- Rabbi Leder
- Rosh Hashanah
Erev Rosh Hashanah 5784
Rabbi Steve Leder
Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Los Angeles
Many of you know that I will be stepping down as the senior rabbi on August 31 next year. After that, I will be with you half time for two additional years, and then, I will be your rabbi emeritus for the rest of my life. It is kind of like the joke “gentiles leave and don’t say good bye. Jews say goodbye, and they don’t leave.”
I will never really leave this place that we all love so much. But this will be my last Erev Rosh Hashanah sermon as the senior rabbi of Wilshire Boulevard Temple.
Tonight, I am going to share with you the most fundamental things I have learned about Judaism and the Jewish people over these past nearly four decades, with the hope they will guide you and our beloved temple into the new year and far beyond.
First: the centrality of Israel: not long ago I met with a newly-engaged couple to go over the structure and content of the Jewish wedding ceremony, crafted nearly 2,000 years ago. What did the Hebrew mean? How would I render an English translation? At which point the couple spoke up.
“Rabbi, we get that when the ceremony says ’the people of Israel,’ it means the Jewish people because when these blessings were written there was no state of Israel. But a lot of our friends will think you are talking about modern Israel, so we’d rather you not say Israel in our ceremony.”
This exchange confirmed a terrible truth. We are losing our children. We have been outflanked on college campuses and social media for decades by students for Palestine and others who are not students at all, but actually well-funded, well-trained professionals creating logical fallacies and outright lies about Israel. More American Jews than we might want to believe, have sipped our enemies’ poison.
To quote my friend Ammi Hirsch, “to turn against Israel; to join our ideological opponents and political enemies in castigating Zionism, is a sign of Jewish illness, an atrophying of our intellectual and emotional commitment to our people.”
Eight decades ago the world stood by while Nazis brought 6 million Jews to the ovens. Today, our enemies plan to bring the ovens to 7 million Jews on the tip of a missile.
We often think of life as a series of good and bad choices followed by good and bad outcomes. But for the Jewish people life sometimes offers us not good or bad choices, but bad and worse choices. Golda Meir put it this way, “if we have to have a choice between being dead and pitied, and being alive with a bad image, we’d rather be alive and have the bad image.” Sure, her point and mine lack nuance. Israel’s choices are not always so binary, but often, they are.
Is the current Israeli government inconsistent with some of our values? Yes. Throughout American history can the same be said about our own government? Yes. Flawed leadership, even terribly flawed leadership, is not a reason to abandon Israel or our own country. It is reason to engage more deeply and lovingly. Half the Jews in the world live in Israel and more than half the Jewish babies born each year are born there. Israelis are our brothers and sisters; our Jewish future, our very bodies and souls are inexorably bound together.
Modern Israel is the most vibrant renaissance of Jewish life, learning, culture and aspiration ever. It is impossible to overstate what Israel means to Jews and to Judaism and what we mean to Israel. Full stop.
Israel is vital to Judaism, but Israel is not all of Judaism. Far from it. There are many fundamentally crucial aspects to the Jewish future that are much closer to home. They are about who we are, what we can be and what we must not become.
First, what to do about Jew hatred? It is heart-breaking when other marginalized minorities lash out at us when they too are among the persecuted. Nevertheless, we have to call them out; starve them of support. We cannot abide the far right or the far left who blame their problems on us with ancient tropes and modern memes. They hate us and we must face that hatred. But how?
Vigilance, yes. But being an anti-anti-Semite is not the only or the best answer. In a world where it is increasingly acceptable to hate Jews, the single best thing, not the only thing, but the best thing we can do is raise generations of proud, educated, thinking, praying, loving, unapologetic, un-ambivalent, fearless Jews. Proud and Fearless Jews, that is the answer to Jew hatred.
And we do not create proud Jews by perpetuating our own negative stereotypes. We joke about being neurotic and materialistic, about overbearing women, and nerdy, cowardly men. We laugh at our infighting. Everyone knows the joke about the Jew on a deserted island who builds two synagogues; the one he goes to and the one he would never set foot in.
The rabbis claimed the second temple in Jerusalem fell in the year 70 not because of the romans, but because of Jewish infighting. Jew against Jew is nothing to joke about. We are not weak. We are not hedonists. We are a strong, proud, generous, thoughtful, kind people; and there is great harm in presenting ourselves otherwise.
Everything else stands on three pillars. For two thousand years the rabbis believed Jews and Judaism needed three pillars upon which to stand. If one is missing, we crumble. You might not have noticed it, but our temple logo has those three pillars in Hebrew encircling an image of the rose window behind us. Those three pillars are Torah, avodah and gimilut chassadim.
Torah—there is no aspect of the human condition unexplored in the sages’ poetry, debates, real world commandments and heavenly hopes. They knew how to live in a small community where people had to get along. They knew what it meant to face fear, plagues, floods and fires. They regularly saw death at their doorstep. Two thousand years ago only half of all children lived to see their fifth birthday. Torah is what gave our people hope and light…they needed torch to live. So does the world.
One story says it all: after telling a billionaire potential donor, who could change the destiny of the loss Angeles Jewish community with the stroke of a pen, about our needs and dreams, he looked at me and said,
“Well, I am Jewish. But my religion is peace, love and understanding and my temple is the world.”
This is what I told him and this is what I say to every Jew who cares about the world. “I don’t know everything about you. But I do know this. Every good thing you believe in—peace, love and understanding, being an ethical business person, being a good son or daughter, father or mother, caring for the earth, not gossiping, treating other people the way you would like to be treated, reaching out to the hungry, the oppressed, the poor, the powerless, the frail—all of it and more, every noble idea in western culture, every decent thing you can think of comes directly from the Torah, you just don’t know it.”
If we lose the Torah we will eventually, maybe not in one or two or three generations, but we will eventually lose those most noble of ideas, those most cherished values that make us all who we ought to be. Maybe relying on American ideals severed from their rootedness in torch would get us through if we lived in the America of Jefferson and Lincoln, Emerson and Thoreau, brandies and Irving berlin. But we live in an America whose politics are coarse and petty, and whose cultural exemplars are Kanye and the Kardashians.
Imagine a world without Torah…without “Love your neighbor as yourself,” without “Thou shalt not murder. Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not covet.” Imagine a world without, “Justice, justice you shall pursue.” Imagine a world without forgiveness. Without the pillar of Torah, no Jew and no decent society can stand for long. We need Torah, and the world needs Torah.
The second pillar is avodah, which literally means both work and prayer. The word avodah is why we call our gathering tonight, and every time we pray in shul, a service. We are here to serve God. We are not here to implore God to serve us. Whenever the Torah says, “I am God.” It is also saying “And you are not. You are not God.”
Call it prayer, spirituality, a daily practice, call it whatever you wish, but without acknowledging there is a power, a oneness from which all things come and to which all things return, a glory, and purpose and meaning to existence, without that humility and awe, we cannot stand. Arrogance will ruin us all. But avodah; a prayerful, humble life filled with gratitude and wonder will grant us a beautiful, meaningful, rich life come what may.
The last pillar is gimilut chassadim—deeds of loving kindness; for without them, we and the entire world, are lost. But notice that torch and avodah come before gimilut chassadim, which most Jews now refer to as tikkun olam. I think this was the rabbis’ way of telling us it is important to uplift and soothe the suffering of others, but tikkun olam alone is not Judaism. It is simply universalism.
Without Torah, without mitzvot, without standards and boundaries, without the acknowledgment of human limitation, without awe and wonder and gratitude, Judaism is not a religion, it is deli and a well-meaning social club.
Hence and finally, the synagogue, our synagogue: For 2,000 years people have tried to find a better way than the synagogue to make Jews and for 2,000 years they have failed. The synagogue is the engine of Judaism. Look what we have done together. Our temple, our schools, our camps, our Karsh centers east and west, our campuses east, and west and now further west—look what we have done.
We have grown rabbis and cantors, educators and philanthropists, parents who choose a better Jewish education for their children than they themselves received when they were young, hundreds of converts, tens of thousands of our needy neighbors helped to live healthier, better lives, in a place where sadly, so many go hungry, or without diapers for their babies, or anyone to care about their eyes, their teeth, their legal problems and more. What we have done together is an exceptional exception. Yet we can do so much more. We can reach and inspire so many more Jews. And the good news is, we have the money…the bad news is…it’s in your pockets!
All kidding aside, one fundamental fact is that the larger, non-Jewish community of loss Angeles can count on us to support its important institutions; there are Jewish names on the donor walls of museums, hospitals, universities, concert halls, and more all over loss Angeles and there should be. But the truth is that while the larger, Gentile community can count on us for support, we cannot count on them. They will not do it. We are on our own when it comes to insuring our future. And we will.
On a tour of the soon-to-open and utterly beautiful Resnick campus a donor asked me a question I could not answer. How much to name the eternal light that will glow above the ark in front of those stunning windows of colored glass? “How much is the eternal light worth?” he wanted to know.
The neir tamid is to honor the divine presence that rests wherever Jews gather to pray. We can feel that presence here tonight. How much is that light worth? I had no answer. I could only say this, and I am saying this to you too, because I love you and am so proud of you and us. The rabbis of the Talmud ask why pure olive oil was the only fuel deemed worthy for that first neir tamid. Because, they answer, when pressed and crushed, the humble olive gives forth its purest, most beautiful light. This is a message to us from our sages who knew so much about life and suffering, love and torch, god and kindness. It is a simple message; a message of hope.
By the rules of history, we should not be here. None of us. We should have gone the way of the empires that sought to destroy us; the pharaohs, the emperors, the czars and the Nazis. David ben Gurion, who in the aftermath of Auschwitz saw the state of Israel rise from those ashes, said, “a Jew who does not believe in miracles…is not a realist.”
So this above all is what I have learned through our decades together. No matter the crushing challenges…we rise, we grow, we thrive, we create, we dance, we sing, we teach, we learn, we live with awe, for we stand upon three, unshakable pillars making of us a warm, powerful and kind, great and humble, fearless and proud people. We stand for Torah, for God, and goodness; we stand with Israel, in our hearts and souls.
We are a branch plucked from the fire, a tree of life bearing sweet fruit to nourish our souls; making of us a proud and beautiful people; a people of hope, a people of eternal light…a people that shall live, and never die.