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

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