I am a Jew | Rosh Hashanah Day One Sermon 5780
Delivered by Senior Rabbi Rachel Timoner
Once upon a time there was a prince who had everything. The finest clothing made by the finest tailors. The most resplendent jewels that sparkled in light. The tastiest delicacies from chefs in every cuisine. He had traveled to distant lands, seen carnivals and circuses and spectacles of every kind. He’d met grand-dukes and sultans, padishahs and tribal chiefs.
The prince’s servants prided themselves on seeing to his every wish. Until one day the prince made a request that no one knew how to fulfill. He asked to see God. First, they brought the most rugged mountain climbers to take him to the top of the tallest mountain. The view was breathtaking, but he didn’t see God. Next, they brought the trustiest sailors to take him to the center of the largest ocean. He was awestruck by the vastness of the seas. There was nothing but horizon in all directions. But he didn’t see God. They brought the greatest astronomers to accompany him in the darkest night, and he wondered at the cosmos as they showed him the stars, but he didn’t see God. They brought the most revered bishop, caliph, lama, rabbi, each took him to their most magnificent houses of worship — to the nave and the dome and the ark and the altar. He was inspired. But he didn’t see God.
Failing in their mission, they consulted with every wise scholar, seer, soothsayer, prophet, until an old woman presented herself with a simple suggestion. The prince didn’t need to travel far, she advised. He could find God anywhere, starting in his own village. She took him to a small house near his palace. There, inside the house, was a girl. The girl had lost her parents in a terrible journey and was injured and bereft. She told the prince her story as she cried.
The prince, hearing the girl’s story, seeing her tears, cried too. At that moment, the wise woman pulled out a small mirror and held it so that the prince could see his own tears.
She asked, “What do you see?”
And he replied, “I see myself crying.”
She answered, “Now you have seen God.”
There has been so much crying in this year and so much more reason to cry.
Cry for those murdered in synagogue. Cry for the black churches burning.
Cry for the Jews of our own borough attacked.
Cry for refugee children locked up, wailing for their parents.
Cry for the mothers and the fathers sick over their stolen children.
Cry for the sisters and the brothers, all the fallen killed by guns.
Cry for the women and girls degraded, intimidated, violated.
Cry for those behind bars because they are poor or black.
Cry for those overdosed or addicted.
Cry for those knee-deep in floodwaters, for those masked against towering fires and billowing smoke.
And find the tears, find the tears for our species, and for the birds and for the butterflies and for the bees, and for the forests and for all the dying things.
If we just sat here, all of us, and cried together today, that might be the most eloquent response to the year we’ve just lived through.
That might be a way to see God.
Today is called Yom Teruah. Teruah is the sound the shofar makes. Teruah is a cry. It is a cry calling for God’s attention to the suffering of this world. In Judaism, in Torah, crying is not weak, crying is not giving up. Jacob cries, Joseph cries — a lot. Crying is associated with men of power. Warriors cry and kings cry — Saul, David, Hezekiah. Crying is often the beginning of new wisdom. Solomon cries, the Psalmist cries, the Prophets cry — Jeremiah, Isaiah, Micah. Crying is often a turning point toward liberation and redemption. After all, there’s a reason we have bowls of tears on our seder tables. It was only when the Israelites cried out in Egypt that our birthing into freedom began. It was only when Mordechai wept in the gates of the palace that Esther moved into action. And in the Torah we read this morning, it is upon hearing Hagar’s cry that God saves her and Ishmael.
We are a people who both value tears and are fluent in them. As much as today is a celebration of the new year, these ten days are meant to be a turning point, characterized by tears, tears of remembering, tears of repentance. Judaism teaches that tears are what open the gates of heaven. When we cry God remembers us and pays attention to our world. Jeremiah tells us that Rachel cries for our people, refusing to be comforted as long as we are still suffering. The midrash tells us that Rachel’s tears include a rebuke of God for allowing us to remain in suffering for so long. This day is also called Yom HaZikaron the day of remembering. Because when we cry, God remembers us. But also when we cry we remember who we are, because when we cry we remember what we care about.
Crying is what we do when we don’t know what to do, when we’re stuck, when we’re lost, when we can’t see the way forward. Crying is what we do when we need help, when we reach the limits of our own power and need to draw from something deeper.
I need to admit to you that I have been stuck. I have been doubting whether I am up to the task of leading you in this moment. I don’t know where we’re going, and I don’t know what we should do about it. Three years ago, I came here just before the election with a warning about what was coming. Two years ago, I gave you little metal hearts to put in your pockets to remind you of how strong your heart is and that love is real, even when it seems that all there is around you is fear. Last year, I spoke about faith and hope, and not giving up on each other or on our country. But this year, for the first time, I do not see the way.
If someone asked us ten years ago whether we would ever go about our daily lives while immigrant children were torn from their parents and held in cages, we would say “No, never. We’d do anything to shut that down.” And yet here we are. Some of the smartest people I know worked for months this year trying to bring together a national multi-faith coalition to use our moral voice in protest and vigil and civil disobedience to close the camps, but we could not come up with any strategy that would work. We could not find a way to free the children or reunite the families while this administration’s in office. Because moral suasion doesn’t work when cruelty is the point.
Ten years ago could we have imagined so much Nazi activity in this country, the fear of antisemitic violence in synagogues, Jews physically attacked regularly just a few miles away, the extremity of antizionism on college campuses, Israel becoming a flashpoint of national conversation that involves intellectuals, communal leaders, Members of Congress and the President all conflated with the question of Jewish loyalty?
If someone was looking for Jewish villains, this was the year: Netanyahu for annexation; Epstein for exploitation, Sackler for addiction, Weinstein for intimidation, Miller for family separation. Some of our people have been just as susceptible to the sickness in this culture as anyone else– greed, misogyny, dehumanization of others, the quest for power. It is important that this wrongdoing is named and prosecuted, however any generalization from these individuals to our people as a whole is antisemitism.
I spoke out numerous times this year against antisemitism on the left, and I will continue to do so everywhere I can. But if I’m honest I’m most afraid of what’s coming from the right, in concert with what’s growing on the left. I have been up at night about the place of Jews in the United States and the world this year; about the anti-liberal forces that are growing globally, Israel’s alignment with those forces, and the white nationalism that is infecting this society; the quest for purity on both the right and the left, its relationship to antisemitism, and its implications for us. In May, I brought together the four rabbis I trust most on these questions. We thought deeply about antisemitism, Israel, and antizionism. We parsed important and legitimate criticism of Israel from demonization of Israel and Jews, we explored the relationship between antisemitism and antizionism. It was immensely clarifying, but we admitted to each other that all of us are afraid, and none of us knows how to responsibly lead our Jewish communities in this moment. Do we raise an alarm, or do we soothe and give hope?
We do know that white people are losing their majority status in this country and many don’t like it. We do know that global migration will only increase with the impacts of climate change. We do know that a reaction to these trends is an impulse toward authoritarianism and scapegoating, which are never good for Jews. These trends are bigger than this president. There are also hopeful signs that a clear majority in this country is rejecting hate-based populism. In our national conversation, we are speaking about long-ignored, fundamental problems like systemic racism, misogyny and the concentration of wealth with a refreshing honesty. Children are rising up to demand that we reverse climate change and control guns.
Long ago, when mapmakers reached uncharted territory, they’d decorate the edges of the map with pictures of sea monsters and other terrifying beasts and the words: Here Be Dragons. We don’t know what lies ahead, or what we’ll find there. So what do we do?
Some tell the story of our people in the language of tears, from one catastrophe to the next, rupture to devastation to expulsion to annihilation. This legacy can come to define us and terrify us. Though every generation thought they were one of the last, the vast majority of our history was not catastrophe. We thrived for centuries in many places from ancient Israel to Babylonia to Spain to North Africa to Europe to the Middle East to North America. We have not only been victims but also architects of meaning, interpreters of time, facilitators of trade, connectors of civilizations, creators of culture, organizers of resistance, champions and celebrants of life.
Our story is one of extraordinary resilience. Our history has made us strong. It has made us wise. We know how to live through dark times. We have seen worse than this, much worse, and we have perpetually, persistently created and recreated our world, forging into dark and unknown waters with light, emerging from the tears with new vision. The Mishnah was created as we were carted off as slaves to the Roman Empire. The Talmud was created in Babylonia. The Shulchan Aruch was created in the wake of the Spanish expulsion.
In this disorienting time, it is essential that we remember who we are. We need the wisdom of our ancestors. It is time to open the old photo albums, and peer into the fading and yellowing faces of the generations of the old country, and of the immigrant generation. To look into their eyes, to see the lines on their faces, to see their jaws set. To ask them, What made you cry? Where did you find your inner strength? What did you learn? What were your questions? How did you find your way?
Edmond Fleg had forgotten who he was when, in December of 1894, Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish Captain in the French Army, was convicted of treason and sentenced to life in prison. Fleg was deeply affected by the twelve-year scandal that engulfed the nation following Dreyfus’s conviction, a scandal in which a growing and virulent antisemitism infected the government and the populace, and France became polarized around the question of whether Jews were loyal to their country. Shaken into a newfound appreciation for his identity as a Jew, Fleg began to study the tradition he grew up with but had felt estranged from as a modern person. In 1928, he wrote an essay entitled “Why I am a Jew.”
I am a Jew because born of Israel and having lost it, I feel it revive within me more alive than I am myself.
I am a Jew because born of Israel and having found it again, I would have it live after me even more alive than it is within me.
I am a Jew because the faith of Israel demands no abdication of my mind.
I am a Jew because the faith of Israel requires all the devotion of my heart.
I am a Jew because in every place where suffering weeps, the Jew weeps.
I am a Jew because at every time when despair cries out, the Jew hopes.
We are Jews, a people loyal to memory. The Torah commands us 169 times to remember and not to forget. We remember Amalek and are vigilant. We say Never Again to honor those who perished; and in their honor to stand against any government act that hints at the horrors they endured.
We are Jews, a people loyal to human dignity. We do not degrade human life. We know that each life is worth the life of the whole world.
We are Jews, a people loyal to justice and truth. Abraham was chosen for his commitment to tzedek u’mishpat, righteousness and justice, just law applied justly. We are commanded to pursue justice, even when others don’t take it seriously, even when others lie, even when others take bribes, even when others are steeped in corruption.
We are Jews, a people loyal to One God. Shma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad. We say it when we pray. We say it on our deathbeds. We know that underneath all of the divisions and separations, all of the hatred and alienation, there is a fundamental Oneness that unites what is, and that is our strength.
We are Jews, Hebrews, Ivrim, it means border crossers. Jacob brought us into Egypt, Joshua brought us into Israel. Ever since, we’ve been a wandering people crossing from nation to nation, linking cultures, languages, goods, ideas, civilizations. We know how to build connections. We know how to build trust. We know how to traverse differences. We know how to make allies. This is a good time for allies.
We are Jews, a people loyal to covenant. Moses stood at that mountain and ensured that all of us would be born into something larger than ourselves. We belong to each other. If this year reminded us of anything, it is that we Jews are bound together in a shared destiny whether we like it or not. We are radically responsible for each other, even when we disagree vehemently about essential questions, especially when we disagree. There is no escaping our mutual dependence. We are tied together for all time. So our only option is to carefully, thoughtfully, privately, respectfully rebuke one another, as Leviticus commands us, so that we might come to love one another, as Leviticus commands us. Our Rabbis established the law of the minyan, that ten men — or people– are required for prayer, so that Jews would be forced to be together. We knew 2,000 years ago, when we first scattered across the globe, that we needed each other. We need each other now.
And we need our synagogues. Where we cry. Where we sing. Where we celebrate. Where we remember who we are. Where we find the generations before us waiting for us in the words, in the walls in the air in the melodies. Where we breathe it in, and take the Sabbath and make holy days, and slow down, and do less and find deeper meaning. And study the wisdom of those who came before us and ask old questions and ask new questions. And see from the perspective of God and feel from the perspective of eternality. And tap the well of strength, the well of knowing.
And we find each other here. And we bring together our minds and our hearts and our efforts. And we listen. And we know that we are not alone. And we remember who we are together. And we imagine what we will be together. And we start to see the way.
When our people went into the depths of the sea on their way out of Egypt, they didn’t find sea monsters or dragons. According to one midrash, they found an orchard planted right at the bottom of the fearsome sea. A mother holding a crying baby on their way to freedom reached out her hand and plucked ripe fruit right in the midst of the journey. When all was unknown, with the waves towering above them and Pharaoh’s army menacing behind them, there was fruit, there was beauty, there was sweetness, there was sustenance.
There might be dragons out there somewhere, but there’s also ripe fruit. And we are a people who know that we need sweetness to sustain us on our way through the perilous seas. Who knows what we’ll find there? We may find the face of God.
Knowing us, there will be tears involved. Maybe tears of fear and tears of sorrow. Please God let there be also tears of redemption and relief, of gratitude and delight, of strength, of love, of turning, and of salvation.
We say together Amen.