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Rabbi Berk’s Rosh Hashanah Late Service: Love Not Hate

Love Not Hate

Rosh Hashanah, 5777

We don’t need to go too far back in time, nor too far away, to find an example of a black, unarmed man killed by police. It happened recently right here in lovely San Diego county.

Given the political climate in our world right now I predict two things have occurred with my opening sentence: some anticipate that I am going to address an issue that is of great concern to you; the growing tide of resentment in the African American community’s towards police for the harsh treatment of blacks that has led to an increasing number of innocent black men gunned down in the streets of their community and compassion for the rallying cry Black Lives Matter.

The other reaction I am pretty sure is out there is a grave concern that I’m about to speak about racism from a liberal point of view and about police brutality. To you, I’m on the edge of a sermon that’s going to sound naive, at best.

While I think I’ll disappoint all who are thinking in one of those ways, I know that I risk making some people I care very much about upset no matter what I say on the topic of racism. But I’m a a rabbi. That’s an ancient and noble title. And these are the most important days in the Jewish year. I have an obligation to you that I take very seriously. It’s captured by a story Rabbi Arthur Waskow shared recently; a two line story by Franz Kafka that goes like this:  “One day a leopard came stalking into the synagogue, roaring and lashing its tail. Three weeks later, it had become part of the liturgy.”

Then Waskow commented: “Our task, in every generation, every year, is to let the leopard out of the cage of liturgy.” That’s what I want to do this morning; let the leopard out of the bag and shake you out of your comfort because I think we have a serious problem: There’s simply too much hatred in our world; and in the hearts of every one of us. Attention must be paid; time to let the leopard loose so our liturgy, the wisdom of our sages and ages, can roar its message of love to us.

Look what’s going on. A narrow vision has taken hold across the globe as we retreat back into tribes and old chauvinistic loyalties. The Middle East is in chaos; Russian leaders long for the good old days of the Soviet Union; the European Union may be falling apart. Refugees are wandering the globe looking for safety. Terrorism in increasing and spreading. Racism is on the rise, anti-Semitism is on the rise – there’s a world-wide outbreak of xenophobia

Here at home, we are in the midst of a presidential election the likes of which none of us can remember. The primary season and the campaign have been truly ugly; everyone predicted it would be the dirtiest ever and it’s heading that way. There is so much passion in the campaign that there’s very little compassion; people can hardly talk to each other civilly. Racism, misogyny, harsh, mean language, fat-shaming — these are in the news daily more than serious discussions of the serious problems we face.  What concerns me at this moment, this moment of holiness in the Jewish year, when it’s our duty to be honest and inward looking, is not just the ugliness of the presidential campaign, and not just how this campaign reflects an ugliness in America and the rest of the world; but how it is revealing an ugliness in our own hearts.

I doubt there’s one person in this room truly without prejudice of any kind. Racism and disrespect for others is in the air; and is expressed in lots of ways, some blatant, some subtle. Jokes, insults, put downs — about African Americans; about Mexicans; about the disabled; about the over-weight, about women, members of just about any religion, especially Jews and Muslims, LGBTQ, those who criticize Israel; those who don’t; those who could possibly vote for Trump; those who could possibly vote for Hillary. Is there anyone here who has never said an unkind word or a joke that falls under the category of lashon ha-ra; unethical speech; cruel, mean-spirited, bigoted speech?

The period we are in is a racially charged time the likes of which we haven’t experienced since Rodney King and OJ Simpson. For decades we forgot about racism. We’ve been pretty much humming along as though the racial issues that once tore at this nation had healed.

Guess what: they didn’t. Riots, demonstrations and shootings; repealing civil rights legislation; a climate of hatred that permeates all immigration, all this has exposed that we still have a very serious problem. Hatred, intolerance and prejudice are very much alive. Not just here. All over the globe. And in our hearts.

There’s only one way I know to be a Jew that almost everyone agrees on: you cannot ignore the most repeated commandment in the Torah: to hear the voice of the vulnerable, the underdog, the one who simply feels he or she cannot get a fair shake. You don’t have to accept the validity of their plea; but you cannot just ignore or dismiss their voice. You cannot hate them. The entire idea of the story of the Jewish people is to make the point that God hears the voice of the hated. Pharaoh is the example of one whose hatred is so strong that he does not hear the cry coming up from the land. You know what happened to him. And to another in our bible so filled with hatred: Haman.

Today is Rosh Hashanah, the day we celebrate the creation and majesty of the world and the creation of humanity. That’s how our calendar begins. The Christian calendar and the Muslim calendars both begin to count the years with events related to their faiths. Our calendar is different. We begin to count the years from the birth of everything and everyone. And we Jews gave the world the first and best tool to end hatred — the belief in the sanctity and dignity of every human being, utterly eliminating hatred as an option. By creating us in God’s own imagine the divinity of every living is established. We Jews must be the teachers of this truth. There are people who say that there is only one generation of Jews left in Europe. Imagine that. Even after all this time since the ovens of the holocaust were turned off, there is so much hatred Europe cannot seem to stand having the few Jews that remain. The Arab world cannot accept one tiny country as a Jewish state because of hatred. At home, look at the security we need when Jews get together. I went to the men’s event a few days ago and the security was expected but unbelievable.  The Beth Israel security committee is trying to decide if the extensive security we currently have will be sufficient in the future. Jews are afraid to speak of their support for Israel at high schools and in universities, which are supposed to be devoted to open, unfettered discussion. I read about one campus that outlawed serving hummus because it came from an Israeli company and is seen as a co-opting of an Arab food even if Jews in Arab lands have been eating it for generations.

It’s easy for you to hear me mention these examples of how we Jews are aware of the increase hatred around us. Is it hard for you to imagine a minister in a black church speaking about the fears of his members? Can you on this holy day find that soft part in your heart that can hear an imam speaking to his members who also are afraid when they travel or even walk the streets right here in San Diego? Friends: we are not the only ones who feel the heat of hate rising, and as Jews it’s in our interest to help resolve this festering sore all around us.

But how? Let’s start with ourselves. I’d like to offers a few principals that can be part of our program to overcome bias and prejudice. They are deeply rooted in the Jewish tradition. If we can succeed with ourselves, maybe we can influence those around us so we can help create a community in which hate, taunts and prejudice are simply not tolerated.

First, let us all live by the principal which recognizes that every single human being was created b’tzelem, in the image of God. This is serious. This declaration affirms the inalienable dignity, equality and uniqueness of each person, regardless of race, religion, or color. That’s why in the 10 Commandments as given in Deuteronomy, the Sabbath rest is extended to those who work for you, your servants and even your animals. In Jewish tradition, the non-Jew reflects as much of the image of God as you do.

Second: We are all in this together. There is a Brit, a covenant, an understanding which is the foundation of our community, uniting us, enabling us to live together in peace. Social scientists call it the social contract. Here, today, I’m calling this Brit “Tikkun ha-sh’chunah — healing our neighborhood. And our Brit Tikkun sh’chunah begins with unconditional acceptance of anyone who wishes to live here, work here, play by the rules, raise their children, and pursue their version of the good life. Tikkun ha’shchunah means not to walk out on anyone; not to reject anyone. For America to succeed, for us to succeed right here in our neighborhoods, we have to think of those who live around us as our partners in a sacred covenant. The teacher of our children, the cleaner of our homes, the doctor, the lawyer, the business woman, the student, the engineer, the scientist, clerk, the waiter; the custodian; everyone is your partner with many of the same goals and yearnings you have for your life. You are no better than they are.

Third on my contract with our community is an idealization of the pluralism which enriches all our lives. I’ll call this eilu ve-eilu, an acknowledgement that since we are all individuals, there are many ideas, views, and ways of life in our community. Pluralism, which implies an appreciation of diversity, only makes sense. Today’s hatred is increasingly based on the fear that others are taking away from what we hold dear; threatening our culture; our ways. This is especially true in Europe. America has always been enriched by the more influences that find their way onto our streets and in our fashions and entertainment and foods and music and art. Though someone may dress differently, love differently, pray differently, most of your partners around you are doing their best to be their best. Eilu ve-eilu, these and these strive for the good life and deserve every opportunity for fulfillment that you would wish for you and those you love.

Fourth is the great Talmudic principle mipnei darkei shalom — for the sake of peace. There are some things that we are to do simply to maintain or create peace. The greatness of peace is obvious, and we are to be courageous and relentless in its pursuit, even if it has alluded us so far in history. But at least right here; right now, in this sanctuary, we can say that mipnei darkei shalom, for the sake of peace, for harmony and safety, so that an African-American child can grow up here and never here the “n” – word from any white mouth; so that a Jewish student will never be scared to wear a Jewish star at school; so that a Hispanic child will never be laughed at for speaking Spanish; so a gay kid can walk down a corridor and not be hit over the head; so a Muslim mother can go to the grocery store and not be taunted, we are going to get along with each other. No more prejudice. No more hatred.

On this morning which is the first of our new year, I ask you, members of the Jewish community of San Diego, to be a light unto the nation’s; to root out the hatred in your heart. Look deeply inside yourself and be rid of the animosity you feel towards those who are different or with whom you disagree or are afraid. Being Jewish, we know what it’s like to be hated, and we’re commanded not to hate. And remember this: The poet of the Book of Proverbs wrote: what is in your heart about others is likely to be in their hearts about you.

A Midrash quotes the Torah of Leviticus 19, “You shall not hate your brother in your heart.” Why does the verse say, “in your heart?” Our rabbis say: “to teach us that the Torah forbids not just hateful behavior, but also hateful feelings.” (Arak. 16b)

The Talmud teaches us that the first Temple was destroyed because of our sins of idolatry, harlotry and murder. The second Temple was destroyed because of hatred. Hatred is the moral equivalent of worshipping idols because it elevates one person over another. It is like adultery because hatred undermines the trust necessary for people to get along in relationships. And it is like murder because all too often it leads to violence and bloodshed. I don’t need to elaborate.

My friends, the truth of this sermon is that it’s message has been taught by every preacher who ever stood before a congregation. But we have failed miserably. The message is so simple. God has really only one request of you. We Jews have learned it this way: “This is what the Holy One said to Israel: My children, what do I want from you? I want no more than that you love one another and honor one another.

Love and honor. That’s what we owe everyone. That’s the only way I know to arrest the atmosphere of hate and to put an end to its dreadful consequences. It is time for decency to speak out loud and clear; for intolerance and narrowness of vision to be challenged. It is time for an out-pouring of conscience from all of us to condemn hatred and call us back to our better selves. It’s time to repent for our sins of hatred, xenophobia, prejudice, intolerance. And for the terrible sin of influencing children with our biases.

You probably saw the haunting photo of the little Syrian boy rescued from his bombed out home. He sat sitting in an ambulance dazed, covered in the dust of his pulverized home, staring right into the lens of the camera. The picture appeared on screens all over the world and his eyes looked right into our souls. When it came on the television in my home, it was precisely the moment the signal was interrupted with that screeching noise of the frequency being seized to practice communicating in case of civil emergencies. So the picture of that little boy string out at me was frozen on my TV, and above it the words, all cap, in bold: THIS IS A TEST.

Donniel Hartman said the forty three thousand African refugees on the border of Israel were a blessing not a problem.

Va ye hi achar ha d’varim ha-eleh — and it happened after these things that God tested Abraham. My friends, today, with hatred swirling all around us, I say to you: this is a test. Or a blessing. Either way, the tiger is loose.

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