Rosh Hashanah Day 1 2017

Shanna Tova. Today is the birthday of the world.

Today is about what was

Today is about our tomorrows

and Today is about  what we must do

to  make our futures better

And as we all know, birthdays are times that we reflect on what is good, what is challenging, and what we can do to improve. There is no question that we are living in difficult times, so today is the 5778th birthday of the world and it is time to take stock of where we are and what New Year’s resolutions need to be made as we look towards the future.

How do we do this? Let us think about an everyday item in our life that will help us to reflect.

How many of you have recently re-filled a metrocard? I know that many of you might have it automatically refilled, so if you haven’t been to a machine in a while, let me show you what your choices are now. You must choose the following:

ADD VALUE or ADD TIME. This should be a straightforward question. Are we adding time-meaning, how many swipes in a day, and for how many days, or are we adding value-specifically a question of money.

But every time I look at this, I see something much deeper.

What if we had to choose between adding time, which means “just” adding years or adding, value, which really means, adding substance?

In a recent conversation that I had with members of our community about this, we had a divided group. On one hand, there was the assertion that of course we want more time. Wouldn’t we want to be on this earth as along as possible? Wouldn’t we want to make a deal that we could extend our lives as many years as possible? Yes, that sounds enticing but what if we add “only” time without value? What if we knew that we had limited time left on this earth but during that time we would have beautiful relationships and we could feel the impact of our lives on the lives of other people and the earth that we live on. Wouldn’t it be great to have a life of value, even if it meant limited time?

God willing, there will be many days in front of all of us, and that is what I would like to focus on this morning, as we look at the world, and our role in it.

So let’s begin by asking, What kind of world do we live in? What is the current landscape?

We know that we inhabit a fractured world. It is physically fractured as we read about climate change and understand that our earth needs fixing-and it is fractured between people. The divisions between people seem louder and stronger than ever before. And of course it feels like it shouldn’t be, given our ability to connect with one another. Thomas Friedman, in his newest book Thank You For Being Late, reflected on the irony of his previous book, The World is Flat, as he realized, that in 2004 when that book was published, he didn’t realize how much flattening there was to go.

He writes: “When I looked back at The World is Flat,  just to remind myself what I was thinking when I started back in 2004, I cracked it open to the index, ran my finger down the page, and immediately discovered that Facebook wasn’t in it yet. That’s right-when I was running around in 2004 declaring the world was flat, facebook didn’t even exist yet.

Twitter was still a sound

The cloud was still in the sky

4G was a parking space

“applications’ were what you sent to college

Linked In was barely known and most people thought it was a prison,

and Skype, for most people, was a typographical error.

Today we have the tools to connect with our world and the people in it, but do we understand what the challenges are? Have we identified what we care about to make this world a world of value, and have we demanded of ourselves that we do something with it? Have we reminded ourselves that to truly be human, we must see the sacred in the other?

In Yuval Noah Harari’s recent book, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, we get an overview of the world as it was, as it is, and where our world is headed. As he wrote “For generation after generation humans have prayed to every god, angel and sign, and have invented countless tool, institutions, and social systems-but people have continued to die in the millions from starvation, epidemics and violence. Many thinkers and prophets concluded that famine, plague, and war must be an integral part of God’s cosmic plan or of our own imperfect nature, and nothing short of the end of time would free us from them…BUT HE ARGUES: We don’t need to pray to any god. We know quite well what needs to be done in order to prevent famine, plague, and war, and we usually succeed in doing it…

AND we have made progress…sort of! For the first time in history, more people die today from eating too much than from eating too little, more people die from old age than from infectious diseases, and more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists, and criminals combined. …”

HE DOES ADD, “The claim that we are bringing  them under control may strike many as outrageous, naïve, or callous. What about the billions of people scraping a living on less that $2 a day? What about the ongoing AIDS crisis in Africa or the wars raging in Syria and Iraq? …The difference now is that the issues are brought on by us. It use to be that a drought would cause famine…But we know that as famines still strike some areas from time to time they are exceptions… If people in Syria, sudan, or Somalia starve to death, it is because their leaders let them. There is enough food-it is the “how” it is distributed that is the problem. ….And what people are eating is also a problem. In 2010 famine and malnutrition killed 1 million people yet obesity killed 3 million.  In 2014 more than 2.1 billion people were overweight compared to 850 million people who suffered from malnutrition. Half of humankind is expected to be overweight by 2030.” (p.6)

In reading Harari’s book, it was as if I was reading a modern day version of the Unetaneh Tokef, the plagues upon us begging the question, who will live and who will die. This painful reflection caused me to ask, the following three questions:

  1. As we work to add value, not just time, what challenges do we need to focus on to make this world worth living in and livable for humanity, as we celebrate a new year?
  2. Why is this our role as Jews?
  3. What do we need to do to make a difference?

First-What challenges do we see:

There are many issues that are keeping people up at night-they might not be the same:

  • For some of us it is issues of security and terrorism. There is no question that the world is a scary place. There are people using their religious and ethnic beliefs to justify murder and hatred across the globe. The killing of innocent people either by Islamic Fundamentalists or those who kill in the name of White Supremacy are horrors in our world that I am ashamed to even have to talk about in 2017.
  • For others, the struggle is Israel. Though almost 70 years old and strong, Israel is having its challenges. It is often de-legitimized on the world stage, certainly at the UN, and the ability and pride of supporting israel on college campuses is getting harder and harder.  We cannot remain silent as the Jewish state is constantly singled out. I was proud to be a part of a delegation in July with the NYBR where we sat down with the new UN Secretary General António Guterres at his office. High atop the United Nations, we discussed a range of issues ranging from anti-Semitism and Zionism to voting tendencies at the UN and the hostile behavior of UN agencies such as UNESCO.

With reference to the State of Israel the SG said “it is not my role to tell member States what to do but I am very clear to insist that the State of Israel has a right to exist, to have secure borders and must be treated like every other State.”

Further, we must support our students on college campuses-and their Hillels, we must speak to our elected officials and not allow Israel to be held to a different standard than the rest of the world. We must continue to believe in a peaceful outcome to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through diplomacy. I was recently speaking with JJ Goldberg, the Editor in Chief of the Forward, a journalist who will be speaking here at the end of October and he commented while many Israelis, on all sides, are ambivalent about whether a two state solution would actually be safe for Israel, it is Israel’s generals and security detail that are the most convinced that the only way for Israel to be safe, is for there to be two states.

  • The third challenge is immigration and refugees. As the Jewish Council of Public Affairs recently reminded Jewish leaders “Closing our nation’s doors to immigrants and refugees would contradict the fundamental Jewish belief in “welcoming the stranger.”  The U.S. has one of the most stringent vetting programs in the world. OF COURSE Our immigration policy must balance national security concerns with the protection of civil and human rights. The American immigrant experience is one of our country’s greatest sources of strength. Newcomers are essential to the fabric of our society, enriching our culture and boosting our economy.” The social action committee of SPS will be bringing Mark Hatfield the CEO of HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society in December to SPS to speak to us about the role the Jewish community can play in grappling with this sensitive issue and I am sure you will want to be here.
  • A final issue is that of climate change. In the recently published National Climate Report it is clear that our earth is getting hotter, wetter, and we are the ones to blame. It is clear from our Torah, that just as we have a religious understanding of why the world came into being what we have an equal obligation to discuss how do we ensure its permanence?

Regardless of which of these challenges we find compelling, we must get involved. As Elie Wiesel so eloquently said,

Take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” -Elie Wiesel

We must speak out when we see problems in our midst especially because it is difficult. I am reminded of what Alan Paton wrote in his book “Ah, But your Land is Beautiful,”

When I go up there (to heaven), which is my intention, the Big Judge will say to me, ‘Where are your wounds?’ And if I say I haven’t any, he will say, ‘Was there nothing to fight for?’ (pp. 66-67)

And this brings us to the 2nd question. Why do we need to get involved? Is there really a religious imperative? Yes, there is. And today on Rosh Hashanah, that if we are going to add value, not just time, to the world, we need to realize that it starts with our deep connections between members of humanity.

As Mishnah Sanhedrin asks, why does the creation story refer to Adam, a singular person? To teach that he who saves a life, saves the world, and he who destroys a life, destroys the world.

Now that we recognize the importance of each person, we need to translate that into action, otherwise, talking about God on these holidays, is meaningless. As George Yancy wrote this year:

Is your God dead?

Have you buried God in the majestic, ornamental tombs of your churches, synagogues and mosques?

Rabbi Heschel said,“Any god who is mine but not yours, any god concerned with me but not with you, is an idol,”

Of course, we need to embrace connections between religions in order to address the problems that we have. We can’t sit in our own corners, talking only to ourselves. We need to reach across the faith communities to make changes. One of the most powerful books that i recently read was Threading my Prayer Rug by Sabeeha Rehman. This book, a memoir about her journey from being a pakistani muslim to an american muslim tackles a number of issues including what kind of world we can all work to build, together. She writes: “I too have a dream…as America continues to learn and grow in the direction of pluralism, so will we. We will continue to build a country meant for all faiths to create spaces that enhance the dialogue and champion fellowship. Together we will change the discourse, quell violence with knowledge, and banish phobias to the fringes as we work together in unity of the spirit…. One nation under God.”

And so, we come to the 4 core concepts in Judaism that should inspire us to action in 5778 as we add value to the world

  • Our first value is Betzelem Elohim-we are all created in the image of God. The color of our skin, the content of our pocketbook, our language of origin should not be used to divide us, but the sanctity that all of us are created in the image of God should be used to unite us.
  • The second value is Kol Yisrael Aravim zeh bah zeh. All of Israel is responsible for each other. As Jews we have a responsibility to speak out for one another. We must stand up for Israel-in the papers, at the UN, on college campuses. We must fight and call out anti-semitism-from the left and the right. We must see that anti-zionism is a form of anti-semitism and we cannot be silent when that is taking place.
  • Every time we pray we conclude our prayers with the Aleynu where we say “L’taken Olam B’malchut Shadai”-we must repair the world for the kingship of heaven. Our 3rd values is to remind ourselves that we have an obligation to make this world better. Just adding a year isn’t the Jewish thing to do. Our mission, our obligation, is to make it a year worth living.
  • And the fourth value is that we must live up to the Biblical mandate that we must “Welcome the stranger for we were strangers.” And it is not just about immigration. It is how we welcome new people to this synagogue. It is how we welcome our converts. It is how we welcome people into our homes. We can’t wait inside. We need to stand up, go to the door, and welcome people in-we can no longer be gatekeepers, we are hosts, or appropriate for this morning, ushers.

So now that we know what the challenges are, and why Judaism compels us to do something, we need to ask ourselves, how can we make a difference?

Thomas Friedman reminds us that we must pause and think. (p. 4)-”In such a time, opting  to pause and reflect, rather than panic or withdraw is a necessity. It is not a luxury, or a distraction. It is a way to increase the odds  that we will better understand and engage productively with the world around us…How so? “When you press the pause button on a machine, it stops. But when you press the pause button on human beings, they start.”-(said Dov Seidman). You start to reflect you start to rethink your assumptions, you start to re-imagine what is possible and most importantly you start to reconnect with your most deeply held beliefs. Once you have done that you can begin to re-imagine a better path. For us, on these holidays, it means hearing the small still voice. It won’t always happen with thunder and lightening. Or flashes of light in front of us. Or loud music. It will be taking the time to reflect on what needs to be done.

Pausing now will help us make sense of what to do in this new year, for as Anne Dillard wrote: How we spend our days IS how we spend our lives.

The High Holidays are a time where we think about our own identity and our relationships with one another. Over the next 10 days we must explore who we are. Tomorrow we will contemplate how to locate our spiritual address and when we come back together for Yom Kippur we will contemplate the dreams we have for Israel, and how, even in the most difficult of times, do we find the resilience to persevere after loss.

In Rabbi Naomi Levy’s book, Einstein and the Rabbi, she teaches “ (p.245) What do you bring to work? Ego or Soul? What would it look like to wake up each morning and believe that you’ve been charged with a holy mission? You can view your work as toil, you can keep people in line by intimidating them or you can bring your soul to work and understand that the good Lord has sent you here to help and to heal some corner of this world. the choice is yours. DO you want to just get the job done or do you have a vision for the future and understand that you must plant seeds and be patient?

Today, we are beginning to plant the seeds for a better world. We are adding value and time.

It is clear though, that ours is not the first generation to grapple with how to care for the world. If we look back to Kohelet Rabbah, a midrashic commentary on the book of ecclesiastes, we see that it has become all too relevant today: “In the hour when the Holy one, blessed be He, created the first person, He showed him the trees in the Garden of Eden, and said to him: “See My works, how fine they are; Now all that I have created, I created for your benefit. Think upon this and do not corrupt and destroy My world, For if you destroy it, there is no one to restore it after you.” This midrash reminds us that we must add time and value, because we are responsible-both for the earth itself, and all of its inhabitants.

Our world has been created. It is here for us to enjoy. But it is also here for us to take care of. THIS is our sacred task.

The choice is ours. This year, add value to our time. Shanna Tova.