Please note that this material is under my copyright. You have my permission to forward it in its entirety, but not excerpted, as long as you include this disclaimer. I am sorry for these conditions, but they save me a lot of explaining on the other end! Jack Moline
Kol Nidrei, 5767/2006 Responsibility ©Rabbi Jack Moline
Some of you took the time to communicate with me about one or both of my messages on Rosh HaShanah. There was agreement and disagreement, appreciation and criticism, and a few people who expressed their opinions not to me directly, but by physical movement, ranging from a thumbs-up to the ever-popular stomping around in a huff.
But there was one thing that seems to have struck a respondent chord in my boosters and detractors alike. It was my introduction on the first day. Here are the three sentences that seemed to capture the mood:
I know that these past years, and this year in particular, have been difficult and exhausting years. On the global stage, on the national front, on the local scene and, for far too many of you, on the personal level, it seems like there is no end to the stream of bad news, tragedy and seemingly insurmountable challenge. The result has been an undercurrent of futility in our lives that has sapped all but the most enthusiastic or sheltered among us of any of the boundless optimism we remember from a decade ago.
I know you are tired. You compassion has flagged. Your anger seems more an end in and of itself than righteous indignation. The passion you once felt for matters of principle has now deflated to the hope that you can minimize the damage you see others inflicting. You have better things to do with your time. You are just about to give up.
I beg you again -- don't. You are Jews. You are here in this world for a purpose, and as far back as the Torah it was pretty clear that it would be an uphill struggle. We are a small people. For all our accomplishments, for all our longevity, for all the accusations of those who despise us, we are powerless except for personal and collective example.
You know that in your bones. It expresses itself in sometimes profound and sometimes silly ways. As a people, we take pride that we resurrected first a language and then a country, both given up for dead a thousand years before. The Exodus – our exodus from Egypt – and our survival in a hostile Diaspora have inspired former African slaves and current Tibetan Buddhists and, talk about your irony, Palestinian Arabs.
We glow at the mention of our choicest fruit. The smartest man in the world? Einstein. The funniest TV show ever? Seinfeld. The iconic female political leader? Golda.
And for the same reason, we cringe when someone falls short. I won't embarrass the spoiled fruit of our people, but I will remind you that thirty years ago, the Jewish community heaved a collective sign of relief when it turned out that Son of Sam killer David Berkowitz was not actually a Jew.
It doesn't matter if you are a person of high visibility or a face in the crowd. The burden that falls on you as a Jew is that a spotlight will always be upon you. Some will resent it, some will admire it, but all will notice it. I could offer you a dozen reasons for it, from chosenness to anti-semitism, but tonight I am only concerned with the fact, not the backstory. And that's why you can't give up. That's why you need to remember my two mantras this season.
You will remember, if you were here on Rosh HaShanah, that I quoted my very wise and sensitive colleague Rabbi Shamai Kanter. He posted a message on RAVNET in response to the pronouncements of younger colleagues about the essential message of the season. He wrote, "If I were speaking this year, I would present two messages: `Be proud to be a Jew' is one, and the other is `Fear not, for God is with you.'" And if you are looking to find a theme in my fifteen or twenty minutes of fame each of these four opportunities, that's it. The two messages are at the beginning and the end of each sermon, and the rest is just my attempt to justify my excessive salary.
You have also heard me rely on the words of Rabbi Shai Held, an exceptional young scholar and person of deep human insight. In a paper he wrote on a pressing social matter not relevant to this discussion, he laid out a concise philosophy in just a few paragraphs. I hope I do not damage them by condensing them further.
He posits the obvious foundation of Jewish belief: we are created in God's image, and therefore each of us is uniquely beloved of God. But the evidence in the constant assault on human dignity seems otherwise – in literal and figurative ways we suffer from hunger, poverty, oppression, illness and loneliness. Rabbi Held writes: "in the yawning chasm between the [two]...the covenant between God and Israel is born."
"By creating human beings, God has taken an enormous risk – the risk that God will be painfully and repeatedly disappointed. In an infinite act of love, God has chosen to need us. Judaism rises and falls with the insistence that God has entered into a relationship with the Jewish people[, a covenant,] in which we are called upon to help narrow the enormous gap between the ideal and the real; evil must be combated and suffering must be dramatically mitigated so that the earth can be filled 'with the knowledge of the Lord.' God's dream is of a world in which human dignity is real and the presence of God is manifest. To be a covenantal Jew is to dare to dream with God."
That's my challenge to you this year as we stare into that chasm that separates the ideal of God's image from the real of the human condition. My challenge to you is to dare to dream with God. Our task is to address the hunger, poverty, oppression, illness and loneliness that separate humanity from its Creator. Our task is, through the example of our covenant, to persuade the people watching us in that spotlight that there is a better way.
Allow me to make an observation that is obvious to you intellectually, but you do not understand viscerally unless you grew up off the North American continent. Being a Jew and being an American are not the same thing. Duh, right? Lots of Americans aren't Jews, although not quite as many as we used to think. But never mind the 97.3% of this country that did not call a synagogue this morning to see if there were still tickets available for tonight. What makes you a Jew and what makes you an American are not the same thing. I don't mean birthright and citizenship. I mean, instead, the values that make you a Jew and the values that make you an American are not the same values. And one value in particular is what we, small and powerless except as we learn to imitate others, must contribute to this magnificent nation.
Some of you out there are philosophers, or experts in forms of government, or accomplished academic name-droppers. Not me. I am just a simple country rabbi. So forgive me if I race through something without citations.
The foundation of American society is Christianity. I mean that not in a religious sense, though some would have you believe otherwise, but in its ethos. Christianity is a religion that is about the person before it is about the community. That is to say, your entry into the community of Christians is a result of a personal decision you make. You cannot be born a Christian. It is a choice made at some point in your life that puts you into a personal relationship with God. At its essence, Christianity is about the person. And that person must call into community other like-minded people.
Many modern expressions of Christianity accept the notion that there are other ways to be in relationship with God, but even those expressions consider it a personal choice.
At its founding, the United States affirmed that personal choice and that personal relationship with God. Our Declaration of Independence asserts three unalienable rights – not the only three, apparently, but the only three worth mentioning: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. As a practical matter, the Constitution affirms a slew of other rights: speech, assembly, redress of grievances, religion, press, personal arms, trial by lay jury and possession of property, to name a few. Later additions to that document have enumerated other personal rights implied but not specified previously, having to do with the personal dignity and integrity of the human being.
The choice to exercise those rights lies with the individual human being. Our relationship with the laws of nature and nature's God are personal. At its essence, the United States is about the person. And on that basis, we have formed a community to protect the individuality of other persons. While the United States differs from Christianity on the matter of birthright, it is identical in its affirmation of personal autonomy. The Christian's personal relationship with Jesus and the American's exercise of personal rights are at the center of identity.
You are not Christians, or so I am assuming for the sake of this sermon, but most of you are Americans. At the very least, all of you at this moment enjoy the benefits of being Americans. And if, God forbid, someone were to seek to restrict the free exercise of the guarantees of the Constitution and its amendments, you would protest with great confidence that your rights were being violated. The cop orders you to move along, you respond, "You are denying me my right to free assembly!" The courthouse denies you entry with a political message emblazoned on your shirt, you respond, "You are denying me my right to free speech!" The synagogue insists that you need a ticket to attend Kol Nidrei services and tickets are for members only, you respond, "You are denying me my right to pray!"
"I have my rights!" is the classic indignant cry of Americans in any situation they deem unfair. And, indeed, the function of government in this country, classically, is to protect the rights of its citizens and to restrict those rights only when they infringe on the free exercise of rights by other citizens.
The Libertarians are delighted, the Republicans are cautiously optimistic and the Democrats are wondering when I went over to the other side.
Americans are so devoted to these rights that they have become downright evangelical about them, calling into community people all over the world to embrace the default rights of American citizens – free press, free speech, free religious practice, free choice of leadership. There may be other ways to ensure those rights, but they must include the right to freely choose.
There's only one problem. It doesn't work. And before you get too upset with me, let me assure you that I will illustrate that statement for you in a moment, but first I must spend a moment suggesting, as Abba Hillel Silver used to say, where Judaism differs.
Judaism is about community before it is about the person. We are the children of Israel. We are the Jewish people. In spite of the fact that we are beloved of God individually, the individual is important in our tradition for a much different reason, and it has to do with our covenant with God, the vehicle by which we narrow the chasm between the ideal and the real. Born into covenant as we are, we have no rights. Rights are a byproduct of the authentic Jewish community, not its organizing principle. As individual Jews, as units of the community, we have responsibilities. Or, more accurately, we have obligations, mitzvot, commandments. These responsibilities are ours whether we fulfill them or not, whether we recognize them or not. The chief rabbi of Israel and the junior senator from Virginia have exactly the same obligations under Jewish law.
But if they do not fulfill them, they remain Jews and that spotlight remains on them.
We enjoy freedom of choice, but that freedom is to choose between doing our duty and not doing our duty. And if we choose not to do our duty, then that choice is the wrong choice. Don't be too surprised. We just put you through two and a half hours of saying it over and over again.
For this moment, I want you to forget about your so-called ritual obligations. The topic is what we have to contribute to America, and the fact is kashrut and shatnez are not high on the list. I want to talk about our responsibilities to each other, the so-called ethical responsibilities.
In the Bible and again in the Talmud, the administrative functions of society are funded by a variety of taxes. Tithes, offerings and sacrifices, though couched in religious language, serve the dual function of fulfilling instructions for worship and supporting the Temple and the priests. Kings and other rulers are permitted to levy taxes or assessments to maintain the administrative functions of government. But when a human need presents itself that is not in the budget, so to speak, then the community turns to tzedakah. I hope I do not have to explain that tzedakah is not charity. Charity is a voluntary gift of the heart. Tzedakah is a mitzvah. Tzedakah is compulsory and therefore may be compelled. Some people may exercise their freedom of choice not to give, but that choice is wrong. And while the person who gives tzedakah is praiseworthy, even if he or she gives grudgingly and under duress, the praise is for fulfilling the mitzvah, not for helping those who are in need.
Fulfilling a mitzvah reflects an awareness of a higher order. Helping those in need is non-negotiable.
Tzedakah begins at home. You have already had the needs of this home presented to you, but we have other homes as well. One of them is located across the Atlantic and the Mediterranean – the State of Israel. If you are not tangibly supporting many causes in Israel, then you are making a wrong choice. The cause closest to home for us as Conservative Jews in Israel is the cause of Masorti Judaism, the expression of American Judaism in its Israeli context. We have a variety of people, including Joan Smutko, Jack and Judy Chesley, Donald Goldstein, Don and Merilee Perkal and others, who can talk to you about needs and responses. Tonight, I lift up the cause as an illustration that we take care of our own, but not only our own.
If I could, I would compel you to give tzedakah. It would be the most honorable use of whatever power a rabbi holds over his community. The crying human needs that are the result of hunger, poverty, oppression, illness and loneliness cannot be met by a predetermined budget. Torah understood that truth when it observed that in spite of our institutionalized safeguards, the poor would never disappear from the land. The society that balances a budget on the backs of the poor is a society in which the well-being of any individual is more important than the well-being of the community. That is to say, it is a society in which personal rights are more important than community responsibility.
Our Sages taught in the Talmud and the Midrash, kol yisrael areivim zeh bazeh. It is difficult to translate that expression well, but most people say, "All of Israel is responsible one for the other." Its original context has to do with how we bear guilt for each other's transgressions, but the phrase seemed so rightly to capture the essence of living in Jewish community that it has been appropriated throughout the centuries and across modern denominational and organizational lines to emphasize our obligation to aid each other in distress. When a Jew suffers and turns to other Jews, his cry is, "Kol yisrael areivim zeh bazeh."
But it seems to me that when the claim is instead, "Kol AMERICA areivim zeh bazeh," the response that we hear most often is, "I have my rights." I have a personal relationship with my rights, with my property, with my income. Only so much is for the government and its functions. The rest, no matter how much, is for me. I earned it. It's mine.
Much of the sense of futility and despair I mentioned at the beginning of these remarks comes from our seeming inability to alleviate the suffering that is happening right under our noses in an America that is exponentially larger and more complex than the tiny and isolated country that ratified the Bill of Rights. Charitable contributions are not sufficient to rebuild, let alone prevent, the natural and terrorist disasters that have befallen the United States in the past five years.
Nowhere is that more evident than in the region devastated by Hurricane Katrina. What is left undone in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi and, more importantly, who is left displaced and deeper in poverty, is a continuing blemish on our society. It undermines our claim to be a society that values all its citizens equally. Even the relief that has been provided for the residents came from other programs designed to help those already in need. FEMA trailers in St. Bernard's Parish were paid for by food stamps in Detroit.
Yet when a sense of responsibility is in place, the dollars are made available. We are spending billions of dollars on a frustrating and controversial war in Iraq. The war itself infuriates some of us and inspires others. But America is responsible for its men and women in the armed services, and whether you support this effort to promote democracy abroad that reflects our deepest values or you consider it an ill-conceived expedition that belies a deep moral shortcoming, you think our troops – including members of this congregation – deserve every advantage.
However much our society's emphasis on the rights of the individual celebrates human autonomy and the importance of choice, it is insufficient in and of itself to prevent self-interest from disabling our necessary interest in others. Charity requires that large numbers of individuals be manipulated into voluntarily separating from their rightful attachment to their personal wealth. If a more compelling cause comes along, then let us take from the child who lives in the shadow of the DC Armory and give instead to the child who lives in the shadow of the Louisiana Superdome. And if there is a competition for scarce resources and the loser has to suffer – well, that's the price of preserving the rights of the haves not to relinquish involuntarily to the have-nots.
Rights alone promote no sense of obligation to others. They promote only a sense of entitlement, only a sense of defensiveness. And while I, like you, am fierce about those entitlements, I, like you, am horrified to see the Lower Ninth Ward and St. Bernards Parish and Biloxi looking worse than they did at this time last year, and terrified to know that we are unprepared to respond much better to the next disaster.
As Jews, we should model the sense of obligation that comes along with being in covenant to narrow the chasm between human dignity and human suffering. This disconnect between the affirmation of the ideal and the evidence of the real makes demands upon us, and if we surrender to the seduction of our entitlements as citizens of the United States, then we betray not only our covenant with God, but our duty to preserve and defend a more perfect union. Small though we are, we are here for a reason – to bear witness to the gift that a life of mitzvot, a life of community brings to a society founded on the principle of personal, and therefore isolated, relationships with God and human dignity.
In very practical terms, it means advocating for some very unpopular changes in society. The richest stratum of this society – a stratum most of us belong to, in spite of our protests to the contrary – must be taxed more for the sake of the welfare of the lower strata of this society. The corners of the fields left for the poor were left only by the owners of the fields – it was an obligation of the rich. The interest-free loans that were made to the poor were made only by the wealthy with money to spare. The homes that were opened to the hungry were the homes in which people with food to spare lived. The poor were, of course, exempt from performing mitzvot they had no resources to perform! In short, the rich were taxed for the benefit of the poor, and far from being an infringement on their rights, it was a measure of their righteousness.
And that, my friends, is the third gift we Jews have to contribute to this blessed country in which we live. It is a sense that more than being entitled in this world, we are responsible for each other. More than the goal of preserving what is mine is the goal of protecting what is yours. More than gauging success by the standard of how much I could take for myself, we must gauge it by the standard of how much I was privileged to do for others. And we must seek out leaders in business, in education and in government who are unafraid to demand those benchmarks from themselves and their fellow citizens. Those are Jewish values, even if they are not always Jewish self-interest.
Imagine America with a reputation as the land of opportunity...to do good. Imagine an America that has sheltered its homeless, fed its hungry, healed its sick out of the sense of entitlement that once reserved that human dignity for the well-to-do. Imagine an America whose citizens declare, "I have my responsibilities so that you may have your rights."
Does it seem impossible? Without someone to advocate and model it, it cannot even be imagined. But a small and powerless people can contribute to this nation an example in personal and public behavior that is the universal extension of our particular tradition – kol america areivim zeh bazeh, all of America is responsible one for the other. Be proud to be a member of the people covenanted to bear witness to that message.
And do not be afraid that we will fail. It is the dream that we dare to dream with some very good company. Because bearing that message as a Jew, be you liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat, political activist or occasional voter, you need fear not, for God is with you.