Click on the name to be taken directly to the transcript.
A few years ago, my son Eli was studying for a vocabulary test at our dining room table when he looked up from his homework and asked, “Mom, what is a pogrom?” I answered, “It is the reason you are here. It’s why your grandma Esther, Frank’s mother, fled Russia in the 1920’s, escaping persecution and violence that plagued the Jews. It’s why at age four, she and her family arrived in Mexico because quotas barred their entry into the United States. It’s why they lived for many years in a small Mexican border town awaiting the day they would be able to build a new life here in California. It’s why she taught her children, including your father, to treasure Judaism and to always live as a proud Jew and a kind person.” I continued, “It’s largely why I fell in love with Frank,” and with a tear in my eye I added, “and it’s why, when I finally met Esther in the hospital on the night before she died, I whispered in her ear that I would always love her son and thanked her for creating such a spectacular person. So you see, Eli, a pogrom is the reason you are here.” After I finished my response, Eli looked at me quizzically and asked, “but what do I write on the test?”
It’s a great question, one that has troubled me so much over this past year, a year violently pierced by Pittsburgh and Poway, a year of escalating anti-Semitism both in our country and across the globe. What is the answer when our children and grandchildren ask, “Why do people hate Jews?” What is the answer to parents who rightfully ask, “Will my child be safe at school? At synagogue?” How do we respond to our young adults, anxious about encountering anti-Semitism and Israel bashing on their college campuses? What do we say to our survivors and so many others who hear echoes of the past and fear a return to a darker time? And how do we respond to that still small voice within us that asks, “Are we safe praying here today?”
On this holiest of days, I respond to these poignant questions not as an historian or a journalist, not with statistics and definitive answers, but as your rabbi. Today, I speak to you as your rabbi, inspired by our sacred texts and meaning of their teachings. I speak to you as a Jew who is lifted by the vibrancy of our tradition and the righteousness of our values. I speak to you today as a mother who adores my children and yours’, and who prays constantly for their safety and sanity in today’s world. I speak today as a woman, created in God’s image, who affirms the sanctity and dignity and equality of every person on this planet. And I speak as a human being who abhors violence and hatred of any kind and who knows that bigotry and cruelty against one person or one group, is bigotry and cruelty against us all.
Last fall, I was in Washington D.C. visiting Adam for parents weekend when my phone began to reverberate wildly with the horrendous news that 11 people were killed as they prayed in their synagogue on Shabbat. My immediate concern of course was for the victims of this despicable tragedy, for their families and community. But my second concern was for you, for this holy community, whom I treasure beyond words and whose welfare is my life’s work. We, the leadership of this community, spent that dreadful day, and many days since instituting and analyzing increased security precautions at the synagogue and here at the Civic Center as well. And while it is our highest concern, it isn’t only our physical safety that concerns me today, but it is our spiritual security as well. We can’t allow fear and hatred to overshadow the beauty and the power of our sacred tradition. We can’t allow a depraved white nationalist wielding weapons of war to define our Jewish identity. We can’t allow anti-Semitic bigots to diminish in any way the depth and the meaning and the radiance of our holy days and of the New Year upon us.
Yes, we must and do speak out and stand up against hatred and prejudice and violence in all their forms, and we will continue to do so until there is one day no longer a need. But anti-Semites don’t get to define us. We do. And the greatest threat for American Jews would be to lose sight of the breathtaking power, the wisdom, and the redemptive hope inherent in Judaism. We define ourselves by the depth of our prayers and the righteousness of our deeds. We define ourselves by the strength and compassion of our community. We define ourselves by loving our neighbors and the stranger in our midst, because ultimately, as Elie Weisel reminds us, “The role of Judaism is not to make the world more Jewish, the role of Jews is to make the world more human.” That’s why we’re here.
We make the world more human when we stand alongside anyone victimized by hatred and prejudice. We make the world more human because we know that another person’s anguish and pain is truly our own. We’ve all seen the pernicious uptick not only of anti-Semitism but of all forms of racism and bigotry as well. Fueled by hateful and divisive rhetoric, by xenophobia and racist ideology, white nationalist target multiple minority groups today. Just two days before the Tree of Life massacred, an armed man tried to enter a predominantly black church in Louisville, Kentucky. When he couldn’t get in, he went to a nearby grocery store and murdered two African-Americans. In March, a white supremacist opened fire on worshipers during their Friday prayers in two separate mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand killing 51 people and injuring 49 others. In April, the same month as the deadly attack on a synagogue in Poway, three African-American churches were burned in Louisiana. And as we know, xenophobes and bigots don’t only target minorities in houses of worship; they also target people of color, immigrants, LGBTQ, and other ethnic and religious minorities in the streets, in their homes, and throughout the virtual world of the Internet.
But today I am not here to make us depressed or despondent, but rather to remind us all that despite the repugnancy and wickedness of all of this, hatred and cruelty do not get to define us. It is our compassion and our common humanity that define us. It is the way people have united as allies and partners in standing up against such hatred that defines us. It is the support so many have shown one another after each attack that ultimately defines us. It is the love and the tears we have shed for one another at our vigils. That is what defines us. It is the way people of all faiths and ethnicities and races have come together for vigils, for rallies, for meals following these dreadful events. I’ll never forget that first Shabbat after Pittsburgh when I walked up the front steps toward the synagogue and standing at the top were our Christian minister colleagues and friends wearing badges that said, “Welcome to Rodef Sholom.” They just showed up in solidarity to support us and pray with us and make us feel safe at a tenuous time. And Rodef Sholom showed up for our Muslim neighbors as well offering them solidarity and friendship following the New Zealand mosque attack last spring. This is how we make the world more human, by connecting with others, by standing up for them and by being supported ourselves. And unlike so many other times in our history when Jews were isolated and marginalized, victims of state-sponsored and institutionalized bigotry, we don’t stand-alone today. We are protected and defended by our nation’s laws and institutions and surrounded and supported by countless allies.
And still, we need to be vigilant today. We need to stand up and call out hatred and prejudice so that it does not become normalized or woven irreversibly into our societal fabric. How? Vivian Braly is a great example. When her son Jonah was a high school freshman and played on the football team, his teammates, who knew he was Jewish, would frequently drop change in front of him and ask, “Aren’t you going to pick that up?” This continued until the day they did it in front of Vivian. She stopped them and told them why it was wrong, why it was a dangerous stereotype of Jewish people and how offensive it was. “How did they respond,” I asked. “They felt awful and had no idea what it meant,” she said. “They apologized sincerely, and they never did it again.” We can’t ignore words or actions that offend us or anyone else, and must take all hatred and prejudice seriously. We, like Vivian and many others, need to name it when we see it or hear it and educated and communicate so that we can chip away at this pernicious force.
I’d like to particularly address our young people for a moment, both those who are today and those who will read this later. I know that while many of you feel safe as Jews at school or on your college campuses, openly celebrating holidays, wearing a Jewish star or that “I love Israel” T-shirt, others feel uncomfortable or self-conscious and have been criticized because they are Jews. For students involved in progressive activism on college campuses, it can be particularly challenging. One of our college students reported being frequently confronted with hostility because he is a Jew and was recently told by a fellow activist that the Holocaust never happened. It is clear that anti-Semitism exists on both the right and the left, and we all must be vigilant in the face of both. I ask of you today that if anyone’s words or action make you or someone else uncomfortable, listen to that voice, trust that feeling, and do something about it. That’s what Zachary Baumgarten, a Middle School did when swastikas were carved into the desks along with the words, “Jew die” at his Middle School. He alerted his teachers but wanted to do more. So as part of his mitzvah project, he worked with the support of the ADL, he has educated his peers, both at his school and at synagogue, about the dangers of hatred and bias and bullying. He compiled a video in which his peers shared their stories about of discrimination and bullying. This year, Zachary will serve as an ADL ambassador and guest speaker at schools across the Bay Area. And, I must add, Zachary was just elected student-body president of his middle school, a testament to the fact that today, it is safe to stand up and call out bigotry and empower others to do the same.
Eli, I told you that day that a pogrom is the reason you are here, but it’s not the only reason. The reason you are here, the reasons we are all here, are reflected in these three beloved artifacts, two that are old and imbued with abiding meaning, and one which is new, whose meaning we’ve had to create for ourselves- a humble aluminum cooking pot, a precious crystal ashtray, and two silver candle sticks.
When my great-grandparents came to this country from Lithuania well over one hundred years ago, like most people escaping persecution and poverty, they brought very few possessions with them. One of them was this aluminum cooking pot. Why did they choose to lug this simple, unassuming bowl with them across the world? You see, every week, this is the pot in which they cooked their Shabbat chicken (although until last week I erroneously believed it was their Passover potato kugel pot). This is the reason they came to this new land was so they could live fully and pray freely as Jews, so they could light their Shabbat candles and bless their children and bake a kosher chicken every Friday night. This humble cooking pot was the very foundation and center of their new lives. In fact, they even became chicken farmers, having received a Rothschild land grant, and spent the rest of their lives raising chickens on their farm in rural Connecticut.
This aluminum pot is my inheritance from my great-grandparents. And while it is no longer suitable for cooking chickens, it now serves to remind me how lucky I am, we are, to have inherited or adopted such a rich heritage and how grateful I am to be a Jew today. Never could my ancestors and yours have imagined Judaism as vibrant and diverse and self-renewing as it is today. Never could they have imagined that so many precious souls, who are not Jewish themselves, would choose to entwine their lives with the lives of the Jewish people; eating gefilte fish on Passover, saying the kaddish for loved ones, and crying joyful tears when their child is called to the Torah. Never could they have imagined the access Jews have today to universities, professions, and leadership that eluded our people for much of our history. And never could they have imagined the outpouring of love and concern from every corner of society, when Jews are harmed or threatened today. Never could they have dreamed that this was all possible. This cooking pot and all it represents, abiding love and richness of Judaism, the holy rhythm and meaning it infuses in our lives, and its embrace of all people, this is why we are here today.
Many of us are familiar with this crystal ashtray that belonged to Alice Calder, of blessed memory. She and her beloved, Roy, brought this crystal dish to synagogue each year on Kristallnacht, and after they died, her children have continued the tradition. As a young woman in Hamburg, Germany, Alice worked at a furrier shop. On her way to work on the morning of November 10, 1938, Alice witnessed burning synagogues and broken windows in all of the Jewish owned businesses. Piles of Torah scrolls and prayer books burned as she passed by on the streetcar. When she arrived at work, nobody was there. Its Jewish owners were taken away during the night. There was nothing left for her to do except leave the shop and return home. But as she left, Alice took with her this crystal ashtray used by its customers. She said it was to remind her of that day, though she knew she would never forget it. It was also the only thing Alice ever stole in her life. But it is also so much more than that. This crystal ashtray was salvaged from the very ashes of that day and is a symbol of resilience, both Alice’s and that of the Jewish people. It traveled with Alice throughout her life- she brought it to England where she, unlike the rest of her family, survived the war, and it traveled with her when she came to America to build a new life.
Rabbi Ed Feinstein reminds us that in 1964, Look magazine featured a cover story called, “The Vanishing American Jew.” In 1964, as the third generation of American Jews was being born and raised, the author, a sociologist, predicted that within twenty years, there would be no American Jewish community left. Look Magazine folded five years later and we are still here, vibrant and thriving 55 years later. In fact, Jews have flourished since Abraham first heeded God’s call to go forth and become a great nation. And nearly 4,000 years later we are still here- not the Jebusites, not the Hittites, and certainly not the Amalikites, the nemesis of the ancient Israelites. Why? Perhaps it is because of what the Ahad Ha’am called, chefetz hakiyyum, the survival wish or life force of the Jewish people. The reality is that there has never been a time in our history devoid of anti-Semitism. Over millennia, Jews have had to adapt, redefine and reinvent themselves, and that survival wish propelled them each time. It was palpable in the DP camps after World War II where countless Jewish weddings took place and where birthrates between 1946 and 1948 were the highest in the world. And while no longer breaking any birthrates records, we must remain resilient today, not shying away from the truth of our times, but rather, using it to make us stronger, more adaptive and more responsive in our turbulent world. Our resilience, our chefetz hakiyyum, this is the reason we are still here today and Judaism will thrive for many millennia to come.
When we were married, Frank and I received these silver candlesticks from a dear friend. When she asked what we wanted as a gift, I told her the truth; “I’d love some classic Shabbat candlesticks that look like they came from the Old Country, but didn’t.” She is a very good friend because she immediately understood what I meant. I wanted these candlesticks so that we could create our own rituals and traditions, so that our Jewish life wasn’t solely dependent on what had been handed down to us from previous generations. I wanted for us to create for ourselves a renewed Judaism that is vibrant and meaningful and filled with wonder and joy. We know that we light two candles on Shabbat and holidays, upholding the commandment to remember, one for zachor, and keep, shamor. But Rashi adds an additional explanation, and it is for thiis reason as well that we cherish these candlesticks; Rashi contends that the candles are for kavod and oneg, for honor and delight and that without light, there can be no peace because people will constantly stumble and be compelled to live in the dark. Frank and I wanted for our children to fall in love with Judaism and Jewish life- and I believe they have. This is the reason you are here, the reason we are all here in this glorious community- to, despite everything, begin a New Year together, and to bring light into our souls and into our world.
I often find myself at Safeway late at night. Sometimes it’s just easier to shop without a three-year-old in tow. One night in particular, I was there late after a meeting because we needed milk in the house. I walked the aisles, appreciating the time to myself, picking up things for lunches, dinners, the needed milk, and even some M&Ms to fill the machine that I keep in my office for kids who come to visit.
When I was finished, I walked to the front of the store and got in the only line that was open. There were two people ahead of me in line. Directly in front of me was a man, alone, holding a bottle of alcohol. In front of him, a young woman finished putting all of her items on the conveyor belt, and then pulled out a coupon and handed it to the cashier. He walked away to a back office of the store, leaving all of us there with no other option except to wait. It took a while, but he finally returned carrying seven containers of baby formula. He scanned them all, and then scanned her coupon. The coupon didn’t work. They tried again. It still didn’t work. I began to worry: What would she feed her baby if she couldn’t afford to take home this formula? I offered to help, but she didn’t understand English. The cashier gave me a look to tell me that she was ok. She bought one container with cash and left the store.
When it was finally my turn at the register, I asked the cashier if the woman was really ok. He told me that the coupon that she was trying to use was from the government, and it would only be valid in another 3 days, so she bought the one tonight and would come back to use the coupon for the rest. I asked how much each container of formula cost. He said that it was very expensive.
Then the cashier told me that for the first ten years of life, he had lived only on sugar and water. I asked where he was from. “Honduras.” He continued, “My life is much better here now, but I might not be able to stay here because of what is going on.”
And with that, I left the store.
I had so many questions rushing through my mind as I drove home. What happened with the woman with the baby formula? Was that really enough food to make it three days until her coupon worked? Would the baby be ok? Should I have done something more in that moment? What did the cashier’s future actually hold? Was he going to be able to continue living his better life here? Was the man with the bottle of alcohol going to be ok out there? Did he get in a car and drive?
There were no answers. I couldn’t solve all of their problems, and I hate to admit that I actually forgot about the whole experience pretty quickly. Not because I didn’t care. Not because I wasn’t concerned. But because in truth, no one person can solve the problem of immigration, of poverty, of alcoholism, of child hunger. The experience was overwhelming, and I felt for those individuals in the moment. But I also knew that I could not continue to carry their individual burdens with me and make them my own.
What I didn’t consider in that moment was that there was an opportunity to think more broadly about my own interactions with others, how I support, how I can feel and hold, and how I can work to figure out where my place is in their stories.
The more I think about it now, the more I realize that this encounter in the grocery store was not so dissimilar from something many of us do every day - reading someone’s sad story on Facebook, feeling the pain of it for just a moment, and then scrolling past it to the next vacation photo or news story.
But in truth, those moments of pain are real for that person and they last longer than our attention span.
I was with someone recently who lost someone close. It was sudden and unexpected, and I could see the deep sadness she was experiencing as each day passed. She shared stories about him with me, about their life-long friendship, about their last interaction that was not as positive as she would have liked it to be had she known it would be there last.
A few days after he died, I saw her again and tears were streaming down her face. “What triggered it today?” I asked. She replied: “I just posted it on Facebook. Now it’s real.”
When she put it in writing, it was there for her to see, and there for others to bear witness, not only to his death, but to her pain and her sorrow. There for others to help hold her up as she navigated the journey of loss, and perhaps even to feel some of her sadness as well.
Social media feeds us information (hence “news feed”) - people in mourning, life celebrations and milestones, fun nights out with friends, a new outfit - whatever people feel like sharing. By opening these windows into our lives, we allow others to serve as a witness and to share in our joy and our pain, our highs and lows.
But mostly just for a brief moment. We read, we look, and then we scroll past and onto the next thing.
How often have you been in an Uber or a cab and get out of the car 20 minutes later knowing nothing about the person who drove you to your destination? In life we meet so many people who we encounter in so many different ways - the woman at the grocery store, the man we pass on a walk, the driver who gets us to where we need to go. We don’t know their stories, and we can easily pass them by and not turn our heads. We don’t know their highs and lows, and we rarely carry them with us. And we have become so accustomed to scrolling past stories that we allow people to come in and out of our lives without taking much notice.
Melody Wilding, a licensed clinical social worker and professor of human behavior at Hunter College in New York City, teaches, “Empathetic people have a way of making you feel like you're the only one in the room. When they interact with someone, they give that person the gift of their full attention and respect, which is rare in today's hyper-distracted world.” What a remarkable responsibility we have to be fully empathetic to people we encounter, to be fully present, to hear their stories, and to help and support them throughout their journey.
There is so much out there that maybe the scrolling is something of a self-defense mechanism as well. We couldn’t and shouldn’t possibly go through life carrying people’s burdens on their behalf. That doesn’t mean that we don’t care. But social media has made these encounters so much more frequent that we are still just learning how to process and show empathy without being overwhelmed by it all.
Yet when the people who are in pain are our close friends and our family, people in whose lives we are engaged, our responsibility is even greater. We celebrate with them in good times, we cry with them when they are sad, and we walk their path of mourning by their side. And most of all, we don’t scroll past their story and forget - unlike my experience in the grocery store. I’d like to suggest that we consider what the world would be like if we didn’t just leave these people and their stories behind and walk away.
One of our central stories as a Jewish people that we revisit each year at the High Holy Days is the story of the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac, which we will read from the Torah tomorrow morning. The story begins:
וַיְהִ֗י אַחַר֙ הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֔לֶּה וְהָ֣אֱלֹהִ֔ים נִסָּ֖ה אֶת־אַבְרָהָ֑ם וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֵלָ֔יו אַבְרָהָ֖ם וַיֹּ֥אמֶר הִנֵּֽנִי׃
Sometime afterward, God put Abraham to the test. He said to him, “Abraham,” and he answered, “Hineni,” “Here I am.”
Abraham answers, “Hineni,” three times in Genesis Chapter 22:
That first answer is a response to God calling out to him to take his son up the mountain. A simple answer, really, but one that showed to God that Abraham was present. Rashi teaches that this Hineni was an expression of meekness and readiness, ready to listen, ready to do what God asked of him out of respect and obedience.
The second answer is to Isaac inquiring about the sheep for the offering. This answer is not submissive like the one before. I imagine Abraham watching Isaac as a loving father might do, knowing what was to come. Perhaps this “Hineni” is quieter, more hesitant, maybe even more distracted. Abraham is weighted down by the task at hand, burdened by what God is asking him to do, risking his family relations, and leaving the future of what his life holds in question. This hineni is tentative but also loving.
And the third occurrence comes at the pinnacle of the story:
וַיִּשְׁלַ֤ח אַבְרָהָם֙ אֶת־יָד֔וֹ וַיִּקַּ֖ח אֶת־הַֽמַּאֲכֶ֑לֶת לִשְׁחֹ֖ט אֶת־בְּנֽוֹ׃
And Abraham picked up the knife to slay his son. Then an angel of God called to him from heaven: “Abraham! Abraham!” And he answered, “Here I am.”
Picture it: Abraham and Isaac on the top of a mountain. Abraham binds up his son on an altar, and has a knife in the air ready to slay his son. And right before he slams it down, the angel of God comes down and says Abraham Abraham! Like a worried parent whose child is about to do something dangerous. Abraham Abraham! I can only imagine that “Hineni” - the sigh of relief that came with it through his unwavering faith that everything would be ok.
While they all receive the same answer, these three responses of Hineni illustrate that there are different ways of being present to those with whom we interact, with those for whom we care. Abraham teaches us this important lesson of being able to say “I am here for you,” in all different situations, to stop, to react, to care. He shows us that there are different ways to be present, depending on the person in need: A stranger, a close friend, my spouse, and even myself.
Rosh Hashanah reminds us that we are here and we are open to making change for this year to come. We must begin with the sanctity of human beings and human relationships, for only once we do that work can we begin the important work of tikkun olam, of healing our world beyond ourselves and our own personal relationships.
And yet there are times when we are fully in it, when we internalize the triumphs and struggles of those in our lives, sometimes even to the detriment of our own momentary happiness.
Every morning I pass a church on my drive to work. Each week, they post the title of the sermon in their display window out front, and each morning, I read that sermon topic to myself as I drive past. Some weeks, it stays with me for the duration of my drive. And one specific Monday morning, as I headed out on my daily drive to take Noah to preschool, the sermon title screamed out to me: “Whose life is this anyway?”
I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It seemed to follow me throughout my day and kept sneaking into my thoughts.
Whose life is this anyway?
Where is the boundary between caring for others, that empathy that we talk about, and caring for ourselves and showing ourselves empathy as well?
In Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Hillel teaches a text that is familiar to many of us:
אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי. וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי.
“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I?” We must be present for others, to show our empathy, to walk alongside those in mourning and celebrate in community. We must bear the burdens of others and carry some of their weight on our shoulders as well. That is what it means to truly care.
But we must also find the time and space for ourselves, for our needs, for our own burdens. If we walk around carrying the weight on our shoulders, we will drag our feet into a ditch of despair. How we balance that weight is what will keep us going, keep us caring, keep us enduring day after day.
Hillel’s text ends with one more line:
וְאִם לֹא עַכְשָׁיו, אֵימָתָי
“And if not now, when?” As we begin this new year of 5780, now is the time for us to stop and reflect on our relationships - on how we are present for others and how we take care of ourselves. Now is when we say “Here I am for you,” and “Here I am for me.” Both important, both part of this life we live, for you, for me, for our world, for our time on this earth together.
There’s a community in North America that claims to be the first to greet the New Year each year. That community is the Jewish community of St. John’s Newfoundland. Each year they conduct Shacharit morning prayers at Cape Spear, the most easterly point of land on the continent, and greet Rosh Hashanah while overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.
I stood at Cape Spear this summer and gazed out at the Atlantic Ocean. I had been there once before, almost thirty years ago, but one visit wasn’t enough to help me understand my family heritage. For the last five years I’ve asked my mom to help plan a family vacation back to the place she grew up until she was twelve. The drive for me to visit and record family stories, both the joyful and painful parts, while my parents are still healthy has been intense. I have a feeling, false and fanciful as it may be, that if I can deeply understand their narrative histories I will feel whole and stay whole after they and the generation that precedes me are gone.
As I stood at Cape Spear and gazed upon the Atlantic Ocean this summer I thought about the almost sixty years my family had lived in Newfoundland—one of only a handful of Jewish families. My great-grandfather arrived in Newfoundland from Russia in 1904. Eventually bringing my Grandma Fanny for whom I am named and five more brothers and their wives over. My grandmother was born in St. John’s in 1916 and my grandfather met her in St. John’s, a boy from Brooklyn, when he was stationed there during WWII.
Newfoundland was the site of so much that is beautiful about my family history and also some difficult stories. Some specific to my family, some the difficult stories that exist in all families. The pain of being new immigrants and feeling as outsiders. The pain of leaving one’s family behind. The pain of family rifts and some tragedy. And also the beauty of a Jewish heritage mixed with Newfoundland culture and history. And the beauty of a lot of love and laughter and humor. As we wandered through St. John’s Mom pointed out where Grandma used to pick up cod at the wharf. We discovered where on Water street the family stores had been located. We drove out to Topsail pond, the site of so many happy family memories and the picking of blueberries. I had heard many of these stories before but now, to link it with place, to walk the stories, I felt a deep and inexplicable sense of home.
Of course, for me, this feeling of home was less complicated. I could connect with the depth of heritage and history without the nostalgia. I felt less viscerally some of what my mother was naturally feeling upon returning to a childhood home after many years. And yet, hearing all the stories makes it imperative that I attempt for myself and future generations to metabolize all threads of my history—the dark and light—into a path forward. To weave it all into wisdom as my mother has before me.
Two of the Torah portions we read on Rosh Hashanah are family stories. One, the Akeidah, which Rabbi Lara and Rebecca Prather both described extensively and beautifully over the last two days, tells a story of faith but also a story of trauma. When Sarah dies immediately in the Torah portion following the Akeidah some of our rabbis tell us this is the direct result of the trauma she experienced upon hearing her husband had come close to sacrificing her beloved son Isaac. Many scholars also focus attention on Isaac’s passivity throughout his life and link it to the trauma of the Akeidah.
The Torah portion read in a majority of the Jewish world on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, Genesis 21, includes the banishment of Hagar, Abraham’s maidservant who conceived his first-born son Ishmael.
And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, making merry.
And Sarah said to Abraham, "Drive out this handmaid and her son, for the son of this handmaid shall not inherit with my son, with Isaac."
And Abraham arose early in the morning, and he took bread and a leather pouch of water, and he gave [them] to Hagar, he placed [them] on her shoulder, and the child, and he sent her away; and she went and wandered in the desert of Beer sheba.
And the water was depleted from the leather pouch, and she cast the child Ishmael under one of the bushes.
And she went and sat down from afar, at about the distance of two bowshots, for she said, "Let me not see the child's death." And she sat from afar, and she raised her voice and wept.
In this instance God saves Hagar and Ishmael much like God saves Isaac in the following chapter. Interestingly, Ishmael ends up marrying an Egyptian woman.
There is much about this story that is unsettling. How do we understand Sarah’s actions of rage and jealousy after she had been the one to tell Abraham to conceive a child with Hagar? Then there is the fact we often forget when we read the Akeidah—that in fact Abraham already has practice in sacrificing sons. He sacrificed his relationship with his son Ishmael and nearly Ishmael’s own life in the desert when he banished Hagar and this first-born son. This story clearly had an impact on the intergenerational trauma in Sarah and Hagar’s individual families but of course the trauma of banishment was also extended to the collective. To this day many interpret the promise to both Isaac and Ishmael that they will each become leaders of great nations as an initial rupture between Judaism and Islam.
Why do we read these stories on Rosh Hashanah? So many reasons. But one that I’m thinking about this morning is that in reading them they teach our community how to look both at the beauty in our Jewish heritage and at the intergenerational trauma extant in the passing down of a tradition. Reading these Torah portions on Rosh Hashanah teach us the importance of noticing that we are marked by relationship ruptures and choices made by previous generations at the same time that we experience these matriarchs and patriarchs of our tradition with reverence. These flawed ancestors are the same people who have taught us how to come face-to-face with God, they miraculously were the first to choose and sustain Judaism and monotheism, they are our ancestors--the same ancestors--who taught us how to argue with God and protest against injustice. Our task here again as we read and interpret these Torah portions seems to be how we interweave the strands of heritage and trauma into wisdom.
As a student of history I’ve always been drawn to memory—its uses and its complications. Rosh Hashanah—the head of the year, has another name—Yom HaZikkaron. The day of memory. It raises questions. Our tradition commands us to remember. To remember it all. The good, the bad, and the oh so ugly of our history. To remember that we were slaves in Egypt and to remember that we were delivered from Egypt. To remember the moment of revelation at Sinai. We are not only commanded to remember these stories but we are commanded to remember them as if we ourselves have lived through them. If, like me, you take this commandment to heart, you can feel viscerally in your body memory some of the experiences of these stories. And of course, the 20th century German-Jewish philosopher Emil Fackenheim added to our tradition’s commandments of memory. The 614th commandment is to Never Forget the Holocaust—continuing Jewish life is to deny Hitler a posthumous victory.
As a Jewish community we have taken this 614th commandment deeply to heart. We have internalized it such that it has become a rallying cry—whenever there is an attack on the Jewish community we respond: Never forget. We shall not allow Hitler a posthumous victory. It has also been a commandment that has inspired us to rise in solidarity with other communities when they are under attack—when we see genocide or mistreatment throughout the world—we respond motivated by our own history, legacy, and attempt to turn horror, senselessness, and indescribable loss into meaning. The exception to this of course is our complicated relationship with the Palestinians—a relationship that is also profoundly impacted by our response to trauma. But that is a larger sermon I’ll save for another time.
I have deep and enormous respect for the healing that has already taken place in the Jewish community. The generation that lived through and survived the Holocaust, some of you in our own community—have taught us resilience, courage, the triumph of love over vengeance and so much more. We owe an enormous debt to the ways you have not only survived but thrived in the aftermath of the unfathomable. In many ways too, Fackenheim’s 614th commandment has served us well as we continue to heal from the trauma of the Holocaust. We have learned the power of our collective voice and we have linked that force to social justice in many profound and efficacious ways. But, as the fourth and fifth generations post-Holocaust are born into Judaism and raised I wonder at both the expediencies and the limits of this philosophy. What deeper level of healing for our community remains possible? Does the way we teach and pass down Judaism today, Jewish history and Jewish heritage have the right balance between celebrating its richness and tales of oppression? Does our rallying cry of Never Forget always yield good outcomes in the public square or are their limitations to its usefulness?
After witnessing the last few years of the Jewish community’s response to our current political climate I would argue that there remains room for us to continue to examine our legacy of trauma and how it impacts our actions and reactions. I’ve observed that as an American Jewish community we have internalized so well the rallying cries of “Never Again” and “Tikkun Olam,” and in so many ways for good, but we often neglect to see the corresponding need for cheshbon haNefesh—reflecting on our triggers, our reactions, and our words before or in sequence with jumping to action. I am drawn to the ways that our community both at Rodef Sholom and the broader American Jewish community might more deeply engage in continued and conscious awareness of when we are re-activated by trauma and the work that remains to be done four ourselves and our community in this arena.
In her recently published book Wounds into Wisdom Rabbi and Psychologist Tirzah Firestone shares her insights after years of working with survivors of trauma—primarily Holocaust survivors and survivors of terror attacks in Israel and Palestine—as well as hundreds of interviews with second and third generation post-Holocaust. Rabbi Firestone confirms what I have also experienced anecdotally—that in the last few years—with the attacks in synagogues and the marches in Charlottesville the Jewish community has shown signs of re-traumatization—these reactions show up in the body memory so forcefully and so quickly that they are clear signs we can continue working on our own healing even as we stay wise to keeping our communities safe.
When our Jewish community naturally experiences the question: “Is It Happening Again”? Firestone notes both the pitfalls we can get into with this question and the wisdom that can arise if we learn how to use our trauma response as knowledge. The key is managing our reactivity and reality-checking. Reminding ourselves that we have agency and collective power. But utilizing that agency and collective power wisely. There may and there will be times that action is required. But it is not always required. Here Rabbi Firestone draws on Victor Frankl’s teaching. Frankl taught that agency heals us from trauma. It is not reactive. It comes from self-awareness. Because even when overt action is impossible or unwise, we can still have agency.
As Rabbi Firestone says: “Seeking power after victimization might naturally lead to taking action to defend ourselves and our communities from further harm. This power may at times become forceful, even violent, in the quest for justice. But an important distinction is that while agency is always powerful, not all forms of power are synonymous with agency”. In an age where voices are amplified by retweets and shares we cannot afford to act before pausing to check our own fear and reactivity, take some time to research, notice our words and language, and remember that our own liberation is bound up with the liberation of others.
I think often about the ways that we tell the Jewish story and its vital importance to the continued vibrancy and character of our Jewish community. I believe that the Reform movement and Reform synagogues across the country are striving to focus on the joy of our heritage and helping to meet people where they are with a sense of belonging and meaning. And, of course, we continue to teach about anti-Semitism because we believe deeply in the importance of understanding that aspect of our history through the lens of how it has shaped us and contributed to our collective wisdom. I myself am a trained Holocaust educator and guiding young Jews through Auschwitz, the Warsaw Ghetto, and other sites in Europe have been among the most profound experiences of my life. As synagogues I believe we still have more to learn about how to teach the painful parts of Jewish experience, and how and when to stand up and speak out, without re-traumatizing or alienating the next generation. And the responsibility is not only on the synagogues. In this age of social media and soundbites Jewish instititutions and organizations have a huge role to play in whether or not younger generations of Jews will be inspired by the beauty of Jewish heritage or alienated by the undigested ways our reactivity can turn into infighting and narrow-mindedness. I hear it all the time from my generation of Jews and younger. Many long to find home in the Jewish community and yet the narratives of Judaism with which they were raised and the reactivity they see playing out in the media whenever a comment is deemed to be anti-Semitic is alienating to them. Again, I believe we have more to learn, I believe we can do better, and I do believe that deeper efforts at community healing of our own collective trauma will have a profound impact on the solidarity work we do in social justice spaces and the future of a vibrant Jewish community here in America. In 5780 in fact, I am committed to seeing this work continue to develop into deeper consciousness.
When I reflect on my own family history and the intergenerational patterns I’ve inherited, I am grateful for my parents’ openness in telling me as much of their stories as they have been able to recall and interpret for themselves. I know that they have woven wounds into wisdom and I feel grateful. Now I have the continued task, as each individual and each generation has, of turning as much of my family history—both the dark and the light—into wisdom as I am able. I am grateful too that my parents passed on a love for Judaism that was deep and strong and true. They taught me that Judaism transcends. Its beauty, its wisdom, its values are bigger than history, bigger than human psychology, bigger than institutions. It is Torah, It is God, It is Divine. That same day following our trip to Cape Spear I stood outside the synagogue that my grandfather Maxwell Rosen helped to build and took a picture next to a Star of David bigger than me. I felt joy in being Jewish with all of its complexities and I felt at home and embraced by all the threads of my history.
In this New Year 5780 I bless us all that we continue to find a home in Judaism and Jewish community and find new ways to healing and wholeness. May we be blessed on this sacred path that is weaving our Jewish narrative into wisdom for today and tomorrow.