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Rosh Hashanah 5781, First Day - "Choosing to See Divinity in All"

OK, first things first — I’m not going to tell you who to vote for.  For one thing, it would jeopardize our non-profit status.  And, in any event, I suspect you already know where your vote is going. 

No, instead, I want to talk to you this morning about a force more degenerate, more depraved than any political figure, past or present. 

I mean of course the ] deeply detestable and fundamentally awful New York Yankees, and their enervating and insufferable fans.

Now, of course, at CBE we celebrate diversity.  I am a Mets fan, and you are Red Sox fans. But we stand united in solidarity against the dreaded Yankees and their — did I mention? — repugnant supporters, whose mere existence shocks the conscience of any moral American.  We can show no sympathy, extend no compassion, to this sniveling band of degenerates, completely and utterly divorced from common decency.

That they even share the same atmosphere as those of us who assemble this morning is sufficient to disturb the equanimity of all decent people. 

OK OK, I’m kidding.

Mostly.

But, given the Yankees-Sox rivalry, there’s a video from three summers years ago that’s a real stunner.  It’s a Saturday, July 2017, at Fenway. Hanley Ramirez pops a ball down the first base line, landing just over the wall, behind the tarp.  As it rolls along the wall, a Sox fan grabs the coveted object, hoisting it triumphantly, hooting and high fiving the fans around him.

But then, after the broadcast returns from a video replay, you see something strange.  The fan who snagged the ball is looking over his right shoulder.  As he turns, on screen, a little brown-haired girl appears.  She is wearing a teeny-tiny Derek Jeter pinstripe replica jersey — and a pink New York Yankees hat.  And the big red-faced man, backwards Sox cap perched atop his head, hands the souvenir ball to the young Yankees fan.

Aw.

But there’s more.  The little girl, thrilled with her memento, starts to head back to her seat, but suddenly turns around.  And wouldn’t you know it?  The Yankee fan and the Sox fan share a big hug.

Aww!

If you look at the video on ESPN’s Instagram feed, there’s a comment from someone named Eric Kaplan, exclaiming, “There is hope for world peace!” 

Which is funny.  But then you think… maybe! 

Because, take off the Red Sox cap and Yankee cap and what you’re left with is two human beings.  In the words of the Torah, created b’tzelem Elohim.  In the image of God.

We’re starting a new year of programming for 5781, centered around the theme of “Jewish choices.”  Because every single moment, wherever we are, is an opportunity to make a Jewish choice.

And if you’ve never thought about the idea of making “Jewish” choices, Rosh haShanah is a great time to start.  According to the Midrash, Rosh haShanah is not the anniversary of the Big Bang, the first day of creation.  Today, Rosh haShanah, is the sixth day of creation.[1]  The Jewish birthday of the world is the day on which human beings were created.

When the very ability to make human choice was created.

The Sox fan, in a moment of exultation, made a choice.  He chose to give up his baseball to a kid, a rival fan.  And the kid chose to thank him with a hug.

Of course, an MLB ball is just cowhide, some yarn, and rubber-coated cork.  But this particular baseball was certainly greater than the sum of its parts.

It’s no great insight that we’re a factionalized and polarized country — and not just Yankees and Red Sox fans.  Now, as I’m sure you know, I have opinions about these topics.  I know you do too.  They might match mine.  Or not. 

But regardless, for us as Jews, one thing is true.  Every single soul in the world, whether or not you agree with them 100 percent of the time or zero percent of the time, is created b’tzelem Elohim.  In the image of God.

Every single soul has divinity and value, the infinite value that comes with being human.

Intellectually, this may seem obvious.  But emotions aren’t always rational.  It may feel really good to hate the people we don’t like.  Maybe to even wish something terrible on them.  And, when they fall prey to that terrible thing, to take pleasure in their suffering.

The Germans have a word for this.  You might know it: schadenfreude.  It is a compound of schaden, "damage” or “harm," and freude, "joy."  Thus, it’s a word that means to take pleasure in another person’s suffering. 

There’s a website today, even as we speak, called areyousorryyet.com.  The tagline is “a collection of regretful Trump voters.”  The website features pairs of tweets, each showing a prior message of support for the president, and then a second, later, tweet from the same person, expressing disappointment or outrage.

In one pair, for instance, a woman named Tammy tweets out in 2016, “you’re awesome!  You have my vote!  Make America great again” — only to say in the second tweet, two years later, “You lied about pre-existing conditions.  You’re a horrible man.  I won’t do it again.”

What’s striking about this website, though, is the tone of smug satisfaction.  The header depicts a close-up photo of a crying baby.  The website also runs a commentary underneath each set of tweets.  Below Tammy’s tweets, for example, whoever runs the website printed a simple sentence: “You got what you voted for, chump!”

Now, as you might imagine, some of the president’s former supporters quoted on the site are not who I’d call upstanding citizens.  But some of them express real concern for their country.  For their own personal futures.  From draconian travel bans to threatened healthcare coverage, they are troubled. 

For those of us who agree with the webmaster, we may feel a frisson of satisfaction to say, “Ha!  I told you so!”  It’s fun to call a woman who was duped into voting against her own interests a “chump.”

But after the thrill — then what?  If we really believe that all people are entitled to basic healthcare, that means all people — even people we disagree with.  If we believe that all people deserve fair pay, that means all people — even our political adversaries.  If we believe all people have a right to housing and good schools and safe workplaces, that means all people — even people whose views are anathema to ours.

We’re in a time of such cruelty.  Of stark division, and constant strife.  And in a time of such rancor, it is a choice to reject such divisions.   It is a Jewish choice. 

Bi’nofel oyvecha al tismach, we learn in Proverbs. “If your enemy falls, do not rejoice.”[2]

Of course, you might ask — “Rabbi, why not?  After all… given how hard things are these days, what’s so bad about having a little fun?”

It goes back to that b’tzelem Elohim thing.  All people are Godly.  All souls are divine. 

In the Talmud, we’re taught that it’s no accident that God created all human beings from that one soul, from Adam.  There’s a reason: “due to the importance of maintaining shalom, of peace among people.”

Instead of creating, say, a dozen people at the dawn of creation, God made just one, in order that “one person will not say to another: My father is greater than your father.”[3]

The idea that all of us are God’s creatures was a revolutionary idea then, and it is certainly a revolutionary idea now.  It means that even the people who we find most objectional, even repulsive, are divine. 

It means that if I find a person disturbing, if I find myself uncomfortable in the presence of a Black person, if the human dignity of a Latinx immigrant is up for debate, if I am put off by reality or even the idea of a trans person, the issue is with me, because they are all divine.

It is our task to look into the faces of each of those people, and see God. 

And, just as assuredly, if I estimate a Baptist in Alabama as by definition worthy of ridicule, if dismiss the needs of an out-of-work machinist in Michigan, if I snicker at the suffering of a person who I think voted for the wrong person, I need to do some serious soul-searching, because those people too are divine.

It is our task to look into the faces of each of those people, and see God.

Because if I really think all people are worthy of safety and security, healthcare and housing, there are no asterisks.  There are no exceptions. 

And wow, all of this is so tricky.  Some of the people in the second category support policies that have, and do, hurt people in the first category.  Some of them may have shared a social media post mocking black folks as criminals, voted for a referendum that demonizes trans people, or clicked “like” on a video of white supremacists chanting “Jews will not replace us.”

These actions are, in a word, abhorrent.  But, if the High Holidays teach us nothing else, they remind us that even our most hurtful behavior does not erase our humanity.  Or our divinity.

We reject and denounce — in the strongest terms possible — hate, discrimination, demonization.  We fight like Hell against leaders who produce this poison, and those who help them spread it.  But a refusal to accept hateful behavior and rhetoric cannot equate with an absence of compassion.  If we respond to hate with more hate, we only help in the transmission of the virus of contempt and cruelty.

God forbid we let the hate in this world infect our own hearts.

Not only does it hurt us psychically and spiritually, but it also lets us off the hook for our own responsibility for the mess we’re in.  After all, the High Holidays remind us that we have all done things which resulted in pain for others.  At one time or another, we have all harbored ideas which left our neighbors poorer, and sicker, and more vulnerable.

On these days, we struggle to do better.

We hope and pray for redemption for ourselves.  To be a Jew is to remain open to the possibility of redemption for everyone.

It is a Jewish choice to insist that all of us are Godly.  Even when we harbor hate in our hearts.  Even when we espouse cruelty or even violence. 

For a people who have suffered as much as Jews have, this may sound impossibly naïve or — worse — self-destructive.

But I have learned about this Jewish choice to insist that everyone is Godly from other Jews — Jews who’ve paid the ultimate price of a world of hate and cruelty and violence. 

I learned about the Jewish choice to insist that everyone is Godly from Hillel Zeitlin, a Yiddish thinker and poet who wrote, from the midst of the Nazi-occupied Warsaw, that to be a Jew:

“is to demand tzedakah umishpat [justice and right] not only for [Jews], but for all peoples… [to] stand always on the side of the oppressed against their overlords… to free the enslaved (To let the oppressed go free) and rescue those who are hurting.” Zeitlin is quoting Isaiah, the very haftarah we’ll read on Yom Kippur.  “Have we,” Zeitlin asks his fellow Jews, in the very midst of a world that will soon forsake the Jewish people, “have we [Jews] fulfilled this mission in our world?"

I learned about the Jewish choice to insist that everyone is Godly from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who in February 1944, published a remarkable piece: “The Meaning of This War.”  In it he took to task not the Nazis, but those who allowed injustice to flourish unchecked.  “Let Fascism not serve as an alibi for our conscience,” Heschel said, even as the war raged on.  “We have failed to fight for right, for justice, for goodness; as a result, we must [now] fight against wrong, against injustice, against evil. We have failed to offer sacrifices on the altar of peace,” he concluded. “Now we must offer sacrifices on the altar of war.”  Heschel’s mother and sisters, by that time, had already been murdered by the Nazis. 

I learned about the Jewish choice to insist that everyone is Godly from Etty Hillesum, a Dutch Jew whose diary documents the rise of Nazism in Europe.  This Jewish woman in her twenties identifies “the problem of our age” — remarkably — as “hatred of Germans,” which “poisons everyone’s mind.”

Hillesum is not talking about turning the other cheek.  “You must make a stand, wax indignant,” she asserts.  The danger is in what “indiscriminate hatred” would do to us.  “It is,” she says, “a sickness of the soul.” 

Hillesum – along with her parents and brother, Mischa – was transported to Auschwitz.  All were murdered.  In the diaries she left behind, Hillesum was unsparing regarding Nazi brutality, “They are merciless, totally without pity.”  But she concludes, “we must be all the more merciful ourselves.”

And I learned about the Jewish choice to insist that everyone is Godly from our own George Schaeffer.  As many of you know, last year two non-Jewish boys at one of our local middle schools “joked” on social media about, of all things, killing Jews.  Instead of putting them through a criminal process, the Acton school district and police used Restorative Justice to encourage them to take responsibility for their deeds, emphasizing restoration rather than punishment. 

To help the boys understand the effect their attempts at humor had in the world, I thought it might help to talk to George.  I nervously emailed him on a Wednesday morning last December.  George has been through enough.  He could’ve said “to Hell with these kids.” 

But not twenty minutes later, George wrote back: “Yes!  Just tell me where & when.”

He met them at the synagogue.  He took the time to face them, eye to eye.  I won’t soon forget that moment.  He asked plainly, “do you want to kill me? I am a Jew.”

It wasn’t easy for the boys.  But George saw them.  He spoke firmly but kindly to them. It was so obvious that he cared about these boys who joked about the worst horrors he had known, that our people have known.  The boys would speak, later, about how much that meant to them.

This is what is so hard.  What our culture and our leaders are stealing from us, little by little.  The ability to stay true to our voices, to speak clearly, to speak for the good and the just, without demonizing the people we are speaking of, without bearing contempt for the people we are speaking to.  The way I spoke about Yankee fans, in jest (mostly), is the way that we have been conditioned to speak, in seriousness, about our neighbors.

It is so hard to say no to that rhetoric.  But, these days, it is so needed. 

After all, the Red Sox and Yankees are playing in front of empty stadiums.  There aren’t any fans fighting over baseballs in the stands, because there aren’t any fans.  The Covid catastrophe has taught us, again, of the fragility of life.  Jewish teaching demands that we choose to see every life as sacred, as Divine.

In a time, socially and politically, that challenges our most deeply cherished values, we must nevertheless insist — every human soul deserves honor and love, compassion and respect.

Yeah – even Yankee fans.

L’shanah tovah tikateivu.

May we all be written for a year of goodness, principle, and compassion.

 

[1] It was taught in the name of Rabbi Eliezer, "The world was created on the twenty-fifth of Elul." – Leviticus Rabbah 29:1

[2] Proverbs 24:17

[3] Sanhedrin 37a

 

Sat, July 24 2021 15 Av 5781