Wrestling

Rosh Hashanah Morning — September 5, 2013

Rabbi Eric Gurvis

Gut Yontif – Shanah tovah!  Again, it is so good to be together with you, my Temple Shalom family, as we enter what we all pray will be a year filled with good health, sweet blessings, and shalom!  It is mind-boggling to me that it is but the 5th of September and we have already heard the sound of   the shofar. This marks the earliest Rosh Hashanah since 1899.  The next time it comes this early is in 76 years.  I’m not worrying about that one.

 This has not been an easy High Holy Day Season to prepare, and I am not talking about the early secular date.  Renewed and recharged by my sabbatical time this summer, I actually charged out of sabbatical mode and into High Holy Day prep mode reasonably easily. Every August I pay a lot of attention to the phases of the moon as the New Year draws near.  This year, like many of you, my attention was hijacked and drawn elsewhere, to the sequence of events of the last month or so in Egypt, and even more so, the last two weeks in Syria.  I’ve been reading, listening, and watching; and I’ve been communicating with friends in Israel, who, to say the least are nervous. I had prepared a very different message to share with you this morning.  But over the past week, deep in my kishkes I found a nagging sense that there sits before us an issue I cannot ignore. So I set my first sermon aside. I offer you a more hastily prepared sermon this morning.

 In the past two weeks our world has witnessed an act of extreme evil.  On August 21st, chemical weapons were unleashed on civilians in the outskirts of Damascus, Syria.  While we have heard the expression of outrage from many corners, we have also heard excuses, obfuscation and what seem to be outright fabrications of explanations for the deaths of at least 1400 civilians under incredibly suspicious circumstances.  We have seen leaders of the nations of the world, our own President included, do a sort of two-step, trying to balance moral outrage, political calculation and the realities of democracy (something Syria, Russia and China don’t have to deal with.)

Let me be clear.  I do not know the answer to this exceptionally complicated situation. I do not profess to have the expertise nor the wisdom to determine whether the response should be military, diplomatic or otherwise.  At the same time, in my bones I am troubled and I am certain that doing nothing is simply not an option.  It is morally unacceptable. As a Jew, as an American and as a human being I find it hard to simply shut my eyes, my ears and sit mute.  We are told that the evidence is clear that chemical weapons have been used in Syria, not only in the past weeks, but perhaps as much as a dozen times in the past year.

We often hear that the US cannot be the world’s policeman.  I agree.  We often hear that it is not our responsibility to address every crisis in this incredibly broken world of ours.  I agree.  Yet . . . I believe that our sense of morality – as Jews and as Americans – does not permit us to simply look away when clear crimes have been committed.  I have searched – my conscience, and our tradition for guidance in recent days. This morning I wish to share with you just a bit of what I have been wrestling with.

We have entered the Yamim Noraim – the Days of Awe, these Days of taking account of our lives; these Days of Accountability.  In the U-netaneh Tokef prayer, which the Cantor and Choir chanted so beautifully a short while ago we heard the metaphorical words: 

In truth You are Judge and arbiter, Counsel and Witness.

You write and You seal, You record and recount.

You remember deeds long forgotten.

You open the book of our days, and what is written there proclaims itself,

for it bears the signature of every human being.

The great Shofar is sounded, the still, small voice heard;

the angels, gripped by fear and trembling, declare in awe:

This is the Day of Judgment!

For even the hosts of heaven are judged, as all who dwell on earth stand arrayed before You.

The central metaphor of this piece of our liturgy imagines God sitting in judgment over all that lives.  As I have discussed in years past, the language is equally clear that we must judge ourselves. “You open the book of our days, and what is written there proclaims itself, for it bears the signature of every human being.”  We are called to account for and sign off on the deeds of our lives. How will we judge ourselves for our response to these horrific events in weeks, months and years to come?

As Jews, we know that the call to act in times of crisis arises from, and flows throughout, our tradition. Again and again we are called to live lives of holiness and morality.  That’s easy to state in the high idealistic notions of tradition.  For me, these past weeks have been a painful reminder of just how messy and complicated it is to live those high ideals in our world.

In our Yom Kippur Afternoon Torah reading, we will hear again the words from Leviticus 19 – Lo ta’amod al dam reyecha – “You may not stand by idly while your fellow bleeds.”  How do we live that principle in the aftermath of a chemical attack on civilians in Syria? Again, I have no answer, but I struggle with the question.

Based on words from Deuteronomy 22:3 we learn a significant principle about the responsibility to act as we read, Lo tuchal l’hit-aleym – “You must not remain indifferent.” While the context in Deuteronomy is narrow, in the Talmud, the Rabbis build this into what my teacher Rabbi Donniel Hartman teaches as a core value of our tradition as he outlines his ideals for what he calls “Values Nation” (some of you have studied it with me.)  High on that list, in the face of injustice, in the face of wrongdoing, is Lo tuchal l’hit-aleym “You must not remain indifferent.”  How do we live that principle in the aftermath of recent events?

Another core value comes from the very opening chapter of our Torah — 26And God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. . . 27And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.”  The over 1400 innocent civilians, including over 400 children, brutally gassed in that Damascus suburb were reflections of the image of God. If we ignore their brutal murders are we not complicit in diminishing the image of God? Again, the question haunts me.

Without a doubt, the ways in which we respond when we “must not stand idly by” or in a situation in which “we must not remain indifferent” are open to interpretation.  What is clear is that we may not close our eyes and ears to the suffering of innocents. The challenging situations of recent weeks involve actors who show no regard for morality, no regard for human life, no capacity to distinguish between innocents and combatants.

There is no small measure of complexity in the reality that there is no side that we as Americans can easily embrace. We understand that the rebel forces fighting Assad’s military are a pastiche of players that likely includes some segments of Al Qaeda.  We are not looking at circumstances that offer us a choice between, as the Dead Sea Scrolls would put it, “the sons of light and the sons of darkness.”  It’s not only confusing. It’s also frustrating.  Yet . . . what is not confusing, what is not frustrating is the moral imperative to not remain indifferent; to not turn a deaf ear to the cries of innocent children as we have heard in the news reports out of Syria.

This summer, our studies at the Hartman Institute were dedicated to the teachings of Rabbi David Hartman, who passed away in early February.  In the opening lecture, Rabbi Hartman’s son, Donniel delivered a lecture entitled, “Lessons My Father Taught Me.” He spoke of three powerful lessons he learned from his father.  In each case he shared some very personal stories with us.  But he also reminded us that he was not the only one to have been taught these lessons by his father, for each of us who had the privilege to be his student knew that these were lessons at the core of Reb David’s Torah.  It is the third of these three lessons that has given me pause as I have wrestled with difficult questions in these past few weeks.  Donniel shared with us a bit about his days at a hesder yeshivah at age 19 – a military yeshivah for Orthodox men.  His unit was studying a piece of Talmud and one of Donniel’s fellow students invited Reb David to come and teach the unit. Now you need to understand that though he was an Orthodox rabbi, David Hartman was not viewed favorably by much of the Orthodox establishment in Israel. So the rabbinic leaders of the yeshivah strenuously objected and the lesson was prohibited. But these were young men, not likely to be put off by “no.” A room was found off the base and Reb David taught his son’s unit. As you can imagine, since the heads of the yeshivah forbade participation, attendance was high as the students felt they had to hear this terrible teaching.  So they came, and studied the laws of Chanukah with Donniel’s father. In the passage they were reading the rabbis are talking about Shabbat candles and suddenly find themselves in the midst of a discussion of Chanukah candles.  All of a sudden, a voice in the text asks, Mai Chanukah?  What is this Chanukah?” After all, it’s not found in the Torah.  In his inimitable way, Reb David taught, “This is a crappy story. It’s silly and almost insulting, like this is really a compelling issue? The Rabbis know that they trying to replace a story about a military victory with a more spiritual story.”  “What’s the miracle?” asked Reb David.  “It’s not that the light burned for 8 days. If that were true, it’s really only a seven day miracle.”  He went on – “the miracle is that in the face of uncertainty, those Jews in the 2nd century BCE summoned the courage to do what they felt they needed to do – and they kindled the lights.” 

My teacher, Rabbi David Hartman constantly taught, “As Jews we are ever reminded that life must be lived in the face of uncertainty.  Even in the midst of uncertainty, we must strive to live our covenant and our values. Perhaps we will be blessed with the miracle that we were right.”

This is truly a time of uncertainty.  I truly do not know what our leaders should do.  I do believe that they, along with the leaders of the other nations of what we think of as the civilized world cannot do nothing.  Doing nothing is an answer, it is a response, yet it is a silent assent to evil.

In the coming days, we reflect on our lives and how we hope to better use the gift of life in the year-to-come.  Let us also reflect on the meaning of silence in the face of evil; let us join in prayer that our leaders will summon the wisdom and courage to respond to the evil that has been done in a way that will not lead to the further loss of innocent life.

May 5774 bring justice, may it bring healing, may it bring sweet blessings, and may it bring peace. 

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