Thank you for your interest in my High Holy Day sermon. I hope you enjoy reading it. 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
I learned a long time ago to speak to my audience. Maybe that sounds funny to you, but you'd be surprised how many people – and especially rabbis – use the presence of any group of people as an excuse to speak to people who aren't there.
It is a long-standing Jewish tradition. Just two weeks ago, we read about Moses' last valedictory, and he begins by acknowledging his listeners and then continuing to address, and I quote, "those who are not with us here today." Fortunately, Moses had a sense that his words would be preserved for thousands of years. Mine generally evaporate much more quickly.
So I want to assure you that I am speaking with and about us today, not about people who are not in this room. That's not to say I don't hope you walk away with a larger lesson, but what I really am concerned about is you, individually and collectively. What I really am concerned about is Agudas Achim Congregation of Northern Virginia.
And of course, that's why I begin with the Declaration of Independence.
You know, it is a remarkable document, the Declaration. It is remarkable because of what it accomplished and it is remarkable because, like the Torah, people tend to quote the familiar parts and ignore entirely the tedious detail in the middle. The grievances that form the actual complaint of the Declaration sound a little too familiar to a reader in any generation. They mostly complain that the King of England abuses his power and ignores both the will and the rights of his people, which are the same complaints Americans have been leveling at 43 Presidents.
But it is in the inspirational articulation of American values at the beginning and the end of the Declaration – the part we actually read –that the Declaration has staying power as a document worth preserving. It is not simply a relic of our history, but a foundational statement of what it means to be part of the States of America (the word "united" is just an adjective in the original). And it should come as no surprise that we have appealed to this document for more than 232 years as our understanding of America is evolves.
I dare say that most of you can quote to me with great accuracy a sentence from the beginning of the second paragraph – say them with me if you like:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
I think there is no more glorious affirmation of human dignity in the political history of humanity. Our religious tradition – and others –can equal this rhetoric or exceed it, but somewhere down the road we always manage to presage George Orwell by making it clear that some people are more equal than others. If there is anything the United States of America will be known for by our distant successors, it will be that we delivered the message of the dignity and equality of every human being to the world in unequivocal terms.
Don't squirm, my friends, this is not a set-up. I am not about to tell you how many ways I think we have found to alienate those unalienable rights. I am grateful every single day of my life to have been born into this time and place in human history, and that my life bears witness to the promise of those self-evident truths.
I am, however, going to call your attention to the lesser-known rhetoric of the end of the Declaration of Independence. If the clarion call of individual rights is unmistakable in the early paragraphs, the cost of those rights is just as clear in the end. Whenever I hear these words, I imagine myself among those powdered wigs and frilly shirts, standing to affirm my part in the unanimous declaration of the Representatives of the thirteen united States of America, in General Congress, assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, in the Name and by the Authority of the People. I imagine myself hearing the words of our independence, of our power to conduct the business of free and independent states, and being moved to shout "hurrah" or "huzzah" or "here here" or whatever cheer preceded "you go, Tommy!" when this last phrase is uttered:
And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.
Our lives, our fortunes, our sacred honor. What a great phrase. Fifty-six men ranging in age from 26 to 70 signed that document, and each one had a different amount of life, fortune and honor to pledge. I imagine they whispered to each other about whether Thomas Jefferson meant their financial fortunes or their personal destinies, or whether Ben Franklin actually had any of the three commodities to contribute in meaningful measure, but every one of them must have been moved to a place of profound commitment as they inked their names on this document. Having affirmed the rights and dignity of every human being, they affirmed the mission of this new country of patriots to invest their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor to secure those rights as an expression of that dignity.
Maybe it is hard for us to believe, especially the most of us who were raised in the country that emerged from that July moment, that ours was the first society based entirely on the notion of unalienable human rights. Every other experiment in liberty, equality and fraternity, by whatever name, emerged from some form of monarchy, dictatorship or theocratic government. The price of equality in most of these other societies was homogeneity. Our own Jewish experience in Napoleonic France, in Soviet Russia, in contemporary Bahrain is that to be accepted as equal, you must give up what makes you different. But here in the United States of America, you are who you are, and that's enough.
The practice of those values has not always lived up to the philosophy, but for 232 years, "all men are created equal" has been understood in an increasingly comprehensive and consistent way. And certainly for those of us raised in this country, our unalienable rights, and thirty or forty more enumerated in the Constitution and its amendments, and expanded by legislation and court rulings into the hundreds, have become the sine qua non of American citizenship.
And while I would be hard pressed to defend the notion beyond the assertions in this sermon, I would suggest to you that for close to 200 of those 232 years since the founding of the USA, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledged to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.
But my contention tonight, my friends, is that we have become accustomed to ignoring the end of the Declaration, with its stirring words of mutual destiny, and investing instead in a philosophy of individual and unalienable rights. The claim of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness without the pledge of life, fortune and sacred honor leaves a debt unpaid and accumulating.
Think, if you will, of the line that inspired us so in 1961 – "ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." It resonated in an important way for a generation emerging from the challenges of post-World War II America. But thinking about those words in retrospect, they sound almost desperate, a plea to return to a time slipping away. And sure enough, after a generation of turmoil, the country was inspired by another challenge that presaged the circumstances of the moment: are you better off today than you were four years ago? Please, please ignore the party affiliations of those two speakers. What is important is that they were the winners; they tapped into the American mind and spoke to the American heart.
Many of you were here a couple of weeks ago when I asked you to consider the difference between two verses in the book of Deuteronomy. The first, from Chapter 6 (v4) was probably the most familiar verse to Jews in all of Torah: Sh'ma yisrael, H' eloheinu H' echad; "Hear" or "Understand, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One." And the second, from Chapter 27 (v9) was among the many unfamiliar verses to Jews in all of Torah: Haskeit u'shma yisrael, hayom hazeh nih'yeita la'am laH' elohekha; "Be quiet and hear" or "Be quiet and understand, O Israel, that this day you are a nation to the Lord your God."
I wrestled with you over which statement ought to be the credo of our people. "The Lord is One" or "This day you are a nation?" Which sh'ma yisrael ought rightly be repeated day and night as an expression of Jewish identification, as the central message to the listening Jew?
We began our long history as a community. The story of our ancestors gives way to the liberation of the People Israel. We gather as a community at the foot of Sinai and hear the details of our declaration of interdependence. The language of the Torah is a mixed bag of singular and plural. The Israelite in the wilderness might rightly have wondered, "am I myself responsible for the whole of Torah" or just as easily "are we collectively responsible for the whole of Torah?" Tribes were give tasks and territory, but it was the rare individual who even received a mention by name in the saga of our wandering. What gift was the Torah able to give to persuade the individual of his or her uniqueness in the eyes of God, of his or her equality in the image of God?
Sh'ma yisrael H' eloheinu H' echad. If God is singular and unique, and I am in the image of God, then I am singular and unique, even in this collective identity I share as a Hebrew, then as an Israelite, then as a Jew. Packed into shtetls, packed into ghettoes, packed into cattle cars, packed into sanctuaries in suburban synagogues, the proclamation of my singularity and uniqueness affirmed the image with which I was endowed by my Creator.
I did not need to be reminded to be quiet and hear, O Israel, that today I have become part of a nation before the Lord our God. I was constantly reminded of my membership in that glorious and marginalized community. My life, my fortune, my sacred honor were defined within the Jewish community. I could not escape if I wanted, because I would have nowhere to run and because the rest of the community would never let me go.
But the shift of focus away from the concluding words of the American Declaration has created the opportunity for a similar shift in our Jewish focus. The swing of the pendulum to the far reaches of individual rights has coincided with a different sense of understanding of the divine nature of the individual Jew. The one-to-one relationship with God has resulted in sense that individual satisfaction, individual expression, individual spirituality is the nature of the Jewish experience. Our immersion in the American culture of the self has made shma yisrael, hayom hazeh nih'yeita la'am laH' elohekha, "hear, O Israel, this day you are a nation to the Lord your God" a decidedly junior partner, mostly ignored, among American Jews.
We talked about the paradigm shift that we have witnessed just two weeks ago in discussing another section of Deuteronomy. When Moses admonished the Israelites not to worry that Torah was too distant from them, he told them it was not in heaven, but rather in their mouths and in their hearts to do what God commanded. That is, the plain meaning of the text was clear. A thousand years later, Rabbi Joshua told a gathering of his colleagues that they should not be afraid to interpret Torah, that it was not in heaven, but rather what the faithful leadership of the community spoke from their mouths and their hearts. And we, two thousand years later, in a society that lifts the individual to a place of centrality, read that same passage to say that Torah is not what someone else says it is, but rather what we find in our own personal mouths, our own personal hearts.
Speak to the leaders of any established American Jewish organization or institution and they will tell you the same story. Membership is down. I guarantee you that if you find an organization in which membership is up, it is either a new organization or one that has been rescued from near-oblivion. Moreover, though the absolute numbers of their membership are way up, they are still way below what we might consider abundant.
And I will go beyond that. Speak to the leaders of any established American Jewish organization or institution and they will tell you that membership is down the most among young people, which is defined to my chagrin as people forty and under. The farther under forty you get, the lower the membership.
Is there something wrong with these organizations or is there something wrong with people under forty? The answer is, neither. We simply have a great example of what happens when a paradigm shifts and the status quo remains quo. American Jews under forty, like most Americans under forty, have come of age in a society that has stopped asking what can I do for my country and asked instead am I better off than I was four years ago or last year or yesterday.
The result is that we have nurtured a society that has replaced joiners with consumers. We have replaced people who ask "where do I fit into the group" with people who ask "what's in it for me?" We have replaced people who are willing to pledge their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor with people who assert their entitlement to life, liberty and, most especially, the pursuit of happiness.
Nowhere in the Jewish community is that more evident than the patterns of support for the State of Israel. I am not talking about whether people support a harder-line approach to security or a harder-line approach to diplomacy, or whether people prefer the approach of AIPAC or the approach of the mushroom crop of wannabes. Those are all the joiners. I mean the ballooning percentage of young American Jews who do not share a sense of common destiny with the Israeli people and who evaluate Israel with same set of standards they use for Costa Rica or the Czech Republic or Vietnam
It would be easy for me to launch into a judgment about that paradigm shift and the impact it has on our society. That would be unfair. Because certainly it is not the case – not the case, hear me clearly –that people who choose their individual rights over their communal contributions are bad people, uncaring or selfish. Not the case.
I don't know if you are keeping track, but I did promise that I was speaking about us and not about people who are not in our sanctuary tonight, so let me focus specifically on Agudas Achim.
Society is a different place when it is populated by consumers than it is when it is populated by joiners. And tonight, here in this room, this collection of human beings of the Jewish persuasion and American context sit on the cusp of a coming change that will determine the nature of Agudas Achim Congregation in the same way that it will determine the future of Jewish organizations large and small.
We have always had joiners and we have always had consumers. But without taking a poll, I feel confident in telling you that in synagogues across the country for the first time on a massive scale the consumers have reached a critical mass. And please understand again, that's not a judgment, it is a description. It means, however, that maintaining institutions like Agudas Achim that imagine themselves as a fellowship of brethren, as our name says, is going to place a different kind of burden on the decreasing number of joiners than it is on the increasing number of consumers.
I am mostly a joiner, I will tell you. I belong to the JCC in Northern Virginia even though I do not attend many of its programs and I never work out at the gym there. I contribute to Gesher even though I haven't had a student there in seven years. I volunteer my time and money to causes from which I never expect to benefit personally. My teacher Howard Kohr helped me understand the importance of supporting candidates for public office for whom I am ineligible to vote as part of my commitment to the State of Israel, where I do not live or own property.
But I know a lot of consumers, a lot of people who resist the idea that they ought to commit their time and resources to an institution that doesn't directly address their needs, or that asks them for more than their fair share. And I will tell you two institutions that have figured out how to work within the new paradigm.
The first: Hillel in its various expressions on campuses has managed to change the language of being a college Jew. You no longer just go to the Hillel building. Hillel comes to you, sometimes literally and sometimes figuratively. The Hillel at the University of Virginia, directed by an extraordinary young man named Brian Cohen, last year was recognized by one of the University's fabled secret societies for the difference it has made in the life of students and the University as a whole. Jewish outreach workers, like Jack and Ellen Esformes's daughter Rachel, go into dorms and Greek houses and local establishments to meet the students where they are. This year, the UVA Hillel Birthright trip will be the second-largest in the country –yes, second largest in the country, and yes THAT UVA Hillel – at 91 never-been-to-Israel-on-a-student-program souls.
The second institution: Chabad has figured out that if you are going to be delivering education and worship experiences and holiday programs to a consumer population, you might as well take the dues and tuition out of the equation. It doesn't matter if you aspire to the long beard or the long sleeves of a Lubavitcher, you are welcome as you are.
Where does the support for these programs come from? At the risk of insulting the consumers, I will tell you that it comes from the joiners, the ones who invest in infrastructure and staff and utility bills and refreshments and general operating expenses, the ones willing to pay the overhead. Grant-making foundations and good old fashioned arm twisting of local donors generate the necessary funds. Almost always, they come from joiners. They come from people who have pledged their time, their money and their values to the causes they believe in. They come from people who have pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor.
I would hope that anyone who enters a community as a consumer has the aspiration to be a joiner. But the fact is that, aspiration or not, most people move through these circumstances in an arc of engagement that ends with their personal need. It ought to be obvious that Hillel turns over its student population every four years or so. It may be a little less obvious that, in spite of its acclamation by a large segment of Jews, Chabad touches many but fully engages very few.
And it is true of many of you here tonight as well. Few of you actually make the statement that as soon as you are finished with bar or bat mitzvah or confirmation or the Kehilla membership or the wedding reception you are no longer going to be a member, but you know what is in your heart. Few of you say, "I object to paying dues that support the pre-school or the religious school or the youth program because I don't have kids," but you know what is in your heart. Few of you calculate the cost of belonging to the synagogue and decide that if it rises above a certain threshold it isn't worth it anymore, but you know what is in your heart.
And I hasten to add that it is different than the person who says, "I have a hard time justifying the expense of the shul when I can't pay for rent or fuel or medical bills or college." Joiners approach that dilemma differently than consumers approach it.
And it is also different from the person who says, "Every time the rabbi gets up to talk I get an upset stomach." Joiners look for a different shul or a different rabbi – or a good antacid.
I know that now some of you are squirming and wondering what I am about to say. So stop squirming; here it is: Welcome. Welcome to both the joiners and the consumers. It is the nature of our society that the balance between the two groups has changed, but the mission of this congregation has not.
Consumers, listen to me. We will do our best to provide you with the best product we can. If you are looking for a bargain, you will not find it here. This is Agudas Achim, not Wal-Mart. If you are looking for the quick and easy, you will not find it here. This is Agudas Achim, not Jiffy-Lube. We will expect you to meet your obligations to us and we will, in turn, do our best to meet our obligations to you. Our goal, my goal, is to inspire you to see Jewish life as not just another right and entitlement, but as worthy of a pledge of life, fortune and sacred honor. If we are unsuccessful, you are still Jews, still desirable members of this community, still welcome to be a part of this endeavor for as long as you will come along for the ride. Still and always welcome. Still and always deserving of our best efforts for you. But here is what you forfeit: do not expect us to make long-term accommodations for your short-term commitment.
Joiners, listen to me. We will do our best to maintain this community, this extended family of compatriots, this fellowship of brethren for whom Jewish life means joyful burdens, for whom a synagogue means significantly more giving than taking. We will continue to ask you to shoulder more than your share of the momentary expense of our operation, just as you find your way to minyan and classes and programs and concerts with greater frequency than others. Our goal, my goal, is to maintain a place of Jewish integrity, one that does not punish or exclude those who do not share the commitment of life, fortune and sacred honor. If we give up, we give up on ourselves, because the reason we are devoted is because of our values, not because of our numerical success or lack thereof.
But to all of you, here is what is true: our society is unlikely to change any time soon. I have not heard a leader or a candidate or a statesman or a voice from within popular culture challenge us to ask not what our country can do for you, rather to ask what you can do for your country. But we can model that behavior in the corner of society that brings us together here tonight. Your rights are secure. Live your life, express your liberty, pursue your happiness. But as you do, find out what deep satisfaction it will bring to secure a place where we are all so committed to each other that we find no urgency in the question, "what's in it for me?"
Rather, let us follow the long-time mandate of our tradition and its expression in the concluding words of the document that brought this magnificent country into being. Let us find in this microcosm of common cause the chance to exemplify and export the wholeness of Jewish life and American life. Let us, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.