The children were lined up in the cafeteria of a Catholic elementary school for lunch. At the head of the table was a large pile of apples. The nun made a note and posted it on the apple tray: “Take only one. God is watching.” Moving further along the lunch line, at the other end of the table was a large pile of chocolate-chip cookies. A child had written a note, “Take all you want. God is watching the apples!”
There have been so many times during this past year, when I wished it was so. That God was watching – it would be a lot more comforting each day as I open the newspaper or watch the news at night to know that somewhere, someone bigger and wiser than you and me was watching and perhaps would step in at the last minute and save the day.
But then I remember the difficult words that the prophet Isaiah put into God’s mouth, and I realize there’s no one coming to the rescue. For Isaiah has God proclaim: “I fashion the light and create the darkness, I make peace and I create evil.” Well I grew up thinking that evil was the absence of God in the world. I was taught that what we mean by God is the source of goodness. How difficult, and perhaps even terrifying to think of God as the author of evil as well.
So frightening, in fact, that even the rabbis of the Talmud couldn’t take it – when they included that phrase from Isaiah in the daily liturgy every morning right between the Barkhu and the Shema, they changed “uvoray et ha ra” – “creator of evil” to “voray et ha kol” – “creator of everything.”
They just couldn’t imagine having us recite every day that God is the creator of evil – they were afraid of the despair we would experience, day after day.
But they needn’t have worried – the world itself is eager to provide us with all the despair we need. Here we are nearly 60 years after the Holocaust, and in Europe Jews are once again afraid to walk the streets of Paris wearing a kippah or Star or David.
Synagogues are guarded around the clock not just throughout Europe as in days of old, but every synagogue in America as well, including our own. In Turkey Jewish youth clubs are closed down out of fears for security; in Australia Jewish schools are described as mini-fortresses.
There is a renewal of anti-Semitism in Europe and elsewhere on a scale not seen since the 1930’s. It isn’t merely criticism of Israeli policies – I, too am critical of many of Israel’s policies – it’s more than hatred of Israel – it’s crude, vicious, Nazi-style anti-Semitism like the destruction of a 500 year old synagogue in Morocco; the desecration of cemeteries in France, Germany, Italy and Poland; and only a couple of weeks ago, the Jewish Community Center in Paris was set on fire and burned down, with Nazi symbols, references to Islam and graffiti proclaiming, “Without the Jews the world would be happy” scrawled on the walls.
There were the contemptible accusations of Jewish involvement in the World Trade Center bombing evidently still believed by millions of Muslims and others throughout the Middle East. And this year, recycled anti-Semitic stories appeared in the legitimate Arab press throughout the region including Egypt, America’s alleged ally, once again claiming to have “proof” that Jews use the blood of Christian and Muslim children in baking matzo for Passover and hamantaschen for Purim.
First there was the hijacking of a United Nations conference on racism in Durban, South Africa where of all nations in the world, from Sudan to North Korea to Iran, democratic Israel was proclaimed to be the worst abuser of civil rights. Then the clearly misnamed “International Court of Justice” in the Hague issued a sweeping condemnation of the 437 mile security barrier that Israel is erecting to reduce suicide bomber’s access to civilian populations.
It was a ruling the UN General Assembly subsequently gave its overwhelming approval, with of course, not a mention in either forum of the hundreds of innocent women and children targeted and murdered by Palestinian terrorists on nearly a daily basis in Israel.
I am not personally in favor of the current route that the barrier is taking for I believe that it does create unnecessary hardships for innocent Palestinians, but unlike every other country in the Middle East, Israel is a democracy and its own courts are responding to those excesses, including already changing more than 60 miles of the route to ease those hardships and bring it closer to the pre-1967 border.
And the world itself seems to be turning increasingly ugly, day by day. There is a veritable orgy of hatred for Jews and Judaism and the words “Never Again” are beginning to take on a hollow sound. There are vicious anti-Semitic harangues tolerated on college campuses throughout the country; the condescending, oh-so-politically correct anti-Israel bias of the BBC and National Public Radio, and you can even read the comments of a Nobel Prize winner in Portugal comparing what is happening to the Palestinians to what was done to the Jews in Auschwitz.
When I was in Berlin last year with a group of Southern California rabbis, we witnessed both a pro-Israel and an anti-Israel rally. The anti-Israel demonstration was ten times the size of the pro-Israel rally.
It has been a hard year for those of us who love Israel and love Judaism. In fact it has been a hard year for all of us who love decency and hate violence, killing and the blatant compromising of human and civil rights as a public policy decision.
I keep hearing over and over again in my head, the opening lines of Charles Dickens’ “A TALE OF TWO CITIES:”
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…it was a time very much like our own.”
Yes, in so many ways these are the best of times. As Jews never before have we been more successful or more fully integrated into society than in 21st century America. This is a golden age of Judaism – more synagogues, more alternative forms of worship, more creativity with more Jewish books, Jewish music, Jewish studies classes in colleges and universities than in the entire 4,000 year history of Jewish civilization.
And we live in the most remarkable era in the history of the world. The explosion of creativity and astounding advances in science, medicine, and technology are almost a daily occurrence. We live in a world where our very lives are often a testament to the miraculous-ness of our age.
Think about innovations in the field of medicine alone – antibiotics, vaccines, sonograms, CPR, heart procedures like by-pass surgery and angioplasty, and nano-technology. I know that transplants have allowed many of you to be here today who otherwise might not be. Surgeries that are now considered routine were experimental just ten years ago. I can’t tell you how many times people have told me following a surgery, “Rabbi, if this had happened ten years ago, I wouldn’t be here.” Certainly the best of times.
So why are we so afraid? Why is there so much collective anxiety? We are like medieval vassals living in the shadow of a terrifying, fire-breathing dragon…and in the silence of our own souls, we desperately pray for a dragon-slayer to save us. But even though the dragons seem oh so real and scary, the knights in shining armor seem relegated to myth and legend and fantasy.
There are certainly moments when these do feel like the worst of times. After 9/11, our xenophobia – our fears of strangers has only grown. For almost on a daily basis, like a maddening drum beat we are told “terror alert level raised” to yellow or orange or whatever color seems to match our anxiety level.
Then we are told, Al Qaida is now possibly using women, or Caucasian men, or Asians…and they are living among us like the aliens we used to worry about in the invasion of the body snatchers. So now along with the Islamic fundamentalists, it’s our own government that has snatched our sense of personal security and seemingly thrown it away forever.
Indeed the worst of times — a year when all of the monsters we thought safely buried or on the edge of extinction suddenly reared up breathing fire.
And I haven’t said a word yet about Abu Ghraib – what the Schlesinger report called “a scene of brutality and purposeless sadism” and the contribution that scandal has made to the despair in our own psyches. What kind of country are we becoming? Who are we who seem to so easily ignore the 3,000-year-old commandment from our own Torah, “lo ta-amod al dam rayekha” – “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor?”
I know – you weren’t there, and I wasn’t there. But perhaps the single most shocking statement in the report of the panel that investigated Abu Ghraib was the explanatory comment that, “The failures generally were caused by officers deciding to adopt interrogation practices used at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay and taking them much farther than they should have.”
“Interrogation practices used at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo?” I used to wonder how our government could have possibly rounded up and incarcerated all those American citizens just because they happened to have Japanese ancestry during WWII and placed them in camps with no civil rights whatsoever without loud protests and demonstrations from the rest of the population.
I used to wonder how that could have happened -that is, until Guantanamo Bay where we now have American citizens rounded up, declared “enemy combatants” stripped of every civil right we have come to expect, many held without access to family, lawyers or anyone else for the past two years, and none of us raise an eyebrow.
Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn once lamented, “If only there were evil people somewhere, insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
Wrestling with the good and evil within our own hearts is one of the fundamental ageless challenges of Yom Kippur each year. Who are we really? We echo the words of Shakespeare who said, “We know what we are, but know not what we may be.”
Yet that is exactly why we are here today. To face ourselves, to look deeply into our own souls and find out “what we may be.” I keep reminding you that there was a reason that the ancient rabbis selected Isaiah as the prophet to be read on Yom Kippur afternoon each year. For in the midst of our worries about getting the prayers right, doing the rituals right, saying the words right, Isaiah practically screams at us “NO – THAT IS NOT WHAT IT’S ALL ABOUT. IT’S ABOUT SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY – IT’S ABOUT FEEDING THE HUNGRY, CLOTHING THE NAKED, HOUSING THE HOMELESS, HEALING THE SICK – THAT IS WHAT THIS DAY IS ABOUT. That is who we might yet be. – a healer, a feeder, a clother of others. That is who we are supposed to be.
Even the White House Budget office figures that the price of the Iraq war is now $175 billion and counting. Over two years, that comes to $239 million A DAY. A DAY.
Can we sit here in good conscience reading the words of our own Bible and our own prayer book and not ask what that $239 million each and every day ought to be buying us? How about job training? How about child care? How about health care coverage for the uninsured which according to the Census Bureau grew in the last 3 years by 5.2 million people to over 45 million Americans?
How about text books and teachers for our urban schools? I am on the board of the “I Have a Dream Foundation,” along with Marlene Canter – so I know that for $1 million in hands-on assistance you can nurture an entire class of otherwise lost kids from kindergarten right through graduation of high school and guarantee that 95% of them will not only not drop out, but will go on to college or some higher education.
That’s 95% of them who will stay out of our jails and out of gangs and find their way to a life of contribution to society instead. 95% for just 1 million dollars a class, and we spend $239 million a day having our young men and women killed and maimed and destroyed for life in Iraq – not to mention the tens of thousands of Iraqis who have met the same fate.
Or how about food assistance for the 4.3 million Americans who have fallen below the poverty line in the 3 years since the current administration came to power. That brings the total number of people living in poverty in America to 36 million, or 12.5 percent of the American population? And do you realize what the definition of “poverty” is in America today? It is only an income of $18,660 a year for a family of four. $18,660 – and we have 36 million Americans who don’t even make that.
While the number of children living in poverty has increased by 11% over the past 3 years, the number of children receiving welfare has decreased by 10%. Not because they didn’t need it. Something just isn’t right.
What are we thinking as a nation? Where are our voices? Where is our conscience? Lo ta-amod al dam rayekha – “Do not sit idly by the blood of your neighbor” – well my friends, our neighbors are bleeding and if we don’t do something on their behalf, who will?
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote: “We do not know how to solve the general problem of evil, but we are not exempt from dealing with evils in the world which we can eradicate. At the end of days perhaps, evil will be conquered by the Holy One. In historic times, now, evils must be conquered one by one, by you and me.”
When Alexander the Great was a young man he asked his teacher, Aristotle a question. “How much is one?”
Alexander was surprised when his teacher said he would have to think about the question overnight.
The next morning Aristotle gave his answer: “One, is enough.”
One is enough because one is all we get. One life right now. One opportunity to think and feel and act and do the right thing. But even after last night’s sermon I want you to know that Judaism isn’t really about one – it’s about the many.
For Jews and Judaism it isn’t just about one – it is one, plus one, plus one, plus one until we have formed a community. Kehillat Israel – the “Community of the Jewish People.” Then together we can speak out, together we can demand justice, together we can stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves, and perhaps this year together we can truly begin to heal the world.