Rosh Hashanah 1st Day: Being moral in an amoral time
Shanah Tovah Umetuka for all of you, may we all have a good, happy and sweet year. As always it gives me such a rush to see our Sanctuary so full, so many faces. Thank you for sharing this sacred moment with us. Is not a secret that not all of you are regular participants in our services or other activities. I must say with embarrassment, that I don’t know personally all of you, as is hard for me to know you if I don’t see you more often than once or twice a year. Even if Shul is not your thing, I want to invite you to have a meal with me and my family sometime. It would be a wonderful way of getting to know you better. Please write me an email (after Rosh Hashanah) or to Raya to arrange it. If any case, if you are not religious enough to come to Shul regularly, then I must assume it is less a religious feeling or imperative what brought you here today, rather something else. Maybe it’s tradition, you believe you owe it to your parents or grandparents. Maybe it is the desire to keep a touchstone, a last contact with the world of Jewish religion, even if you mostly ignore it the rest of the time. Maybe it is just what Jewish people do! Today I want to propose to you a different reason to come to Shul occasionally, a different reason to study and practice the tenets of Judaism, at least the ethical/moral ones. I want to propose that Judaism is, above all, a moral practice. It is a tradition of rules and ideas that enable us to live good respectable lives, to give us meaning and pass it to the coming generations. David West is a freemason and author, and he writes that there are periodic intervals in human experience when scientific, religious or economic events demand new ways of understanding moral relationships. During such moments, moral relativity seems to take over and the moral life, the values we consider to be good and worthy, come under attack. I agree with him that now is such a time and it is incumbent on us to respond. The world that we face now is a world of greed and emphasis on the material. In the 1950’s the average CEO received a salary of about 20 times the average worker in his company. By 2013 the multiple had reached 204 times and the highest, the department store chain JC Penney’s CEO pay in 2012 was an amazing 1,795 times that of the average JC Penney worker. The world that we face now is a world of terrorism and fear of the other. We have traded our belief in freedom, equality and responsibility for our fellow human beings; for an obsessive fear for our security. We prefer to live in a World where our privacy and our liberty is restricted, in order to feel safe. It was Benjamin Franklin who said back in the 18th Century “those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety”. We live in a world of individualism, where our main concern is our own needs and benefit. We have lost the sense of community, of being part of something bigger, of caring for the other and putting the needs of the group over our own needs. The world that we face today may seem less than welcoming to the ideals and ethical values of Judaism, but there are large numbers of people in our society hungry for the moral meaning and example we can give. We Jews are commanded by the Torah to be a light to the Nations, and we can show that even in our times it is possible to live by different standards and ideals. As Jews, we are not and we cannot be isolated from the society where we live and our Judaism must reflect that. Many of the changes in our society in the last decades have made Jewish values, like community and honesty, unfashionable. Nevertheless, if we are critical of some trends of society or of the corruption seen often in our leadership, then we must show that we are different and we live by higher moral standards. We must show that our values matter, that we live by them and they are no recommendations to put away when they are not convenient. This goes not just for major crimes, but also for the lesser sins of arrogance, pride and moral detachment. An important role for Judaism today is to become a guardian of trust and a reservoir of social capital. If we really take seriously our Jewish values, then it should be always possible to trust each other, knowing our fellow Jew is worthy of that trust and that they can trust in us. Everyone, including non-Jews, should know it is always possible to trust a Jewish person. Of course, this doesn’t mean other people are not trust worthy, but a committed Jew must be it as his tradition calls for this. More than this, Judaism offer us a purpose to Life from which moral virtues can be derived. We are a community that is able to sustain the moral life in an amoral world. Safeguarding these values must be one of our main goals and our greatest challenge. Most of us did not choose to be Jewish, there are only a few privileged that did so. Nevertheless, we can choose to embrace our identity and live by those standards, by the ultimate Jewish commandment of Tikkun Olan, of healing the World and make it a better place for everyone. To be a good Jew, in essence, is to exemplify with your life the values of Judaism. Every single commandment or tradition was designed to help us practice these virtues and to make them concrete, tangible, rather than only ideas. To be a good Jew in our time is to recognise the flaws in society and culture, and be willing to not do the same, rather to stand up to them. To be a good Jew in our time is to believe in the power and importance of community. To understand that community is not about what it can do for me, rather how can I be of help to my fellow members, so we can all benefit. To be a good Jew in our time is to call out evil when we see it. The only thing needed for evil to win is for good people to do nothing. You don’t have to fight it alone, we have your back, but we must say it clearly when something is not right. To be a good Jew in our time is to understand that nobody should be hated or discriminated against because of who he or she is, only by what that person does. That Antisemitism exists and is healthy and well, but is not the only kind of hate there is and we must be opposed to all of them, not only when we are the victims. To be a good Jew in our time is to remember the words of the Seder, that even if in every generation they stand against us, we are always saved. We are history’s biggest survivors. So we don’t need to be afraid, we must take care of ourselves, it’s being sensible, but let’s not give in to fear, the fear that is causing so much hate and sorrow. To be a good Jew in our time is to dare to continue dreaming of a better world, not only for us, but for everyone. Is to recognise our privilege and to use it to help those less privileged. Is to love our fellow men and women because Judaism teaches us they were created in God’s image. To be a good Jew in our time is to remember that saying “Shma Israel Hashem Elokenu Hashem Echad”, “Hear oh Israel, God is our God, God is One” is not only a declaration of faith, but a declaration of unity. As God is One, we are One, each one of us. Every human being, every animal, every plant, everything in Creation. Our differences, our borders, our petty fights are illusions. We are One. To be a good Jew in our time is to listen to the call. It is to be, as Joshua Ben Nun, strong and courageous to be the best we can be for us and for others. Don’t think that you are not important enough, each one of us in our own place, with our friends and co-workers, with our family, we can all make a difference. To be a good Jew in our time is to love. Love your parents, love your children, love your family, love your friends, love your community, love yourself! Teach others to love. Only love can defeat hate and fear. To be a good Jew in our time is to be conversant with Jewish tradition, to be familiar with our tradition and customs, with our wisdom and teachings. It is the only way you can make your life choices in an informed way and you might be surprised to find how many tools for your life exist in our ancient culture. We are living in hard times, in amoral times, in an age of rapid changes and doubt. Our tradition is one of optimism. David Ben Gurion said that to be realist we must believe in miracles. We can be an example that our world need. We can stand to the evil in the world. We can keep the flame of the moral life alight. We can be the burning bush, that its fire contains God and is not consumed. We owe it to our ancestors, we owe it to our children, we owe it to ourselves. May it be a better year, but whatever this year brings, let’s be sure that we have what it takes to make the best of any situation, to be the best we can be, to be a light to the nations as our ancestors have been.