Unfinished Work

 Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief 

Rosh Hashanah II 2015/5776

We, quite correctly, teach our children not to stereotype people or groups.  We also teach about how different cultures have certain distinctive practices and approaches to life, lessons which sometimes contradict the no-stereotyping rule.  There are a lot of cultural traits, and even more stereotypes, that have been told about Jews over the years.  One that is truly noteworthy in Jewish culture is our habit of holding closely to a text.  Way back in the Bronze Age, we got a command to sound a ram’s horn on Rosh Hashanah, and here we are, in the age of the iWatch, still at it.  Three thousand years ago, the Torah told us to “afflict our souls” on Yom Kippur, and we’re still on it- and when the Torah says to love your neighbor as yourself, we’ll at least give it the ol’ college try. 

Another great example of this is the mezuzah. The Torah, the part we quote in the Sh’ma and V’ahavta, tells us to “וּכְתַבְתָּם עַל־מְזֻזוֹת בֵּיתֶךָ וּבִשְׁעָרֶיךָ inscribe these words on the doorposts of your house, and on your gates.”  We still do this with by placing a scroll with the Sh’ma inside a case- the case often a work of art in itself, consistent with the custom of making a mitzvah lovely- and affixing it to the doorposts of our homes.  It is a powerful practice, to consecrate our homes as sacred places, and to remind ourselves of our obligations to others whenever we enter or exit.  But it’s not really the literal read of the commandment, is it?

The command is to וּכְתַבְתָּם עַל־מְזֻזוֹת בֵּיתֶךָ, inscribe these words on the doorposts of your house.  Not write them and attach them.  What happened to our famous literal read of the text?  We can find it in history: in the ancient city of Palmyra, archeologists found a doorframe, close to 2,000 years old, that has the Sh’ma and V’ahavta inscribed into the doorframe.  Carved right there into the stone.  It may have been a synagogue, but most think it was a home- a home where the command to inscribe them on the doorposts of your house were taken literally, in the great Jewish tradition that reaches from that ancient home, to yours. The exact words as they appear in that book on your lap, or in the scrolls in our aron hakodesh, in one of the oldest and longest Biblical inscriptions to make it to modern times.  

The doorframe was found in Palmyra, which in Roman times served as a major trading city between Egypt and Persia.   Palmyra was largely abandoned about 1800 years ago, making it an archeological treasure trove reflecting the culturally diverse city that it was.  There were massive temples to Roman gods, colonnaded monuments for Semitic gods, families and traders from across the region lived here side-by-side, including, for centuries, Jews.  The first-century historian Josephus cites a tradition that Palmyra was built under the patronage of King Solomon.  It’s a UN World Heritage Site that tells us a lot about who we are, and where we came from- for Jews and for countless others.  This past Thursday, the media division of the group calling itself the Islamic State released photos of Palmyra.  Having conquered it, they have reduced this multicultural, irreplaceable treasure trove to rubble.  Their weapons seek to control the past, as well as the present and future.

It’s not really the Jewish stuff they’re after- the Roman and Semitic structures are more extensive, beautiful, and threatening to ISIS’s deranged, idolatrous philosophy.  But it all was destroyed, and the 83-year old director of antiquities, Khalid al-Asaad, was publicly beheaded, allegedly after refusing to reveal  the locations of hidden artifacts to his torturers.  We could sit here all day and not run out of stories of inhumane crimes committed by ISIS and groups only slightly less horrible.  Across the globe, it seems retrograde forces are ascendant.  From the brutal mullahs in Iran, to the thugs of Islamic State, to the destructive al-Qaida, Boko Haram in Nigeria, al-Shabab in Somalia, to wars in Yemen, Ukraine, Libya, Afghanistan, South Sudan, not to mention the continuing harm and threats caused by Hamas and Hisbollah- even as we learn where we came from, we have to wonder where we’re headed.  On Rosh Hashanah, we look back, and look forward.  And we realize that watching the destruction of our past must inform our actions in the present.

Today, when we blow the shofar, we call out “HaYom Harat Olam”, today the world was born.  This is not a scientific statement.  We teach that Rosh Hashanah is the birthday of the world, but that’s not one of the parts of Judaism we take as literally as the inscribing on doorposts. It means that we are to treat this day as an opportunity to find ways to look at the world through new eyes, and find ways to make our lives, and our world, more Godly: more just and merciful, as God asks of us- not to worship the idol of power that so many in the Middle East mistake for God.  We are not to assume that God will take care of everything, or that history will be linear- slowly progressing from more primitive to more civilized.  There is no given progression.  Different historical forces, different ideologies, different geographic and ecological factors will influence events, for better and for worse.  The concerted effort of individuals and groups has the power to help change things, and it is to that effort that the entire system of mitzvot is dedicated- we are to feel commanded by God to be a part of a group dedicated to the repair of the world.

Our roles may be relatively small.  We cannot stop ISIS by prayer, though our ritual binds us together and inspires us to action. We are left to support politicians and policies we believe will be most effective, and to help alleviate suffering.  It’s hard- I don’t pretend to know the solutions to the vexing political and social questions of our day.  It is harder to treat the cause than to alleviate the symptom.  I know we are not asked to jeopardize our security. Still, we cannot turn away from the human tide of refugees across the world.   No Jew, mindful of the doors that were slammed shut for our people, in our time of need, can be hard-hearted.  No Jew, mindful of our need for a secure haven for the Jewish refugees who were second-class citizens and worse for centuries, can deny that other people have a legitimate desire for a home.  We know.  We remember.  From the time the Torah commands us to not harm the vulnerable, because that’s what we were in the land of Egypt, to the many times in our history when so much would have been so different if others had followed the command to care for the vulnerable, to today.  Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, put it this way

I used to think that the most important line in the Bible was “Love your neighbor as yourself”. Then I realized that it is easy to love your neighbor because he or she is usually quite like yourself. What is hard is to love the stranger, one whose color, culture or creed is different from yours. That is why the [Torah’s] command, “Love the stranger because you were once strangers”, resonates so often throughout the Bible. It is summoning us now.

It is not on each of us to take in a refugee family.  And we can't ignore the needs of our own.  But we can help those in need by contributing to the relief effort.  Because we do not believe that our lives are purposeless, we are obligated to help.  The Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief jdc.org/jcdr, is a worthy recipient of tzedakah funds, yours and mine.  They help refugees from Syria in massive Jordanian refugee camps.  This is the right thing to do, even if it isn’t totally altruistic- the Kingdom of Jordan has been a great and good ally of Israel, and the stability of the Jordanian state is very much in all of our interest. Lo titalem,  the Torah commands, you must not remain indifferent.  Lo ta’a’mod al dam rei’ekha, the Torah commands.  You must not stand idly by as your neighbor bleeds. Our obligations are primarily to ourselves, but they do not stop there.  Our obligations are primarily to our families, but they do not stop there.  Our obligations are primarily to our people, to our communities, to our country- but they do not stop there.  The mezuzah, every day, the shofar, every year, remind us: You were strangers in the Land of Egypt.  Remember how it felt.  Treat others not how you have been treated; remember what you have learned. 

One of the reasons we put the Sh’ma on our doorposts- or to inscribe it there- is to remind us of who we are.  We don’t put, “don’t trust anyone” on our doors.  We don’t say “Don’t worry about how you treat the people in this house when you enter, or how you treat others when you leave; just look out for yourself.” And we certainly don’t say “go and destroy all cultures different from our own.”  We have a statement of love: v’ahavta: You shall love.  Of education: V’shinantem, and you shall teach.  It is a statement of purpose: there are bad people in the world.  That is the way it has always been.  The horrors of ISIS and others are not new, though some of the technologies are.  The persistence of evil must not dissuade us from our task- it should drive us. It is our task not to lose hope, not to lose our drive, not to lose the sense of purpose, which we have inscribed on our every door: to help create a world not ruled by a God of hate, or a God of endless violence, but by a God of love and justice.  We are the ones to make that world a reality.  That is what the shofar calls us to do.

Will we succeed?  Not anytime soon.  Can we do it alone?  Not even close.  But that cannot lead to cynicism, or giving up.  לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמוֹר, וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה  You are not obligated to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it, teaches Pirkei Avot.  Of course we can’t do it alone.  Of course we face new challenges, even as old foes are vanquished.  But that does not relieve us of the burden of effort.  That is why we are not to feel overwhelmed, or despair, or to throw up our hands at the enormity of repair which our world needs.  Tikkun Olam is not supposed to be easy.   It is not supposed to be short-term.  But it is not to seem too big for you.  You have a part to play, just as I do, and the call of the shofar is, as the great Maimonides said, a call to wake us up from the slumber of our lives, to awaken us anew to lives of purpose.  In the rush of day-to-day obligations, it is easy to forget that there is a larger meaning to our lives.  That is why we inscribe reminders, on the doorposts of our homes.  That hasn’t changed for thousands of years, and, with help from all of us, God willing, it won’t change for thousands more.

On our homes, we have sacred words to remind us that in the face of evil or ennui, we are to live with purpose.  On Rosh Hashanah, we have a wordless sound, the blast of the shofar, that reminds us of the same.   There will always be those who mistakenly think that by eliminating traces of our history, they can cause us to forget our future.  Two thousand years ago, some anonymous Jew inscribed the words of the Sh’ma on his or her doorpost, and that simple act affects us still.  He did it in the land of Syria.  Syria, the state, has been at war with the state of Israel since its birth- all the factions in their war are no friends of ours.  But we are not commanded to love our enemies.  We are commanded to treat human beings decently.  “Love the stranger, for you were once strangers… It is summoning us now.”  We know not to act with indifference.  May we have the courage to live up to our ancient ideals, to show that the Jewish people, after these many centuries, still strives to create a world that better reflects the inherent dignity that is Divinely placed in every human being.  May we hear, Sh’ma, the sound of the shofar and of our tradition, and know it is summoning us through the Gates of repentance, love, and shalom.

Shana tova u’mitukah, may you be inscribed for a year of sweetness, of courage, and of shalom.  May we all be inscribed in the Book of Life and Peace.