Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Hardest challenges in life are often times the most important ones. A sermon on Kol Nidrei-Yom Kippur

My newspaper column earlier this month told the story of the civil rights march I participated in Columbia, which was on a hot and humid day.  Of course, I was committed to the cause of justice, but I myself, “Was this a good choice?”

The truth was that I was not really in physical  shape to do this kind of intense march. I remember saying to myself, after about three hours of marching, “What have I gotten myself into?”
Lunchtime came and I ate a sandwich and felt renewed again. I said to my rabbinic colleagues that it was my turn to carry the Torah at the head of the line alongside the person who carried the American flag. As we returned to formation and the march began, I felt so proud to carry the Torah. I looked ahead of me and beheld the road going straight upward. It was uphill all the way. By the time I got to the top I said, “Someone please take this Torah now.” A black man said, “I would be honored to take it.” I said, “You may have it and thank you.”
The greatest moment was at the end when we gathered in the parking lot and the leaders said, “Rabbi Bloom you did your part. Here is a tee shirt and a poster."Thanks," I answered. We got into the bus and returned to the Marine Corp Reserve Training Center. We all embraced each other, took pictures and spoke of our experiences. I was tired and somewhat grumpy but also proud of what we accomplished that day. 

How true it is that the most meaningful things we accomplish are the hardest challenges we take on in life. Why is that so? Is it that human beings are goal oriented? Is there an innate desire to hold onto a principle or value, to test not just our bodies but our spirits as well? If the answer to these two questions is yes then what does that teach us about the tests we face on Yom Kippur which are both physical and spiritual? Our mitzvah is to follow one of our  core values which is to seek peace and pursue peace around the world.
No doubt that the civil rights marches over fifty years ago, particularly the one from Selma to Montgomery Alabama, is a good example of the physical and the spiritual coming together. I remember reading Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel, a great Jewish scholar and teacher, who walked in those marches and wrote. “When I walked, I could feel my knees were praying.” I got the point especially when my knees started shaking too.

I am not just speaking about marches for social justice causes or sports marathons but there is more to it than these examples of physical endurance and social values. It is also about people who do things for others and push themselves to the very limit of their physical and emotional endurance yet carry on because they believe in what they do. I have met many people over the years who have faced immeasurable challenges in their personal lives where they could have given up but persevered nevertheless. Folks who faced medical disabilities, and caregivers who endured the stress of caring for their loved ones with such challenges as dementia, stroke, Parkinson’s, cancer or other illnesses that can debilitate a human being. Caregivers, in particular, who care for their spouses, parents or children understand the test they face and yet they carry on often times never letting on in public the suffering they experience and the stress they feel every day of their lives. 

 I listen to their confessions of guilt  regarding their frustrations that they can’t do more for their loved ones. Some experience behind closed doors the anger and even resentment how their lives have been impacted. It is a different kind of march which seems to never end and there is no tee shirt at the end. Many times when the march is over their spouse is gone. Yet, they tell me that there is a feeling of relief and peace that they did the right thing for their loved one. They went the entire way and did their part too. 

I fully recognize that the analogy correlating the physical and the spiritual goes to an entirely new level when we see how thousands march for their very lives across Europe. I am sure that the millions of refugees fleeing the Middle East, putting their lives on the line, are  clinging to the hope that Europe will be a safe haven for them and their families. These people have left nations which were and continue to be adversaries of Israel. Yet, how do we ignore their suffering? Why does Europe still fail to work together and do their part to deal humanely with this largest refugee crisis since World War Two? Why do gulf Arab states refuse to open their borders to provide safe havens? For many of the refugees their march is a death march and for others it is the last hope for life.
Hasn't the time come when we, not only as a country but we as the Jewish community, and even we as a Temple should help? If not then do we not have something to think about regarding a communal atonement?

On a more personal level, the idea of accomplishing something hard and being prepared to sacrifice our comforts to help others is part and parcel of Yom Kippur. This special day calls upon us to experience physical discomfort by fasting. It is hard and uncomfortable. We want to quit fasting and eat something or drink. Again we see the symbiosis of the physical and spiritual coming together. At the end after it is over and we recover with food and drink we begin to think about what we accomplished and hopefully get over the discomfort and feel some pride in what we did and what we learned about ourselves. Sometimes we learned where we could do better in life. Other times we realized that we saw the goodness in us too.

Realizing when we do good, no matter how hard it is, [elicits] a feeling [that emerges -- omit] of being at peace, despite the pain that accompanies our growth. Is this not part of living? Is this not part of the spirituality that challenges us to think deeply about our moral compass? One rabbi taught, One cannot achieve world peace until one finds an inner peace first. That statement resonates for me because I believe that Yom Kippur is all about the march to find inner peace and that is what atonement is all about.
Just as there is always much to work to do [on -- omit] in our personal lives so too there is much we have accomplished. We have a right on this day to think about the good we do as well.  Yom Kippur should provide us with a moment to reflect upon the things which give us pride, even if performing these acts took a lot out of us. One reading from the Mahzor is a new interpretative reading of Avinu Malkeinu.
It is not about a plea to God to help us be better; instead, despite our failings, it is a prayer that reminds God and us that we do good in the world. It is says, “For every act of goodness, let us affirm the good we have done.” “acts of healing and repair, self constraint and self control, generosity and compassion, offering our children love and support, honoring our parents with care and respect, acts of friendship and hospitality, acts of forgiveness and reconciliation, serving others, acting with integrity and honesty, caring for our health and for our loved ones, strengthening our Jewish community, and acts of civi engagement and tikkun olam repairing the world.”

The march for justice or the march for inner peace is often times brutal. The march for life itself as we witness in Europe is equally compelling. Both challenge us to the core of our endurance. Coping with our own issues and helping others can also challenge our morality and even at times our sanity. Let these next 24 hours bring us to a better place even if it is uphill at times. May we emerge with the satisfaction that we did our part for ourselves and for the world too.
It is written the Psalms, "Depart from evil and do good. Seek peace and pursue it"(34:15). The rabbis asked, "How do we pursue peace?" Rabbi Eleazer said, "if someone stays in their own place and keeps silent, how shall that person pursue peace?" The answer is he has to go forth from his place and circle the world and pursue peace. In other words seek peace in your own locale and pursue peace around the world. (The fathers according to rabbi Natan)

My sermon for Yom Kippur Day: Natalie Portman: Is she right about Jews exploiting ourselves as victims?

Natalie Portman, the acclaimed Hollywood actress, gave an interview recently and spoke about  the meaning of the  Holocaust today. I have never been a fan of hers, but, I realize that she is an icon for many young people including young Jews in America and around the world. She was interviewed in the context of a movie she directed about the parents of the famous Israeli writer Amos Oz which was shown at the Cannes film festival. In the interview with the London newspaper the Independent she was reported to have said, “I think a really big question the Jewish community needs to ask itself, is how much at the forefront we put Holocaust education which is, of course, an important question to remember and to respect, but not over other things.” She also was quoted as saying”….We need to be reminded that hatred exists at all times and reminds us to be empathetic to other people that have experienced hatred also. Not used as a paranoid way of thinking that we are victims.”

I truly felt compelled to respond to her, not because she graduated from Harvard or even because she lost her great grandparents in Auschwitz or that she worked as an intern for Alan Dershowitz. Not even because she was born in Jerusalem to Israeli parents. It is, rather, because what she says impacts lots of people, especially the youth of our people around the world.

On Yom Kippur, in the afternoon service, we focus on Jewish martyrdom and readings from Jewish history that remind us of our suffering, particularly the [H]olocaust. She challenges us, nevertheless, to think about whether we have gone too far with our focus on Holocaust remembrance events, commemorations or museums around the country and even the world.
Implicit in her critique is that the Jewish community has gone overboard, and to an extent, I think she is saying  she believes we have exploited our being victims to the point where we have ignored other people’s sufferings who have experienced genocide.

Is she right? Furthermore, do lots of Jewish people in the younger generations hold to her viewpoint? If so, what are the ramifications when young Jewish celebrities and Jewish communal leaders believe as she does? Finally, should her comments make us examine what it means to be a Jew in light of how we react to massive human suffering? Isn’t part of what the Torah portion for this afternoon is telling us which is  to remember our suffering for our sake as well as for the benefit of humanity? Our sages tell us, “In a place where people are not acting as good human beings then we must strive to be a mentsch.” The Torah portion tell us that we are witnesses. For our mission is to
“choose life” so that “we may live,” and by remembering our past we choose life. We are witnesses  to  all human suffering. That is the role of the Jew.

I spoke with a mentor of mine who is a retired Professor of Jewish studies living in Chicago. He once told me that he felt it was not in the best interest of the American Jewish community to build so many Holocaust museums because it gives the false impression to Americans that all we are exclusively about is the Holocaust and, according to him, that Judaism is much more than the Holocaust.  Over the years I have heard young people echo these beliefs, as well as those who choose to turn their hearts away from the lessons of the Holocaust, because it is a difficult subject. The point is that maybe Ms. Portman is not alone in her perspective.

Is she right? The answer is that she may be half right. There is an argument to be made that American Jews who find little meaning in conventional theology and religious practice in Judaism found deep meaning in preserving the meaning of the Holocaust. We have built major Jewish institutions, memorials and produced tomes of literature, art, movies, plays, chairs in Holocaust studies, and mandated state requirements to teach the Holocaust. In the public life of our nation we have excelled in reminding America about what the Nazis did to us and others. We have reminded America and the world that memory matters if we want to protect it from another Holocaust in the future.

On the other hand, she senses that we Jews focused so much on our own suffering that we lost sight of the suffering of others. In our attempt to preserve our own story, we [have] lost sight of other tragedies that annihilated other peoples, such as genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and so on? Is she implying that we forgot that hatred is the same whenever it strikes a people? This is where I question Portman and others like her who imply that Jews in America, world Jewry and Israel are exclusive rather than being inclusive of other people’s suffering at the hands of genocidal maniacs in a Post Holocaust world. The fact that young people like our own Portman believe we have hoarded our own suffering contending that no one else’s suffering matches ours is troubling to say the least. It reflects a generation gap that is growing in America.

We should, in fact, be careful about how we present the Holocaust. If all we talk about is the number six million and cannot connect the lessons of the Holocaust with other tragedies or disqualify them because they did not [lose] as many people as we did then we do, in fact, have a problem. If we as a community only think about Jewish identity in terms of what it means to suffer persecution, then we do have a problem. If we cannot see our own historic trauma in a broader context of how we can make a difference in the lives of suffering people, then we do have a problem. Finally, if we close our conscience to our moral responsibility to alleviate the suffering of others who are persecuted or threatened with annihilation, then we do have a problem. If there is any truth to these situations then we do have a responsibility to atone.For the Torah says; “ you shall not stand idly while your neighbor bleeds.”

We at Congregation Beth Yam have done our part by securing a Holocaust Torah from Czechoslovakia and displaying it in a specially built enclave for all to see. Each year we conduct what I believe to be a special Yom Hashoah commemoration. We try to teach our young people by having them interact with survivors and children of survivors.Many of us who grew up in larger metropolitan areas have had plenty of education and exposure to Holocaust history. Yet, just think about our youth living here in the low country. How much do they know? Is it at all a relevant part of their Jewish identity? 

Elie Wiesel tells the story about his trip with other Jewish leaders to Cambodia to commemorate the genocide there. “I saw what the Cambodia refugees looked like when they arrived in
Thailand-walking skeletons with somber eyes and crazy with fear…..”How could a Jew like myself stay at home and not go to the help of an entire people?” Some will say to me.” Yes, when you needed help nobody came forward. True it is because  nobody came forward to help  me that I felt it my duty to  help these victims.”
 This is what Judaism is all about. We know what it means to be a stranger from Biblical times to today.[Surely] it is our right to say that the Cambodian suffering [does not] “equal”
 Auschwitz. Auschwitz, according to Wiesel, “should serve as frame of reference but that is all.” Yet that distinction does not exempt us from responding to assist peoples who are victims of genocide. This is why the current crisis in the Middle East the result of a refugee crisis in Europe approaching a million searching for safety is a test for Europe’s moral compass. I suppose the same can be said of us in America in dealing with 11 million illegal migrants across our own border.

What I suspect Portman and her generation do not understand is that through our own experience as Jews facing anti-Semitism we can better empathize with the universality of suffering around the world. Our job is to teach our young and the community about the Holocaust not just to promote our own status as victims but to teach the world that we all have a duty to help and to not turn a blind eye to others who call out for help. As the Torah says, “You shall remember that you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” We have lived by that ethos.

One of our congregants has recently donated these artifacts from the concentration camps. I am showing you a suitcase belonging to a twenty-four year old man who died in Dachau. This next artifact I hold before everyone is a shirt from the camps with a Jewish star and others items. My hope is that we can display them for our young and for the community at large so that in the low country we too can do our fair share to educate our entire community about the Holocaust for years to come. This is not exploiting ourselves as victims but performing a mitzvah.

My prayer is that Ms. Portman will rethink her statement and that those of her generation who may identify with her thoughts will see more clearly that our way of teaching the world to reject hatred and to reject genocide and to reject apathy is part of our duty as Jews to perform Tikkun Olam  [and] repair the world.

The Yom Kippur I knew growing up in Baltimore.

The older I get my memory becomes clearer about my own past. Yom Kippur has concluded and I hope I have been sealed into the Book of Life. This most recent newspaper column retells some of those memories and discusses a few of the core values I cherish about this most sacred of days.

Have a Shana Tova a Happy New Year.