ROSH HASHANAH DAY 2
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik
Some years ago, when my sister in Israel was feeling particularly stressed out by a series of events both local and international, she wrote a lovely D’var Torah based on a sonnet by the great English romantic poet William Wordsworth. These are the sonnet’s opening lines.
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not…
Wordsworth, who lived in the early nineteenth century, was lamenting how the Industrial Revolution was alienating people in his beloved England from the wonders of the natural world, depriving them of the opportunity to appreciate the every-day glories of nature, and of their lives.
Two hundred years later, Wordsworth’s opening line seemed to express exactly what my sister was feeling, not about the Industrial Revolution, but about life. The world was too much with her…
The Industrial Revolution seems like a quaint idea compared to the technological revolution of today, but William Wordsworth’s words speak to my soul in 2016, and I would think to all of our souls, just as they did to my sister’s. Of most of us– myself very much included– it could fairly be said that “the world is too much with us.” So many crises large and small are playing out all around us, so many issues, so much noise, that it often feels as if we’re suffocating for lack of breathable air. Non-stop, unrelenting commentary by a plethora of news outlets, and ever-increasingly easy access to those outlets, makes it virtually impossible to escape the anxiety that pervades contemporary life. The world is not too much with us; it is always with us.
What is going on in our country at this moment is not the proverbial 800-pound gorilla in the living room; it’s more like a tyrannosaurus rex. Probably more than ever before in my career in the pulpit, I have struggled, as I said yesterday, with how to deal with that, not wanting to subvert the spiritual imperatives of the High Holidays on the one hand, but also not wanting to abandon my responsibility as a teacher and a religious leader on the other. In the end, ignoring the condition of America and the upcoming election at such a critical moment seems not only irresponsible, but actually inconceivable to me. The world needs our attention, and our country needs our attention. But how does one address such a difficult subject on a day like this, when we sit in judgement before God for our mortal lives, and contemplate the very meaning of life, love, and our relationship with God and the world?
That’s a question without an easy answer, but of this much I am sure. Whatever it is that I say to you this morning, I shall be trying my hardest to insure that it is a refraction in some meaningful way of Torah, and not just another op-ed. And in addition, to those who might take issue with my words, and I’m sure there will be a few at least, I ask for your indulgence, and that you understand that I say what I say because I deeply believe that I have to say it– not for the sake of endorsing one political candidate or party over another, but rather in order to illuminate what it is that makes this such a critical and pivotal time in this country we love.
This morning we read one of the most challenging narratives in all of Biblical literature, the story of the binding of Isaac. It is, even in its spare thirty-three verses, filled with unasked and unanswered questions that have perplexed readers for millennia. How does a just and compassionate God demand of a parent to sacrifice his son, even more so after having given him that son in old age with the promise that he would carry on his line? How does a man acquiesce to that demand without even so much as a whimper of protest? How does Abraham accept the demand without even a word of consultation with his wife Sarah? And how does Isaac go so quietly to the slaughter? What kind of faith is the Torah trying to teach us about here?
For as long as I’ve been reading this little short story, I have struggled with these questions in much the same way that all of you have, I’m sure, and I am no closer to being able to answer them today than I was when I first encountered the text many years ago. But this morning, I want to suggest to you another way of looking at this narrative which I hope will cast it in a different light.
The entire story of the Binding of Isaac plays out over a period of three days; just three days. It is, if you will, a kind of zoom into one chapter- admittedly a critical chapter, but one chapter- of a much larger relationship between God and Abraham, in which there is plenty of back and forth and argumentation, even in the very Torah portion in which the Akedah story is found, when Abraham argues with God about the fate of S’dom and Amorah. The unfolding story of covenantal relationship between God and the Patriarchs and Matriarchs is the stuff of which the Book of Genesis is made, the ecosystem, if you will, of Genesis. When we encounter the Akedah on Rosh Hashanah, we are reading it in high definition, with our lens zoomed in for a close-up. It is extraordinarily terrifying when read this way, and all of the flaws, if indeed they are flaws, are staring at us, begging for explication. But if we zoom out, the nature of our discussion will, of necessity, become different. Our focus is larger and more global, on God and man, God and woman, God and family, the nature of divine promises. and what it means to be in a covenantal relationship. The binding of Isaac story will never be easy or challenge-free, but it is only a part of the unfolding story of our people, and our relationship with God. It is part of that larger ecosystem, and it reads differently that way.
As I struggle, like all of you, with the realities of our very unhappy Presidential election, I am desperately trying to keep in mind that all of what we are hearing and seeing is in zoom mode. The relentless news coverage, particularly in this age when virtually everyone is connected to the story 24/7, does exactly what high definition television does even to beautiful people – it magnifies every wart, accentuates every shortcoming, and can be exceedingly unforgiving.
Lest I be misunderstood or misinterpreted, this is one place where I feel I need, ever so carefully, to tip my hand just a little bit. I am not trying to imply that warts are warts, faults are faults, and everyone looks equally bad in this zoom lens, high-def focus. I am not. I am, consciously and honestly, saying that neither of the two candidates running for president is blemish-free when the focus is so close. And clearly, the fact that polls portray the two candidates as historically unpopular with the electorate gives sad and damning testimony to that.
But please don’t read into my words a kind of equivalency between the shortcomings of one, and those of the other. Even in high-definition, there is not, to my mind, any imaginable way to equate the two and their flaws, and I will leave it to you to interpret what I am saying. If you’re unsure, you can ask me when I’m off the pulpit. But I think the larger truth is to be found is zooming out, and understanding that this presidential election, like all such elections, needs, like the Akedah story, to be understood within the larger ecosystem within which it is operating, and that ecosystem is the United States of America… the country we love, whose constitution every President is sworn to protect and defend.
How exactly does one define the ecosystem, or, if you will, the ethos of this remarkable country? I have two frameworks that I think work, and maybe one of them will help you understand more of what this election must be about, beyond its glaring imperfections.
The first thing that came to my mind when I began to contemplate this metaphor was Franklin Roosevelt’s famous Four Freedoms, articulated in his State of the Union address of 1941. In that speech, Roosevelt portrayed those freedoms as the foundation for a more perfect world than the one that was then at war. When Norman Rockwell later immortalized those freedoms in what became iconic paintings, he transformed them into the bedrock of American values, an idealized set of images of what this country of ours is about when it’s at its best. Freedom to say what one wishes to say, to offer an opinion without concern for reprisal or repression; freedom to worship God as we see fit, without any discrimination of the sort that historically has plagued our people; freedom from fear, meaning that no citizen should have to live in dread of physical attack from another; and freedom from want, intended to insure that there would always be an economic system that insured ample food for all.
Against the backdrop of this value-rich ecosystem, I would suggest to you that any position that a candidate espouses that threatens any of these freedoms is to be regarded with the deepest of concern… speech, worship, fear, and want. Take everything that you’ve been hearing from the candidates, and superimpose it carefully onto these four freedoms. It is not that difficult an exercise to see where the problem areas are in a lot of what we’ve been hearing, particularly from one candidate.
The second ecosystem framework that I would suggest to you this morning is less a set of beliefs or words than it is a series of memories and associations. I want you to think back to the generation of your family that came to this country as immigrants, recall the circumstances of their leaving the country where they were born, and try and imagine what it was that made America the single place that they longed to come to.
I have read and heard many descriptions of what those emigrants felt when they caught their first sight of the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor, including from my own family. To a one, they were filled with a sense of hope that what awaited them was better than what they were leaving behind, whether it was pogroms, poverty, lack of economic opportunity, and the certainly that even if things were good for a while, they just knew that the time would come and they would turn bad. Those who came under duress, like the far-too-few Jews who managed to escape the Nazis and certain death and actually get into the country despite the quotas, saw in America a place where they would never again have to worry that they or their families would have to run for their lives. America was hope. America was promise. America was, as President Reagan so famously quoted from John Winthrop, a “shining city upon a hill,” a dream waiting to be realized, a magical place.
Take those images that you are conjuring up and juxtapose them first with the world’s abject failure, and, painfully, our own country’s failure, to step into the breach and effectively and forcefully reach out to those most at risk from the seemingly endless civil war in Syria – see how we have all failed to measure up. Take those images of the “shining city upon a hill” and juxtapose them with the image of Aylan Kurdi’s young body washed up on a Turkish shore because his desperate family risked life and limb to get out of certain death in Syria, or the stunned little boy with the bloody head in Aleppo, whose family didn’t even make it out to risk death at sea.
And if that’s not depressing enough, juxtapose those images with what has emerged from the current election campaign, where one candidate has waged a relentless appeal to the basest kind of American fears that would close our borders to the most desperate refugees, all in the name of greater security. “Extreme vetting,” I have heard that candidate say. Think of what our own State Department did to our parents and grandparents when they were turned away by just about every country in the world, only to be sent back to certain death. I guess that qualified as “extreme vetting.” Extreme vetting means stay out. It means your hopelessness will find no hope within our shores, and no promise of anything better. This is not to deny that there is a real threat to our country from Islamic terrorism. Of course there is, and of course immigrants need to be screened carefully. But do we, seventy years after the Shoah, want to do to others what was done to us? Have we become so callous as to have learned nothing from our own sorry history? V’attem y’da’tem et nefesh hager, ki gerim heyittem b’eretz Mitzrayim.. And you know the soul of the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. We have all been here before. What kind of America do we want? How shall we be most faithful to the ethos of this country, the spiritual ecosystem of America, which has made us so at home??
So yes, like all of you, I often feel that “the world is too much with us.” We are living through a time of great unrest and strife, and the effort to live a meaningful and spiritually significant life against a background of a world that seems to devalue life more each day is wearying, and often depressing. But the ecosystem of Judaism, no matter how you choose to frame or explain it, surely teaches us that closing our eyes to difficult realities all around us is not the life that God wants us to live. Closing our eyes to the suffering of others and encouraging Americans to do the same in the name of “America first,” pandering to the most extreme elements of America’s “alt-right” population whose vision of America is mono-chromatic, racist, misogynist, and filled with hate of the “other,” and sees Jews as just as undesirable as those very tragic refugees, turning our backs to those who are suffering because they’re not of our faith community, and some of them might be potential combatants, that is not the life that Isaiah would say to us is God’s vision for us- it’s not the life that God wants us to live. And even more so, these sacred days of Rosh Hashanah remind us that the way that we conduct ourselves in this regard will surely impact the way that we fare as we stand in judgement.
From the time of the Binding of Isaac to our own day, we Jews have been challenged to discern the truth from attitudes that are often less than totally and absolutely clear. What it clear is that you have no spiritual option not to engage. It is what Judaism demands of us. Zoom out, not in. I have focused almost exclusively on the immigration issue this morning, but there are so many other deep and alarming concerns, not the least of which is the fundamental fitness or lack thereof of said candidate to serve this country and protect its constitution. Zoom out, not it. Both in Genesis and in politics, the picture gets much clearer when you do.