Finding Our Voice - Erev Rosh Hashanah 5780 9/29/2019
Within me I hold a scream so strong and loud that I wish it could shake the very foundations of the universe. I scream this scream for all the wrongs done in this world in the name of God, in the name of power, for the sake of denying justice to the innocent. Each day, I scream silently in pain, in indignation, in frustration, in tragic awareness for how much is right in this world and for how much is wrong in this world.
In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve didn’t speak up for themselves. They didn’t raise their voices and question God. They didn’t ask why God put the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden if God didn’t want them to eat from it. If they were so perfect, created B’tzelem Elohim, in God’s own image, why did God feel the need to test them with the Tree? Was it really a test or was it God’s way of nudging the two of them out of the nest, towards self determination, towards growing up and fending for themselves? When God saw that living in the Garden of Eden, unaware of the rest of the world, wasn’t healthy for them, did God point them towards the tree of knowledge of good and evil?
Does God count then as the first neglectful parent to leave the kids in a hot garden filled with dangerous reptiles with no parental supervision?
As humans we can only appreciate the blessings in our lives when we realize their finite nature. Only once Adam and Eve understand their mortality do they understand the blessings that surrounded them. Only outside of the Garden of Eden could they understand what they had and what they lost.
We often feel this when we go on an incredible vacation and then must return home. Once home we both miss the Garden of Eden feel of the vacation while also feeling the comfort of returning to our personal Garden of Eden in our homes. Only once Adam and Eve understand hard work and the struggle of living, understand what it means to bring new life into this world, did they understand the value of partnership, family and the fragility of life. And yet we have silence from them after Cain rises up and kills his brother Abel. They are given no voice, no words to express their loss of both of their sons in a single instant and we have absolutely no words of comfort for them from God.
Noah didn’t raise his voice. Noah didn’t spare one word for all the people of the world. He didn’t question God. God said to Noah “The end of all flesh has come before me, for the earth is filled with violence through them. Behold, I will destroy them with the earth.” Noah’s silence speaks volumes. Noah didn’t even blink. He didn’t question God, he simply got to work. The rabbis teach us that Noah grew the very trees used to build the ark. Rabbi Yose teaches that when Noah was asked “Why these cedars?” he would reply “The Holy One is about to bring a flood upon the world, and God told me to make an ark, that I and my family might escape.” They [his neighbors] mocked and ridiculed him and yet in all those centuries Noah never spoke up once to ask God what he could do to mend the world, teach the people, fix what was wrong to make it right. Noah took their ridicule as the trees grew, took their ridicule as he built the ark, and in the end took his family and the animals into the ark to save them from the coming flood. Centuries in silence waiting for the world to end without a voice or words to change the coming flood.
What makes our time any different from Noah’s time on earth when our great forests burn, when storms rage, when rivers flood, when humans run from their homes, their lands filled with violence and turmoil, just to be placed in cages and torn from their children? Many have raised their voices, yet we cage the innocent while cruel and vindictive leaders still control these countries everyone is fleeing from. If we don’t care enough to raise our voices loudly and as one, why do we think the raging winds or our leaders will care when the winds destroy our homes and our cities? Some raise their voices while many stand in silence.
A recent article by Rick Shenkman in Politico Magazine analyzes a paper by Shawn Rosenberg, a professor at UC Irvine. Rosenberg theorizes that in the rage and silence coursing through our country it would seem that Democracy is devouring itself and it won’t last. Rosenberg notes that, “by some metrics, the right wing populist share of the popular vote in Europe overall has more than tripled from 4% in 1998 to approximately 13% in 2018.” In Germany, the right-wing populist vote increased even after the end of the Great Recession and after an influx of immigrants entering the country subsided.
Rosenberg argues that “Democracy is hard work and requires a lot from those who participate in it. It requires people to respect those with different views from theirs and people who don’t look like them. It asks citizens to be able to sift through large amounts of information and process the good from the bad, the true from the false. It requires thoughtfulness, discipline and logic.”
Shenkman writes that:
"The elites, as Rosenberg defines them, are the people holding power at the top of the economic, political and intellectual pyramid who have “the motivation to support democratic culture and institutions and the power to do so effectively.” In their roles as senators, journalists, professors, judges and government administrators, to name a few, the elites have traditionally held sway over public discourse and U.S. institutions—and have in that role helped the populace understand the importance of democratic values. But today that is changing. Thanks to social media and new technologies, anyone with access to the Internet can publish a blog and garner attention for their cause—even if it’s rooted in conspiracy and is based on a false claim, like the lie that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring from the basement of a Washington D.C. pizza parlor, which ended in a shooting.”
I had dinner at that Pizza parlor with my entire family only two weeks prior to the shooting. No voice of reason convinced the shooter that his fears were fueled by lies. What rosenberg describes in his paper rings of the past in the Torah when the generation of Noah didn’t heed any warnings of the flood to come.
Faced with similar issues, Abraham raised his voice for those he didn’t know. He argues with God for the chance to find just ten righteous people in Sodom and Gomorrah in an attempt to save both cities where he only knew his nephew, Lot, and Lot’s family. Abraham raised his voice to God. Abraham questions God, bargains with God, to save the cities. He bargains from the possibility of there being 50 righteous souls in the city down to even if there were only 10 righteous souls in the city that God should spare them. In that moment Abraham was willing to question God, raise his voice for complete strangers for a chance to change the fate of those two cities.
And yet as we read on Rosh Hashanah, Abraham didn’t even blink when a few chapters later, God asks him to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac, up on some mountain three days walk away. Abraham doesn’t even discuss this matter with his loving wife, Sarah, after years of struggling with infertility. He doesn’t even pause to explain the situation and go over his plan and convictions of why he didn’t raise his voice to argue with God in this matter. Abraham simply keeps his own council, packs up the necessary supplies, tells Isaac a small piece of the plan and heads in the direction God tells him to go.
We know the outcome of the story after reading it for thousands of years, but we don’t know what happened to Abraham’s voice of righteousness, of persuasion, or argument, his voice defending the defenseless. Abraham’s voice fails him when we needed him to speak up. We are left without understanding how he could think of sacrificing his most precious son, Isaac, because God said so.
We don’t ever hear Sarah’s voice again after this moment, because by the time father and son come down from the mountain they never speak to each other again in the Torah, and the next chapter in the Torah describes the death of Sarah. We are left to wonder what she knew, if she died fearing the worst, died without any say in the matter, died without a chance to lift her voice and question Abraham, “What kind of God tests you by asking you to sacrifice OUR son, not just your son, but OUR son, our beloved Isaac, who I prayed for for decades to carry in my womb, who I’ve held to my breast, when he was an infant, who I’ve watched grow into a young man. What Kind of God asks this of US and not just of you?” Our Torah voices none of this. It is for us to question where our voice is and what we might have said, what we need to say for the young, for the old, for the weak, for those who need our voices.
King David stood up for others when he fought Goliath, but later only stood up for himself when he took Bathsheba to bed, impregnated her and had her husband, Uriah, put on the front lines of battle to die. All of this so David could hide his own sins, his own selfishness and take Bathsheba as his wife. King David did so much good, but his humanity caught up with him as he failed to maintain his voice for justice and what was right.
In this age where are our voices? Have we lost our voice? Has so much happened in the last several years that many of us have been struck silent? As Jews we have always struggled to make our voices heard above the chaos of history. We’ve struggled to be heard above the destructive din of racism, nationalism, antisemitism and baseless hatred. As a rabbi I get criticized and silenced when I raise my voice on this side or that side where this person or that person disagree with my viewpoints and the threat is made clear that there will be financial repercussions if I can’t find a way to bridge our differences so that we can agree to disagree with civility and our relationship intact.
I disagree with all viewpoints that lead to one human hating another for senseless historical reasons. I disagree with the anger and hatred individuals have for what they deem the Other, the stranger, the widow and the orphan. I want love. I want acceptance. I want peaceful coexistence. I want not to be angry at and fearful of all the people in the world who hate me because I’m a Jew, because I believe Israel has the right to exist and because I blame Hamas and the Palestinian Authority for the majority of problems the Palestinian people and Israel must deal with while trying to come up with a functioning, peaceful solution. I don’t want to lose friends or community members because I am angry, hurt, sad and opinionated.
We all have to be able to communicate with each other no matter how much we agree or disagree. As a people, we’ve never stopped working to make the world healthy and whole. We have watched the world try to tear itself apart for over 3000 years. We know what it is to have had our First Temple destroyed by the Babylonian King Nebuchadrezar II in 587 BCE and to have our people’s voice rise in despair and lamentations.
We know what it is to have had our Second Temple destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE and to have our people scattered across the globe. We know what it feels like to have the majority of the world turn its back on us while six million were massacred. And today voices of preachers, professors, world leaders and international presidents still rise up to deny the facts of the Holocaust, deny our loss, deny the significance, deny we have any rights to still hold the Holocaust up before all eyes to force the world to see what horrors it is capable of committing. As Jews, we still hold it up to insist that the world must work to become more humane.
Only after the Holocaust did some nations give voice so that we were given permission, PERMISSION, to struggle for the right of existence for the state of Israel in 1948. They didn’t insist Israel’s neighbors desist from causing any violence or going to war, they just gave us permission to fight for what has always been ours. We’ve been struggling for the right to exist ever since. Despite all of this, throughout history we’ve used our voices and our intelligence to continue to make our cities, our states, and our nations better, more tolerant and more accepting.
The question is, for what are we willing to raise our voices? What are we willing to speak up about to make this world a better place? Are we only willing to raise our voices about antisemitism, attacks against world Jewry and attacks upon Israel? Or are we prepared to raise our voices for the mistreatment of immigrants, social injustices, destruction of our planet and economic disparity? Are we only willing to raise our voices for things that affect us directly or do our voices ring out for universal justice and for protections for those who cannot protect themselves?
Here together we sit as one community. All of our differences have been put aside for us to gather as we have for generations to celebrate the creation of the world, to begin our High Holy Days, to prepare ourselves for atonement, to ask forgiveness to those we’ve hurt and pray for forgiveness, to God, for failing to to be our best selves in every moment.
We have to remember where we stand in agreement. If we don’t raise our voices as one, we allow the OTHERs to divide us and make us think we are too different to find common ground. As Jews we have been the outsider, the OTHER, throughout history. We were forced to flee our lands over and over. Our ancestors were forced to accept the violence and mistreatment of their government, neighbors, civic leaders and police because we feared for our very existence and feared the next inevitable slaughter by arrogant and ignorant populations who century after century took out their superstitious beliefs on us, their eternal scapegoat.
Only in the last 40 years have we really felt accepted and free to raise our voices, cry for justice, fight for humanity, tolerance, kindness, peace. Only in the last forty years have we been free to be anything, join any club, go anywhere, say anything.
And yet while Jews still live here and there in Europe and Britain, we are only truly free to raise our voices in North America or Israel.
We have a long way to go to create a peaceful world for all. We’ve come a long way through history, influencing some of the greatest movements of all times. Most historical arguments center around a Jewish idea, a Jewish creation or just about the Jewish people in general. Our people, our history, our ideas have shaken the world to its core and continue to move people to one extreme or another depending on where they sit. We must never be silenced. We must find our voice, and raise our voices in unity with words that forward the dream of mending the world and finding peace for all of humanity once and for all.
May this year, 5780 be the year where we continue to raise our voices as one for equality, justice, proper care of our planet and proper treatment of all living creatures. May your voices rise up in song, prayer, love and devotion towards making the world a better place.
Cayn yehi ratzon - May this be God’s Will. L’Shanah Tovah