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 2, 5773/2012 - Paths of Peace - ©Rabbi Jack Moline
Whenever I turn onto Valley Drive from West Glebe Road and pass by Charles Barrett School, I think of the great Yogi Berra, who allegedly gave directions that included, "When you get to the fork in the road, take it." Yogi insists that these directions make sense - either road at the fork in question leads you to the same place. And you know that whichever road you take at the fork in front of Charles Barrett will get you to Agudas Achim. But to the uninitiated, Yogi's advice sounds like, well, Yogi Berra.
In my life, as I suppose in your life, I have arrived at many forks in the road. And I have to make decisions all the time about whether to take the fork. It seems to me that these dilemmas come most usually when I am feeling vulnerable, because if I am confident and secure the road ahead of me almost always appears identifiable and definite.
Let me tell you about one of those forks - maybe one of the most important I ever faced. I went to college in the early 1970s and if you were alive and aware back then you know that the Vietnam War was raging. It's not popular, even forty years later, to mention in this congregation that I was deeply opposed to that war. And if I am going to tell the truth, some of my opposition was spurred by my cowardice. I was afraid to go into the military. And I was feeling pretty vulnerable.
In the middle of my college career, with my hair growing longer and my draft lottery number at 19, two opportunities presented themselves, and there I stood at a fork in the road. Some of my friends were urging on me a pacifist stance - a principled and conscientious objection to all war and armed conflict. And other friends were trying to recruit me to join Students for a Democratic Society, SDS, which by then had devolved into what would today probably be called a domestic terror group.
Now I know how much bristling is going on among you, so let me smooth your hackles by giving you the end of the story before I get to the middle. I became neither a pacifist nor a terrorist. But neither did I have the ability to stand indefinitely at the fork in the road.
It was during my flirtation with pacifism that I read an article by Rabbi Maurice Lamm that made the very persuasive claim that one could not be a faithful Jew and a pacifist. The pacifist, he claimed, pledged allegiance to peace as his or her absolute loyalty. Only God may receive such allegiance in our tradition.
And I gave a serious hearing to the outside agitators from SDS who came to a friend's apartment to talk about the need to do the work of ending the war outside of the system. I remember asking them about the application of a popular protest slogan of the time - fighting to preserve peace is like, well, it had to do with virginity. Why didn't that apply to us as well, I asked. They had no answer.
So there I was, at a fork in the road, my social consciousness raised and my Jewish values intact, and I was stuck. What I wanted was to walk the paths of peace, a phrase more familiar to me than I realized. After all, I had been singing those words most of my life but, because saying Hebrew was more important than understanding Hebrew, it did not click that the thought had been put in my head as I chanted d'rakheha darkhei no'am v'khol n'tivoteha shalom; "its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace."
Standing with me at this fork in the road were a lot of other people, and they were equally stuck. But when I looked around, it became pretty clear to me that d'rakheha darkhei no'am v'khol n'tivoteha shalom was not resonating for a whole lot of them. Many were people of different belief, culture, community and race from me. What shared in common was a desire to stop the war.
Now, my friends, leave Vietnam behind, because that war has ended, but the fork is still in the road. I encounter it, not only when I turn onto Valley Drive from West Glebe Road, but when I look at the world around me and at all the things that need fixing. And I find that I am almost always in the company of people who are not quite like me. I want to talk about that topic in a few minutes, but I offer this disclaimer ahead of time: I am not offering a testimonial about exceptions to a contrary rule. I am offering an illustration of what we too often fail to recognize as the general principle.
The free world stands at a fork in the road, and the place we are trying to reach is a safer and more peaceful world for everyone. There are plenty of people who see the free world as the obstacle to their notion of a safer and more peaceful world, and they are arming themselves with all sorts of weapons to eliminate what they consider to be the cancers that threaten their image of the body politic. I must mention Iran here because of all the bad actors in the world right now, Iran is the most dangerous. But once we deal with the immediate menace of Iran, there will be others to watch carefully. It makes us feel vulnerable.
To listen to the yelling from one side, you might believe there are two choices - bombing or surrender. To listen to the yelling from the other side, you might believe there are two choices - diplomacy or a third World War. The fact is, neither analysis is correct. The two forks in the road presented by ideologues on the right and the left are both false dichotomies. And the public talk of sanctions and red lines and capacities are all public manifestations of public ignorance. As you might imagine, I have spent a lot of time as a concerned Jew, as the Director of Public Policy for the Rabbinical Assembly and as your rabbi talking with people about this matter and others. I have no answer for you as to which fork we should take or when. And, like the younger version of myself, I wish someone would show me another path, even a road less traveled where my footsteps might make a difference.
But the fact is that standing stuck in indecision is not an option. There is no difference in intelligence or military preparedness between the United States and Israel. I tell you this not to brag, but to tell you how hard I have worked to try to find answers for myself, for you and for my rabbinic colleagues: I have heard those same words in personal and direct conversations with William Kristol, Dennis Ross, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, Vice-President Biden, Ambassador Oren, and President Obama. There are moments of decision ahead of us, and those decisions of policy will be made on the basis of what is known and what is possible to do about it. We can continue to argue about what those decisions ought to be until the time that they are made.
And then, whether our conflict with Iran and its agents and the other hostiles in our world is conducted in words, in financial channels, in cyberspace or in military action, it will be time to stop arguing. The goal is not to win the argument. The goal is to prevent a nuclear Iran and to prevent the opponents of peace and freedom from achieving their desires. What is at stake is not only the State of Israel, though that's plenty to be at stake. What is at stake is the growth of peace and freedom in the world. What is at stake is a safer and more peaceful world. Those are the paths we are looking for at these forks in the road - the paths of peace. D'rakheha darkhei no'am v'khol n'tivoteha shalom. We are looking for darkhei shalom.
And fortunately, our tradition has something to say about the subject.
There is a discussion on this subject in the tractate of the Talmud known as Gittin. Gittin is the plural of get, and as you know a get is a writ of divorce. Someone with a delicious sense of irony put a discussion of the paths to peace in the tractate on divorce, but that's where it is.
The Mishnah in chapter five delineates the kinds of things we do for the sake of peace among our fellow Jews. A kohein is called for the first aliyah to the Torah and a levi for the second for the sake of the paths of peace. An old house that has been the repository of the eruv, the plate of food that indicates a collective domain on Shabbat, should be used each week even if it is unoccupied for the sake of the paths of peace. The watering pit closest to the stream is filled first for the sake of the paths of peace. Animal traps, the found objects of a disabled person, the harvest of a poor person that fell to the ground are protected from theft for the sake of the paths of peace. A woman may lend her neighbor kitchen utensils even if she considers the neighbor less than pious about certain harvest restrictions for the sake of the paths of peace.
The first and second aliyot are so designated to avoid arguments among the people. The eruv remains where it is to avoid causing umbrage to people who believe things should be done a certain way or, perhaps, so that if the plate is not where it is presumed to be there won't be a disagreement over the communal space on Shabbat. Traps set and unattended are protected to avoid what happened to Kramer in the shrinkage episode of "Seinfeld." (Just wanted to see if you were still with me.) Disabled people might not hear or respond to the declaration of someone who found their lost object. Poor people need what they drop, so a passerby may not take advantage of their labor. All these things to keep peace among the Jews.
But darkhei shalom is also invoked when discussing relationships with non-Jews. We encourage the agricultural endeavors of non-Jews during the sabbatical year for the sake of the paths of peace. We greet non-Jews and ask after their well-being for the sake of the paths of peace. We provide for the poor among the non-Jews, visit the sick among the non-Jews, bury the dead of the non-Jews all for the sake of the paths of peace.
Listen - I'm not smart enough to decide whether the commentators who say this is all to avoid conflict that diminishes our community are correct - it is a practical matter, they say - or whether the commentators who say this is all to promote the kind of world we want to live in are correct - it is a matter of principle they say. In this case, both-and is possible and I can follow Yogi's advice and take the fork in the road.
This much is true: all of the things we do for the sake of the paths of peace we have permission not to do. We could take the trapper's catch. We could ignore the non-Jews among us. We could say to the poor of the general population, "get your own people to help you." And we would be justified.
But how does such behavior make us look? What would other people think of Jews who do such things? What could we expect if some day we needed to rely on the kindness of strangers?
That's the practical understanding.
But as a matter of principle, the world we live in should promote the dignity and worth of all people. It should encourage compassion and generosity, moral courage and wisdom. It should elevate the recognition that we have something to offer the world outside our communal boundaries, and that the world outside our communal boundaries has something of value to offer us.
That's the matter of principle.
In either case, we must step outside the realm of what we can get away with and instead act on what we aspire to do for the sake of the paths of peace. If we are serious about a better world, a safer and more peaceful world, then we must rise above the justifications of parochial concerns and presumptions of the hostility of the rest of the world. There is plenty our tradition suggests we cannot do. We should be held accountable for violating those demands. But there is plenty our traditions suggests we may do. We should be held accountable for missing those opportunities.
Leon Wieseltier of the New Republic seems to be a great source of High Holy Day material for me, and this year is no exception. I heard him at an exceptional AIPAC event last month, and he made an almost casual observation about the nature of Jewish concerns. He said:
Jewish historians, when they study Jewish political history, observe something regularly, which is that the Jews in the exile always formed what they call vertical alliances and not horizontal alliances, meaning the Jews in the exile always preferred an alliance with the king or the prince or the bishop rather than with the people. They didn't trust the people, for good or bad reasons. They wanted the protection of a power.
The problem with the vertical alliance is that it only works with authoritarian regimes because the whole point is that there's only one figure who can deliver on what you want.
Wieseltier went on to recommend that we cultivate the horizontal relationships, both as a people and as individuals. And I couldn't agree more. Because much as I would like a helicopter to swoop in and rescue me when I am stuck at the fork in the road, as I mentioned before, there are usually a lot of people there with me. And while some of them are just like me, most of them are not.
Agudas Achim is not the only place you reach by taking the fork in the road. You can also get to Westminster Presbyterian Church. For about nine months a few years ago, that was the same place as Agudas Achim, but since that time, as before, Westminster occupies a corner about half a mile from here. They have a church, a chapel, a school building, a social hall - just like us - and three cell phone towers in their steeple that help underwrite their operating budget - unlike us. By the way, Verizon is not one of them, so if you know someone in Verizon, see if they would like to be the button on top of the kipah that covers this sanctuary.
Larry Hayward is the pastor over there. Most of you know him. He's a great guy. He joined our season ticket group for the Nationals specifically to take the Friday night games that the Jews in the group shouldn't be attending.
And unless you are brand new to this congregation, you know that this past February a group from here and a group from there got together and formed a group to visit Israel. It was not the first interfaith trip in which I participated, but it was the first time I set out to make an interfaith visit. The Christians outnumbered the Jews significantly, but what we explored were the paths of peace.
I know that when you hear the words "Presbyterian" and "Israel" in proximity you get a little nervous. The biennial gathering of the church took place this summer and debated a divestment strategy aimed at making a statement about Israel's presence in the territories. And so I imagine that some of you are thinking, "Hey, what a great idea! Take some Presbyterians to Israel with some faithful Jews and turn them into allies to influence the national structure!"
That's both practical and vertical, my friends. And while it isn't wrong, it is a decidedly one-way agenda.
Our visit was a horizontal opportunity. A full day of Christian sites in the Galilee. A half day in Nazareth at the Church of the Annunciation, listening to Israeli Christians describe the tension between their gratitude to the state and their sense of being marginalized. Visits to Christian holy sites in and around Jerusalem. The climb to Jerusalem beginning at Emmaus, an important place in the narrative of Jesus. And Ash Wednesday observances at the Garden of the Tomb.
Let me tell you about Ash Wednesday. At the last minute, Larry told me they needed olive oil and ashes for the service. Olive oil was easy to come by at the breakfast buffet. But ashes? I ran to the grocery store across the street from the hotel and asked the clerk for a pack of cheap cigarettes.
"What kind," he asked. "I don't know," I replied. "I don't smoke."
So I sat in front of the hotel flicking the ashes from four cigarettes at a time into a paper cup, and that's what was used in the service.
And what a gorgeous service it was. The theology held no appeal for me, but the music, the mystery, the magic that it worked on faithful Christians at a place of holiness - this they offered to the Jews as a gift of sharing in a place where we might well have cordoned them off and basked in the Jewiness of Israeli society.
The visit was horizontal for them, too. The Kotel. Massada. The security barrier. The market at Machane Yehuda. A film school for Haredi Jews. Sderot, with its clear view of the Gaza border. Ben Yehuda Street. And Friday night services at Shira Chadasha, a progressive Orthodox synagogue on Emek Refaim.
Let me tell you about Shira Chadasha. What a gorgeous service it was. The theology was impenetrable to them, being all in Hebrew. But the music, the mystery, the magic it worked on faithful Jews in a city of holiness - this we offered to the Christians as a gift of sharing in a place where they might well have cordoned us off and had a drink in the hotel lobby.
I want to tell you that the situation of Christians in Israel and the Palestinian territories is not a happy one. Even though they enjoy, on the average, a higher level of education and a higher income than Israelis or Palestinians, they are a double minority. In spite of increasing numbers, they are a diminishing percentage of the population. And many of them are members of the Presbyterian Church.
A vertical model of this trip would have included a full-court press to present the needs of Israel and persuade our neighbors to act on our behalf with a hierarchy. We probably would have prevailed - if you have been to Israel, you know that it sweeps you away no matter what.
But the paths of peace are horizontal. And the ability for all of us to experience the particular holiness of our traditions as a common phenomenon, the ability of all of us to understand the vulnerability of both of our peoples and Muslims as well at the forks in the road - these are the threads of connections that bind us together and make our neighbors honest allies of the just causes of our hearts, and make us honest allies of the just causes of our neighbors' hearts.
The 30-some people who made that pilgrimage together are now a part of each others' lives. When we find ourselves at the fork in the road, feeling vulnerable, we will feel it together and stand together.
And while I would love to encourage you to take a trip to Israel with all your non-Jewish neighbors, you and I both know it is unlikely to happen.
But I want you to consider that for the sake of the paths of peace, for a safer and more peaceful world, cultivating those horizontal relationships is essential. Whatever you do, don't stop writing your Congressman, don't neglect to vote, don't overlook excesses in the media. But if you find yourself at a fork in the road and you can't take it, then you want to know that the people stuck with you will share your eventual journey, and they have just as important a need to know that you will share theirs.
This is not just a Kumbaya moment, my friends. I did not throw the Iran issue in this sermon just for effect. Right now we need friends, real friends, friends who have already committed to feeling our pain and do not need to be persuaded that our sense of vulnerability is genuine. Each of you is a diplomat, an ambassador, an interpreter. And each of you must cultivate an open ear, an open heart, and open soul. The paths of peace lead, however circuitously, to a better world, not just for the Jews, and the dangers that lie along the way threaten everyone, not just Jews.
You know, Yogi Berra had other advice about traveling. He also said, "You've got to be very careful if you don't know where you are going because you might not get there." We have to know where we are going, my friends. It is a world of peace and freedom, a safer and more peaceful world for everyone. And we know how to get there - it is by doing what is right, not just what we can get away with. And we do that mipnei darkhei shalom. We do it for the sake of the paths of peace.