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Our Story
Rosh HaShanah I 5772/2011
© Rabbi Jack Moline

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

Rosh HaShanah I 5772/2011 - Our Story - ©Rabbi Jack Moline

Most of you over a certain age watched and loved "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." It was great television with great characters. Some of you below that certain age have only a passing knowledge of who Mary Tyler Moore was, let alone her show, so for the sake of this little vignette, let me tell you about three of the characters. Mary played Mary Richards, a 30-something single woman who was a producer for WJZ News in Minneapolis. Everybody loved Mary except that one special guy she always was hoping to meet. The anchorman at WJZ was Ted Baxter, played by Ted Knight, who later went on to star in "Caddyshack." Ted was a deep-voiced and dim-witted anchorman, filled with equal measures of bravado and insecurity. And Ted's wife, played by Georgia Engel, was Georgette, who was sweet and naive, but nowhere near as dumb as people first assumed.

In an episode in the seventh season, Mary enrolls in a creative writing course and, to her chagrin, so does Ted. Their final assignment is to write a personal story, something that taught them an important lesson. Ted is having a difficult time coming up with a story, and he and Georgette ask Mary about hers.

MARY: When I was seventeen, I had a crush on the class president. He seemed older and really mature and I was so hoping that he would ask me to the graduation dance. But he didn't, and instead I was asked by a shy, immature guy who didn't dance and didn't have a tuxedo.
TED: Boy, you must have been a real loser!
GEORGETTE: Please, Ted! I think it's sad and beautiful. Go on, Mary.
MARY: Well anyway, I accepted Edwin's invitation because I figured then I'd get to go to the dance and maybe Bob would notice me. It was a beautiful spring night and I had on my first strapless formal...
GEORGETTE: I'll bet it was white!
MARY: Of course! And when Edwin picked me up, I could practically hear the music!
MARY: Well, except we didn't get to go right to the dance. On our way, we saw a dog that had been hit by a car. He wasn't badly hurt, but Edwin insisted that we take him to the vet. So we in my formal gown.
GEORGETTE: Poor Mary. Poor dog! Did he pull through?
MARY: Oh yeah, oh yeah. But we got to the dance really late, and instead of telling Edwin that it was alright, I sulked. He had ruined my evening!
GEORGETTE: (melancholic, ready to cry) He didn't mean to.
MARY: He said he was sorry, but that it didn't really matter to him whether or not people liked him. What really mattered was whether or not he liked himself. Boy, and that's when I knew who the mature one really was.
TED: (puzzled) Who?

The last scene in the show takes place in the classroom, and Ted reluctantly takes his turn at the head of the class. After making many excuses, he finally reads his story:

TED: Storm-tossed waves pounded the beach and a blizzard shrieked 'round my ears on the night of my high school graduation dance. (Mary looks curiously at him) Sure, maybe I couldn't afford a tuxedo because I was saving every penny to go to veterinary school. That was no reason for my date, Edwina, to sneer at me when at last I reached her house. (Hearing the name 'Edwina', Mary glares hard at Ted) Just seeing Edwina standing there in the doorway in her first strapless gown, I knew who the mature one really was. Suddenly, a cry filled the air. One of her father's prized stallions had gone into labor. Tossing aside thoughts of the dance, I rushed to its side. 'Boil water!', I yelled. 'Lots of it!' Through the night, I knelt beside that animal and at dawn I saw my reward: six brand new baby horses. (The teacher shakes her head in disbelief; Mary continues to glare) "I love you," Edwina murmured. At that moment, I learned the lesson of my life. 'Who cares?' I replied. 'I love myself' The End.

Some of you were at services a couple of weeks ago when we talked a little about a familiar section of the Torah that we read that morning from chapter 26 of D'varim, the Book of Deuteronomy. Arami oveid avi, it begins, "My father was a wandering Aramean." It is the declaration that farmers in ancient Israel were to make as they brought the offering of their first fruits to the Temple. Each one would approach the priest in the Temple, who would lay his fruit basket down before the altar, and the farmer would proclaim:

'My father was a wandering Aramean. And he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number, and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous. 6)The Egyptians treated us harshly and humiliated us and laid on us hard labor. 7)Then we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors, and the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression.8)And the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great awe, with signs and with wonders. 9And he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10And behold, now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground, which you, O LORD, have given me.'

That story was enormously important to repeat. Because while the history of the Israelites in their own land was out there in the atmosphere, its importance, its significance to a third or fifth or twenty-second generation descendant of slaves was minimal. Being in the land was not merely an existential fact. It had a history behind it, one that was not just communal, but personal. Jacob, or perhaps Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, wandered from Aram to lay claim to the land. Their children went down to Egypt in search of food and lived as strangers there for many generations. But the farmer's grandparents, or great-great-great parents, or distant grandparents escaped slavery and resettled the land. The farmer who lived a life in relative peace and security was apt to treat his life as an entitlement, without appreciation that it was hard-earned by those who came before.

And if things were not so good, that same farmer would rightfully complain that the soil was rocky or the rain inadequate or priest too far away. Reciting that story as the bounty of a free and self-sufficient human being was brought in gratitude, well, that was no small thing. It provided context. It provided grounding. It engendered appreciation. And it didn't erase the rocky soil or the dry weather or the long trek to Jerusalem. But it drew a distinction between an issue and a value. Drought is an issue. Redemption is a value. Distance is an issue. Home is a value. Plowing is an issue. God's love for us is a value.

So to quote a little popular music, I'm so glad I'm living in the USA. I'm proud to be an American where at least I know I'm free. I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy. But I have a deep yearning to have experienced, even once, the excitement of taking the fruits of my own labors, presenting them at the place where God's glory dwells and reciting that paragraph - my father was a wandering Aramean - so as to feel myself as a link in a chain, a chapter in a book, a runner in a relay that could not continue without me.

So you all know what we did with that declaration. At a time when the Temple had declined and disappeared, when Jews were no longer a free people in their own land, when the land no longer flowed with milk and honey, but ran with blood along the paths created by its fleeing residents, we retold the story for a different purpose.

Arami oveid avi. Instead of translating that phrase as it was intended, "My father was a wandering Aramean," the rabbis of the Passover haggadah purposely mistranslated it as "An Aramean oppressed my father," shifting the focus to Laban, Jacob's father-in-law, and allowing the understanding of the following verses to be on the suffering of Israelites at the hands of the Egyptians and the power of God to free us with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, sending plagues and destructive miracles against the Egyptians.

Life was tough for our ancestors in the Roman-occupied Holy Land. Taxes and tributes were crushing. Political rule was brutal. Our entire culture had to be reinvented to survive perpetual minority status. There was nowhere to bring the first fruits, no priest to receive them and very little reason to celebrate a land flowing with milk and honey.

This lovely paragraph that must have captivated the grateful farmer in an agricultural society now came to reassure the oppressed sandalmaker, blacksmith, merchant and scholar. The interpretations of the verses of the familiar story became polemics to bolster the devotion of the dwindling population of the Holy Land. You have read them all: They didn't change their language in Egypt, so you shouldn't start speaking Greek; they circumcised their babies even if they were going to be tossed in the river, so you should not follow Hellenistic practices and abandon brit milah; they went down to Egypt only to sojourn, so you should not abandon the Promised Land.

I am not complaining about the midrashizing of this section of Torah, but its retelling was part of a decline of optimism and faith. The beautiful story of affirmation meant to remind generations of their humble beginnings and great blessings - important lessons that changed their lives - became a dark tale of how the waves crashed and a blizzard howled around our ears. A story that elevated a required act of gratitude to a magnificent lesson in recognizing a positive sense of identity was replaced by its new version - they tried to kill us, we won, let's eat, and who cares, I love myself, the end.

This is not a new topic for me to discuss with you, but as we spiral deeper and deeper into political climates that are increasingly toxic, I want to once again caution you against a decline in optimism and faith. At any given moment, the experience of Jews in the world may be tragic or calamitous. Even when things are good, we feel compelled to recite "an Aramean oppressed my father." The Haggadah begins the story of our redemption with those words, but not before reminding b'khol dor vador omdim anleinu l'khaloteinu, "in every generation they arise to destroy us."

But if we have a litany of misery to recite from Amalek to the Moab to the destruction of two Temples to the Inquisition to the Holocaust, it is also the case that the trajectory of Jewish history is one of miracle and joy. Jewish life has sprouted and flowered and borne fruit wherever it has landed. When the second Temple was destroyed in the year 70, a breathtaking compendium of law and story and wisdom and faith was taking shape in Babylonia. When the Roman Catholic Church expelled the Jews from western Europe, they took with them the treasures of a golden age that blossomed into the spiritual treasure of mysticism and then Chassidism. The abrupt end of centuries of Jewish life in Poland and the Ukraine and Germany made the eruption of Jewish creativity and influence in North America possible, once tragedy stopped us from looking across the ocean for validation.

Looking from moment to moment in any corner of the Jewish world, at any time in Jewish history, it is easy to find the seeds of looming disaster. But the larger narrative, the story that animates us, the long view that is the only valuable view is a validation of our existence and the original meaning of arami oveid avi writ large. And for this formulation I must thank Leon Wieseltier for an extraordinary presentation at the AIPAC Policy Conference this past year - I hope you'll join me there next spring.

Abraham and Sarah, my father and mother, came from beyond the river. They settled in a land promised to them in covenant with God and sunk their roots into the soil. Their grandchildren and great-grandchildren left the land and were enslaved, but they maintained a sense of being other, being different, being unique. They refused to give up their distinctiveness in belief and in culture and in connection to the land in encounters with the many imperialist cultures that swept through their homeland. When they were exiled, they maintained their distinctiveness through their wanderings in Asia, in Africa and in Europe. Their history sometimes converged with and sometimes diverged from the histories of various other people. In the modern age, this people insisted on becoming partners with other peoples, rightly, because they are an autonomous and independent people. They were punished for the desire not to surrender that was interpreted as an act of defiance, especially in Christian Europe, and they were punished for this over centuries. The Jewish people remained the other par excellence, and in Europe concluded that the new nationalism according to which every nation should have a state and every state should incarnate a nation would apply to themselves. And instead of calling themselves only a people, they came to call themselves a nation, and that nation developed a liberation movement and that liberation movement was called Zionism. And the liberation movement did not desire to oppress a soul, it merely desired to emancipate its own people by their own means - auto-emancipation.

This people established a state to maintain its otherness in its historical homeland, and it was attacked repeatedly by those who sought to destroy it. Those attempts failed, owing to the fact that the people had learned self-reliance, and they defended themselves.

The land in which this people recuperated from the punishments for its otherness happened to contain another people. And therefore, the Palestinians, unlike the Egyptians or the Jordanians or the Syrians or the Saudis, are the only legitimate moral interlocutors that the Jewish state has because they live in that place, too. And therefore the only compromise that is consistent with Zionism, with Jewish emancipation, with our national dignity, was the compromise originally known as partition and now called the two-state solution.

And now I behold a land flowing with semiconductors and mineral-based beauty products, and I bring the fruits of my life - my heart, my children, my people's children - and offer thanks to God who has given me the privilege to live at this time of wonder and opportunity.

That, my friends, is our story. Our story is not about settlements and terrorism and BDS and who controls which neighborhoods in Jerusalem. We compete on those details as if we were high school debaters trying to score points with some judge on technical merits. We take apart the narrative and midrashize it to prove some political point or to demean those who do not agree with us. By diminishing the scope of our concern to the crisis of the moment, by collecting incidents of affront and insult and molding them into rhetorical missiles aimed at our detractors, we lose the ability to make the deeper case for Israel to the world, to our neighbors, to ourselves. Is it any wonder that the hardest group of Jews to inspire with the Zionist narrative is that cohort born since 1967, when we stopped telling our story and started refuting our accusers.

If you don't buy the argument, you don't buy the endeavor. As I have said before, Israel should not be an issue for Jews. It should be a value. In its successes and in its challenges, it is the latest glorious chapter of our people's ongoing history and the newest experiment in our evolving native expression that takes its place alongside the prophets, the Talmud, Kabbalah, and Reform and Conservative Judaism as jewels in the crown of our distinctiveness.

Hey, don't get me wrong. Do we need to be laser-focused on a madman with a nuclear warhead? Yes indeed. Should we be skeptical of neighbors who have an entirely different narrative about the Middle East than we do? Absolutely. Are there concerns about civil rights, religious pluralism, government corruption and class distinction in Israel that need our attention? You betcha.

Those are indeed our concerns. But they do not constitute our story. Our story begins "my father and mother came from across the river" and continues through thousands of years of history to our very lifetimes. Like that farmer required to bring the first fruits to the Temple and make a declaration recounting, in the first person, that in spite of the soil, in spite of the drought, in spite of the distance, he lives in the presence of a miracle, each of us ought rightly be required to stand where the Temple stood, where the shopping malls soar, where Hebrew is spoken in the streets and make a declaration recounting, in the first person, that in spite of rockets, in spite of rudeness, in spite of J Street and the ZOA, in spite of the distance, I live in the presence of a miracle, the realization of dreams held by ancestors I can barely imagine, that one day their children's children's children would be gathered in peace from the four corners of the earth and restored upright to our homeland.

What do we do? Do we tell the beautiful story about an essential and existential truth? Or do we boil water, lots of it?

I've made my choice. Please join me.

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