June 4, 2016
In October of this past year I led a delegation of rabbis who are the heads of the various movements of Judaism for a series of meetings in Israel with top Israeli government officials. In a span of just two days we held 14 meetings, culminating with our last one, with Prime Minister Netanyahu. In one of the meetings Naftali Bennett, the Minister of Education and Diaspora Affairs and head of one of the major political parties in the government coalition asked the dozen rabbis in his office what was our greatest worry. We had been speaking about the issues that unite and those that divide Jews in the Diaspora and Israel. Rabbis had expressed their concerns about a number of issues and things happening in Israel, and so now he turned to us and asked us what worried us about Jewry in the Diaspora.
I want to push the pause button for a moment, to probe the deeper meaning of this interaction and discussion, for it is the first lesson I want you to take with you. Here we were, rabbis from the United States meeting with top government officials of a foreign nation, speaking as partners, as members of a family would talk with each other about common concerns. (It kind of reminds me of how Jackie Mason says Jews walk into a restaurant not as customers, but as “partners.” We go in and tell the maitre’d where we want to sit. We move tables, rearrange the seating arrangement, tell them to adjust the temperature and change the menu.) We were in Israel as partners.
They wanted to hear from us, and we travelled to Israel to meet with them, for one simple reason. We are a people. We share a common fate and destiny. We care about each other. It is why when I have travelled with delegations of rabbis to Hungary, Ukraine, Argentina and elsewhere we met with government leaders on these trips to discuss the situation of our fellow Jews. The principle articulated in the Talmud is: “Kol Yisrael arevin zeh b’zeh. It is almost always translated as, “All of Israel is responsible for one another,” but I prefer to translate more literally: “All of Israel is involved with each other.”
This unique encounter is indicative of the relationship we Jews have with each other. Always remember you are part of a people, a people that has survived for thousands of years, and that you have an obligation to your fellow Jews, as well as those who came before you to ensure that those who come after you will continue to aspire to perpetuate our unique identity.
And that brings us back to the story and the question raised by Education and Diaspora Minister Bennett in his office.
When he asked what is our concern; what is the greatest threat facing the Jewish people in the Diaspora, what would you say? I gave a one word response. I said without a moment’s hesitation, “soccer.”
That’s right. A game. Soccer. That was my answer. And the Minister, who has spent time in the United States, as well as the other rabbis understood what I meant. It was a metaphor for the challenges facing us and the pulls on us. He understood I was referring to assimilation and the eternal question of how we maintain our identity, our customs, rituals and traditions in a free and open society. The question is actually one considered even in the time of the Talmud, as even all the way back then rabbis were concerned about the pull and attraction of secular culture.
We are a minority in this country. A very small minority. We cannot expect nor should we expect society to conform to us or our calendar. In Israel, offices and stores are closed on Shabbat and Jewish holidays. In America we face the challenge of how to live a Jewish life when the rest of the world around us does not.
It is my hope that as a result of our studies you have come to realize that in addition to embracing and exploring your identity as Jews, and knowing that you are a part of a people, that you have gained a glimpse at what an amazing body of literature our people has created throughout the ages. This literature, these texts and sources are yours. They should not be foreign to you, nor should you be foreign or strangers to them. It is my hope that you have acquired some degree of familiarity with these texts, and that you will have a desire to return to them and to study them further, and most important of all, that they will influence how you live your life.
I have a confession to make. I was not the best kid in my Hebrew school. But when I graduated from there, long before I ever thought about becoming a rabbi, I came away with an appreciation of how intellectually sophisticated and stimulating Jewish writings were, how profound they were, how little I knew, and how much I wanted to study them in greater detail because they contained so much wisdom. That desire to explore more is what I have sought to impart to you. The final message of our study of Jewish texts, of Tanach, Midrash, Talmud, Shulhan Aruch, Responsa and other great works of the Jewish people is for you to realize that Judaism is a way of life with a set of morals and ethics that make you a better person and make society a better place.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes about this week’s parasha that while a GPS system can help us get to where we want to go, it cannot tell us where to go. He writes, “The most important decision we can make in life is to choose where we want eventually to be. Without a sense of destiny and destination, our lives will be directionless. If we don’t know where we want to go, we will never get there no matter how fast we travel. There are people who spend months planning a holiday, but not even a day planning a life. They simply let it happen. What was unique about the society envisaged by the Torah is that, in it, every individual mattered. Justice was to be paramount. The rich could not buy special treatment and the poor were not left destitute. When it came to communal celebrations, everyone — especially the orphan, the widow, the stranger — was to be included.”
He even commented on one of the first things we discussed in our opening sessions about the compatibility of Judaism and science, explaining that the special insight Jews brought to the world was that unlike atheists of today or idol worshippers of ancient times we did not believe “that the universe is governed by mere chance.” Was it “mere chance that a random fluctuation in the quantum field produced the Big Bang that brought the universe into being? Or that the universe just happened to be regulated by precisely the six mathematical constants necessary for it to give rise to stars and planets and the chemical elements essential for the emergence of life?
There is nothing contradictory about what Judaism asserts about creation and what science maintains, for Judaism “is compatible with all the science we now know, perhaps with all the science we will ever know. The Bible offers a view of a people who created a small clearing in the desert of humanity where freedom and order coexist, where justice prevails, the weak are cared for and those in need are given help, where we have the humility to attribute our successes to God and our failures to ourselves, where we cherish life as the gift of God and do all we can to make it holy. In other words: precisely the opposite of the violence and brutality that is today being perpetrated by some religious extremists in the name of God.”
Last Rosh Hashana on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway, which we saw on our trip to New York, I spoke about the meaning of the play. I concluded the sermon by making the analogy that Judaism is like a rare violin, handed down in a family of centuries. Not every generation will have the talent or desire to play it, but no one would dream of selling or hocking it. You never know who might want to learn to play. Each of us, each of you has a legacy that has been handed down for generations. It is your responsibility, obligation, and privilege even if you can’t play it, to see to it that the violin is handed over and passed on to future generations in the hope that its melody will be heard and that its song will continue to be sung.