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Lady Liberty

Here is a text version of my Yom Kippur sermon, 5770 –

  One hundred and thirty two years ago next month – on October 28th, 1886 –  the Statue of Liberty was dedicated on a day of great ceremony and celebration.  There was a parade through Manhattan that hundreds of thousands of people attended, followed by a nautical parade of dignitaries.  The ceremony itself, taking place at the foot of the great statue, was presided over by none other than President Grover Cleveland.  It was a day that symbolized the hope and promise and freedom for which America would come to be known around the world.  Lady Liberty!   

     It wasn’t until 17 years later – in the year 1903 – that the poem ‘the New Colossus’ was installed at the base of what had become by that time America’s most famous and symbolic statue.  Written in sonnet form, the 14 lines of the poem captured Lady Liberty’s symbolism, and also perfectly described the sense of America as a place of refuge, safety, and freedom.  I expect some of you probably memorized these lines at some point in school, but it is worth repeating them this morning:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame, 

With conquering limbs astride from land to land; 

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand 

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame 

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name 

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand 

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command 

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame. 

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she 

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor, 

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, 

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. 

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, 

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

     The sea washed sunset gates of the poem are the Hudson and East Rivers, framing Manhattan on her east and west sides.  The imprisoned lightning?  The torch in Lady Liberty’s raised right hand, lit by electric light.  The twin cities?  New York is obviously one – what about the other?  Brooklyn of course, the true center of the world!  And the huddled masses are the thousands upon thousands of immigrants who came to these shores through the gates of Ellis Island.  A nearly perfect description in words of what the statue had come to mean to our country, and to the world.  America, a land of freedom, opportunity, and welcome to all.  

     The New Colossus was written by a Sephardic Jew named Emma Lazarus.  Lazarus lived a largely secular life until she was in her early 30s when she read the great George Eliot novel Daniel Deronda, about a young Jew who suddenly discovers his Jewish identity and decides to devote himself to the Jewish people.  She saw in that narrative a reflection of her own life, and from that point forward Emma Lazarus began to devote herself to Jewish causes.  She was particularly interested in the eastern European Jews who came to this country in the 1880s and 90s.  She was moved by their stories of hardship and suffering, combined with their deep faith and the sense of hope they maintained that they could build a better life here in America.  Lazarus saw her poem as an expression of gratitude for the past, for her own ancestors who had made their way to this country and the goodness that they found here, and she also saw it as expression of hope, that future generations of immigrants would be welcomed to these shores, where they could one day build lives of dignity and opportunity.

     My Bubbe was one of those immigrants.  She arrived on these shores in 1903, the very same year the New Colossus poem was affixed to the Statue of Liberty.  She was a strong willed woman, feisty, tough as nails when she needed to be, determined, hard working, and fiercely protective of the people she loved.  She married my Zayde – also an immigrant – as a young woman.  Together they ran a series of small neighborhood grocery stores here in Baltimore, often with the help of their four sons.  As immigrants they were vulnerable and unsure of how to make their way in this new country.  They moved forward and made a life in the only way they knew how – they worked hard, they saved every penny they made, and they did everything, as they would have said, for the kinder, for their family. 

     My Bubbe was proud of three things in her life – she was proud to be an American, understanding this country as a place of opportunity where she ultimately was able to make a good life.  She was proud of her family, and in the course of her 98 years was blessed to welcome not only 11 grandchildren into the world, but great grandchildren as well.  And she was intensely proud to be a Jew.  Her commitment to our tradition left a deep impression through the generations of my family, it still resonates today, and there is no question in my mind without my Bubbe’s influence I would not be a rabbi.

     I expect her story sounds familiar to you, and that there is someone in your family – a parent or grandparent or great-grandparent – whose life experiences were very similar to my Bubbe’s.  And it is this shared Jewish experience that Emma Lazarus connected to.  That we Jews are wanderers, often in the course of our long history looking for a place to call home.  That it is enormously difficult to find that place, and it is incredibly precious once it has been found.  That is what my Bubbe and Zayde found here in Baltimore – a true home, a place where they could work hard, raise their boys, and stay committed to their roots without being afraid.  I’ve often thought about them as the debate about immigration and immigrants has taken place in our country over the last two years.  From DACA, which is still unresolved, to the question of which countries we are willing to accept immigrants from, to the question of numbers, and who ultimately gets in and who does not, to the policy, now revoked, of separating illegal immigrants from their children. 

     Last night at Kol Nidre we prayed the line אנו מתירין להתפלל עם העברינים  – on this most sacred of nights, let us remember those who are rarely remembered, and let us welcome them in to our community.  Those who are on the outside, those who are marginalized, those who do not have a voice.  It is one of the most striking lines in the entire Mahzor, and a distillation of a classic Jewish value.  In the Torah there are no fewer than 46 references to the גר, the ‘stranger’, each of them a reminder of the responsibility the community has to care for those who find themselves on the margins of society.   And there are two reasons why the tradition is so concerned with this ideal.  The first is it understands the Jewish experience to be that of the stranger.  Jews know what it feels like to be ostracized, Jews know what it feels like to be marginalized, Jews know what it feels like to be subject to quotas, and Jews know what it feels like to be expelled from a country.  And so if any people should have an extra sensitivity to the stranger, it should be the Jewish people.

     But the other reason is that Judaism understands that the way a society treats its strangers, its weakest members, is a measure of that culture’s quality and morality.  I am not suggesting that our immigration system should let in every person who wants to make their home in the United States.  But what I am suggesting is that regardless of whether or not someone is admitted to the country, how we treat them matters.  And that is what this debate is about.  It is not about numbers and quotas.  It is about values and morals.  It is about what we want this country to symbolize and stand for.  It is about what ideals we hope the citizens of this country believe in.  It really is, at the end of the day, about whether we still subscribe to the ideals and values that are so elegantly and beautifully laid out in the 14 lines of that sonnet that Emma Lazarus composed 135 years ago. 

     You see, how we treat the stranger – the immigrant, the foreigner, the poor and disenfranchised – those of other races and religions and beliefs – how we treat them says a lot more about us than it does about them.  And in every case, in every interaction, we can choose to treat them with respect and dignity and decency – like the human beings that they are.  And when we we don’t, it is our own respect and dignity and decency and values that are diminished.

     115 years ago my Bubbe was a stranger coming to these shores.  How would she have fared in today’s world, with these debates raging through our society?  Would she have been accepted or turned away?  Would she have been separated from her parents?  Would she have been treated with dignity and decency, would her humanity have been recognized and honored, would she have been respected?  Her story is the Jewish story shared by so many of our families.  And those questions – about decency and dignity and humanity and morality and values – those are Jewish questions, questions that as Jews we should constantly be asking.  

     On that October day 132 years ago when the Statue of Liberty was dedicated, President Cleveland was the keynote speaker at the ceremonies.  In his remarks that day he explained Lady Liberty’s symbolism with this hope:  “her stream of light shall pierce the darkness of ignorance and man’s oppression until Liberty enlightens the world.”  It is that same aspiration that we Jews remember three times each day in the last paragraph of the amidah.  We recited the words just a few minutes ago, and will do so three more times today –   כי באור פניך נתת לנו ה אלוקינו תורת חיים ואהבת חסד – in the Light of Your countenance, You gave us, God, a Torah of life, and a love of kindness, righteousness, blessing, compassion, life, and peace. 

     May that light and those values guide us and our nation in the months and years ahead.

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Filed under Beth El Congregation, High Holy Days, preaching, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, sermon, Torah, Uncategorized, Yom Kippur

A Tale of Two Jews – Donald Sterling and Adam Silver

a text version of yesterday’s Shabbat sermon – 

     Some of you probably remember the name Dolph Schayes, commonly considered to be the greatest Jewish basketball player of all time.  An All-American player at NYU, he went on to a long career in the NBA, playing for the Syracuse Nationals (the team that became the 76ers), making 12 all star teams, and at one point Dolph Schayes, a Jewish boy from New York, was actually the all time leading NBA scorer.  His record of 19,249 career points was eclipsed by another pretty good player – any one know who?  Wilt Chamberlin.  

     There are still a few Jewish players in the NBA these days, but none of them are stars, and none of them will be remembered as one of the game’s great players, like Dolph Schayes.  But if not on the court, Jews still play an important role in professional basketball, as we have certainly seen over the last week, with the bigoted remarks of Donald Sterling, the Jewish owner of the NBA’s LA Clippers franchise, that became public, and with the response to those remarks by the league office and its commissioner, Adam Silver, also a Jew.  

     So first of all yes it is true, Donald Sterling is Jewish.  He was born to Jewish immigrant parents, who fled eastern-Europe at least in part to get away from the kind of racism that their son ended up embracing.  His birth name was Tokowitz before he changed it to ‘sterling’ as a young man, evidently equating the idea of money with success in life.  And in 2006 he was elected to the Southern California Jewish Hall of Fame.  I am not saying the guy went to minyan every day, but he clearly understands himself to be a Jew.  It was interesting to me at the press conference where Mr. Silver announced that Sterling would be banned from basketball for life the question asked by one of the reporters, about the Jewish identity of the two men.  Here is what the reporter asked the commissioner, Adam Silver:

     Given the fact that you and Donald Sterling are both Jewish…”I am wondering if there was a specific kind of pain associated with that for you, and if you felt a certain responsibility within the Jewish community to be responding”… so forcefully?  Silver paused, and then he said “I am responding to this as a human being.”  It was a good answer, and my guess is that Adam Silver will not be asked that question again.  But I also wonder if you caught him in a private moment, with his guard down, and not in front of a group of reporters, if he would answer the question differently.  My guess would be that the commissioner of the NBA is like most of us who are Jewish, and when we hear about something like the Donald Sterling story one of the first thoughts that pops into our heads is “I hope that person is not Jewish.”

     The question is why do we think that?   Intellectually we know, or we should know, that Jews are no different from anybody else, and that we certainly have our fair share of immoral, prejudiced, and dishonest people.  Can anyone say Bernie Madoff?  So intellectually we are not surprised when someone who is Jewish does something that we know is wrong, or even that we feel is reprehensible.  But emotionally it is a different story, and emotionally I think there are two things going on.  The first is that we feel embarrassed when it is a Jew at the center of a story like this, because it reflects on our community, and we feel like it reflects on us.  

     But the other thing is that on a certain level we feel a Jew should know better.  The Torah portion we read this morning reminds us that in ancient times, when our ancestors reaped the harvest of their fields, they felt commanded to leave the corners of those fields untouched, and not to harvest them.  Why?  So that the poor, the orphan, the widow, the stranger, all have something to eat.  The values of our tradition teach us to respect others, teach us that all human beings, regardless of race, color, even faith, or economic status for that matter, are equal in God’s eyes, and teach us especially about minorities,  especially about those who are marginalized, that we need to be watchful so that their rights are protected.  It is a message the Torah gives again and again – you should be particularly sensitive to the rights of the underprivileged – why?  Because you were strangers in the land of Egypt!  So a Jew that is raised with those values should know better than to steal, cheat, lie, and certainly should know better than to express the kind of racist sentiments that Donald Sterling expressed on that recording.  Whenever anything happens in the news, my father in law always asks:  is it good for the Jews, or bad for the Jews – and Donald Sterling was bad for the Jews.

     But if he was the bad news for Jews this week, I have to say I feel like Adam Silver, the commissioner of the league who suspended Sterling for life, was the good news.  On the surface that might seem like a no-brainer, and you might even be thinking he just did what he had to do.  But not necessarily.  The commissioner might have easily said to himself Donald Sterling is the longest tenured owner in the league, he is a man who is worth probably a billion dollars or so, he is powerful, so I am going to slap his hand, fine him a couple of million dollars, suspend him for a year, and by the time he comes back, the way the news cycle works these days, no one will remember any way.  And he could have easily supported a decision like that by arguing, as many libertarians have over the last few days, that in reality Sterling did nothing illegal – which is true.  That he was expressing his views in a private conversation that he never meant to go public – which is also true.  And that, whether we like it or not, he has every right, in a private conversation, to say whatever he wants about whomever he wants.

     But I actually believe that Adam Silver felt a moral obligation to base his decision not upon what is legal or illegal, not upon what is easier or more difficult, and honestly not even upon what plays better in the press – but instead to base his decision upon what he felt was right and what he felt was wrong. Most of us when we look at situation have a moral compass that tells us it is either right or wrong.  We may not always act on the feeling, we might ignore it, turn the other way, go with the crowd, do what is easier – but regardless of what we do or do not do, we generally know what we should do.  And I think that was the feeling driving the commissioner’s decision to suspend Donald Sterling for life, regardless of legal issues, regardless of privacy issues – he knew – he felt –  it was the right thing to do, and he did it. 

     There is a concept in Judaism called לפנים משורת הדין which is generally translated as ‘beyond the letter of the law.’  It comes from a curious comment in the Talmud about the reason for the destruction of Jerusalem (Bava Matziah 30b).  The great sage Rebbe Yochanan says that the destruction of Jerusalem came about because the courts of that time based their legal judgements strictly on Torah law – ולא עבדו לפנים משורת הדין – but they were not capable of seeing beyond the letter of that law.  It is easy to get caught up in legal technicalities, but sometimes you have to go beyond the letter of the law to make sure that true justice is served.  The Talmud suggests that a society that forgets this idea is a society that will ultimately crumble.  I don’t think that Adam Silver has ever studied Talmud, but it was exactly that talmudic principle that he applied in his decision.

     You know I often go back and forth in my own mind about whether sports actually teaches us life lessons or not, but this week, I think, the commissioner of the NBA taught us all something.  And he very clearly let everyone know that at least in his league, to quote the famous words of George Washington, they would give bigotry no sanction, and persecution no assistance.  I hope and pray that one day we will be able to say those words not just about the NBA, but about the entire world.

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