One of the local ministers in the Palisades is a dear friend of mine. Once when we were sharing computer frustrations he told me this story about Jesus and Satan and how one day they are having a “friendly discussion” as to which one of them would make a better computer programmer. This goes on for a few hours until they decide to hold a contest, with God as the judge. So they sit down at their computers and begin.
Furiously they type, lines of code streaming up the screen for hour after hour. Finally, just seconds before the competition is about to end, a bolt of lightning strikes, taking out all the electricity. Moments later, just as suddenly the power is restored, and God announces that the contest is over. He asks Satan to show what he has come up with first. But Satan is visibly upset, and cries, “I have nothing. I lost it all when the power went out.” “Very well, then,” says God, “let us see if Jesus fared any better.” Jesus enters a command, and the screen comes to life in vivid display, the voices of an angelic choir pour forth from the speakers. Satan is astonished. He stutters, “B-b-but how? I lost everything, and Jesus’ program is intact. How did he do it?”
God smiled all-knowingly and said, “Jesus saves.”
I know, you think it’s a bit odd that the rabbi began his Rosh Hashana sermon with a story about Jesus. But remember if we know anything at all about Jesus it’s that Jesus was Jewish. So if Jesus were around today he probably wouldn’t be going to any of the churches in town – he’d be coming here. In fact when my Christian friends ask me about the differences between Judaism and Christianity, the first thing I always tell them is that Judaism is the religion of Jesus and Christianity is the religion about Jesus which emerged after his death.
But that’s not why I started with a Jesus story tonight. It’s because ever since I first saw that bumper sticker I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind. Maybe you’ve seen it too? It just has four letters on it and a question mark. WWJD? – WHAT WOULD JESUS DO? It’s actually part of a national Christian youth campaign (with bumper stickers and buttons) to get kids to think about doing the right thing, making the right ethical choices. It is their version of what we at KI call Menschlekeit Matters.
So that intriguing question, “What would Jesus do?” reminded me that over 2,000 years ago (just about the time when Jesus was walking around the hills of Judea in fact), the rabbis taught that God has at least 70 different names. This they believed was the spiritual secret hidden within the letters of the SHEMA.
SHEMA YISRAEL ADONAI ELOHAYNU ADONAI E HAD – everybody knows it. It’s the one sentence in Hebrew we traditionally ask non-Jews to recite when they want to become Jewish. “Hear O Israel, the Lord (Adonai) our God is One.” The rabbis point out that the first word,SHEMA – has three Hebrew letters – SHIN, MEM, AYIN. The first two letters, SHIN & MEM together spell SHEM which means “Name” in Hebrew. And the last letter, AYIN in Gematria (that’s the esoteric mystical science where every Hebrew letter has a numerical equivalent) – the letter AYIN = 70. SHEM 70 – 70 NAMES.
And since the Shema ends with E HAD – ONE , presumably teaching us that God is One – the rabbis draw the obvious conclusion that hidden in the words of the Shema is the secret that even though there are 70 names for God, God remains one – they are all the same. So what are God’s 70 names? How do you know when you come across one? And what does that have to do with Jesus? Well, I believe that every time someone asks “What would Jesus do?” and then does the right thing, one of God’s names is definitely Jesus.
Frankly, the reputation that this congregation has for which I am most proud to be its rabbi is that we are an inclusive, open, nonjudgmental, safe and welcoming place for people of all religious backgrounds who have chosen a Jewish partner with whom to share their lives. You may recall I even gave a special blessing to exactly those non-Jews from this bima last Rosh Hashana and thanked them for all they do every year to support the Jewish identity of their families and this synagogue and community.
I have officiated at interfaith weddings and counseled interfaith couples and families as a rabbi for over 30 years. My first book, “ BUT HOW WILL YOU RAISE THE CHILDREN?” was a counseling book for interfaith couples published 22 years ago. And my newest book, to be published this November called “THERE’S AN EASTER EGG ON YOUR SEDER PLATE” – Surviving Your Child’s Interfaith Marriage is a counseling book for parents whose kids intermarry. This passion is an integral part of my life and work and I am rabbi of a Reconstructionist congregation on purpose. It is because Reconstructionist Judaism rejects the idea of exclusive Chosenness of the Jewish people and teaches that all people choose their own unique answers to the same fundamental questions of life – and one isn’t “right” and the others “wrong.” If that were true, then most of the world would always be wrong and as a Reconstructionist I think that is a silly, ethnocentric notion.
So where do we find some of God’s 70 names? A number of years ago I was asked by two dear friends of our, Misty and Jim, neither of whom was Jewish, to create a naming ceremony for their new born daughter, Dreama. They were both raised Christian, Misty by a very devout and deeply religious Christian mother and Jim by a mother who was born and raised as a Christian in Germany. They didn’t want a Hebrew name but some special additional name that I might give to Dreama that would add a greater sense of holiness to her life.
So given this unusual opportunity, I created a new ceremony for Dreama that I called, SHEM TZEDEK – A Righteous Name, and I gave her the additional name “ Elisabeth,” in honor of Elisabeth Abegg a German Quaker who was a righteous gentile in Berlin during the Holocaust and who at the risk of her own life used her home to hide and rescue dozens of Jews from the Nazis. I created this ceremony and thought wouldn’t it be beautiful if not only every Jewish child took on the name in spirit of a Jewish child who lost his or her life in the Holocaust, but if non-Jewish children took on the sacred name of those righteous non-Jews who were rescuers – imagine the impact that might have on the spiritual psyche of the world? I still think that.
You see I believe that God has a lot more than 70 names. That Elizabeth Abegg is one of God’s names. Oh yes, and after what was a very emotional and moving naming ceremony for Dreama, Misty’s evangelical mother with tears in her eyes came over to me and gave me what for her was the highest compliment possible. “Rabbi,” she said, as she grasped my hands, “you are such a good Christian!” I knew what she meant, so what could I say, but “Thank you.”
Seventy names for God we teach. So here are two more of God’s names that we learned this year. The first is Liviu Librescu. As a child in Nazi-allied Romania, Liviuwas deported along with his family to a labor camp in Transnistria and then to the central ghetto in the city of Focsani. He survived the Holocaust, went on to get a PHD in civil engineering and worked in the Romanian aerospace industry until he was fired and blacklisted for refusing to join the Communist party and the sin of applying to emigrate to Israel.
He finally was able to move to Israel with his family in 1978. Then twenty years ago he was invited on his sabbatical to teach at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia and he stayed for the rest of his career. Last April 16 th, 2007 was YOM HASHOA – HOLOCAUST REMEMBRANCE DAY. Ironically, it was also the day that Seung-Hui Cho went on a rampage at Virginia Tech killing 32 people and wounding 25 before taking his own life in a hail of bullets.
You all heard the story. How when the sound of gunfire neared the Norris Hall lecture room in which Liviu was lecturing instead of running out of the building to safety, he ran toward the door blocking the gunman from entering. As shots rang out he stood firm in an act of incredible courage that gave his class the priceless seconds they needed to escape. “He was able to teach his last lesson of bravery in the face of hatred,” his son Joe said. “ In everyone he saw light.”
As Liviu Librescu was laid to rest in a cemetery in Israel, the Romanian government laid a wreath upon his grave and posthumously awarded him the country’s highest medal for his scientific accomplishments and heroism. “I walked through the streets today with my head held high because I have such a father,” said his son with reverence and pride. Yes, one of God’s 70 names in surely Liviu Librescu.
Jeremy Hernandez is another one of God’s names. It was Wednesday, August 1 st and Jeremy was tired after accompanying a busload of kids on a field trip. A fter a long day as their phys-ed camp counselor he was trying to catch a quick nap as the bus crossed the Mississippi River bridge in Minneapolis about 6 p.m. “I thought I had fallen asleep and was dreaming,” he said. “I heard a big bang and thought the bus had been in an accident. Then, I felt the bus go down.”
When it landed at an awkward and dangerous angle, his eyes surveyed the scene and his mind raced. The bus had fallen 30 feet, and many of the 52 students onboard were bloodied and injured. “The kids were moaning and groaning. They were yelling, ‘We are going to go into the river!’ Some were screaming they were going to die,” said Hernandez.
As some kids screamed in terror for their moms, Hernandez bolted from his back-of-the-bus seat, kicked the emergency door open and cleared debris away from the exit. “I didn’t want to die. All I wanted to do was to get off the bus,” he said. But instead of getting off the bus, Hernandez began plucking children up and with loving reassurance handing them one at a time off the back of the bus and stayed right where he was until he was certain that every single child was off the bus and safe.
“They are like my brothers and little sisters. They are part of me,” Hernandez said. You have probably all heard or read the story yourselves. How Hernandez was an automotive student at Dunwoody College of Technology but had to drop out because he didn’t have enough money for tuition. He does now. Mitzvah gorreret mitzvah – one mitzvah brings another in its wake. Just as one of God’s 70 names is Jeremy Hernandez, another of God’s names is Ben Wright. Ben is the President of Dunwoody who watched Jeremy’s interview on CNN from Nova Scotia where he had been on vacation. He called Jeremy and offered a full tuition scholarship if he would come back to Dunwoody College.
Indeed, God has many, many names. And some of God’s names, likeJeremy Hernandez are Spanish. And some of God’s names, likeElizabeth Abegg are German. And some like Wesley Autrey areAfrican-American. Wesley was the man who without a moment’s hesitation jumped onto the subway tracks in NY on January 2 nd of this year to save the life of a stranger, Cameron Hollopeter whom he saw fall onto the tracks while having a seizure just as a train was coming into the station. Yes, Wesley Autrey is definitely another of God’s names.
And of course some of God’s names some are Italian, French, Swiss, Korean, Persian, Israeli or Palestinian. God has many, many names and sometimes we only know God’s first name – like Arnita or Lupe, Jorge or Farhad, Saundra or Mohammad, and so many times God walks among us with no name at all. He’s the gardener who keeps our home beautiful, she’s the waitress who stands on her feet for hours on end at minimum wage and feeds us with a smile or a kind word when we are down; he’s the anonymous busboy cleaning up after us day after day without so much as a word. God cleans our houses, God is the nanny who takes care of our children, God drives our school busses – and so often we don’t even know God’s name.
There is a reason that the very first thing the Torah tells us when human beings come into the world is: “VAYIVRA ELOHIM ET HA-ADAM BETZALMO – THAT GOD CREATED THE HUMAN BEING IN GOD’S OWN IMAGE.” Before there were Jews or Christians or Muslims or Africans or Asians or Caucasians –– our tradition says there were just human beings. And all human beings were created the same – in God’s own image.
And nowhere does the Torah have the word, “except.” – Except black or brown or yellow or white, except Sunnis or Shiites or Mormons or Jews – except those who speak Spanish or French or Arabic or Hebrew. There are no “excepts” – God has 70 names just as the Midrash tells us there are 70 nations in the world because no one has a monopoly on God. No one has a monopoly on righteousness. No one has a monopoly on justice. No one has monopoly on truth. No one. Not even us.
So what would Jesus do if he stopped by today for Rosh Hashana? Well, I’d probably call him up on the bima and let him speak in my place – after all, I hear he was a hell of a preacher. He would probably say today what he evidently said over 2,000 years ago when he quoted in his own way his own teacher, the great rabbi of Jewish tradition, Hillel. It wasn’t quite as famous when Hillel said it, but in Jesus’ mouth it became known as “The Golden Rule:” DO UNTO OTHERS AS YOU WOULD HAVE OTHERS DO UNTO YOU. It was a way that both of them could emphasize the importance of the commandment in Leviticus 19:18 – “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Now I realize that “ what would Jesus do?” isn’t at all what you might expect to hear from your rabbi at the most sacred season of the year. It reminds me of that song written by Kinky Friedman, the irascible Jewish Country Western singer/song writer who also ran for Governor of Texas last year. Kinky Friedman wrote a song called: “ They Aint Making Jews Like Jesus Anymore.” Well, at least when it comes to loving your neighbor like yourself – maybe they should.
Last Rosh Hashana I challenged you twice. First to decide, “What is the question for which your life is the answer?” Second, to start the year by cultivating an attitude of gratitude – and making a commitment for at least 100 days to count your blessings every single day. So this year I have another couple of challenges – one right now and the other tomorrow. Tonight it is this: Take the first 100 days of this New Year and discover at least one new name for God every day somewhere in your life. For I promise if you open your heart to finding God in the everyday heroics that surround you – you can’t help but realize thatevery single day of your life is the miracle it was meant to be.And then you can’t help but have a Shanah Tova and Metukah, and truly good and sweet New Year.