I OFFERED THIS PRELUDE IN SPANISH BEFORE I BEGAN THE FORMAL SERMON ITSELF IN ENGLISH (the full text will be available in Spanish translation on the TBS website):
My friends, we have come through a hard year, a year of physical destrction by Hurricane Maria, a year of trauma and disappointment for this beloved island. We gather together as a community, individuals and families, to seek consolation, to renew our resilience and to look ahead with hope for a better year. So ….
Shanah tovah – ¡Feliz año nuevo! After a very difficuIt year, it is once again my honor and privilege to stand before you, members and friends of Temple Beth Shalom of Puerto Rico, as I have in past years, and to greet you as our new Jewish year 5779 begins. We live in a time of much uncertainty – social, political, cultural, environmental and economic – an “age of enormity” (Isaac Rosenfeld). So my prayer for the coming year is heartfelt and earnest:
May it be Your will, our God and God of our fathers and mothers, that we be renewed for a good and sweet year.
Feliz nuevo año, dulce y tranquilo!
I invite, encourage – even urge – you to participate in all of our High Holy Day services: tomorrow morning (today, in the Jewish calendar) for the service for the first day of Rosh Hashanah, followed by Tashlikh at the beach; the beautiful, alternative liturgy for the second day of the holiday, “In the Balance,” our most personal service, which we will read on Tuesday morning; Shabbat Shuvah and Saturday morning; and the services for Yom Kippur evening, morning and afternoon. Hear the calls of the shofar, sing the melodies of the season. Be an important presence, a vital part of our congregation at prayer. Strengthen your own faith and renew yourself as we begin the new year.
This was my invitation to you for last Rosh Hashanah. Hurricane Maria prevented not only the words and prayers; it devastated la isla encanta.
It has taken nearly a year to restore electric power to Puerto Rico, and everyone knows it’s worse than it was before. Owing to the hurricane’s impact, all the problems facing Puerto Rico have become much harder to solve.
On top of this, we are in the midst of a time of national nightmare. Every day promises unknown, hard-to-predict developments, what one politician (Donald Rumsfeld) called “the known unknowns.” But since the beginning of 2017, we have been confronted with what can only be described as “unknown unknowns” – things that we could not have predicted. It’s not only the catastrophic aftermath of Maria; we hear unexpected echoes of dark times, the return of memories and behaviors that we thought were safely shelved in the library of the bad old days. So many expectations of normalcy have been dashed. So many new outrages are reported, and they come so fast that we are being seduced into lowering our expectations and our standards. The new coarseness, the brazen lying, hatred, bigotry and anti-Semitism have begun to constitute a new normal. We have the “feeling of living inside a joke that’s gone of control.” (James Poniewozik, New York Times, September 5, 2017) Sigmund Freud wrote about “civilization and its discontents.” Consider our current discontents. Nuestros descontentos, nuestras quajas.
Civility has been replaced by insult, respect by contempt, tolerance by bigotry, truth by fabrication and deceit, humanity by chauvinism, privacy by exposure, modesty by exhibitionism, achievement by celebrity, shame by shamelessness, and bridges by walls. (David Friend, “The 1990s Gave Us the Trump Teens,” The New York Times, September 1, 2017, adapted) The result is that when a public figure is corrupt or inept, we shrug; and if that public figure fumbles through adequately, we offer praise and sigh in relief. And after so many outbursts of white rage, neo-Nazi and Ku Klux Klan paraphernalia and slogans, we’re becoming jaded, tempted just to say, “So what’s new?” We go on cognitive overload – sobrecarga cognitiva. So we shrug off the outrage of the day, the latest insult to our democracy, to our civilization’s standards, to our very intelligence.
This is the phenomenon described by the great philosopher-realist Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who also served in the United States Senate, as “defining deviancy downward – definiendo la desviacion hacia abajo.” (The American Scholar, winter, 1993) He wrote it 24 years ago, but it started much earlier, in the upheavals of the late 1960s, when the assault on truth, on the meaning of truth, on any kind of expertise was scorned as the elitism of both dead and living white males.
These attacks were intensified and radicalized by appeals to identity politics made by both right and left extremists from the 1980s on. The effect was arguably unorganized and unguided in many cases, and yet it was clearly intentional.
(For those who seek to undermine the existing structure, see Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, by Nancy MacLean, reviewed by Heather Boushey in The New York Times Book Review article of August 20, 2017 entitled “Minority Rule – How the Economist James McGill Buchanan laid out the game plan for the radical right.” Steve Bannon describes himself as “virulently anti-establishment, particularly ‘anti’ the permanent political class.” Paul Farhi, “How Breitbart became a dominant voice in the conservative media,” in The Washington Post, January 27, 2016. Bannon, until recently the president’s senior advisor, told Ronald Radosh, a reporter for The Daily Beast, in 2013 [as reported by Ryan Lizza in The New Yorker of November 14, 2016]: “I’m a Leninist. Lenin wanted to destroy the state and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down and destroy all of today’s establishment.” Bannon claims he does not recall the conversation, but Radosh confirmed his report in a Daily Beast article of August 27, 2016.)
What these extremists aim for is to destroy people’s trust in government, to discredit government institutions, and to encourage a mode of thinking and acting that disconnects behavior from consequences in real life. Just before he died in 2003, Senator Moynihan, viewing the startling success of the political and cultural campaign against government and against truth, said: “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but they are not entitled to their own facts.” (Earlier, by James Schlesinger, 1980, and Bernard Baruch, 1950) Or their “alternate facts”!
The assault on truth is not new. When the Nazis used it in the 1930s and ‘40s, we called it the BIG LIE. When the Soviet propaganda machine twisted the truth, they themselves called it DEZINFORMATSIA – disinformation. Today, Putin’s Russia disseminates disinformation openly, online, and by very sophisticated hacking of Western sites. RT (the government owned Russian Television) was even being displayed on the video monitors in the underground stations of the Path, the trains that take thousands of commuters from New Jersey to New York every day, straight-out Russian propaganda free, courtesy of the (duped) Port Authority of New York and New Jersey!
Last year’s demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia was a turning point, a new low. A torchlight parade, like those of the Nazis in the 1930s, swastika flags, Hitler salutes, chants from the Nazi playbook “blood and soil,” “Jews won’t replace us.” Masked men armed with semi-automatic guns loitering across the street from the synagogue where, inside, worshipers were at Shabbat prayers. As a precaution, they had evacuated the Torah scrolls, and when the service was over, they all left through the back door. In America! In 2017!
And the one woman killed by the automobile attack, Heather Heyer, a 32-year old legal assistant, who was described on one alt-right website as “a waste of space,” an American version of the Nazi classification of “life unworthy of life” – Lebensunwerte Leben” – to be discarded as basura.
Revolting and frightening – for Jews, for every minority group, for the American future as a democracy in which citizenship is not based on race or color or faith or sexual orientation.
But then, for the president to abdicate the role of President of all the people, to assert moral equivalency between the neo-Nazis and the KKK and those who came out to defend democracy: What a shocking lack of basic decency and a shameless rejection of presidential duty! (a paraphrase of Susan Bro, Heather Heyer’s mother) Doing so is like saying that there are two sides to Holocaust history, one of which would be the assertion that it didn’t happen. Discuss! Discuss? Should we discuss if World War II happened or not? Or if the Declaration of Independence was written or not? Should Holocaust survivors be forced to debate whether or not they suffered or that their entire families were murdered? Some questions are phony. Some matters are not “issues” that have two or more sides; they are not open for discussion and interpretation.
Enemies of democracy on college campuses and in arguments about internet content have figured out how to exploit democratic values. They plead “free speech” in order to conceal their goal of eliminating any speech they reject. Vladimir Lenin, the diabolical founding father of the Soviet Union, described this technique. He said: The capitalists will sell us the rope we’ll use to hang them.
And if we don’t figure that out, and soon, we’re all in trouble. “Tolerance toward the intolerant cannot be infinite, or the tolerant risk eradication.” (Attributed to Karl Popper, “The Open Society and its Enemies,” 1945, in Anna Sauerbrey’s How Germany Deals with Neo Nazis,” The New York Times 8/21/17)
This is not exclusively an American problem. It affects everyone and contributes to the political and cultural chaos we are experiencing today. Has Puerto Rico will be spared the devastating effects of the current turmoil? Is there anyone in Washington who wants to protect Puerto Rico?
Which brings me to look very specifically at this congregation on Rosh Hashanah. As our new year begins, I ask all of us: What can our faith and the grand themes of these Days of Awe teach us? How can they help us cope with the frightening world around us?
When the Nazis began their persecution of German Jews in the 1930s, their victims didn’t know how to respond. The vast majority of Germany’s Jews were highly assimilated. They thought of themselves as Deutschen der Mosaischen Glauben – Germans of the Mosaic Faith – rather than as Jewish people living as German citizens. They knew very little about Jewish beliefs, values and insights. So they were defenseless, and whatever Jewish pride they had was not just fragile but hollow.
We – you – don’t share that lack of knowledge. So many members of TBS have come to Judaism as adults and their introduction to the riches of our faith was presented at an adult level to people eager to learn and absorb! Moreover, our regular Shabbat afternoon adult education – which so many of you attend – continues to reinforce and enlarge your core knowledge and commitment.
Now, our Jewish knowledge may not be able to change the world, or fix our difficulties, but it can equip us, each of us, to better understand how to cope with the challenges we face.
The themes of Rosh Hashanah present us with a cosmic map, a spiritual guide to the universe and to our own relationship to it and to the Creator of all. How appropriate that is on the day our tradition says is the birthday of the world. Hayom harat olam! Today the world was born – and on this day, we can be born again, not as babies but as purified souls renewing our commitment to Judaism and to life.
So let me reintroduce you to the themes of Rosh Hashanah. They are headlined by the very names of these holy days: Rosh Hashanah is Yom HaZikkaron – The Day of Remembrance – El Dia del Memoria; Yom HaDin – The Day of Judgment – El Dia del Juicio; and Yom Teruah – The Day of Sounding the Shofar – El Dia del Shofar.
Yom HaZikkaron reminds us of the power and importance of remembering. Of all living creatures, only human beings are capable of processing complex and abstract memories. Rosh Hashanah, Yom HaZikkaron, describes two kinds of remembering: God remembers us, and we remember what God demands of us. In the Torah reading of the first day, God remembers Sarah – Va-Adonai pah-kad et Sarah (Beresheet/ Genesis 21:1). God remembers everything, we are told. You know how the Rabbis of the Talmud described this day in heaven (Rav Kruspedai, in the name of Rav Yohanan, Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 16b):
Three books are opened on Rosh Hashanah – one for those who are thoroughly evil; one for those who are perfectly righteous; and one for those somewhere in between. Those who are righteous are inscribed and sealed instantly for life. Those who are evil are inscribed and sealed instantly for death. Those who are somewhere in between are not yet judged in the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. If, at the end of the Ten Days of Penitence, they are found worthy, they are inscribed in the Book of Life. If they are not found worthy, they are inscribed in the Book of Death.
I think that most of us are “somewhere in between,” so even if we don’t literally believe in the heavenly books of life and death – or God’s scales of judgment – each year these Ten Days, beginning with Rosh Hashanah and concluding on Yom Kippur, should be a time for serious moral introspection and a determination to change for the better, to do teshuvah, to return to God, who, our tradition tells us, is so eager for us to repent that the Holy One will meet us halfway to welcome us back! God is not neutral; but “rather,” God is our Friend.
There can be no viable society without the memory of group experiences. Nor can an individual life have any value without memory. The greatest tragedy of Alzheimer’s is living without memory. We are the people of the book – one of the many meanings of that term is remembering Torah, by which I mean learning and understanding and internalizing the teachings in our sacred texts. Remembering our history and our values and how to apply them to our lives helps us face the future even as it helps us assess our past, helps us look at who we have been and how we have acted in the year that has just concluded.
God’s open books remind us of what we have done and what we have not done. They are also a metaphor for the second theme of Rosh Hashanah – Yom HaDin – the Day of Judgment. God judges us on the basis of all the evidence. Nothing is withheld. God remembers the things we’d like to be forgotten. V’zokher kol ha-nish’ka-hot. Standing in judgment means that we have had choices in the past year; we have been given free will. That’s our teaching. Our choices are real. Certainly there are limitations to our ability to choose: The circumstances we face, our own DNA (AND), our genetic heritage.
But we are not marionettes (marionetas) on God’s strings. One of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s fictional characters suggests that for us to have free will, God must hide from the world. It’s up to us, and so we will be judged. We are not prisoners of fate, and not in solitary mental confinement.
The third name, the third theme of Rosh Hashanah then follows logically. Yom Teruah – the electrifying blast of the shofar is sounded to shake us out of our daily, often-unthinking, routine. Self-assessment is very difficult. The shofar sounds. God is listening. God is waiting for each of us to stir. We hear the sound. Can we move ourselves out of our addiction to the mundane routines of our lives?
All this is very serious. In light of our current personal, national and global multifaceted crises it needs to be.
But our tradition teaches us that Rosh Hashanah is not only serious; it is also joyous. How can that be? The shofar is sounded in times of danger, but it is also sounded to praise God in joy. So we feel sorrow and regret as we confront our failings, but we also feel relief and joy as we celebrate our ability to begin again.
And, and, we know in our hearts that the Judge of this day is full of motherly and fatherly compassion. We pray to Eil Malei Rahamim – God full of mercy and compassion for us, assured that there is hope for true justice in our flawed world. So our l’shanah tovah greeting is not fearful. No matter how discontented, upset and worried current events make us, we welcome the new year with joy. And so, with a full heart, I wish you all SHANAH TOVAH!