Thursday, September 27, 2018

Are We Still Your People?

Are We Still Your People? Yom Kippur Yizkor 2018

I am going to dedicate my sermon tonight to a lesson in a Hebrew word, but to get to it, I am going to tell you some curious tales about my previous community, in Whittier, California and the first Jewish settlers in Whittier just after World War II.
Before then, it turns out that the only Jew of note to have set foot in Whittier was Albert Einstein, who had visited Whittier College. Eventually, it became the Jewish Beverly Hills of Eastern LA County  and now, by the way, Whittier is, according to the LA Times, the Hispanic Beverly Hills.
But back to  WWII. Young Jews, fresh from military service began to settle in that region. These young people had very little Jewish background  but they knew they needed to have a community of their own in a Quaker–Anglo town.
Well, how do you find Jews in such a Jewish wilderness? One of the first members was the local bus driver. Whenever someone would get up on the bus, he would begin whistling Hatikvah. If the passenger would look up at him, he would immediately invite him or her to join the new community.
This now takes me closer to my point, about the lesson in Hebrew that I said I was giving tonight.
It is another lesson in how we find each other.
I want to take us to the other side of the world, to Europe, about the same time as my story of Whittier.   Keep in mind that, Europe, in the aftermath of World War II ,was a mess, with some 31 million refugees that had to be resettled.  Jews were prominent among those wandering masses, Jews  wandering, from , country to country, village to village, camp to camp The British, in particular, put up obstacles to block the mass flow of Jewish survivors, lest they slip through the British blockade and get to Palestine.  Remember also that pogroms and murder continued against Jews after the cannons fell silent. Jews had to evade the border guards and also, keep evade the locals who thought they needed to finish what Hitler couldn’t.
Yet they needed to find a way to reveal themselves to one another.
My father told me that there was a code word the survivors used. One would see someone who looked Jewish, and he would whisper "Amcha?” If the other one would respond "Amcha!", then each knew who the other was, and they could let their guard down.
Amcha-- How many know the word?
It is a word for the common man in Hebrew and Yiddish. We distinguish die sheine loit—the beautiful people, high society, from amcha-just plain folk. It's not a matter of money, but of style—the Kennedy family, for example, are sheine loit, for example, but most celebrities, though they may have money, are Amcha-ordinary people. That is the figurative meaning.
The literal meaning though, is Am- Cha-Your people. Am is people, the cha at the end—your. Just who does this Am, this people, belong to? Who is the “ your” referring to?
During this High Holy Day season we have repeated, over and again, the 13 attributes of God. Adonay… el rachum v chanun. , The 13 attributes emphasize God as merciful, and this declaration of God’s attributes, what we may call the only definition of God the Torah gives us, is taken from the story of the Golden Calf.
When the children of Israel make the Golden Calf, God is at first incensed. He calls to Moses: “Your people whom you took out of Egypt.”
Here’s that word, Amcha-Your people.”
Here, Moses responds with great Hutzpah, and turns the tables on God, using God’s very words against him.
“Why are you angry at your people whom you took out of Egypt?"
Here is the point.  Whose people are we--amcha- “Your people”, “Moses’ people” or “your people”, God's people?
The parallel, suggested our Rabbi's is in a tale of a king of who had a vineyard run by his tenant. When ever it would be a good vintage year, the king would boast," My wine is great." When it was a bad vintage year, he complained to the tenant—“Your wine is bad!” To this the tenant retorted," Listen, King--good or bad-- it's still your wine!”
Anyone who has ever been a parent knows this--between a father and mother, when the child is good, the father and mother each say, ‘my child"; when the child is bad, each says "Your child."
Moses was making it very clear," God, you took them out of Egypt-they are your people--Good or bad--they're your people."
That is the essence of this idea of Amcha--we Jews may be good, or, very often, we are not good. But good or bad, we remain God's people, won by freedom from slavery in Egypt, and again, by commitment, at Sinai. Good or bad--we are part of that covenant.
That is Amcha.  Amcha yisrael. Your people, Israel. It is a reminder, that as long as we remain part of the covenant, a part of Klal Yisrael—the entity of Israel, the community of the Jewish people-that there is hope for us.
You know that our worship is all in the plural, the communal “We”. We did, we ask, we seek. It is “Our father, our King,” “Our”, not “my”, and we confess to sins, “We have sinned, we have betrayed”; not “ you have sinned” nor “ I have sinned”.
We drown or float together. That is Amcha.
But are we still “Amcha”?  Do our young Jews in America feel bound and responsible for each other? I bring up this thought of Amcha because we have great questions as to whether we are still this “Amcha”-Your People. Are we still a people, or are we falling apart.
A few years ago, the poll Pew reported that 94% of American Jews were proud to be Jews. Big deal !.
  There are no barriers to our achievements, there are no quotas, no obligation to go to the baptismal font to get ahead, no need for that obsession to get ahead in business or academics, full steam ahead. No longer.
But what does it mean in terms of commitment? Of getting off of one’s duff to do something about it.
We all know that America’s Jews are the most secular population in this country; we have been so for many generations, yet something has still pulled us together. We just don’t know what it is anymore.
  We have a sense of a younger generation that no longer feels it shares in the fate of our fellow Jews. Life is good.
So, we have this scene at the graduation this summer, in which a great writer, Michael Chabon, is invited to Hebrew Union College to be the commencement speaker. We all love great speakers, especially one who makes the New York Times best-seller list. So he speaks to the future leaders of American Jewry, and in essence, tells them that he no longer identifies with the story of the Exodus from Egypt, no longer can sit through a Passover seder, no matter how modernized, and that we should no longer try to be different from anyone else. In short, in order to survive, we should all become his kind of intellectual, and be like everyone else- everyone else in his particular crowd of intellectuals.
It’s not new. Heine, the greatest writer of Germany, a baptized Jew, Heine said of Judaism, in one of his bitter days, “Judaism is not a religion, but a misfortune.” But, at least Heine, the Baptized Jew, went on to defend his Jewish people.
The intellectual father of communism, Karl Marx, went much further. “What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money”, “In the final analysis, the emancipation of the Jews is the emancipation of mankind from Judaism.”
So, following ancient Heine and Marx, and modern Chabon- after the turmoil of the past two centuries, after pogroms, and the Holocaust-- and after all, Israel is not a perfect State and the Europeans and the BDS ‘ers are angry with us, and the LA Times doesn’t want to consider denying the Jewish people alone a kind of hate-speech, so after all, maybe, maybe we throw in the towel. No longer,”Amcha”, no longer “ Your people”-not God’s people, not my people. Not a people. Period.
[LA Times in September published an official editorial defending the right to pursue BDS against Israel, and against applying anti-Zionism as a form of hate speech on campus. This paper would never have given such consideration to a right to protect old South Africa from accusations of apartheid, for example.]
And then, and then- the ever-dying Jewish people, always written off as a “ Vanishing people”, written off by the Romans, by Christianity, by Islam, by National Socialism, by Marxism, by wealth and prosperity and its temptations, nevertheless, we are still here. Never vanished, never vanquished.
Something pulls at our heart-strings and brings us together at this sacred season, something reminds us that, in some way, as diluted and watered down as it maybe, we are still,” Amcha”, still one people, still God’s people, however, we may choose to enact that idea and express it in ourselves.
I want to go back to the story of the gold Calf, and to the core verse” adonay, adonay, el rachum”  that is repeated so many times this season. Our version of the verse is not the version that Moses heard.
Moses heard. Moses heard a longer version, which continues “nakeh loyenakeh" will not clear the guilty but will visit the sins of the fathers unto the children unto the third and fourth generation.” This version was erased from our prayer books.
Our Rabbis erased God's words. They removed almost all of that sentence and stopped at the word, "Nakeh"--God will acquit. Period. End of statement.

Our Rabbis defined the Torah for us as a book of hope and in the spirit of that understanding they deliberately edited the Torah in the sprit of the Torah. Again, they were speaking to us, to the Amcha, the people. However far we may stray, no matter what may have been done before, no matter what our parents or grandparents may have done, we will find an open door leading back in. Remember then, that our religion is a religion of hope, that it is the hope for an ultimate universal redemption that stands behind the personal redemption we each seek at the this season. We have never lost that hope, that Hatikvah, for ourselves, for our people, for humankind.
There is then this final thought for us tonight, as we remind ourselves that we are Amcha, your people, O God. We haven’t left you; we haven’t left each other; we haven’t left ourselves.
I want to conclude with a prayer and a melody that tie in now to this day. .
In the Nazi ghettoes, as our fellow Jews faced a threat they had never before faced, one ancient prayer gained new relevance
This is the text of the prayer:
שומר ישראל. שמר שארית ישראל. ואל יאבד ישראל. האומרים שמע ישראל:

Guardian of the people Israel, guard the remnant of Israel, and let not Israel perish, those who say, Shma Yisrael.

I am going to chant it, in the chant that was sung by those Jews in the ghettos and camps. If you know it, join with me:

שומר ישראל. שמר שארית ישראל. ואל יאבד ישראל. האומרים שמע ישראל:

Guardian of the people Israel, guard the remnant of Israel, and let not Israel perish, those who say, Shma Yisrael.

May this year, be one in which we take our place among amcha yisrael, your people Israel, wholeheartedly. Dear Guradian of Israel, we are still  you people, Amcha—you watch out for us, and we will watch out for you. Amen

Sunday, September 16, 2018

What do you see?

High Holy Rosh Day 1  2018  Rabbi Norbert Weinberg

What do you see?

            If any of you checked our Facebook page or gotten one of our emails, you would have seen an interesting line, “Call in 5779 with History-and Her story.” I will be humble. The credit goes to our Cantor, Stacey Morse, who decided, correctly, that our mothers were players in the big game of Judaism, not just the fathers.
            What may seem as an attempt to show that we are hip and relevant, or flip and irreverent, is actually germane to this season. It is not some attempt to force gender-equality on us from some contemporary ideology de jour. Not man-splaining it. It is integral to this very holiday season.
            We speak in terms of “Yom HaDin”, Day of Judgement, and the image of God as judge, as king, as father, all male, harsh, and cold images. We think of an Abraham, taking his son, unemotionally, up on the altar, the abstract ideologue, so wrapped in his vision, that all else fades away.
            But this is only one half of the story.
            Every element in this season is associated with Atonement, Kippurim, achieving forgiveness, Slichah, and even more so, with a plea for Rachamim. Rachamim, Mercy, or compassionate love, comes from the word, “Rechem”- the womb, the uterus, that part of the woman, as mother, as giver of life, as nurturer.
            Hence, our Torah reading of the first day deals, first, with God remembering Sarah, as he promised. It follows with the tension between two mothers, Sarah and Hagar, as to which son, Isaac or Ishmael, is to be the heir to the message of Abraham. The Haftarah focus on the anguish of Hannah, who is the love object of her husband, yet feels unfulfilled as she is barren, childless. Tomorrow, our Haftarah reading depicts a despondent mother, Rachel, moaning as she sees her children led off to slavery in a distant land. It is the Holy One who now breaks down at Rachel’s tears and declare that the Israel is his own ben yakir li”, my dear son,’yeled sha’shuim”, the child whom he has indulged and spoiled. In the Torah reading of the second Day, too, Sarah is present by her absence. The classical Jewish mother. The Midrash says that as she hears of Abraham hauling Isaac up the mountain, she dies of heartbreak. How do we know? Because in the very next paragraph, Sarah is dead. Father is abstract; mother is all too much there.
            So, this is very much a herstory, not a history.
            At this point, I am going to pivot my focus on to one mother, the one who seems to be neglected, passed over by history, in our version, a least, Hagar. Truth be told, she is central to today’s reading. She is central because in her character, we learn about seeing and sight. We understand that she is blinded by her misery and pain. In story number two, Sarah dies; in this story, Hagar is immobilized and can not see her son’s salvation.
            Sight and its counterpart, blindness, are as much a matter of our insight and outlook as it is a matter of photons striking the rods and cones in our retina.
            Blind people who can see, while sighted people are visionless, is a popular theme for many a writer.
            Many years back, there was a play and a movie; called Butterflies are Free, the story of a young man, blind from birth.
            His mother reminds him of the children's tales she composed of "Little Donny Dark" with his slogan" There are none as blind as those who will not see". While the line may sound trite and commonplace, it rings too true for us all--there are those who have no eyesight, yet know very well where they are going, and others, with 20/20 vision, who are constantly walking in to walls.
            For Rosh Hashanah, for a time in which we are to look inside ourselves, it is appropriate that our Torah reading of both days deals with being able and ready to see. 
            The first days reading deals with mother Hagar, abandoned in the desert, outcast, with her son Ishmael, who is dying of thirst. She has given up all hope, steps back at the distance of a bow’s shot because, “I cannot look at the death of my child.” God hears the child’s cry, an angel asks, typical Jewish fashion, a question, “Mah Lach Hagar?” Literally, “What’s it for you”, a kind ironic surprise, to say,” What are you worried about, what’s the matter.”Then”Al tiri”-Don’t be afraid!
            Just then, our reading says:    
 Vayifkah eyeneha-God opened her eyes and “hiney”-behold there is a well.
            Where did this well come from so mysteriously? Our Rabbis never liked the idea of miraculously appearing wells. “Hiney”-It’s here. !
            Our commentaries suggest that the well had been there all along. In her anguish, Hagar had been blind to the solution, to the well of water next to her. By putting fear aside, she was able to see what was there, all along. Water, life, and a future for her child and his progeny.
            On the second day, we read of Abraham and Isaac. This is a parallel with the Ishmael account, only here, Isaac is in danger. We know nothing of Abraham’s emotions. That is common in Biblical story-telling, and he is, unlike the mother, the macho, the stoic—doesn’t show anything. But here, too, we realize that he is blind, for we are told, with the same word as used in the story of the well, " vayar vehiney ayil aher"-Abraham sees and ,”hinei,behold there is another ram, "a ram to offer instead of his son. Did the ram just mysteriously appear?  Rather, it was there because Abraham was no longer blinded by his zeal, ready to recognize that his loyalty to God did not require the sacrifice of his beloved Isaac. Appropriately, the site is then called: Adonay Yireh"-God sees."
            So, we learn form our mothers, and from our fathers.
            Sight, ordinary eyesight, as we sense it, depends  as much on what our mind creates as what our eyes see. This is one of the classic givens of psychology.
             Sight itself is just a mass of information- light in its different frequencies strikes the retina, hits the rods and cones, and provides stimulation to the optic nerve. It is the mind which comprehends these as light and dark, colors, shapes-- it is our mind which then coordinates and interprets to produce vision.  This is true for physical vision. it also holds true for emotional and spiritual vision.
            In truth, people who are physically blind can often be aware of sights that most, with good eyesight, are blind to.
            "Better blind of eye than blind of heart (Midrash Ahikar 2.48) is how the Midrash phrased it, or" Not the eye but the heart is blind,” in the words of the poet, ibn Gabirol (Mivhar Hapninim).
             Helen Keller, deaf and blind from the age of two, who established so much of the principals used today in making the blind self-sufficient, once claimed:
            "I have walked with people whose eyes are full of light, but who see nothing in woods, sea or sky, nothing in the city street, nothing in books. What a witless masquerade is this seeing:
            It were better far to sail forever/
            In the night of blindness/
            With sense and feeling and mind
            Than to be thus content with the mere act of seeing.
They have the sunset, the morning skies, the purple of distant hills, yet their souls voyage through this enchanted world with nothing but a barren stare."
                        Hagar, lost in the wilderness, was blind to a simple well; with words of hope, she could see what was there all along. Abraham, a man of vision, could see that his ultimate sacrifice did not include his own beloved son.
             We too, like them, need to open our eyes constantly both to our physical world and to our immediate personal world. We can find a paradise or we can be blinded and find a hell--or worse--- a boredom.
             Being able to see the spiritual, the healing, the noble and the sacred is a special gift in itself. Our very religion is based on the readiness to see what others have missed. It is Moses who goes into the desert to discover the burning bush, and this is how the poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning described the experience:

            Earth's crammed with heaven
            / And every common bush afire with God/
            But only he who sees, takes off his shoes/
             The rest sit around and pluck blackberries."
            This thought was echoed by the quintessential American philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who put it this way," If we meet no gods, it is because we harbor none. If there is grandeur in you, you will find grandeur in porters and sweeps."
            Two centuries ago, the English mystic and poet, William Blake warned against a world taken over by the cold force of reason and the wheels of industry--He presaged a world of guillotine, gas chamber and gulag. He called for a return to vision, in his words:
            To see a world in a grain of sand/
And a heaven in a wild flower/
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand/
And eternity in an hour.
             The very essence of the Jewish people, our ability to exist for so many centuries, is precisely because we, as a people, as a sacred community, followed in this pattern of being willing to open our eyes to visions of the sacred.
            An ancient Midrash describes Abraham our ancestor having a vision of a castle glowing with shimmering lights. A voice comes from heaven and tells him," Can there be such a glowing, shining castle without the Lord of the castle." Thus, it is said, he saw the sanctity and holiness in the world, and recognized the existence of a divine source of this sanctity.
            There are those of us who go through life seeing the flames of divinity in every wall and corner. There rest of us see and hear nothing, only pitch black.      
            On  this Rosh Hashanah day, we need to learn, both from our mothers and our fathers, may we open our eyes like Hagar and see the wells of sustenance, may we open our eyes like Abraham and find our offerings of thanksgiving, may we see infinity and eternity, may we find cheyn vahesed- Grace and favor-- in the eyes of God and our fellow man and woman. Amen.