few days after the tragic events in Charlottesville Virginia.  It is hard to imagine that in the year 2017 (5777) White Supremacist and Nazi groups walked the streets of an American city, chanting anti-semitic slogans and carrying flags adorned with swastikas.  Americans were chilled by the images that came from Charlottesville, but for Jews the images were even more disturbing, bringing to our minds memories of the events of the Holocaust and the twisted and irrational hatred of our people that has all too often plagued us over the long years.  It felt like the nation had collectively taken a step back to a darker and more dangerous time.

We must always be on our guard.  Even here, even in America, so far away, in both time and place, from the horrors of World War II.  How easy it is to grow complacent, to allow ourselves to imagine that our hard won freedoms are guaranteed, that the forces of evil have been utterly defeated.  Remember the line in the Haggadah – “In every generation there are those who seek our destruction.”  And the Torah warns us of the dangers of complacency in the Book of Deuteronomy:  “Beware, for at the very moment when you feel settled, when your wealth has grown, when your home is strong, when your life is good – beware lest at that moment you begin to take it all for granted.”  (Deuteronomy 8)  The blessings of life should never be taken for granted.  And the greatest blessing of life, after life itself, is freedom.

The key is remembering that freedom cannot exist without freedom for all.  When some are free and others are not freedom is illusory, a house of cards that can all too easily come tumbling down.  That is the insight that has enabled America to become the greatest country in the world.  We have yet to realize that vision, but we subscribe to it, we believe in it, we find hope and comfort in it.  We work for it.  And when others try to destroy it, we have a responsibility to speak out.

Over the last days there have been rays of light in the darkness.  America’s top ranking military officers forcefully and unequivocally spoke out against extremism and bigotry in all its forms.  Leaders from across the communal spectrum were quick to condemn the hate groups.  CEOs from some of the top businesses in the country made it clear they would not stand for anything less than the dignified treatment of all people, regardless of race, color, or faith.  The mother of Heather Heyer, the young woman who was killed during the violence by a man who revered Nazi Germany, gave an eloquent eulogy for her daughter that reminded us all of what we can be at our very best.  Each bright moment helped to counter the darkness, each ray of light helped to restore hope, and we were reminded of what makes this country great.

Moving forward we must make sure that those are the values and ideals that we embrace as a nation and as individuals.  If and when we feel hatred and prejudice tugging at our hearts and poisoning our minds, we must reject them, categorically.  If and when we see hatred and prejudice in our communities, we must not turn our heads away, but instead walk forward to confront what we know in our heats to be wrong.  If and when we see hatred and bigotry in our nation, we must call it what it is, and discover what our role is in making sure it will not happen again.

In 1861 Abraham Lincoln concluded his first Inaugural Address with the following passionate words:  “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”  May we together follow those angels to a more peaceful, tolerant,  and just world for all.

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Charlie Brown’s Football

this a sermon text from the second day of Rosh Hashanah 5776/2015

Let me first this morning wish each and every one of you a שנה טובה, a sweet and healthy New Year.  As I get older the years seem to go by more and more quickly, and believe it or not this is the 18th time that I have had the honor of conducting High Holy Day services here at Beth El.  I did a little bit of calculating, and I figured in those 18 years I’ve given some 65 or so sermons during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  Some of theme were well received, others not so much, some were memorable, some forgettable.  A few of them brought a tear to your eye, while a few others simply closed your eyes.  I’ve told stories, I’ve cited texts, I’ve referred to movies and TV shows and books, superheroes, the Rolling Stones, Jerry Garcia, and yes, the Grateful Dead.  But as far as I can remember I have never on the HHDs talked about one of my favorite characters in all of literature, a character you also are familiar with, a creation of the comic strip artist Charles Schultz, his hard luck hero Charlie Brown.

You all remember Charlie Brown.  The yellow shirt with the one black zig zag stripe on it.  The single curled hair on the top of his head.  To follow Charlie Brown’s escapades was to immerse yourself in the life of a lovable loser, a good natured and loyal person, a trusting and kind soul who tried to do the right thing, but who never seemed to be able to find the success he was searching for.  His homework assignments were somehow always soaked and ruined by the time he got to school.  He was the pitcher of his baseball team, but they never won a game.  He waited for the Great Pumpkin, but fell asleep before it arrived.

Perhaps most memorably of all, every fall, just at this time of year, just at the beginning of football season, Charlie Brown would trudge out to the football field with his football, and his friend, or perhaps better in today’s parlance to say ‘frenemy’ Lucy.  She would set the ball on the ground, and Charlie Brown would run towards the ball, excited to kick it, symbolically beginning a new year, a new season, and for Charlie Brown a new beginning.  And every year, year in and year out, exactly the same thing happened – just as he reached the ball, just as he swung his leg, Lucy would yank the ball away, and he would whiff, fly into the air, and land on his back, and cry out in frustration, utterly humiliated. You could count on that failure of Charlie Brown’s like you could count on the sun coming up in the morning or the High Holy Days coming in the fall.  And it is precisely that – the inevitability of failure – that I would like to talk about this morning.

You may have seen about 6 weeks ago the comments made by James Harrison, a line backer who played for the Pittsburgh Steelers.  His sons had participated in a youth league football program, and at the end of the season they were given participation trophies.  These trophies have become popular over recent years – they are given to children on the teams that don’t win, as a way of rewarding the players for the fact that they played.  But Harrison was outraged, and he returned the participation trophies his boys had been given.  When asked why he did it he said ‘they didn’t earn them, because they didn’t win, and you shouldn’t get a trophy for losing, for failing.’

And when his comments became public they restarted a conversation that has been going on for a number of years now, at the heart of which is this question:  are we sheltering our children from failure?  Are we giving every child a trophy because we don’t want a child to think that he or she didn’t succeed?   Are we arguing with the teachers in our children’s schools to make sure that every child gets an A or a B?  Is a C or D never acceptable, even if it is deserved? Let alone an F?  Are we telling our children that everything they do is OK, and that if they don’t do well, it is not their fault, it is someone else’s fault – the teacher’s, or the coach’s, or maybe even ours?

And what James Harrison was arguing – perhaps not elegantly, but his point – was that it is as important to acknowledge failure as it is to acknowledge success.  That failure is something that happens to everyone, at one point or another, and if you don’t learn to deal with it, if you don’t figure out a way to live with it and grow from it, then in the long run, you’ll be less successful at life.  Failure is an important part – maybe even a crucial part – of being human.

And I know it is dangerous in this room to be citing the words of a Pittsburgh Steeler, but the truth is there is something to what he says.  Failure is something that happens to every one.  Stick with sports for a moment – in baseball, the very best batters – the very, very best – fail to hit the ball 70% of the time!  Johnny Unitas, commonly understood to be one of the, if not the greatest quarterback in the history of the NFL, failed to complete 46% of the passes he threw.  Now shift to politics – if I asked you today who was the greatest president of all time, many of you would say Abraham Lincoln.  But did you ever read Lincoln’s political track record?   In 1832 he ran for the Illinois State Legislature and lost.  In 1838 he ran for speaker of the Illinois House, and he lost.  In 1843 he wanted to run for Congress, but his nomination was defeated.  In 1854 he ran for the US Senate  – and he lost.  In 1856 he hoped to be vice-president, but his nomination was defeated.  In 1858 he again lost a Senate race.  And then you know what happened in 1860?  Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States.  And my guess would be he was a much better president because of all the defeats he had suffered along the way.  His failures made him wiser and stronger, a better leader, a greater president, and a better human being.  To go back to Charlie Brown for a moment, Lincoln had to whiff at the football, he had to fly into the air and fall flat on his back to know that he could get up again.  But when he got up, he was stronger than he had been before.

It is not so different for our children and for ourselves.  Failure in life is inevitable.  And that is not something to hide from.  The High Holy Days certainly remind us of that.  There is no point in the year when we spend so much of our time focusing on our failures.  The words of the Mahzor confront us with lists of sins, with the image of God as a judge reviewing our lives, with constant reminders of our own fragility, mortality, and weakness.  But here is the strange thing.  In some way, for some reason, all of that honest self-reflection, all of that remembering of our own limitations and failures – all of that pounding on the chest and reciting of sins – leaves us feeling better.  We emerge from these sacred days feeling more optimistic, believing more deeply in God, trusting others more, feeling more hopeful about the year that is beginning.  And trusting – and respecting ourselves – even more than we did before.

In part this is because the holidays help us to recognize the humanity in our failures. If we’ve failed in the past year we are in good company because my guess would be that everyone in this room, at one point or another, has felt like Charlie Brown lying flat on his back in that muddy field.  In every year there is regret and remorse, there is failure and frustration, disappointment, and sometimes even despair.  But Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur help us live with those regrets, reminding us that mistakes can be corrected, that missed opportunities can be reclaimed, that disappointments can be overcome, and that failures can be forgiven – even if that sometimes means we have to forgive ourselves.  And that when we are able to do that we emerge stronger from the experience, with a greater sense of gratitude for the blessings in our lives.

When I was a kid, I always thought Charlie Brown was going to kick that ball.  And I still believe that the day will come when he’ll charge down that field, swing his leg, and his foot will smack into that football, sending it into the air.  And it will fly a little bit further, and sail a little bit higher into the blue sky, because of all the times that he missed.  And when that day finally comes Charlie Brown will stand there, and I imagine he’ll smile as he watches that ball, ready to face a new year, whatever it will bring.

May we today do the same.  Growing stronger and wiser from our mistakes, more grateful for our blessings, and more whole from the work we will do in the days ahead.

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The Better Angels of Our Nature

This famous phrase comes from Lincoln’s first inaugural address. In large part the speech was intended to be a plea to the South for reconciliation, and initially Lincoln penned a conclusion that offered the southern states a choice between ‘peace or the sword.’ But in the end he was persuaded to change the text so the last sentence read as follows: “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle field and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

There is a shared humanity that unites us all, the common threads of home and hearth, of struggle and strength and courage and faith, the universal need for dignity and freedom, the Divine soul we all carry that can open our minds and hearts. At times it seems hard to locate, obscured by the cross currents of events, almost unrecognizable behind the haze of anger and violence that can arise when people give in to the dark side. Lincoln recognizes this. By choosing the phrase ‘better angels’ he implies that there are darker angels that can lead us to places of destruction and hate. We have certainly seen this in Baltimore over the last days.

And yet Lincoln understands the darkness to be something that will pass, a dynamic that cannot sustain itself in the face of goodness and light. He writes: ‘when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.’ There is no doubt in his mind that ultimately kindness and caring and hope will survive and even thrive, while the dark days will fade into memory and history. It is not a question of will the better angels arrive, it is a question of when. As Jerry Garcia sang in the Grateful Dead song New Speedway Boogie, ‘one way or another this darkness got to give.’

And it will give. There are too many good people. Too many strong leaders of principle. Too much effort and energy and pride invested in Baltimore. This darkness will give. If not today, then tomorrow, or the next day. Hurts will be healed, connections will be strengthened, bridges will be built. And then, after the immediate needs are addressed, after peace and calm have been restored, then the work begins. There are deep seated needs, long standing problems of enormous complexity and challenge, educational problems, societal problems, economic problems, demographic problems that simply cannot be ignored. Problems with how the police conduct themselves, problems that stem from deep racial divides, the list is long and every item is connected to every other. Justice must be pursued. Needs addressed. Dignity restored.

Yes much work to do. But there are great people with great determination and spirit to do that work. If these days become a wakeup call to begin that work anew, we may one day look back and see this as a dark point that became a turning point, a storm that in the end gave way to a clear blue sky. May that be God’s will. And may it be brought about by human hands that work only for peace and hope.

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