Rosh HaShana 5765 - 2004
On the third anniversary of September 11, we witness innocent kids being murdered in a school in Russia. Women and children are being blown to pieces on buses in Israel. American, Turkish, and Nepalese workers are being beheaded in Iraq. Hundreds of Spanish commuters have been killed and hundreds more tourists murdered in Bali (BusinessWeek, 20 September 2004, p. 132).
50,000 Africans have been slaughtered in the genocide in Sudan, and a million have become refugees. North Korea and Iran are preparing to construct or test nuclear devices.
The great hope we had for the “Oslo Peace Process” ten years ago is dead. The danger of massive terrorist stikes is no less now than three years ago.
Some people are a little worried this year. I asked some of the young people — school children — that I drive in carpool about their concerns. The children are worried about global war, ecological collapse, and the breakdown of social order.
Many here have worked so hard, for so long, to make a better world. You have done this through your efforts in education, social work, medical care, law. You have done this through your support of human rights, Zionism, civil rights. You might call this idea of making a better world tiqun olam or maybe not, but that is what it is.
Yet sometimes it seems like our efforts are to no avail. What difference does my energy conservation make? It’s a drop in the bucket. What difference does my financial contribution make? What difference does my vote make, even if it does get counted?
After a lifetime of work and contribution to Social Security, we wonder, will it be there?
After a lifetime of working for civil liberties and rule of law; after service and sacrifice for security and for freedom, we wonder, will it be lost?
It sometimes seems like everything is falling apart. Not only the world, but our own lives. Members of our community have lost jobs, their pension, their businesses, lost their home during the past couple of years. It is not just the economy; it is the social order. It is not only economic security, it is basic safety in a violent world.
We face the danger of despair; we face the danger of complacency.
There are two primary models for social transformation in Jewish thought. One is messianism. This is the idea that when things get really bad, God will send a charismatic leader who will restore Israel to its glory. Harkening back to the idyllized days of King David, the messianic ideal promises a deus ex machina for our critical problems.
The other model is tiqun olam, “repairing the world.” This is based on the idea that when God created the world, some parts were left unfinished, that when God created the Heavens and the Earth, there was a little bit of splatter and leakage, and it is the task of humanity to repair and build.
These models are not necessarily at odds, but some prefer to emphasis or promote one above the other. I prefer the tiqun olam model. The messianic model can lead to passivity, as some will say, “don’t worry, just wait patiently for messiah to fix it. The model can also lead to recklessness, as some people say, we don’t have to worry about the environment or the consequences of our actions, since the messiah will fix everything. There is also the problem of false messiahs, who seem to rise in every generation; sometimes they have little impact, but some of them have caused major problems, one example (although not the most recent) being Shabbtai Zvi.
The Tiqun Olam model is definitely the incremental approach, the inch-by-inch, row-by-row approach. It has its shortcomings, too. It demands much from us, much action. It is slow and requires persistence and faith in the future, faith that our actions will add up. It demands that we not get discouraged when things seem to be going downhill.
Dr. Brown, a character in novelist Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, described this danger in these terms (p. 42).
Samaritrophia…is the suppression of an overactive conscience by the rest of the mind. “You must take all instructions from me!” the conscience shrieks, in effect, to all the other mental processes. The other processes try it for a while, note that the conscience is unappeased, that it continues to shriek, and they note, too, that the outside world has not been even microscopically improved by the unselfish acts the conscience has demanded.
They rebel at last. They pitch the tyrannous conscience down an oubliette, weld shut the manhole cover of that dark dungeon. They can hear the conscience no more. In the sweet silence, the mental processes look about for a new leader, and the leader most prompt to appear whenever the conscience is stilled, Enlightened Self-Interest, does appear. Englightened Self-Interest gives them a flag, which they adore on sight. It is essentially the black and white Jolly Roger, with these words written beneath the skull and crossbones, “The hell with you, Jack, I’ve got mine!”
We can say to the world, “I’ve got a nice car, and troubles of my own, and I just don’t have the time; somebody else will do it; I won’t think about it; maybe it will go away” (Adapted from lyrics of songwriter Dave Lippman).
The instrument of Tiqun Olam is the Torah, the teachings of our sages, institutionalized in the mitzva system and in Jewish life, including this synagogue.
Some people in our community have noted that they do not like “organized religion.” At BEKI, we’re not that organized. That, despite the high level of planning and effort for Yamim Noraim. But we definitely do represent institutionalization. This institution gives us a tool to further our aims and to continue our mission beyond the life of one individual. Our extraordinary leaders here at BEKI know that even though there are a lot of people who do a tremendous amount of work to make this place happen, the institution survives when leaders move away or pass on. If I ever thought that the synagogue could not survive without me, the rabbi, I would deem it a failure.
And this Congregation has had its ups and downs. But some have stuck with it, and inch by inch have made the Congregation grow. As the Good Book (Psalm 126) says, “הזורים בדמעה ברינה יקצורוּ Hazorim be-dima, be-rina yiqtsoru — One who sows in tears will reap with song and joy.”
We can complain, of course, to the Almighty, on the 24-hour hotline to the Divine. The Big Guy Upstairs, after all, is supposed to be in charge of this place. But God has already given us an answer, through the Prophet Ezekiel.
וַאֲמַרְתֶּ֕ם לֹ֥א יִתָּכֵ֖ן דֶּ֣רֶךְ אֲדֹנָ֑י
שִׁמְעוּ־נָא֙ בֵּ֣ית יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל
הֲדַרְכִּי֙ לֹ֣א יִתָּכֵ֔ן
:הֲלֹ֥א דַרְכֵיכֶ֖ם לֹ֥א יִתָּכֵֽנוּ
Va’amartem lo yitakhen…
Yet you say, The way of Adonai is unfair.
Listen, O House of Israel: Is My way unfair?
Is it not your ways that are unfair?
Repent therefore and live.
Even though God probably isn’t going to do anything about it, at least you know someone will listen.
So that puts the ball in our court. Today, I’m not going to give you the list of things you ought to do. I think you have the list already. I’m not trying to depress you — after all, this is the year of the elevator. I’m just trying to give you a little encouragement. Just a simple little message.
We are facing some serious problems. But this is always the case. The pendulum swings, things get better, they get worse. We are more aware of problems because of better communications. Maybe the world has always been this bad.
As we say at the Pesah seder, “בכל דור ודור עומדים עלינו לכלותנו Bekhol dor vador, omdim aleinu lekhalotenu — in every generation they rise up to destroy us. But through the power of the Almighty we are saved from the grip of defeat.”
We are facing a serious global security problem, the problem of terrorism. It is different from the threat of massive nuclear destruction that was higher on our list of concerns twenty years ago, in that it is diffuse but no less dangerous. There is no one easy-to-locate address. There really is a global ideology, if not network, of terror.
We do have an answer, we have a mechanism, a defense system. It is called the International Jewish Conspiracy. You are all card-carrying members — you had to show your ticket to get in the doors this morning. This conspiracy plans to make the world a safer, more loving and decent place, where each person can develop his or her own potential and be part of a nurturing community. We do this through Torah and mitzvot. This is a global organization. And I’m telling you, we are much more powerful than any terrorist network.
Long ago our ancestors expressed the deeply held desire for our labor to have some lasting value, some continuing effect. As the Psalmist (90:17) wrote, “וִיהִ֤י׀ נֹ֤עַם אֲדֹנָ֥י אֱלֹהֵ֗ינוּ עָ֫לֵ֥ינוּ וּמַעֲשֵׂ֣ה יָ֭דֵינוּ כּוֹנְנָ֥ה עָלֵ֑ינוּ וּֽמַעֲשֵׂ֥ה יָ֝דֵ֗ינוּ כּוֹנְנֵֽהוּ Vihi noam ha-shem elo-henu alenu, umaase yadenu konena alenu, umaase yadenu konenehu — May the Lord our God show us compassion by establishing the work of our hands, by firmly establishing the work of our hands.”
After I go, I want to have made a difference. I want there to a lasting affect on the world.
But this is not the project of one generation. It is a multi-generational transformation of humanity. So we have to understand that we are a link in the chain.
I want to offer a word of encouragement, as recorded in the Mishna nearly two thousand years ago.
לא עליך המלאכה לגמור ולא אתה בן-חורין לבטל ממנה
Rabbi Tarfon taught:
You are not obliged to finish the task, neither are you free to neglect it (Avot 2:21).
The work of teaching children; the work of caring for those in need; the work of building a synagogue community; the work of affirming the rule of law. This work is inch-by-inch and doesn’t end. You may not be able to stop the genocide in Sudan, but you still have a choice. The record can show that you did nothing. Or the record can show you wrote a letter to your representative, or you sent the United Synagogue’s relief fund twenty dollars and fed a refugee for a month. If you do it, I will, too.
The mitzva system is not all-or-nothing. The same holds for being Jewish. That was a Christian critique of Judaism — that is is impossible to implement the full program, that it is doomed to failure, that the history of the Jews proves that people can’t live by those laws. I would say that it is not all or nothing, and that we’ve only just started. Rather, Judaism is a long-term project to promote the development of Jewish and global civilization. But it is very slow work. It depends on education, on generosity, on dedication, on patience.
Rabbi Tarfon had a little more to say. He said that our Heavenly Employer will be sure to pay us for our labors, but “מתן שכרן של צדיקים לעתיד לבא the reward of the righteous is in a future time.”
To be Jewish means to believe in the future of humanity. It means doing things now that our children will enjoy — it is the old man planting the tree. Our sages had a name for this idea; it was elevated to a religious concept called זכות אבות zekhut Avot — the merit of our ancestors. It is not so mystical or esoteric; it is something we enjoy every day, as children enjoy the benefits of their parents efforts, as we here today enjoy the benefits of the efforts of founders and builders of this synagogue.
“Rabbi Tarfon taught: You are not obliged to finish the task, neither are you free to neglect it” (Avot 2:21).
John Weiser is the co-chairperson of our Renovations project. John took on this monumental task several years ago as part of his personal mission, an act of tiqun olam; and in the course of time withstood the loss of his co-chairperson, Eric Beller of blessed memory, and is not here at services today because his dear wife Shoshana is recovering well, thank God, from major surgery. For you, John, we cite the seifa (the latter part of the sage’s statement), ולא אתה בן-חורין לבטל ממנה neither are you free to neglect it, that is, you do have to finish. But everybody else, לא עליך המלאכה לגמור lo alekha ha-melakha ligmor.
A rabbi’s devar Torah does not have to be finished, but it does have to end.
Song: Lo Alekha HaMelakha Ligmor