Erev Rosh Hashanah - 5778

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5778

September 20, 2017


Over the summer, Brad and I started watching The West Wing.  For those unfamiliar, The West Wing was a turn of the millennium television series about a fictional White House with a Democrat in the oval office.  In our household, the show offers a wish-fulfillment counter-narrative to the political environment of today.  Now, I am aware that not everyone in our congregation has the need for a political counter-narrative right now.  But as I have listened to congregation members over the past months, I have noted that most of us are desperately craving something to help us deal with what we see as a very disturbing communal reality.  

While binge-watching an almost 20 year old TV series can be cathartic, I want to suggest tonight that Rosh Hashanah offers us a much more constructive counter-narrative to our societal ills--and one that we all ought to adopt--no matter where we stand on the political spectrum.  The chief symbol of the New Year-- the shofar--can provide this alternative narrative.  Its message can help us move beyond the morass of polarization, negativity, belligerent rhetoric, and declining civic standards that we are witnessing.  If we want our society to move forward from seemingly intractable divisiveness, each of us must be a carrier of this message.  

To begin with, let’s consider what the shofar really is:  It is the horn of an animal.  But think about what that means:  A horn is what an animal uses to defend itself or to attack other animals.  And yet, we Jews turn the horn into an instrument.   We take the animal’s horn, and we use not the hard surface or pointed tip to show our strength and attempt to harm; instead we blow our breath through its hollow core. We take a weapon and turn it inside out so that it becomes a tool to elevate our lives. (After Aryeh Kaplan in RH Readings, Elkins “Shofarot,” p. 287 )

The shofar therefore can be seen as an antidote to the harsh and divisive world in which we live.  It tells us to turn away from the narrative of evil speech and attack mode that is so much at the forefront of our world right now.  It bids us counter the decline of civility and decency in public discourse that has led to deeply troubling public displays.  Surely, we must still rise up when we see injustice and speak up when we hear words of derision and cruelty, but we need to do so in a way that is not combative or destructive.  Granted, this is a difficult balance to strike.

The counter-narrative that can best help us confront the challenges that surround us is a commitment to intelligent, elevated and respectful discourse, even while standing up when the moment calls for it.   Like the shofar, our task is to send forth an urgent, impassioned tone, one that is strong and clear, but measured and controlled, -- a voice that speaks its truth with decency and respect, rooted in our most basic Jewish values.

In 21st century America, this past August may have been the nadir of the use of evil speech to rile people up, to attack and frighten.  (At least we hope it was!) The torch-led, white supremacist rally in Charlottesville will surely go down in history as a watershed moment of our time, exposing just how deeply we had sunk in the first couple of decades of the 2000s. I am going to speak more specifically about how to respond to the rise of antisemitism, racism, xenophobia, and hate-speech on Yom Kippur morning.  For now I want to discuss what led up to the very troubling spectre of unabashed public hate speech that happened in Virginia in August.  For that event was but a symptom--a symptom of a much larger disease, underlying the acts themselves.   

America did not sink to this level overnight.  The tide has been swelling for a long time. The increasing acceptance of divisive rhetoric and of turning a deaf ear to the belittling of minorities and the poor and disenfranchised in everyday speech is evident everywhere: In the workplace, in school hallways, among neighbors, and especially on social media, where perpetrators can hide their identity or avoid face to face conversation.   And what adds to the problem is that the many, many good people, who would never participate in such behavior, too often, do not condemn it when they see it or hear it.

Eighteenth century Irish statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke is often quoted:  “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”  A Jewish text found in Pirke Avot, the Sayings of the Fathers, puts it this way:  “Bamakom she’ain anashim,” “In a place where no one behaves like a human being,” “hishtadeil l’hiyot ish,”  “strive to be human.”(2:6) When good people remain silent in the face of another’s ill-chosen speech or behavior or when we fail to model basic humanity while those around us are regressing into inhumanity, we add to the indecent tenor of our communal settings.

One result of this permissive environment is that people with extreme views, who used to confine their remarks to internet sites or the echo chamber of radio talk shows, now display their ideas openly with impunity.  They do so in public in the most offensive, ugly, and even threatening manner possible.   Just as the shofar is, in essence, a weapon turned inside out and disarmed, we need to disarm the narrative within our society that allows aggressive and provocative discourse to run amok.  

Another result of the acceptance of uncivil discourse in society is that it spills over into the institutions of government.  In what used to be thought of as the “hallowed halls” of our local, state and federal legislative bodies, debate today has become more like gridiron plays in a raucous stadium:  In recent history, we have seen this behavior from both parties: Blocking legislation and nominations or purposely failing to bring legislation out of the huddle of committee to even get to the scrimmage line.   But, even in football, there are some basic rules of conduct and mutual respect among the players.  They all shake hands after the game is over and even have friends on opposing teams.  Remember when politics used to be like that too?  (James Davis, In Defense of Civility, p. 158)

More and more today, public officials from both parties have no interest in or cause to work across the aisle.  At a social action convention that several of us from the congregation attended in Washington last spring, we heard from a new representative from Nevada, who talked about a small group of Republicans and Democrats in the House of Representatives who are dedicated to working together on bipartisan legislation.  This was great to hear, but also sad:  To think that what they are attempting to do is so unusual that they were excited when their numbers got to 30.  Only 30 members of the House out of 435 would dedicate themselves to bipartisan work.  (By the way, Congresswoman Jacky Rosen said her previous leadership role as a president of a Reform congregation prepared her well for the experience of being in Congress.)

On the eve of this New Year, the shofar calls us to struggle against the antagonistic language and divisive posturing that have corroded the moral fabric of our society and our government, and that have led to the concomitant emboldening of extremists to act out in belligerent, bellicose, and brutal ways.   It is time for each one of us to lead the way back from this posture.  We need to establish a counter-narrative in which only peaceful, civil discourse is condoned.  We must return to basic norms of courtesy and decency and insist that such norms are embraced by all--even when we disagree vehemently with one another.  

Of course, we know that, from the early days of this nation, there were heated exchanges and intense disagreements.  Even if our knowledge of this period in American history is confined to the musical Hamilton, we recall that political disagreements used to be so bitter that they were sometimes settled by a duel. Every time I open my mobile banking app and see Aaron Burr listed as the founder of my bank, I am reminded that he committed murder, in the name of political rivalry, as a sitting Vice President of the United States! It seems that Alexander Hamilton’s plea to “restore tranquility to the republic” (Federalist Papers Essay 74) did not do him any good! We need to find a way to restore tranquility to the republic in our day as well.  But how do we get there?  That’s the tough question.  

We begin with ourselves.  We need to take a hard look at our own behavior, our language, the tenor with which we discuss issues, our use of name calling, mockery, and opponent-bashing.  We need to honestly evaluate the words we use, even when we think only those who share our views are listening.  We ought to then ask ourselves whether our comments elevate the conversation in a way that is worthy of us.  Perhaps we want to rethink whether it is wise to say these things at all, if they do not fall into the category of the intelligent, measured, dignified discourse that our tradition calls upon us to speak.   As we read in the Psalms:  “Guard your tongue from evil, your lips from deceitful speech.” (Ps. 34:14)

James Calvin Davis, a religion professor at Middlebury College in Vermont, identifies four basic values of civil conversation, to be used especially with those with whom we disagree.  They are:  Patience, integrity, humility and mutual respect.  He suggests that we cultivate these within ourselves as “habits of civil conversation.  The goal is not to achieve agreement with opponents, but moral discourse.”  If we accomplish this, says Davis, the conversation itself will be healthier, and it will also teach us “how to think ethically.” (Davis, p. 168-9)

On a societal level, we can provide the breath that transforms a shofar from weapon to instrument, by insisting that our civic discourse moves in a direction of shared goals and endeavors, even in this difficult moment.  

Rabbi Daniel Pressman uses an inscription in an ancient Jerusalem tunnel to teach the lesson of finding a way forward in contentious times.  Some of you have walked through the water-filled Hezekiah’s tunnel south of the Temple Mount.  It was created to bring water into the walled city of Jerusalem in the 7th century BCE.  An inscription discovered inside of it tells the story of how the tunnel was cut through from two separate directions, and that they did not exactly match up.  The inscription reads:  

There were still three cubits to be cut through, there was heard the sound of a man calling to his fellow, and there was an overlap in the rock on the right and on the left. And when the tunnel was driven through, the quarrymen hewed the rock, each man toward his fellow, axe against axe, and the water flowed from the spring toward the reservoir.

Pressman uses this inscription to teach that “we each must cut through the rock from our separate tunnels. We must carve our way through angry rhetoric and ideological posturing to true dialogue. We must call out to each other with words of reason and concern, seeking common ground.” (JCRC San Francisco Seder Supplement, date?)  

Such a powerful metaphor for what is needed today!  We must continue to press forward within our different positions and persuasions,  in our own tunnels, pursuing what we believe is right and good for our nation.  But, at some point, we must also come together and break down that final wall that will enable a positive outcome to flow from our efforts.  We must insist that those we choose to represent us in government work to break down barriers, even when they have fundamental philosophical differences, for the greater good of moving the nation forward and improving the lives of its citizens.

Tomorrow we will hear the call of the shofar three distinct times.  The final time, at the end of the Shofarot section of the service, we will hear the Tekiah Gedolah, that final blast of breath and spirit that calls us to imagine a better world, a world that has escaped from the grip of evil and that has turned toward peace and unity.   We can all help to put energy behind that final tekiyah by rejecting the contentiousness of our society and turning toward a more enlightened path, restoring its basic moral fabric.  The task for each one of us is to be an urgent, impassioned voice on such a path.  As Rabbi Hillel said: “be among the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing it.”  “Oheiv shalom v’rodeif shalom.”  (Avot 1:12) Let this be our New Year counter-narrative.


May FOOD OF THE MONTH: canned or dried beans

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