This morning, I would like to begin my sermon with one of my favorite jokes. It is an old one, and many of you may know it. So I have a special request….. please laugh!
Ruben approached the Rabbi of his Synagogue and said “Rabbi, please make me a Kohen.”
The Rabbi, taken aback, tells Ruben that it is impossible. Ruben offers the Synagogue $10,000, but the Rabbi won’t budge. He offers 50,000…then 75,000. Finally, the Rabbi, reluctantly, gives in. He teaches Ruben Torah. He teaches him Talmud. After 6 months of classes, the Rabbi tells Ruben, “OK, now you can be a Kohen.” The next Shabbat, Ruben is called up for the first aliyah.
He goes up, with a big smile on his face, says the blessings and afterwards returns to his seat.
But the Rabbi is still troubled and a little curious. He approaches Ruben the next day and asks him: Ruben, please tell me, why was it so important to you to be a Kohen?
Ruben answers, “Rabbi, very simple, my grandfather was a Kohen; my father was a Kohen. I wanted to be a Kohen too!”
To this day, in traditional synagogues, Kohanim or the daughters of Kohanim have several privileges. They are called for the first Aliyah to the Torah and on certain holidays, they go up to the Bimah to bless the congregation during Birkat Kohanim, the priestly blessing.
But at the same time, Kohanim have several restrictions. In traditional circles, for example, they cannot come in contact with a dead body or they can’t marry a divorcee.
Because of their status, we are instructed to give Kohanim or Bnot Kohen, daughters of a Kohen, special honor, as befitting the servants of God. Kohanim themselves must guard their sanctity by refraining from a number of activities that are considered inappropriate for someone of their elevated spiritual level.
But priests were not always alone in their religious leadership.
From time to time a prophet would arise, and he or she would tell people what they were doing wrong. Corrupt priests, kings and leaders were the main target of their exhortations.
This first morning of Rosh Hashanah, I would like to talk to you about these two biblical figures: the priest (the Kohen) and the prophet (the Navi). These two figures have captivated the imagination of religious people, generation after generation. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, one of the leading voices in the Jewish world today, considered some primary differences between a Priest and a Prophet.
Priests were for the most part quieter figures, a-political, who served in the sanctuary rather than in the spotlight of political debate.
By contrast, prophets were often unpopular. They spoke the truth, unafraid to challenge kings, courts and their society in the name of God.
The Priests were removed from the people, they served in the Temple, they were not allowed to become defiled. The Prophet, by contrast, was usually part of the people.
Priests worshiped God in silence, they offered their sacrifices in silence. The prophets served God through word. The service of the Priest never changed, that of the prophet was constantly evolving based on the needs of the time.
The key words in the vocabulary of the Kohen were kodesh and chol (sacred and secular), tahor and tamei (pure and impure). The key words in the vocabulary of the prophets were tzedek and mishpat, chesed and rachamim, righteousness and justice, kindness and compassion.
I believe that no other type of religious personality had the impact and the influence as the prophets of Israel. The prophet is unique to Judaism. The prophet deliberately stands on the outside, speaking the truth and challenging the power structure; the prophet avoids institutions and formal appointment so that he or she can speak without compromise or fear. Giving voice to the Divine call for righteousness, the Navi openly challenges and undermines the authority of his time. The prophet Nathan calls King David to task for his infidelities and abuse of power; later, Isaiah and Malachi each rebukes the priests of his day for corruption in office.
The task of the prophet, we teach, is “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
Today I want to talk to you about these two biblical figures because this holy day of Rosh Hashanah I want to ask you: what figure are you embodying in our society today? Are you a modern priest or are you a modern prophet? In a deeply fractured and divided society.
With the deportation of immigrants, with horrible episodes of violence against minorities in our country. With mass shootings that are killing our children, brothers and sisters.
With the ban of transgender individuals from serving in the military. With people being discriminated because of their race, the color of their skin and their beliefs, our society is becoming less tolerant, less inclusive, more polarized and more extremist. This is not a time to remain silent, confined in the four walls of the synagogue like the ancient priests. We can’t serve God in silence when we know how people are suffering and struggling in our society.
This is not a time to remain silent.
This is a time to speak up and take action.
This is a time to become a modern prophet.
Ellie Wiesel, who survived the horrors of the Shoah during World War II, taught us that:
“The opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference. The opposite of beauty is not ugliness, it is indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it is indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it is indifference between life and death.”
Today we cannot remain neutral.
Today we cannot remain silent.
The future of this country is in our hands.
The moral nature of the society that we will be passing on to our children and grandchildren is at stake and we have the moral responsibility to act and speak up.
This first day of the year, I would like to discuss with you 3 topics that I believe are crucial for the future of our country and the Jewish people. These 3 topics require us to respond decisively, with concrete actions. They require us to become modern Prophets, fighting injustice, prejudice and hatred. The first topic is immigration, the second one is gun violence and the third one is antisemitism.
The plight of immigrants is very close to my heart. I am the grandson of immigrants.
Firsthand I heard their painful and heart wrenching stories about escaping from the Nazi regime in Germany to save their lives and the lives of those who they loved so dearly.
I am also an immigrant to this great country. I empathize with the suffering, the pain and the anguish of leaving everything behind, to seek a better future for you and your family.
I empathize with the immigrants who don’t know if they are going to see their aging parents again, who are missing the birth of a new baby in their families. With immigrants who can’t hug their siblings, their friends and their loved ones because now they live thousands of miles away.
I am the parent of four beautiful children and it breaks my heart to see children, many of them the same age as my kids, being separated from their parents. I see the fear, the tears, the anguish of parents and children when they are separated, not knowing if they are going to see each other again. 416 immigrant children are still separated from their parents.
I can see the suffering of other people coming from other Latin American countries too.
I know what gang- violence is, I know how scary it is when you have to pay a war-tax and if you don’t do it, you and your family will be killed. I know what it takes for a family to live on less than $2,000 a year, and when 60% of the population in your country lives in poverty. In many Latin American countries there are no jobs, no justice and no laws. In some of the countries where immigrants are coming from, half of the children under the age of 5 are chronically malnourished and 1 out of 4 people live in extreme poverty on less than $2 dollars a day.
You can be a modern Kohen and stay in the comfort zone of your couch watching the news and feeling sorry for what immigrants have to endure. Or you could become a modern Prophet, speaking up and stepping up for the immigrants who are suffering in our country and in our State of Connecticut. Our people, the Jewish people, have been immigrants since their conception. Abraham emigrated from Ur to the land of Israel, the Jewish people went from Egypt to the Holy Land. In modern times, before the creation of the State of Israel, we were constantly moving from one country to another. As Jews, we know very well what it means when the doors of immigration are closed and locked. How different the story of my family, of your family would have been if countries would have accepted them when they were escaping from Hitler and the Nazis. I came to this country 6 years ago, and I love this great nation.
A nation that was founded on the eternal values of liberty and justice for all.
The land of the free and the home of the brave. But with the recent zero- tolerance immigration policy, our beloved country went to a state of moral emergency and it is the responsibility of good men and women to stand up, speak up and not remain silent.
As modern prophets, we should strongly urge our representatives and leaders to reach an agreement and create legislation that would put an end to this horrible immigration crisis.
We need just and humane immigration reform that will create a path to citizenship for the illegal immigrants who are already living here, legislation that will help and assist those who are escaping from miserable conditions while punishing those who just want to take advantage of the system. As modern prophets we should also support organizations like HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aide Society), an organization that advances Jewish values by assisting asylum seekers all over the world. The Torah teaches that we should love the strangers, because we were strangers in a foreign land. That we shall not oppress the stranger, because we know how hard it is to be a foreigner in a foreign land. For me, this is not only a political crisis, for me this is also a moral crisis. Unfortunately, politics have hardened our hearts. Politics have undermined our feelings and our sensitivities. We are so divided. We are so upset with each other that we disregard the suffering, the misery and the agony of the immigrants around us.
This first day of the year, I want to ask you:
How are we going to tear down walls and start building bridges of love, compassion and understanding? Regardless of where you stand politically, whether you are on the left or you are on the right, whether you are a Democrat or a Republican, whether you support the president or not, liberal or conservative…. I ask you to open your eyes wide, and truly appreciate the suffering of those who are desperate to come to this country. As modern prophets, let’s focus and build bridges around the eternal values that have guided our country, the values of liberty, freedom and justice for all.
As Ellie Wiesel taught us: “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented”. “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest”.
Supporting immigrants is not the only area where modern prophets are needed.
Pay attention to some of these statistics:
So far this year there have been 235 mass shootings in the United States, almost the same numbers of days in the 2018 calendar. 447 children between the ages 1-11 have been killed or injured due to a gun violence incident. 1,889 teenagers, between ages 12- 17, have been killed or injured and over 9,500 adults have been killed because of a gun violence incident this year.
7 months ago, on February 14, nineteen-year-old Nikolas Cruz was dropped off by an Uber driver at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. A few minutes before dismissal time, Cruz entered Building 12, a three-story structure containing 30 classrooms occupied by about 900 students and 30 teachers. Armed with an AR-15 style semi-automatic rifle, he activated the fire alarm and began firing indiscriminately at students and teachers.
The shooting lasted for six minutes, seventeen people were killed, and seventeen people were wounded but survived their gunshot wounds. The Thursday after this horrible massacre, we gathered at Greenfield Hill Church to pray for the victims and the families of the Parkland shooting. It was a rainy and somber evening, the same feeling many of us had in our hearts. Politicians, Town leaders, religious leaders and Town officials showed up. The speakers expressed their pain, their anger and their frustration after this massive shooting that killed 14 students, among them, 2 relatives of two families from our own synagogue. Since then, I have been asking myself, how is this issue of gun violence going to be resolved? How can we change the current situation? Unfortunately, there are a number of factors that are involved in it.
Gun violence has become a political and financial issue, with Democrats and Republicans deeply divided on how to legislate on this topic.
Just to give you an idea:
The NRA (National Riffle Association) is one of the three most influential lobbying organizations in Washington. They got over 30 million dollars in donations from the firearm industry (Beretta, Smith and Wesson, and others). A senator from North Carolina got 7 million dollars in donations from the NRA and another senator from Montana got 4,5 million dollars.
These are direct campaign contributions that were made to them but there is certainly outside money that was spent on behalf of candidates from the NRA political action committee and its social welfare arm, which is a 501 (c)(4) and doesn’t have to disclose its donors to the public.
After this horrible mass shooting, we all understood that thoughts and prayers for the victims are not enough. We all understood that we need to act. That we need to become modern prophets, leave the comfort of our homes, synagogues, mosques and churches to speak up, to act and to bring a change to our society. We all remember students marching, walking out from their classrooms and protesting against gun violence. They are showing us the way, they are the example of how a modern Prophet should act. Some of us have been working with civil organizations such as Connecticut Against Gun Violence, Conect and other organizations, bringing a slow but steady change to some of the policies in our State. On May 1, the CT House of Representatives passed a bill to ban bump stocks in our state. This is a big step forward for gun control, but this is only the beginning. The next step will be to pass a bill to ban ghost guns.
Ghost guns are do it yourself kits, available online, to make guns at home. They are a threat to public safety because they come without serial numbers, are untraceable and require no background check to purchase. Homemade assault weapons have been used in mass shootings by individuals prohibited from possessing firearms and are turning up in crime scenes also.
My friends, this first day of the year, I want to remind you that thoughts and prayers are not enough. That we have to become modern Prophets to make sure that our children, teenagers and relatives are not murdered in episodes of gun violence. One of the signs that I remember from the gathering was one that read: “be the change you want to see in the world”.
And that is my call for you this morning: “be the change you want to see in the world”.
A third topic that I would like us to discuss this morning is the rise of anti-Semitism, not only in our local community but also around the country.
On May 30th of this year, the Fairfield Prep boy’s lacrosse team defeated Staples in overtime.
It was a magnificent win for the Fairfield team, but a horrible loss for our community.
As reported by people who attended this match, a group of fans from the Fairfield Prep team, known as the Bomb Squad, yelled anti-Semitic chants and slurs when Jewish players from Staples had the ball or scored a goal. For some people this might be considered an isolated event but, unfortunately, they are wrong. This horrible Lacrosse episode is part of a trend that is surging in our society and in our country. Last year, the Anti-Defamation League reported that anti-Semitic incidents increased a dramatic 57% across the country. 49 of these episodes occurred in the State of Connecticut, including acts of vandalism and harassment.
A recent study released this past April, showed that nearly two thirds of American Millennials don’t know what Auschwitz is and 22% of American Millennials said they haven’t heard of the Holocaust. After this awful Anti-Semitic episode involving Fairfield Prep students, I wrote a letter to one of the local newspapers condemning this horrible event. The letter got a lot of attention in the media. I am not going to talk about its content. After the holiday is over, you can google it and read it yourself. But I do want to talk about an interview that I gave for channel 8. At one point the reporter asked me the following question: Rabbi, what do you think are the sources of this anti-Semitic episode? To be honest with you, at that moment she caught me off guard. So I gave her a very general answer: lack of education, undercurrent in our society, lack of supervision from parents and teachers. After this interview, I have been thinking about this question: what are the causes of this horrible antisemitic episode that happened right here in our backyard? And since today is Rosh Hashanah, a day of introspection and self-reflection, I would like to share some of these ideas with you.
Causes of anti-Semitism:
(1) invention of conscience (George Steiner) – one of the greatest French – born American literary critic and educator.
a) Moses’ demand for obedience to law
b) Jesus’ demand for love and sacrifice
c) Marx’s demand for perfect justice
d) Freud’s demand for honest self- knowledge.
Steiner says that these are high standards of perfection and most likely unachievable.
This has been a source of bitter and deep resentment against the Jewish people.
(2) The chosen people / people who dwell apart
Story of Bilam in the Torah.
“am levadad ishkon” – A people who dwell apart from the rest of the nations.
We eat/pray/rest and love differently.
(3) Myths that have demonized and dehumanized the Jews
– Jews as deicides
– ritual murderers
– agents of the devil
– international conspirators
– unscrupulous merchants like Sheylock.
(4) Our polarized and fragmented world
We don’t tolerate (and even hate!) people who think differently, who look differently and who have different opinions.
In our modern society, differences are not a source of richness but a source of conflict..
We resist the other, we hate the other and we attack the other.
No dialogue anymore.
The otherness of the Jews has been one of the main sources of anti-Semitism in our fragmented and polarized world.
(5) Palestinian – Israeli conflict
Another source of anti-Semitism is the Palestinian – Israeli conflict.
You can support or condemn the activities of the State of Israel but it is clear to me that this conflict has brought a new face to modern anti-Semitism.
* Jews have been depicted as Nazis
* Jews have been accused of being racists
* Imprisoning men, women, children and civilians in Gaza, as Jews were imprisoned in concentration camps.
(6) Other causes:
* Replacement theology : the idea that the church has replaced Israel in God’s plan. Adherents of replacement theology believe the Jews are no longer God’s chosen people, and God does not have specific future plans for the nation of Israel.
* Growth and immigration of Muslim population to Europe and other places around the world.
* Social and economic challenges created by globalization
* Insecurities of a post cold-war international era.
* Rise of radical Islam that has defined its principal enemy to be the satanic United States and its little satanic partner the State of Israel.
It is clear to me that anti-Semitism has been the most enduring hatred in our western society.
There is a ready market for it, and it has been like that for the ancient, medieval, modern and post-modern Jew.
There is no way around it.
So, now what?
What are we to do as we begin a New Year in our lives?
My answer to you this morning is: Become a modern prophet!!
Some people in this room worked very hard to pass Bill 452 in the State of CT. This bill, that was adopted last May, requires local and regional school boards to include Holocaust and other genocide studies in their curriculum. This is a great step forward, but this past Lacrosse episode proved to us that legislation is not enough. We need to work holistically. We need to educate parents, teachers and community leaders to serve as role models to our children. Anti-Semitism is not only a Jewish problem, it is a problem that affects us all. I believe that in order to become a modern Prophet we must fight anti-Semitism, racism and discrimination in every possible way. A modern Prophet has to be ready to let people know that the modern face of anti-Semitism is anti-Zionism, deliberately attacking the State of Israel and Israelis. Today’s anti-Semitism is disguised in the form of anti-Zionism with people saying that Israel is a Nazi state and that Zionism equals Racism. We can’t tolerate that. We have to unmask those who attack our homeland with the only objective of delegitimizing the only State that we the Jewish people have in the world- the modern State of Israel. This morning I encourage you to become a modern Prophet in the fight against anti-Semitism. To stand and defend the Jewish people and the State of Israel in every possible way. Speak up in the face of hatred, bigotry, racism and anti-Semitism.
Become active in your community.
Post on social media.
Talk to your family and to your Jewish and non Jewish friends.
Explain to them why anti-Semitism is unacceptable and why we have to fight it with all our might and strength.
In a society that is a ready market for anti-Semitism, we have to step up, speak up and act decisively to let people know that events like the Lacrosse game don’t have a place in our society.
Let’s be proud representatives of our Jewish tradition and values.
Don’t be afraid, don’t be scared, be proud of your Judaism and be proud of Israel.
You don’t have to support everything the government stands for, but you can spread the word that Israel is a beautiful, diverse country, and that Israelis have contributed so much to the world in areas such as medical research and cyber security, while constantly defending themselves against hostile neighbors.
I would like to close my sermon with one of my favorite passages in the Talmud, a Mishnah from Masechet Sanhedrin (San. 4:5).
There, our sages ask: why did God create only one person at the beginning of creation (Adam) and not all the inhabitants of the world at the same time?
And there are two fantastic answers to this question.
The first one is that God created a single person to teach us that we all descend from the same ancestor and if you kill one person it is like destroying a whole world. The second answer is even more inspiring. Humans were created singly, says the Mishnah, “to proclaim the glory of the Holy One, blessed be He. For a human being stamps many coins with one stamp, and all of them are alike; but the King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, has stamped every man with the stamp of Adam the First, and nevertheless not one of them is like the other. Therefore, every person should say: For my sake, the world was created”.
Our tradition understands that there are not two human beings exactly alike, we think differently, we look differently, we act differently and we feel differently and that is the blessing of being human.
My friends, today I urge you to become a modern prophet.
Today I urge you to fight injustice, to fight discrimination, to fight violence and to fight hatred.
* Become a modern prophet.
Call, e-mail and text your representatives and tell them how concerned you are about immigration, gun violence and discrimination based on race, gender, sexual orientation and religion.
* Become a modern prophet.
Post on social media and educate your friends and family about what is happening in our society.
Strengthen your commitment to your religious values.
Be active in your community, in your synagogue, in organizations like Federation, HIAS and ADL. Donate your time and your money.
This is not a time to remain silent. This is a time to speak up and take action.
Each one of us is different and special. Each one of us was created in the image and likeness of God. You are wrong if you think you have nothing to contribute to a better society. Each one of us is here for a reason. Each one of us is here to fulfil a mission. Each one of us, with our own personality, can bring change to the world.
As Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, used to pray:
May I become at all times, both now and forever
A protector for those without protection
A guide for those who have lost their way
A ship for those with oceans to cross
A bridge for those with rivers to cross
A sanctuary for those in danger
A lamp for those without light
A place of refuge for those who lack shelter
And a servant to all in need.
As we welcome a New Year in our lives, I pray to God that this may be the year in which we banish indifference from our lives.
I pray that this may be the time when we continue working for a better society based on the principles and values that have guided our country since its foundation: liberty, justice and tolerance.
And as we gather to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, it is my hope that love, peace and understanding will defeat hatred, violence and bigotry in our society and around the world.
L’shanah Tovah Tikatevu, May God inscribe us and our families for a year of love, health, joy, sustenance, happiness and prosperity.