Rosh Hashanah Morning 5780
Monday, September 30, 2020
Temple Beth Zion, Buffalo, New York
On December 7, 1941, “a date that will live in infamy”, the United States military didn’t have enough rifles for the soldiers in the Army. We had no tanks and the soon-to-be-manufacturers of tanks didn’t even know what they were yet.
On June 17, 1942, only six months later, Vannevar Bush, no relation to any presidents, got President Roosevelt to sign onto a budget for a project that was so secret this was the only paper record of it. The President wrote “OK FDR” on the budget, and the Manhattan Project was born.
Like many of you here, I too have a small connection to the war effort, a massive undertaking that involved the everyday efforts of millions of real people. In 1944, my grandparents, may their memories be for blessings, moved from New York City, to Oak Ridge, Tennessee. My grandfather Jerry was a graduate student in Chemistry at Columbia University and his entire department got reassigned. Jerry occasionally commented about that time, saying that he worked on some obscure processes having to do with compounds or isotopes. He never knew any details and tended to talk about the work as a detour from his studies more than part of a massive patriotic effort.
In that small town in Tennessee that went from hundreds of residents to 85,000 in a matter of months, there were engineers and scientists, thousands of people doing every kind of work, and almost no one knew what they were working on. They were all part of the community that helped build the first atomic bomb that would eventually help end the war with Japan.
Looking back at American involvement in World War II, a mere three years and eight months - our country became the industrial behemoth that not only won a global conflict but also sowed the seeds for scientific, economic, and social advancement for decades to come. While we might be able to look back and see some grand plan at work, there really wasn’t one. There were many people with plans, and many people helping everyone they knew try everything they could. What made the biggest difference were the individual efforts of millions of people who knew that each of their small parts could make a difference. The world needed every person and everyone knew it.
As a people Jews have always taught that each and every single individual matters. Divine sparks, shards of God, are in every particle and in every person’s soul. We must reclaim the conviction of our Jewish teachers and the faith embedded in our American spirit: every one of us not only possesses potentially infinite value, but also each of us can make a difference every day. The smallest of our efforts directed in the right way, guided by good values, and coordinated together with others, can move the world. We know this as Jews. We know this as Americans.
The current events each day can confront us with a seemingly ever-expanding list of insurmountable challenges. We often feel helpless. It seems that an individual’s actions don’t matter, that history will proceed forward and things will get better or worse, and they can only be influenced by great events.
It feels like progress towards one idea or another is inevitable. We are mere cogs in the great engine of the world and really, what can one cog do to alter the direction of the ship of state, or the engine of progress?
We can succumb to the idea that great events are need to make great changes.
If only we can find the right leader.
If only we can win the War on Terror or the War on Poverty, end Racism or anti-Semitism, found the State of Israel, build the Great Society, enact the Great Leap Forward, then…
Then we would still have a lot of work to do.
This feels like too much. It is not inspiring to feel that the work will never be done. The bigger the universe gets in our minds the bigger our problems. The more people who live on the planet the more overwhelming our challenges. This is a source of our modern paralysis.
And yet, in a Jewish text from eighteen hundred years ago, our sages wrote:
You are not obligated to complete the task, nor are your free to abandon it. [Pirkei Avot 2:21, translation by Rabbi Rami Shapiro]
By thinking that our problems are totally unprecedented, we also allow ourselves to think that they are unsolvable. If they are truly unsolvable then we don’t have to do anything about them.
Our Judaism defies this.
The world has always felt too big and we have always felt too small.
Jews have always responded with a call to action, understanding that the smallest of efforts can still make the biggest of differences.
A Hasidic teaching: the universe is so finely balanced between creation and destruction, that our own personal actions, even though they are little more than grains of sand, can still tip the balance one way or another. In the face of a vast and impersonal universe we respond with chutzpah. The chutzpah that claims that even the smallest act of kindness or defiance, the smallest extra effort can transform a cog into an essential part that makes all the difference.
While we dream big, and hold ourselves to high ideals, we know that the work takes concerted effort, in small steps over time.
As I mentioned last night, while Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel talked about the lofty ideals of praying with our legs, he still had to walk in the march one step at a time.
Moses had the faith to argue with God for the Jewish people and then had to cope with the fact that he was only going to be part of the beginning of the project. He would never enter the land that was promised. Even Moses didn’t get to finish the job.
The long-term goal of the Jewish project - namely a community of fairness and justice that participates in the improvement of the world - does not demand an all-at-once solution for difficult situations. The American project - our aim to build a better country, one that provides justice and prosperity for all - has shown us that the path of progress does not actually work in grand gestures. Look closely at all of the progress that we have made as Jews or as Americans and we can see among the efforts of countless people putting in hours over the course of weeks and months and years, the individual stories of struggle and tragedy, triumph and experimentation. The massive effort to vanquish tyranny and oppression in World War II happened relatively quickly but was only effective because it was so many individual people working together.
Even a small crisis can motivate us.
Many years ago, as a college student, I saw this first hand. I volunteered on a kibbutz, in the Western Galilee. As volunteers we got to do the jobs that the Kibbutz members didn’t want to do. We washed dishes, mopped floors, shlepped bundles of bananas from the trees to the tractor cart, and did any other menial labor that, literally, fell down the hierarchy to us. Our volunteer morale was little more than the “misery loves company” of the downtrodden at the bottom of the totem pole. We did not see ourselves as taking part in the grand project of the Kibbutz.
A small crisis changed all of that.
A brush fire struck the Kibbutz and the surrounding region during my second week there threatening the agriculture of the entire region and the fate of the Kibbutz. Everyone rushed into service. Some of us went through the rows of banana trees beating out small embers and little fires with shovels. Others made way through avocado groves with water tanks on their backs attempting to put out any small fires that were catching there. While the main effort was with tank trucks and irrigation hoses, everyone knew that each of us was performing an essential task, because any ember could burst into a bigger uncontrolled blaze.
In following days no one complained about washing dishes. We knew that we were all in it together. Kibbutz members and volunteers newly understood we were all on the same team. A crisis united us. Or, we could say that a crisis sped up the normally slow process of community-building that is usually required to get people to trust that we share the same goals and mission.
Each of us can look around and see embers that might turn into wildfires. Each of us, with what we already have in us and between us, can stifle those embers. We are fighting this brush fire together.
The Hasidic teaching that the world is so finely balanced that all our actions can make a difference is borne out by some science as well. Chaos theory was beautifully expressed in the idea of the “butterfly effect” - that the “flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil could set off a tornado in Texas”. We are more thoughtful than a butterfly, and we believe that the conscious application of our efforts can make a much more positive, and much more powerful impact, than any tornado.
Here are three opportunities for us to make a difference.
In Western New York an amazing effort to make our city more equitable, fairer, and more just, started only three years ago. It is called the Racial Equity Roundtable, and it is a project of the Community Foundation of Western New York. Focusing on creating real change - in the lives of Western New Yorkers and in the systems in which we learn, live, and work - the Roundtable has improved the way employers hire, the way young people make their way through schools, and even the justice system. By the end of 2018 more than 1,200 people from more than 80 organizations have participated in the Racial Equity Impact training that shows how a more equal society provides real economic benefits for everyone. The efforts of the Roundtable were inspired by a national study showing that cities with greater equality among all ethnicities provide better living for everyone, rich and poor, from all backgrounds. In only three years, the use of one compelling piece of research, connections between a few people who cared deeply, all led to the coming together of hundreds of people in our community to make a real difference.
I am one of the members of the Racial Equity Roundtable, along with TBZ member Lana Benatovich. We facilitate Racial Healing Circles that are part of the grassroots effort to connect people from different communities so that top-down systems changes are matched by real connections in our hearts and minds. Please let me know if you will join in the efforts of the Racial Equity Roundtable - I can connect you directly. We can make a real difference in our city.
Here at Temple Beth Zion a few congregants connected our synagogue to the Religious Action Center of the Reform Movement and its efforts in New York. We are handing out a survey asking all of you which cause you would like to help us take a stand on. This is a local effort, connected to a statewide effort, that has already brought real results in Albany. We can play an important role because our state’s politics are not decided on the fifty-something floor of a skyscraper in Manhattan. These things are decided through conversations between real people and our New York legislators here in Western New York who then go to Albany and know that we care. We can make a real difference in our State.
Advocacy is only one aspect of the efforts of Reform Jews in New York and the world. Please join us this December at the Biennial of the Union of Reform Judaism, from December 11-15, in Chicago. Thousands of Reform Jews learning from one another, getting excited about what we can do in our home synagogues and together, and then sharing the biggest Reform Shabbat in the world - that’s 5,000 Reform Jews in the same room. If there’s a project that you think Temple Beth Zion ought to undertake, come to the Biennial and find out how other Reform communities have pursued it, or, perhaps even more importantly, come and get inspired about what is possible when we work together. Connect with amazing authors, like A. J. Jacobs and Sarah Hurwitz and our own Cantor Barbara Ostfeld. Meet experts on Israel, like Ambassador Dan Shapiro, Anat Hoffman from Women of the Wall, and Rabbi Gilad Kariv, who runs the Israeli Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism. Of course, all of the national leaders of the Reform Movement will be there too. We can make a real difference as Reform Jews.
This year we must take actions together. We must be more than butterfly wings affecting the weather. We must find ways to take small steps that bring all of us closer to a better world.
Theodore Parker, a Unitarian minister and prominent abolitionist, most famously quoted by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke about the arc of the universe bending towards justice.
The universe needs us to bend its arc towards justice.
I have faith in the power of the Jewish people to take small steps together that will have lasting effects for ages to come.
Believe in us, called by God, to act together.
Believe in the power of all of us working together.
Let’s get started.