Are we there yet?

Rosh ha-Shanah Evening
1 Tishrei 5779
Sunday, September 9, 2018
Temple Beth Zion, Buffalo, New York

by Rabbi Jonathan Freirich

Torah opens with God speaking the world into being:

וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֖ים יְהִי־א֑וֹר וַיְהִי־אוֹר:

And God said, “Let there be light”, and there was light. (Genesis 1:3)

God’s words bring the universe into being, and God’s words banished Adam and Eve from the garden, but then God’s words could not prevent Cain from murdering his brother.

God sets things in motion with words and then the effect cannot be undone by words. We know that we cannot control what happens after we have spoken, and we also know that we cannot avoid the responsibility for the impact of what we have spoken. We are powerful creators when we speak, and limited when trying to control what we have done with our words. We know we are responsible and that we cannot undo what we have spoken.

The truth of communication is that as soon as we speak, gesture, or release anything into the world - written word, video, audio, image - then we no longer control what it means. People read into words and images things that the artist or author or director or actor never intended.

Today, instead of having a public conversation about the power of speech and its impact and the frequent difference between intended meaning and the meaning heard, we face a dire problem.

We currently suffer from a persistent, pervasive, and nearly absolute refusal to understand that what we say makes a difference. Public figures regularly deny that saying something to get attention in the moment makes irreparable ripples that we cannot undo. Our leaders must now address so much more than politics. We have reached the point when we need bold and honest and public conversations about what is right and what is wrong - what is moral and immoral - what contributes to the downfall of our country or lifts it up. 

Let us be thoroughly clear: this is not about red or blue or green affiliations. This is not about right or left. This is about what we as Jews and Americans must bring to our public discourse so that we will have a future.

Heinrich Graetz, Nineteenth-Century Jewish Historian, observed that, “Judaism is not a religion of the present but of the future,” which looks “forward to the ideal future age…when the knowledge of God and the reign of justice and contentment shall have united all men in the bonds of brotherhood.”

As Jews we need no reminder of the power of words to incite violence. Admittedly, we can be oversensitive. There is no denying that our experiences give us good reasons for our sensitivities.

More than our history makes us sensitive. Our central teachings demand that we pay attention.

We are commanded to listen to God’s words, to strive to understand them, to grapple with them, to turn them into a good way of living and being together.

שְׁמַע | יִשְׂרָאֵל, יְיָ | אֱלֹהֵינוּ, יְיָ | אֶחָד:

“Listen Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is One.”

When the rabbis who fashioned our Judaism began to craft the customs and traditions we follow, they started here, with these words.

“Listen Israel, pay close attention…”

In the Torah scroll, two letters in Sh’ma visually stand out. The last letter of the word “Sh’ma-Listen”, the “ayin”, and the last later of the word “Echad-One”, the “daled”, are written much larger than the rest of the letters of the Torah. These two letters form the word: “eid-witness”. One message of Sh’ma is “bear witness”, pay close attention, listen and then decide what should be done in response to what we hear, see, and notice.

I cannot tell you what we need to bear witness to - there is no easy list of signs of wonders and offenses that we must notice. Rather I appeal to our consciences to trust our communal norms and refer back to them and each other. We witness together, and must turn to each other with our questions about what we notice.

And, we must do more than notice.

When is the right time to raise the alarm? I worry about this because I wonder if I am just being an oversensitive and paranoid Jew.

We know that our survival relies on paying attention. We all have heard the stories of Jews who listened and figured out how to leave in time. We hear the Holocaust survivors noting that the current rhetoric reminds them of what they heard in Germany in the 1930’s.

No matter how much we want to ignore the signs, we are unable to do so. We ask ourselves, over and over again: “Are we there yet?”

At the time of the Civil War anti-immigrant hostility raged, Jews were suspected of treason, of profiteering with the South, and expelled from the Union Army in the West. Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, the main promoter of American Reform Judaism, and the man whose visit inspired Temple Beth Zion to become Reform in 1863, publicly hedged on supporting abolition because of concerns that if America stopped persecuting African-Americans, then Jews would be next. Rabbi Isaac Meyer Wise was clear about the wrongness of slavery, still Rabbi Wise was realistically afraid that the oppression and persecution of the Jews in this country would come as it had in Europe.

As North and South argued the questions - especially whether or not to expand slavery beyond the original slave-holding States, civility was abandoned entirely. In 1856, a Southerner responded to insults and anti-slavery rhetoric by physically beating Senator Charles Sumner on the floor of Senate. Sumner’s injuries were so severe that he could not serve in the Senate for three years. The North proclaimed Sumner a hero and the South proclaimed the violence against him both warranted and insufficient.

The United States that Abraham Lincoln faced four years later was even more divided. Lincoln was the moderate candidate, the reconciler, and his mere election was enough of an excuse for the Southern States to secede and begin the Civil War.

And still, with all of that, in the face of anti-immigrant fervor towards others, the overt anti-Semitism by the North, and the violence everywhere, we careful and oversensitive Jews stayed here.

Is there something so much more alarming today?

Should my sense of alert lead me to abandon our home and drive across the bridge seeking refuge in Canada?

Are we at a new point of alarm that must spur us to action, or have we passed the point of effective action so that we must instead be silent, like Rabbi Wise, for our own safety?

Our public discourse is in a state of failure not unlike the one that allowed violence to erupt on the floor of the Senate more than one hundred and fifty years ago. Irresponsible leaders choose to embrace positions solely to grab headlines. We the public must remind them that they were elected to pursue principles and policies, not “likes” and Twitter followers.

Leaders shout the most outrageous things in public now and then later claim that what we heard was not what they meant. That what they said meant something else. This is worse than an argument. This is absolutely demeaning to every person who listens and every convention about shared meanings that makes society possible.

Judaism demands that we learn and teach. The verses that follow Sh’ma Yisrael, “Listen Israel”, command us to “place the words on our hearts, ,teach them to our children, speak them in all places and at all times, bind them and write them.” We understand this as a commandment, an imperative, to internalize meanings so as to better understand and develop and clarify words and transform them into meaningful actions.

The claim that I can say something and then, tomorrow, with all of you as witnesses, claim that I said something that meant the opposite of those plain words - this claim destroys the very foundation of the language and speech upon which civilization is based.

We knew this long before we could turn to a video record of every word uttered in public. We knew this because we listened, learned, wrote, and then rewrote - such is the Jewish project. Turn words into teaching, teaching into practice, and practice into a better society.

We stand today as Jewish sentinels on the threshold of a New Year looking out and seeing and remembering and knowing that violence lays just beneath the surface of human society - held at bay by the thinnest of community agreements on civility and law.

In this time of seemingly shifting and emerging facts, of perspectives and opinions constantly claiming firm ground on insubstantial foundations, I struggled to bring words before you today. How could I possibly think that something I wrote yesterday, or last week, or last month, would still be relevant, meaningful, or even truthful in the next minute?

I imagine that being a border guard during a time of relative peace can be stressful - soldiers often speak of guard duty as a battle with boredom and the difficulties of maintaining vigilance. We are in a different place altogether. Each day, gazing out at the potential maelstrom, wondering if warning is needed, half-deafened by a tumult that only seems partially real - would any warning I could offer be heard? And if so am I justified in crying out or merely crying wolf?

We know that there is substance to be found beneath the noise. Principled and foundational teachings still help us sift through the overwhelming volume of questionable data thrown at us every day. We use these foundations to aid us in deciding: have we reached the precipice yet?

So we listen and bear witness.

Our witnessing demands knowledge and memory - we bear witness to a history filled with tragic terror a good deal of which has been directed at us. Our witnessing demands that we fulfill the commandment from Leviticus [19:16]:

לֹ֥א תַעֲמֹ֖ד עַל־דַּ֣ם רֵעֶ֑ךָ

Do not stand idly by while your neighbor’s blood is shed

We must interfere. We must prevent bloodshed. We must stop the violence. And there is bloodshed, and violence is here.

To witness is to take responsibility for what happens in our presence.

We are responsible, one for another, as Jews, as Buffalonians, as Americans, as Humans, as inhabitants of this planet. We are all interconnected and we must remember to act with conviction to threats to the entirety of our existence together.

Attention seeking leaders stand in front of us every day, saying that they uphold principles, and turn around acting in total disregard of everything they claim.

We must call this out. We must demand reason when nonsense is put forward as justifications for injustice. We must call out bigotry when it is expressed.

We can stand aside no longer. If for no other reason that if we stand aside, then history has shown us that we are next.

The Nigerian poet and novelist Ben Okri offers us this advice:

“A nation is shaped by the stories its children are told. A nation is sustained by the stories it tells itself. The good stories can liberate its potential, it helps it face the dragons of its evils.”

The story we tell as American Jews can start with the words of George Washington to the Touro Synagogue of Newport, Rhode Island: 

It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

[“Letter to the Jews of Newport”, 18 August 1790, Washington Papers, 6]

We remember what it is like to be welcomed as good citizens and so we welcome others, newcomers like us.

Unlike everywhere else we have been, when our history followed the brutal pattern of persecution, pogrom, and expulsion, here we are not outsiders. Yes, we face challenges and anti-Semitism, and yes, we are concerned, but we are truly both American Jews and Jewish Americans - we are part and parcel of the struggle to make the United States both complicated and beautiful, truly “e pluribus unum” - “out of many one”.

After centuries of horror in Europe, after our unsure stance during the Civil War, we here in this country stood up for our fellow citizens. As co-founders of the NAACP, as freedom riders, and as advocates for equal rights, civil rights, and voting rights, we have known when actions were needed, and taken them.

Our story as Jews is an American story, perhaps best expressed by the words of hope spoken by Lincoln in his First Inaugural address, words that still cry out to us today as we attempt to bridge the gaps between us:

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. 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.

This is a story we can tell to each other, to our children, and to their children.

Ben Okri also wrote that “the true storyteller works with the future.”

We retell and repeat, reinterpret and reimagine, the stories of our Torah, and the stories that become our Torah, to remind us what to do in every age, and in the face of every crisis so that we can build the future.

How will we tell the story of these days?

Were we silent when we should have spoken up?

Were we seated when we should have stood up?

Did we stand idly by as blood was shed?

I may yet be wrong. This may not be the moment of action. I am not advocating we all cross the Peace Bridge never to return. We stayed through the Civil War, and we should stay now. We are needed more than ever.

We must not allow our country to get there.

I believe in us, and I believe in America. America needs us to do more than believe. We must participate. We must vote and get out the vote. We must hold our leaders accountable. We must unite around the principles that make this place a miracle for Jews and so many others.

We cannot wait.

We must make this year a good year so that there can be more good years.

L’Shanah Tovah.