Before reading this sermon, you might want to check out the first two in the series:
Throughout my life, there have always been two flags on either side of the bimah, or the Jewish stage: the American flag and the Israeli flag. This is not an arrangement that derives from divided loyalties, but rather a double measure of pride: On the one side the pride of being a citizen of the nation that provided a safe haven for my family members who fled persecution in Czarist Russia and enabled them to thrive in an open, tolerant land, and on the other side the nation that continues to symbolize the dawn of our Jewish redemption, a beacon of hope and democracy in the Middle East and an eternal symbol of our tradition.
So let’s talk about the tam, the simple child: In the Pesah haggadah, what is the answer given to the simple child’s question of “Mah zot?” What is this?
בְּחֹזֶק יָד הוֹצִיאָנוּ ה’ מִמִּצְרַיִם, מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים
It was with a mighty arm that God took us out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. (Exodus 13:14)
The answer given to the simple child dwells only on the past. No complexity: we were slaves, and then we were free. Only history; no present or future.
Although our past is essential to who we are today, we cannot be content to be the simple child, to dwell only on the past. That cannot be us. Let me explain.
What does the past look like? Well, I think it’s different depending on how many years you have been on this earth.
If you are over a certain age, you might see our history of persecution drawn in relief; you might remember the Shoah and its aftermath; you might recall that Jewish identity in the middle of the 20th century went hand-in-hand with remembering the Holocaust, and how the sympathy of the world in the late ‘40s contributed to the creation of the State of Israel (Pew Study 2013: 73% of Jews said that “Remembering the Holocaust” is essential to what it means to be Jewish, more than any other feature of Jewish life). You may also be aware of the arc of upward mobility of American Jews, and in particular the pattern of those who remained culturally Jewish but increasingly looked to religious leaders to be their proxy in spiritual matters.
Those of you who are younger than I am (I am grateful to have walked this earth for 47 very complicated years) might have a different perspective on the past. You grew up in America with no barriers to entering wider society. Anti-Semitism has not seemed particularly relevant, at least until the last year, with the rise of the alt-right. You have never lived in a world without a strong, resilient State of Israel. You may even be increasingly disappointed that Israel may not be the or lagoyim / the light unto the nations that we expect her to be. Your relationship to Judaism is far less connected to institutions, and more do-it-yourself.
So how do we move forward together from this point, as one people who are drawn to two flags?
We cannot be the simple child, only replaying and living in the past. Rather, we have to acknowledge the past and embrace the future. That is, we must embrace the unknown.
100 Years of Balfour
Let’s consider Israel.
This is a fascinating year with respect to Israeli history, because we are commemorating two anniversaries this year. On November 2, 1917, the same year that Beth Shalom was established, the British government issued the Balfour Declaration, which stated the following:
“His Majesty’s Government views with favour the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine.”
It was a major victory for the political Zionists who had been working with the Brits to secure a Jewish state, with the goal of fulfilling hatiqvah bat shenot alpayim, the hope of 2,000 years.
Remember on Rosh Hashanah, when we spoke about the Romans destroying the Second Temple in 70 CE? From that point on, that region was controlled by one empire or another.
Successive waves of immigration, starting in the 1860s, had brought tens of thousands of pioneers to the land, so that by 1917 there were already a good number of Jewish pioneers living in Palestine and building the new home for the Jews. But they had not yet received any assurance from any major player that a new Jewish state was even remotely possible. They were working the fields, growing Jaffa oranges, and meditating on the words of Theodor Herzl: Im tirtzu, ein zo agadah. If you desire it, it is not a fantasy.
With the fall of the Turkish Ottoman Empire during World War I, the land that the Romans had labeled Palestine now lay in British hands. Dr. Chaim Weizmann, then president of the British Zionist Federation, worked quickly with British politicians, including Foreign Secretary Lord Arthur Balfour (the one who wrote the famous Declaration), to set the foundation for a new political entity in the region. (Dr. Weizmann went on not only to found the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, but also to become the State of Israel’s first president.)
The Balfour Declaration paved the way for the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. Herzl’s desire became a reality; the Jewish dream of being am hofshi be’artzeinu, a free people in our land, had taken a substantial leap forward. (BTW, the British government reinforced its support for the Balfour Declaration in April of this year.)
Fast forward 50 years after Balfour, to June of 1967. The State of Israel, 19 years old and only tenuously holding on to her tiny piece of land, She pre-emptively attacked her Arab neighbors, who were busy amassing troops to attack. In what came to be known as the Six Day War, Israel captured not only the Old City of Jerusalem, reuniting the city that had been divided for 19 years, but all the remaining territory of the historical Palestine, plus the Sinai peninsula and the Golan Heights, effectively tripling its area. The world, including Diaspora Jewry, woke up to the fact that Israel was here to stay.
But the heady victory of the Six Day War not only secured Israel’s future and guaranteed her ongoing stability, it also set up fifty years of political complexity on the ground. Not only was she still technically at war with the entire Arab world, but now also in control of an additional 1 million Arabs, who had been building a national identity in resistance to Egyptian and Jordanian control, and who were certainly not grateful to their new landlords. It was only five years later that the Palestinian Black September terrorist operation killed 11 Israelis in Munich, opened up Israelis to ongoing terror at home and abroad.
Herzl and Weizmann and Balfour and Ben Gurion did not anticipate that we would be in the place that we are today: a world in which the intractable challenges of creating safety, security, and peace in the Middle East have cost the region nearly 100,000 lives and, by one estimate, $13 trillion dollars.
So while we continue to celebrate the past, to revel in nearly 70 years of the state of Israel, we also have to be realistic about the future. Many of you know that I am an incurable optimist, and optimists are especially rare right now.
I am also a proud Zionist, one who is committed to an Israel that continues to be strong and democratic. And I am also the father of an Israeli 11th-grader, a kibbutznik who is facing his bagruyot (the high school matriculation exams) with greater anxiety.
But I also believe in talking, in bringing the relevant parties back to the negotiating table. I wish I had the answers. I don’t know how to bring about peace and security for Israel. But I do know that the status quo is not sustainable, that the arsenals of Hezbullah and Hamas continue to grow, that the next time rockets fly from Gaza they will reach my son’s kibbutz, and that the only way things will change is by looking to the future rather than the past.
We cannot simply look back and admire the string of successes of the last 100 years. Even if we leave aside the question of a Palestinian state or the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran: Israel has serious challenges within, among them many citizens living in poverty, the always growing divide between secular and religious Jews, the politically fractious nature of Israeli politics, and of course the current government’s willingness to throw non-Orthodox Diaspora Jewry under a bus for political purposes.
Those of you who heard my Hamilton impression on the first day of Rosh Hashanah may be relieved that I will not be rapping again. Nonetheless, Washington’s advice to Hamilton from the Broadway show comes back to me here: “Winning was easy, young man. Governing is harder.”
Embracing the future means that we have to keep talking, keep facing all of the serious challenges before us, and look forward.
American Jewish Experience: Decline of “Ethnicity”
But Israel is only one of the flags of my identity; the other flag paints my Magen David in red, white, and blue.
The landscape of American Judaism has changed dramatically since this congregation formed in 1917 as the first Jewish congregation established in Squirrel Hill. And that has everything to do with what you might call a decline in a distinct Jewish “ethnicity” among American Jews.
It has often been said that the Jews are like everyone else, only more so. And today, that is more true than it has ever been!
The world of our parents and grandparents was one of exclusion from the wider society. Living apart from the Ukrainians, Russians, and Poles was expected in the old country; when our forebears immigrated to this country many of them maintained their distinct dress, language, foods, songs, and of course religious rituals for a generation or so.
But my grandmother, who was 8 years old when she came to Boston in 1921 from the province of Volhynia in the Ukraine, did not want to be a “greenhorn.” She refused to speak Yiddish. She soon learned that she loved to eat lobster and clams, like so many other Bostonians. She wasn’t so interested in Jewish life. And so she, like many other immigrants, began to shed the ethnic attributes of the old world.
Nearly a century later, where are we as modern Jews? We speak the same language, eat the same foods, wear the same clothes, and hold the same jobs as our gentile neighbors. And, perhaps most significantly, they don’t mind socializing with, and even marrying us. So where does that leave our Jewish identity?
Much of what we think of as Judaism is highly connected to Jewish ethnicity. And now that the ethnicity is mostly gone, the practices associated with Judaism seem, for many, irrelevant.
Today, while our Shabbat morning services are full and lively, we occasionally struggle on weekday and even Shabbat evenings to make a minyan of ten people. Only reluctantly can we get members of the congregation, even those who know and love tefillah, to come on a regular basis to help us make a minyan, a quorum of ten. Even more troubling to me is the idea that the weekday service is there only for people to say kaddish, memorial prayers for their deceased loved ones. I am fairly certain that’s not the original idea of daily tefillah / prayer.
Meanwhile, from where I stand, the number of younger people in our orbit who derive meaning in services seems to decline.
We are in a totally different place today from when this congregation began; the Jews have a completely different view of themselves. We do not necessarily need a social club of our own, since we are welcome everywhere. We do not need a place where people can schmooze or kibitz.
We cannot operate a synagogue based on the models of the past. We cannot only look backward with nostalgia. That is what the simple child does.
Instead, we have to take what we have and move forward. And what we have is the richness of accumulated Jewish wisdom. We have the words of the Torah, which tell us to leave a portion of what we reap in life to those in need. We have the words of the Talmud, which speak of the essential obligation of visiting those who are ill, of performing deeds of lovingkindness, of making peace between people. We have the words of philosophy, which teach us to find the meaning in our concrete, scientific world. We have the words of tefillah, of prayer, which bring us humility and compassion as we reach within ourselves and out to the Divine. We have the ongoing inspiration that is the State of Israel and our connection to it. We have all of these things, even if we do not speak Yiddish or eat gefilte fish.
All of that has already been uncoupled from the trappings of ethnicity. But we still need a synagogue, because this is the house that keeps all those things alive. This is the place where we teach them, where we live them. It has been observed that while Jews used to come to synagogue because they were Jewish, today they come to BE Jewish.
Ladies and gentlemen, this particular moment, 100 years after the establishment of Congregation Beth Shalom and 100 years since Lord Balfour set in motion the creation of the State of Israel, we are at a critical juncture. We need to continue to be here as a community, as a synagogue, offering guidance and inspiration and community and connection and qedushah / holiness. We need to continue, as our mission statement says, enriching lives through community, lifelong learning, and spiritual growth.
And we need Israel to be there as or lagoyim, that inspirational light unto the nations, a beacon for Diaspora Jews and for the rest of the world.
And so that’s why we have to think to the future. That’s why we cannot be like the simple child. We cannot merely think wistfully about the past, and expect that the 20th century version of Beth Shalom will always be relevant. We have to look forward. We have to think outside the box. We have to find ways to connect with people that are new and powerful.
And that’s why I am counting on all of you.
Many of us in the room know that this is the only night of the year on which one wears a tallit, a prayer shawl. Traditionally, the tallit is worn only during the day.
It is customary to wear a tallit in the evening on Yom Kippur because our prayer never stops; even though we go home and sleep. We don’t eat, and we deny ourselves a range of physical pleasures. It is as though on this day we never stop pleading with God for forgiveness.
In the spirit of the full 25 hours of kavvanah / intention of Yom Kippur, when you go home tonight, take that one step further. Rather than fantasizing about breaking the fast tomorrow evening, take some time to think about what it is that will make you put more time and energy and resources into building our future together.
Do not think that because you cannot read Hebrew at light speed you are not capable of contributing to the future of Judaism. Do not think that if you do not know Maimonides from Mendelsohn you are unworthy of creating the Jewish future. On the contrary: I’d make the argument that this would make you uniquely qualified to participate in the conversation. If being Jewish matters to you but you do not know exactly how or why, then you are perfectly positioned to help us envision our community for the next 100 years.
I hope you, unlike the tam, the simple child, will look to the future. You chose to be here tonight. Make the decision to be here next week. Invest in the future of this community with integrity and pride. And please don’t just come to me with, “Hey Rabbi, here’s an idea that you should do.” Rather, “Hey Rabbi, here’s an idea that I want to do, and I’m willing to help make it happen.” Because our sustainability depends on your willingness to partner with this community in building together.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, evening of Kol Nidrei, 9/29/17.)