Thursday, September 27, 2012

Rosh Hashanah night 2012

The first time I visited Europe was back in 1970 when our family toured Spain. It was still in the days of that long lived dictator Francisco Franco. In the city of Madrid we made our way to the lone remaining synagogue located in an alleyway. As a thirteen year old I remembered the uncomfortable feeling of having to be quiet and careful while entering the synagogue and listening to a brief explanation. Why would one have the feeling of concealment about being a Jew?  I had precious little knowledge about our history but I learned fast about the Spanish Inquisition of the Jewish People.  The Jewish community in Madrid at that time lived in total concealment and little did I realize then how we would become experts at hiding our private lives from a hostile world.
In the Jewish ghetto of Warsaw the Nazis forbade the practice of Judaism.  Yet there was a resistance in that concealment of Jewish spirituality that chills my bones to this very day. Survivor Chaim Kaplan wrote about the eve of Rosh Hashana in 1940:
“Everything is forbidden to us. The wonder is that we are still alive and that we do everything. And this is true of public prayer too. Secret minyanim by the hundreds throughout Warsaw organize services and do not skip over even the most difficult hymns in the liturgy. There is not even a shortage of sermons. Everything is in accordance with the ancient customs of Israel. The enemy does not know what is going on, and we can assume that no Jewish man, even if he is a Jew born in Poland, would inform on Jews standing before their Maker in prayer.”
And then I read a passage from the Psalms, one of our sacred texts that said that the first day of Rosh Hashanah is known as the day of concealment. For it is written in Psalms, “Sound the Shofar to mark the new month, the time of concealment of our festival” (Ps. 81:4). Even the Talmud (Beitza) echoes this theme of concealment on Rosh Hashana, “Sound the Shofar to mark the new month.” The rabbis ask; “Which festival falls when the new month is concealed? They say that Israel is compared to the moon for it is radiant on the Festivals. On Rosh Hashana, however, Israel diminishes herself and conceals her greatness in trepidation of the Day of Judgment. Some of the Rabbis say that we conceal the holy day of Rosh Hashanah so as to confuse Satan and not enable him to prosecute Israel for its sins.
Jewish history teaches one kind of meaning about concealment, while our theology teaches us another, but both are relevant to what it means to be Jewish in our time. For example, we are living in a world where Jews are -- in most places -- free to pray whenever and wherever we want to. This is particularly true for Jews living in the U.S., where our freedoms are guaranteed by law and protected by social custom. Yet, there are events, troubling ones, that remind us of a time when we lived in fear of what our adversaries might do to us.  That feeling of vulnerability is still present today. And what shall be our response on a spiritual level to the situations that threatens Israel, world Jewry and especially America?
At the same time history teaches not to lose hope, but, instead to remain resolute in protecting our way of life. The Talmudic maxim still applies; “Pray as if everything depends on God. Act as if everything depends on human will.” In a way we still have to conceal ourselves to confuse the Satans of today that threaten us. At the same time we do not give in to the threats of radical Islam. We operate from a position of strength. Concealment reveals a paradox between survival and transcending hatred from others. Have we not used concealment to our advantage in order to keep Satan which is a metaphor applying to Iran, the Arabs and others still guessing about Israel’s strength and determination?
The best example of how we have used concealment against our adversary is Iran. Israel has been so effective in the art of surprise. Even with what we know about Israel’s nuclear weaponry, we will not know just how Israel will respond. And that in and of itself is part of Israel’s campaign to make concealment a strategy of psychological warfare.
History has taught us to take madmen seriously at their word. Ahimenijhad is one of them and he belongs to a long line of aggressors against the Jewish state. He would like us to believe that he has constructed a political kind of Warsaw ghetto around us today. He would like us to believe that this burgeoning nuclear capability will hold us hostage at the very least let alone destroy Israel’s way of life. We watch with frustration what the President, the UN and other international bodies debate about how to deter Iran.
We read the Un’tane Tokef prayer proclaiming; “Who shall live and Who shall die.” The prayer does not include words such as “by nuclear attack? But we are thinking about this scenario nevertheless. We get increasingly uneasy as we listen to Defense Minister Ehud Barak refer to Israel  missing the moment of inevitability of Iranian nuclear strength and technology.
No one can say for sure what Israel and Iran will do, let alone the United States.  Israel’s most effective strategy is to conceal what it will do and not do. Yes, collaborative efforts between America and Israel on the use of effective computer worms and viruses to upset the Iranian system have supposedly been effective. But the public knows precious little about what goes on behind the scenes.
We see how concealment of Israel ‘s fears regarding the long term repercussions of the Arab spring on Israel is another area where Israel conceals its opinions and its strategy should the new political leadership of Egypt, for example, back Hamas and abrogate the Camp David treaty.
 In Europe Jews must still contend with anti-Semitism from the right and the left. Whether it is in France where terrorism against Jews continues from Arab radicals or in Britain where the universities carry on efforts to ban Israeli academics and declare Israel as a pariah or a modern day apartheid South Africa, the Jewish communities still live in a sort of precarious situation of enjoying full citizenship but also living as a protected population in case of the next terrorist attack.
Even in our own country and temple we are wary of our vulnerability.  Jews live freely but as a community we still conceal ourselves. We have, for example, police protection and not for traffic control at the high holy days. Our temple has installed effective security devices. Despite our freedoms we still depend upon the practice of concealment so as to intimidate and prevent the modern day Satans from attacking us.
What we should never forget is that behind the concealment of our vulnerability we have prevailed because we are the most adaptable people to adversity. Our strength lies in our ability to conquer our fears and to carry on despite the backdrop that we are targets to an enemy that will spring up at any time and at any place. Our dedication to study and building Jewish community wins us more friends in the long term even if it attracts detractors.  
One great sage Rabbi Pinchas of a town Koretz in Europe once about two hundred years ago said; “At New Year’s God is in that concealment which is called the “sitting on the throne,” and everyone can see him, everyone according to his own nature; one in weeping, one in prayer and one in the song of praise.” We do not know the answer to what anyone will do let alone what we might do in a given moment. It is another matter to imagine what the Israelis or the United States will do to stop Iran from proclaiming that they have a nuclear weapon. We too bring all our emotions including our fears, tears and our hopes that this will not happen. Just the thought of Iran boasting of their nuclear bomb would evoke all these emotions.
In America we are accustomed to joining with vulnerable religious minorities and ethnic  groups who share common enemies with us, and that is why we need to be even more active and supportive of other groups who attack our friends and stand up for them in real and substantive ways.  Groups like the Sikhs, for example, as well as other religious minorities, need our support and if we want their support in our time of need then we need to be there for them. That is the kind of strength we cannot conceal but we must be out in front on issues of human rights abuses. If the Holocaust taught anything about the silence of the world, we must not be afraid to act on behalf of our friends.
Our greatest act of concealment is the ability of our people to come together in facing our adversaries. It is an internal and spiritual strength that enables the state of Israel to overcome the challenges of its diversity. It is the concealment of our faith whether it is in God or ourselves or something called history that has sustained us through the darkness and carried us into the light.  We never want to go backward into history only to learn from it. We live in a new era of military, political, cultural and spiritual vitality. That is what we conceal as our greatest arsenal against our adversaries. And on this Rosh Hashanah while we see the dangers in the world to Jewish survival in regimes like Iran, we still pray and fight for our right to exist and for our children’s right to have a future and live proudly as Jews.
In the book of Isaiah, it is written “Fear not O Jacob” (44:2).  The rabbis tell of the moment that God showed our patriarch Jacob the prince of Babylon going up and down Jacob’s ladder. Then it was the prince of Media or ancient Persia also going up and down the ladder. Afterwards God showed Jacob the vision of the prince of Greece going up and down the ladder of Jacob as well as the prince of Edom or Rome going up and down the ladder of Jacob. Then God tells Jacob, ‘You too may now ascend this sacred ladder I have provided for you.’ Jacob, according the ancient tale, grew afraid saying, “If all of these empires went up and eventually descended in destruction maybe I too will have the same fate for the Jewish people.” God replied, “Do not be afraid, you shall ascend this ladder but you shall never descend” (Leviticus Rabbah 29:3).
On this holy night of Rosh Hashanah we are bound together once again as a unified people all over the world. We ascend the ladder of our destiny and we have never descended. We have concealed our faith and we have drawn upon it in darkness and in light. May we sound the shofar tomorrow morning knowing that faith, dedication and commitment to the tradition and to the history we all share will see us through and that the Satans of our time will fall into obscurity. We are the Jewish people and we shall prevail. Baruch atah adonai eloheinu melech haolam shechiyanu v’keyimanu ihegeyan lazman hazeh.

Rosh Hashana Day 2012
The story of the binding of Isaac continues to haunt us no matter how many times we read it on Rosh Hashanah or during the yearly cycle of Torah readings. It appears to be a story about absolute faith in the word of God, and about Abraham's willingness to be tested to see if he is truly worthy of divine favor. It's a familiar story, I'm sure, for most of you, yet I find something troubling in it, and not just in the near act of child sacrifice, but in the aftermath of this puzzling event.
We have no idea what happened between father and son after the events recorded in Genesis 22. All the text says is “And they returned to Beer Shava together.” That’s it? Nothing else? No conversation and no sharing anything about how they were feeling about all that transpired? All we are left with is the impersonal third person narrative that they returned to Beer Sheva.

It is true that a lot depends on how old Isaac was at the time that the story occurred. Was he a child when Abraham placed him on the altar, or—as many Midrashim suppose, was he an adult? Let us suppose, for the moment, that the latter was true. Can we than presume that he was angry with his father?  Did he want to be far from him? Maybe he was so upset and traumatized that he refused to speak with Abraham. Of course, no one knows the answer to these questions; nevertheless, the text calls out to us to explore them, and this exactly what I propose to do.
Suppose Isaac was angry at his father and could never understand or respect what Abraham almost did to him even with the approval of God. Suppose the silence of the text reflected that Isaac was so angry with his father that he never did speak to him again? And is it also possible that Abraham felt guilty at what he almost did to his son? I want to know if they were able to recover from this episode. Why is it that they never speak again in the Torah? Maybe there is something more that meets the eye here?
The fact that they do not ever speak again leads us to contemplate something more personal about our relationships with parents or with children. I sense there might have been an estrangement between father and son in this story even though I cannot prove it. And from that perspective the story is tragic if that is true because one wonders if there was ever a healing between them? Or did Isaac remain embittered and Abraham live with guilt because of the divine command? Was there any reconciliation between father and son?
There may be a link in this interpretation of the Binding of Isaac story to us. It is one that we probably would prefer not to discuss but one that deserves our attention anyway. Being estranged from a child or a parent is a trauma of a different nature but one that could be compared to the silence we imagine between Abraham and Isaac in the Torah text. Conflicts happen even within the best of families, and while these conflicts may not resemble the near-sacrifice of Isaac, nevertheless, traumas and ruptures in the foundation of a relationship can affect a family for many years in ways that are not terribly different from the presumed alienation of Isaac from Abraham.   And when that happens is there a way to begin a process of healing those deep wounds in a family?

Let me begin by saying that there are lots of theories as to what happened to Isaac. Many rabbinical commentators speculate that Abraham actually sacrificed him and that he was resurrected.  One can explore the realm of medieval commentators and see that many of them also struggled with the idea of God asking a father to kill his son to prove his loyalty. Some commentators speculated that Abraham misunderstood what God intended. For example one Rabbi, Jona ibn Janach, of 11th century Spain said that God had intended for Abraham to take a symbolic sacrifice not to actually perform the act.  Three hundred years later in Spain the commentator ibn Caspi said that Abraham let his imagination get the better of him for how could God allow for such a “revolting thing?”
Needless to say, that this story resonates deeply in Christian history with the idea that God would consider sacrificing his only son. This may have a lot to do with why our rabbis of the Late Antique and Medieval periods tried to interpret the story in any way that would distance it from prevailing Christian interpretations.

There are some Hasidic commentators of the 18th century who believed that this was a test for Isaac more so than his father. Because they believed that Isaac was 36 at the time of the story, the underlying theme is a test to see if Isaac was willing to give up his life for Kiddush Hashem- for the sanctification of the Divine Name. This resonated for many Jewish communities who had suffered martyrdom during the crusades or had experienced violent ant-Jewish attacks at many other times in Jewish history of extreme and violent anti-Jewish attacks.
Some commentators also viewed this story as a way of testing God’s commitment to Israel. Since Abraham says earlier, “ the lad and I will go up to the mountain and prostrate ourselves and then return to you,” that  proves, they argued, that Abraham knew all along that God would never make him sacrifice Isaac. Thus, the story actually tests God’s moral fortitude to choose the righteous way. Is it any much different then when God argues with Abraham regarding the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah?

All of these interpretations belong to a treasure trove of commentators who were driven to derive meaning from such an upsetting story. Yet it is difficult to find interpretations that go into the moral realm, and suggest that both men were perhaps not on such good terms when they descended Mt. Moriah.

The fact that they never spoke to each other again in the rest of the Torah leads me to imagine that all did not end up well.  I do not have evidence to prove there was a major rift between father and son but I do not believe it is any more speculative than imagining that Abraham actually sacrificed Isaac, as several commentators believed.
It seems to me that when parents and adult children stop talking to each other one of the hardest things to do is to get to the root of the story that caused the estrangement. It is often times difficult to get everyone on the same page since all sides have differing accounts as to what started the problems in the first place.
What is disturbing, however, is the sheer number of families where parents and adult children refuse to speak to one another.  In this congregation and in others I have served I listen to good and kind people tell me their pain. In many cases I hear the side of heartbroken parents who have lost their relationship with one of their children. So often they live for years without speaking.  This may mean no communication with children and or grandchildren which only adds to the burden that many parents experience over the years and impacts the way they live their daily lives.  Sometimes it is a job that took parents away from building a solid family life, or perhaps it was a divorce when the children were young, or maybe sibling rivalry, or drug abuse, or simply just poor communications skills. There are so many other reasons.
Other times there is one specific traumatic event such as suicide, murder, accidental death or death caused by disease of a child or young parent that creates a ripple effect of alienation within a family. Family members especially the extended families of grandparents never deal with the issue and it leaves a lifetime of anger and distance within the family.
Once again, I do not liken these events exactly to the binding of Isaac, yet, the connection here is the trauma for whatever can  cause family members to self destruct. Even in the Midrash to the binding of Isaac story the rabbis imagine Abraham and Isaac going down the mountain and when Abraham tells Sarah what had happened, the text says, “her soul had left her.” Maybe that was the reason that Isaac and Abraham never spoke again. The point is that trauma comes from any direction and leaves behind a lifelong virus of mistrust and anger that persists unless we address the basic issues.”
Having a difficult conversation with our loved ones with the goal of eventually leading to healing and forgiveness not only requires great patience but a commitment, for intents and purposes, to  reinvent the relationship We cannot solve these kinds of deep seated wounds in one moment. And email is the worst format for addressing complex emotional issues. It takes face to face contact and over an extended period of time to carve away at the block of anger and years of resentment that have built up between parent and child.
But I try to tell my congregants never to give up as well as to obtain professional guidance in coping with a long term effort to reestablish communication with an alienated child or parent or sibling or good friend. Many times the biggest challenge is getting over the hurdle of not having communicated for so long as compared to the original issue that created the chasm in the first place.
And even when we can get all the various conversations out on the table and everyone gets a chance to be heard and to state their reasons for being hurt, the moral issue is defined as whether or not family bonds will suffice to compel us to ask for forgiveness and to grant it? That too is a critical question. Can you imagine a therapist sitting down with Abraham and Isaac helping them to articulate their feelings of guilt, anger and whatever else might be going on behind the scenes after the binding incident and the intervention of God?

While I understand why deep seated conflicts may require family members to take a break from each other that should not be a sign to ultimately give up on healing a relationship of someone we care about. Yes there are times when we have no choice but to acknowledge that healing will not occur. But we who try to achieve reconciliation have to be able to look to god and within ourselves and say, “I have gone the entire way of my life to reach out to this person and make teshuvah.” This is not about admitting fault or blame. It is about saying that we cannot lose communication. We cannot lose the engagement with our loved ones even when one feels and demonstrates no interest in that relationship. We should not abandon the commitment to reconcile as a moral and religious imperative. Facing rejection is not pleasant and the hurt is long lasting but what people tell me is worse is the silence, that is, the lack of communication. And that is why I wanted to see something of a dialogue or reaction from Isaac and Abraham after the binding of Isaac at Mt. Moriah. This is what led me to the subject of trying to reconcile with our loved ones who have become estranged from us.
The truth is that the story of the binding of Isaac is about breaking the rules. It is a breach of law between father and son including the prohibition of murder, and especially the abomination of human sacrifice. How can one recover when someone feels the other has betrayed everything sacred in a relationship? All we know from the Torah is that Abraham and Isaac left together and returned to beer sheva. Was the word” Vayashuvu, and they returned,” which is the same root word meaning to repent a clue to us that they found a way back to each other? We shall never know for sure.
Yet at the end the angel of God says to Abraham that he knows Abraham was willing to nullify everything for the sake of binding himself and Isaac. Is it possible that the healing took place when both gave up everything of the past and started over on the journey home? Is that when the real dialogue took place? Is it possible that then when they sacrificed the ram it symbolized that they were both giving up so much of their hurt and estrangement because that was the only way to begin to heal their rift?  Maybe true healing of estranged relationships requires us to give up something of ourselves in order to overcome the hurt that afflicts us. Maybe that is the true test of reconciliation.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Kol Nidre-Yom Kippur Evening-The Testament of the Jew of Saragossa

Yom Kippur Evening
Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor, author and Nobel Prize winner, was touring the old quarter of the town of Saragossa Spain when an exuberant young Spaniard approached him requesting to be his guide for free. The two men sat down to have an expresso.  In the course of their conversation the Spaniard asked Wiesel how many languages he spoke, and Wiesel replied “several including Hebrew.
“Hebreo?” The Spaniard asks, picking up his ears?
“It exists?”
“Are you a Jew?”
Wiesel nodded in the affirmative. The Spaniard asked in an urgent tone, “Would you do me a favor?” Please come to my home, just for a little while. So, Wiesel found himself sitting in an armchair in the Spaniard’s apartment when suddenly his host reappeared with a fragment of a testament written centuries ago. Examining it carefully and delicately, Wiesel confirmed it was Hebrew knowing full well this was something sacred and historic.
The young Spaniard became excited and practically demanded that he translate the document.   Wiesel opened the parchment and saw the fragment of a testament written centuries ago. The Spaniard said, “Read it now.” Examining the somewhat blurred letters of this text, Wiesel began to read and translate the parchment.
“I Moses son of Abraham, forced to break all ties with my people and my faith, leave these lines to the children of my children and to theirs, in order that on the day Israel will be able to walk again, its head high under the sun, without fear and without remorse they will know where their roots lie.  Written at Saragossa, Spain this ninth day of the month of Av in the year of punishment and exile.”
Wiesel offered to purchase the document from him explaining to him that the document had historic and religious value.
The Spaniard exclaimed, “For me too!” The Spaniard explained that the document had been transferred from generation to generation even though no one knew what it was or what it said. It was looked upon like an amulet.
Wiesel understood what the document meant even though the Spaniard did not. But the Spaniard knew Wiesel had the secret of the document‘s meaning.
Wiesel looked at the Spaniard and said, Sir, you are a Jew. Yes, you are a Jew. Judeo . You!”
 The Spaniard turned pale. In Spain to call someone that word was to insult him. His anger gave way and amazement overtook his face. The Spaniard, believe it or not, had no idea of the Jewish connection nor of the history of the Jews in Spain. And so for the next two hours Wiesel explained to him Jewish history from Biblical times including the exile of Jewish communities in Babylonian and Roman times leading up to the story of the Spanish Inquisition in 1492.
Wiesel and the Spaniard concluded their unique encounter and the Spaniard walked him back to the Cathedral where the two had first met each other. From there they bid each other Adios.
Three years passed and in the City of Jerusalem Wiesel was headed over to the Knesset to report on a parliamentary debate going on about the Israeli government relationship with Germany. As he drew closer to the Knesset, a passerby accosted Wiesel.
“Don’t go. I must talk to you.” His Hebrew was halting and he would not let Wiesel out of his grip. I need to talk with you.”
“Do you remember me?” the man pushed Wiesel back a few steps and blurted out.
“You’re not ashamed?”  Wiesel resisted and turned around to walk away until the stranger whispered in his ear. “Saragossa. Saragossa. Saragossa.”
Once again, Wiesel followed the Spaniard to his home in the city of Jerusalem and again he sat down in an armchair inside the apartment. This time the Spaniard returned with a picture frame containing the fragment of yellow parchment.
“Look,” the Spaniard, proclaimed, “I speak Hebrew now!” The two men spent the rest of the day catching up on their lives and the story of what led the Spaniard to live in Israel.
“I feel ashamed that I did not remember you, “confessed Wiesel.
An indulgent smile broke out upon the Spaniard’s face.
“Perhaps you too need an amulet like mine. It will keep you from forgetting.”
Wiesel then quipped, “May I buy it from you now?”
“Impossible,” retorted the Spaniard, “since it was you who gave it to me.”
Wiesel got up to leave and the two men shook hands. “By the way, the Spaniard asked, “I never told you my name? My name is Moshe ben Avraham.”
I suspect this story teaches that above all other Jewish contributions to society the most enduring might very well be that we have taught the world to remember the importance of history and that memory itself is the key to embracing ourselves in the world we live in.
The testament of the Jew from Saragossa is the quintessential story about a Jew finding a deep seeded, if not dormant emotion or spark inside, that revives and resurrects the person to self discovery. This story strikes at the heart of the High Holy Days because it is  a powerful reminder that  there is no statuate of limitations on finding  our identity   or time period that would preclude  us from making something right no matter how many years have gone by. This is the story which proves the liturgical dictum that the “Gates of Repentance are always open to us.”

Is there a tie between us and Moshe ben Avraham? I think so because he is a symbol for many who have been distant from and sometimes even unaware of what memory means to us. We live in a here and now world view. Do we define ourselves in the present without regard to how the past shapes us and our identity? Sadly the answer to this question is, often times, yes. Moshe ben Avraham, on the other hand, embraced his long forgotten history. For us we too are making choices about what we are bequeathing to the future including our children and grandchildren about Judaism. Think about how what we hand down to the next generation will impact our progeny in the future.
We might be surprised about how many people there are who have discovered that they were Jewish and had no inkling about it. It is not only people like Madeline Albright, the former Secretary of State whose Czech-Jewish  parents hid her with Roman Catholics and who kept the secret of her Jewish identity from her as she grew up during World War Two. Not only refugees from Europe  but there are many more who grew up here in America with families where one parent was Jewish and simply didn’t care to make that choice to raise them Jewish. Some grew up in other faiths and others without a religion. Over the years and particularly here at Beth Yam I have worked with these people, born of a Jewish parent, but who received no Jewish training or identity. As a matter of fact these Jews aren’t that different from Moshe ben Avraham because they weren’t necessarily searching to be Jewish until a moment or event occurred that triggered the question. They all say that the decision to return to Judaism was not obviously one in which they left it years before. It is a return because it reflects that they have been separated from it and wanted to experience Judaism even though they never had the chance to grow up Jewish. It is an ironic feeling of returning home to a place they have never visited before.

There is another story that has received some media attention recently about how someone who became an ardent anti-Semite found out he was a Jew. One of the leaders of Hungary’s Jobbik Party which the Anti-Defamation League has identified as one of the few European political parties that has used overtly anti-Semitic symbols discovered -that he himself was a Jew. According to the Associate Press Czanad Szegedi, a man who was in the Hungarian parliament and a rising star in right wing political circles was  quoted as railing against the Jewishness of the political class in Hungary and referred to Israeli Jews as lice-infested, dirty murderers.” A Hungarian former political prisoner confronted him with the fact that he, Szegedi, was a Jew. News reports say Szededi tried to bribe the man to conceal his Jewish roots. Finally, after news reports in Hungary broke, it turned out that his mother was a Jew which, of course, makes him a Jew. Furthermore, research proved that his grandmother was a survivor of Auschwitz and his grandfather survived labor camps. Even though his grandparents had an Orthodox Jewish wedding after the war they decided to keep that and their religion a secret from their children and grandchildren. Szededi met with the Hungarian Rabbi Sholmo Koves who reported he apologized for his comments.

Soon afterward, the chief of the Jobbik party forced Szegdi to resign from the political party though he still is fighting to keep his seat in the European Parliament. He said he plans to visit Auschwitz concentration camp.  He has apologized for his comments. Who knows what will happen to this man and whether he will return to Judaism and renounce his past?

 From a completely different experience there is a story recently reported in Poland about Jerzy a 32 year old that heard about vandalism to the old Jewish cemetery in Gdansk, Poland and decided to visit it. He met a member of the Jewish community who invited him to Shabbat services and dinner.  He said, “I like Jews all my life.” Jerzy wore a Star of David even though he was not raised Jewish.  Jerzy then started to research his own family history in Lublin and, to his surprise, discovered that, on his father’s birth certificate, both his father and his maternal grandfather were Jews. Jerzy is now in the process of converting to Judaism. In addition he just completed a trip with other Poles to Israel who discovered that they were Jewish too with an organization called Shave which directs trips to Israel for people who are discovering their Jewish roots for the first time.

On that trip, another Polish student Gosia, 35, learned three years ago that her maternal great grandmother was Jewish and, therefore, she and her mother were also Jewish according to Jewish law. While the statistics say that there are 4000 Jews in Poland, estimates say that there are tens of thousands of Jews living either in secret or who do not know that they are Jewish at this time.
These stories all point to the same emotional tie that awakened Moshe ben Abraham to make a change and eventually move to Israel to find himself. Do these stories not impact us who have the freedom to be Jewish in America? I hope so. They also relate very much to the theme of change which is integral to the Day of Yom Kippur.
I say this in light of the Kol Nidrei which is all about disconnecting from the past and moving forward into the future.  We declare, “ Kol Nidre ve’esarei… vekonamei  vekinusei  vekhinuye…” all the ties, designations, affiliations, labels and definitions that I took and perhaps will take, upon myself, kulhon yehon sharan, beteilin umevutalin,” should all be dissolved, null and void.  Henceforth I release myself from all these, those of the past and those of the future, from this Yom Kippur to the next.
It is difficult to let go of Kol nidre not just because it is convenient to do so and it is difficult to live up habitual desires and old habits, but because, according to Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz “holding on to these things constitutes our whole grip on reality.” Rabbi Steinsaltz says that for all these roots of the past to become null and void one must loosen one’s grip on reality. He adds, “One must give oneself up, as in, “To You, O God, I lift up my soul.”
I am guessing that all the people in these stories have gone through this kind of gut wrenching process of letting go of their previous identities before they adopted a new one. It must be difficult but nevertheless rewarding at the end of the day. The fact is, all of these people released themselves from the past, and starting from scratch, they began a journey toward inner truth, which involved finding their roots, and in the process finding a future too. These people released the past and the future when they recited Kol Nidrei. They started from scratch and began the journey toward truth which means finding their roots and, therefore, their future too.
Most of us do not have this experience of completely starting over and rediscovering ourselves as Jews. But that is the missed opportunity that Kol Nidre represents. It is an oath that says, “I begin again.”  Like Moshe ben Avraham it is a message that could resonate for us as well. For this Day of Yom Kippur is also about releasing the shackles of the past and moving into the future with  a new start and a new sense of history from Moses ben Avraham to the youth of Poland who seek their past in the future.  It is a lesson that we too would be well served to learn for ourselves.
Yom Kippur Sermon: The video "The Innocence of Muslims"

Yom Kippur Day
This is the time when all of us need to step back for a moment and reflect on both the inner and the outer worlds we live in. It seems to me that, at this hour, the one issue that dominates the news and absorbs much of our attention is the issue of Muslim rage. Rage is a frightening term and one that is so often used when Arabs in particular and Muslims in general are moved to violent protest in their respective countries. They take this rage into the streets, where people are often injured and some are killed, and now that rage is focused on a 14 minute trailer to an apparently non-existent film called “The Innocence of Muslims,” which mocks the prophet Muhammad, and thereby ridicules Islam. The American ambassador Christopher Stevens and three embassy security officials were killed in the attacks on the American Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and the chain reaction of mob anger against the original video demonstrates vividly just how wide a chasm exists between the Muslim East and the West.
On Yom Kippur we are supposed to strive for reconciliation with our neighbors. The mitzvah of teshuvah commands us to do what it takes to reach out for conciliation before we can hope that God will forgive our transgressions. I know of no other people who try as hard as we do to make peace, yet, time and again we face intransigent adversaries who refuse to work with us for peace.  The frustration  this impasse awakens in  us can instill a kind of cynicism that there will never be peace in the Middle East whether we are viewing the current riots and protests through the lens of American foreign policy or simply from the perspective of Jews throughout the world..
What does one do when a person or a people refuse to accept our outreach? I am not speaking tonight from a tactical or strategic perspective for I am not a foreign policy expert. I do, however, understand the religious complexities of the Middle East and I see the moral and spiritual chasm between two civilizations with completely different expectations about how they want to be treated in the world let alone  how to make peace. My remarks today, therefore, come from a moral and spiritual perspective.
We also have our own reason to exhibit rage at the terrorist acts perpetrated against Jews around the world this past year. We struggle ourselves with the anger and fear that Jews are not safe in the world and it is understandable that we feel that sense of outrage rising  to the surface of our emotions  when  terrorists in France murdered a rabbi and two children at a Jewish day school in Lyon, France. We too fill up with unbridled anger when terrorists murder Israeli tourists in Bulgaria. Are we not justified in accusing Arabs and Muslims for desecrating Judaism for the crimes of murder? Should we have taken to the streets and created the same kind of mayhem, including death and destruction?
The ultimate tragedy is that Muslims and Jews both believe in one God and have sacred scriptures that adjure us to “seek peace and pursue it. Yes, we have a right to our rage and yet we still hold back and we fight for the moral high ground and restrain ourselves sometimes to our own detriment. We know what our religion teaches and we do not lose hopes that not only will justice be served but that there will be voices on the other side that will rise above the fray to stop the violence.
Judaism‘s tradition of atonement begins with the high priest, about whom we read in the afternoon services on Yom Kippur. It is recorded in the Mishnah that the first thing that the high priest did before beseeching God to forgive the nation was to admit his own transgressions and those of his family first and then perform the rituals of expiation of sin. In other words we cannot put ourselves above others as if we were morally superior. We are all capable of mistakes and missing the mark which is the meaning of the Hebrew root word for sin-Hatah.
The Talmud tells us that when we are trying to reach out to someone to make peace and they do not accept our conciliations (piusim), we are instructed to approach them three times before we are exempt from the duty to make teshuvah.
Furthermore, we learn from our sages that when someone is furious and consumed with anger that we leave them be and do not try to deal with them until their anger subsides. All of these points strive to teach us that we must exercise all our efforts to go above and beyond for the sake of peace. At the same time when a person is incapable of listening and stretching spiritually to meet us and we have exhausted all our energy to reach them and been unsuccessful we may defer to God to make the best judgment. As it is written in the Ethics of the Fathers,
“Everyone with whom the spirit of mankind is pleased, the spirit of God is pleased with him or her; and everyone with whom the spirit of mankind is not pleased the spirit of God is not pleased with him or her.” (3:13)
It is impossible to reconcile with people who are in a state of rage. We see this today with the protestors throughout the world who shout slogans against America and Israel. There is not much more we can do right now except to watch with sadness and anger until their rage subsides. Many of us have expressed to me the same viewpoint that it is time for America to stand strong and do what it takes to pursue and destroy these radicals in the streets of so many capitals in the world. In a way we are facing an adversary who refuses to accept efforts by our leaders to condemn this video before the Islamic world. Are we really convinced that an eye for an eye approach will solve the problem either?
If we listen to the rhetoric emerging from the protests they appear to have a common theme which reflects their expectations that America should eliminate this video and punish the Egyptian Copt who made it in the first place. There are even those demanding that he be put to death. Of course, it is hardly surprising that people who live in autocratic regimes, or who live in places where the pulse of the streets seems to impact government opinion and policy, are unable or unwilling to even grasp a culture where the law protects all kinds of speech-even hate speech.  It is probably futile to attempt to explain to someone who has never experienced democratic freedoms why Americans are willing to tolerate something that degrades and insults millions of people all over the world.  For them, such insults are whether intended or a reflection of the moral indifference of the West towards the feelings of Muslims, a legitimate reason to spew their own version of hate speech and violence throughout the world.
Unfortunately it is not so different when trying to make peace with someone who has completely different expectations about a disagreement and how to resolve it. For some there is not enough common ground to agree on what two parties supposedly disagree about. We can’t even discuss our differences in a rational way let alone contemplate the possibility that the parties can reach an understanding.
That is certainly the case where Islam interacts with the West, and with Israel in particular.  The point here is that we try to understand the one we hope to reconcile with. We may have deep disagreements but, nevertheless, we try to understand where the anger is coming from before we reach out to them. If we understand their anger, be it justified or not, then we might have a chance to communicate in a meaningful way. This situation regarding the video and the Prophet Mohammed reflects a deep gulf that separates Islam from the rest of the world. To my mind, the rage over the video is really an expression of anger at the West and its so-called surrogate Israel. It is an old story indicative of centuries of anger in the Muslim Arab world at the West.  If we all want to get beyond the blame culture and really understand what is going on then we need to spend the time to learn the history of the battle for the leadership of the world between the Arab nations and the rest of the world.
This situation reminds me of the person who is so consumed in their own anger and rage that they cannot even imagine or contemplate how to get beyond their anger in order to find a solution to the problem. Too many centuries have gone by where Muslims perceive their history as a series of humiliations at the hands of Western societies. Remember the Arabs in particular spent the last four hundred years under the rule of the Ottoman Turks. Then came the British in the 19th century and afterwards the state of Israel alongside the new American empire that currently leads the world. From the Arab perspective especially their modern history is about being subjected to one humiliation after the other and with the Jews and the Americans as the most recent  so-called imperialists in a long line of leaders who they believe want to insult and demean the core identity (the Prophet Mohammed) of the Arab peoples. What is so sad and tragic is that they never seem to engage in sufficient introspection as to how they may have contributed to this history or how they can make a new future for themselves.
This outbreak of protest is less about a pathetic video that we all condemn but is likened to the person who is so caught up in their anger that they are unable to reason with anyone anymore. It is like they are falling in a downward spiral with no way of stopping. Words do not get through and rage takes over. It is next to impossible to reach a person let alone an entire civilization of people who succumb to that kind of rage.
 Yet there are moments especially recent events where, in fact, at least some sane voices have stood against the tide of irrational hatred.  Even in spiritual matters an example stands out. One is the most senior Muslim cleric in Egypt, the Grand Mufti of Egypt, Ali Gomaa is reported by CNN as saying that conflict is not the answer. “We live together and we must respect our neighbors. “These cartoons (in the trailer video),” he continued, “spread hatred and we call for peace.” He added, “Islamic leaders “fear the spread of hatred against their religion and oppose the mocking of any religion.” He urged an end to the cycle of different groups attacking each other.    Now all I ask for is that his ecumenical sentiments be extended to the Jews the next time there is an attack against the Jewish people.  Some will be thinking “fat chance rabbi.” You may be right but it is our duty to hold out the hope that people like the Mufti can see the light.  Some will say I am na├»ve but I say Judaism teaches that we never give up on the possibilities for peace. To do that is to give our adversaries the greatest moral victory they seek from us.
Far be it from us to condemn the right of people to protest. But we must condemn the Muslim rioters from taking human life and destroying property and dividing peoples within a nation. There can be no justification for what happened to our diplomat and staff at the American consulate in Benghazi. We should denounce these people in the strongest terms. I only wish, as I wrote in my recent newspaper column, that they should be as outraged and ready to protest at the gates of Baashar al-Assad in Syria for murdering 20,000 citizens of his own country. It seems to me that his is where the rage should be channeled.
But blaming the West and Israel for everything that the Arabs resent does not get them anywhere and only perpetuates their cycle of rage without resolution to the problems between nations. Yom Kippur is about coping with people who do not think like we do. It is hard to make peace with someone that is angry but we are challenged by our own sacred writings to not give in to cynicism lest we imitate the actions of our adversaries. Our role is, as stated in the Ethics of the Fathers, to “Be of the disciples of Aaron, pursuing peace, loving humanity and bringing people closer to Torah.”
Remember the words of the book of Proverbs where in the search for wisdom we find the blessings of a righteous life even when it is impossible to make peace with an adversary. The Arabs use the term jihad, to originally refer to a great spiritual struggle and yet its application in real terms often leads to violence and perpetuates this longstanding and unresolved conflict. So be it then and let us declare our own jihad which refers to another kind of spiritual struggle which is to hold the moral high ground. Maybe Yom Kippur is also about spiritual and moral restraint as it is typically about changing the spiritual landscape. Proverbs summarizes it best.
“Do not sew seeds of evil or betray those who trust you.
Do not quarrel even with those who do not have your best interests at heart.
Do not envy the violent or imitate them
For one who strays from the path of peace turns away from all this is holy o
Only the upright are intimate with God.
The houses of the wicked are condemned, but the homes of the just are blessed.
Do not underestimate the power of association.
Align yourself with scoffers and you will scoff,
Practice humility and you will be appreciated.
The wise merit honor, the legacy of the fool is disgrace.” 3:27-35

Happy New Year.
We made it!
I have provided you with the link to my most recent column in the Island Packet on the subject of the recent drama over the video trailer "Innocence of Muslims." What do  you think? Let me know your view. I hope your fast was meaningful.
Shana Tova