(RNS) — Forty years ago, as I prepared to ascend the bima for my first High Holy Day sermon as a rabbi, one of the elders of my congregation pulled me aside.
“Rabbi,” he said to me, “Preach the Dickens at ’em.”
I said to him: “OK. Just don’t have any great expectations.”
Forty years later — this year, on Rosh Hashana, I preached the Dickens.
These are the opening few words of Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities,” in which he describes the mood in Europe on the edge of the French Revolution:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times …”
For us as American Jews, it is the best of times, and it is the worst of times. We have never been more successful, and we have never been more nervous.
There has never been a Jewish community that has enjoyed the wealth, the cultural influence, the political power and the acceptance that we American Jews enjoy. From the number of Jews in the Biden cabinet, to the fact that the use of Yiddish is an accepted part of American culture, to the fact that their Jewish identity would never bar our children and grandchildren from a university, to the fact that we are the most successful immigrant group in America.
But, it is also the worst of times. We sense something has turned against us.
We are in the middle of a second pandemic. It is a pandemic of anti-Israel sentiment, which has increasingly become a loud, vulgar antisemitism. More than 60% of American Jews say they have experienced antisemitism over the past six years. Anti-Jewish hate crimes made up a stunning 58% of all hate crimes — and we are only 2% of the American population!
What makes it worse is that many of our young people do not fight such anti-Israelism.
Quite the opposite. They have adopted it.
Those young people are not (I hate this term) self-hating Jews. Many, if not most, love being Jewish.
They want a Judaism they can square with a vision of social justice. Unfortunately, this has led some of them to use very sloppy and painful and even obscene words — words like apartheid, and genocide and ethnic cleansing — none of which have anything to do with the realities of Israel and Palestine.
My hero is a young man named Blake Flayton, a student at George Washington University. He shares my deep concern for what is happening to young Jews in this country, and he created the New Zionist Congress.
These are his words.
We aim to transform ourselves. From crouching to standing, from defending to affirming, from shame to pride. We will not beg for scraps in exchange for a seat at a hostile table. It is our Zionism that inspires us to build our own spaces, amplify our own words, and to reject any movement that mandates we sacrifice part of ourselves to be welcomed.
Blake is saying: We want to join you in your quest for justice in this world. But do not think for a minute we are willing to sacrifice one piece of our Zionism.
How do we respond to antisemitism?
We respond to antisemitism through pro-semitism — through finding the best that is within our tradition.
Let us talk about the blowing of the shofar.
The sages say the blasts of the shofar should remind you of a weeping woman.
The scriptural readings for Rosh Hashana offer us (to quote a failed presidential campaign) binders filled with crying women. So, which woman?
The ancient sages offer us two possibilities.
The first is that the cries are the cries of Sarah. Her silent cries permeate the Akedah, the story of the binding of Isaac, which is our Torah reading. The sages imagined she thought her son Isaac had really died. She howled — and when we blow the shofar, we remember her cries of anguish.
But the second is even more tantalizing. In this interpretation, the sages go outside of the scriptural readings for Rosh Hashana — straight to the mother of Sisera.
Sisera was a Canaanite general who led a coalition of forces against the Israelites. The heroine Deborah defeated that coalition. Another woman, Yael, killed Sisera by luring him into her tent and then smashing his skull.
When Sisera’s mother discovers her son is dead, she wails — and some ancient rabbis believed her wails were the origins of the shofar blasts.
Yes, of course, we feel empathy for Sarah.
But, Sisera’s mother? Mrs. Sisera was the mother of a barbaric Canaanite general who came after us with brutality and with treachery. Today, Sisera would be part of the Islamic State or al-Qaida or the Taliban. And we should care about her feelings?
Yes. That is the astounding thing. We care about her and her feelings — just as we care about the feelings of Sarah.
I want to feel empathy with my own people, with my own tribe.
And: I want to feel empathy with others, as well.
I start with empathy for my people, for our people, for the Jewish people. I empathize with our people’s history, with its struggles, with the words we have created and the visions we have shared. This is my family.
That empathy includes Israel. That is a love, and that is a solidarity, and that is a fundamental part of my faith — for which I will not apologize.
Judaism says: You think you have to abandon your own story in order to feel empathy with those who are powerless? No! That is your story! You care for others because it is at the beating heart of your story!
On some level, on many levels, that empathy demands I hear the stories of those who are not me, as well.
Consider the words of the Israeli journalist Yossi Klein Halevi, in his book “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor.” He imagines the Palestinian who lives in the next village, just beyond the borders of Jerusalem.
I see my presence in Israel as part of the return of an indigenous, uprooted people, and a reborn Jewish state as an act of historic justice, of reparation. I see your presence in this land as an essential part of its being. Palestinians often compare themselves to olive trees. I am inspired by your rootedness, by your love for this landscape. Do you see me as part of a colonialist invasion that was a historic crime and a religious violation? Or can you see the Jewish presence here as authentic, just like your own? Can you see my life here as an uprooted olive tree restored to its place?
Yossi is asking: Is there room in the Jewish soul and in the Palestinian soul to see each other as part of the same story?
The answer must be: Yes.
To our young people, and others:
The Jewish people needs your presence, and it needs your heart. Israel needs your heart. When you see policies and actions that demand critique — and if you do not, I will make a small list for you — then I want your love to speak out. When we Jews need to criticize what other Jews do, and what the Jewish state does, let us do it out of love, out of chesed.
You want to repair the world — that great task of tikkun olam. I am with you.
But, may I remind you of the motto of our international Reform youth movement?
Three acts of tikkun:
- Tikkun atzmi: I repair myself.
- Tikkun ha-am: I repair my people.
- Tikkun olam: I repair the world.
If you try to blow into the wide end of the shofar, you get no sound.
The music only emerges when you blow into the narrow end. Only when you start with yourself and with your people.