NOVEMBER 2019 NEWSLETTER
CHESHVAN / KISLEV 5780
~ RABBI'S CORNER ~
REMEMBERING: THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY
Rosh Hashanah 5780/2019
Today is Rosh Hashanah...but I want to begin my remarks this morning by focusing on Passover, because these two holidays are indeed connected:
- The Torah specifically says that the month in which Passover occurs is to be the ''first of the months...the beginning of the year for you,'' and so Passover was the de facto celebration of the new year in biblical times. The observance of the New Year/Rosh Hashanah in the seventh month (Tishrei) began later, when it was associated with the day the Torah calls yom t'ruah, the day for sounding the horn...which of course we know as the shofar.
- Although they are roughly 6 months apart, each is a mini observance of the other. On Passover, we refrain from eating chametz/leavened food during the holiday. The historical reason is to help us remember leaving Egypt. Our Sages tell us that there is another spiritual reason. Chametz is related to the words chamootz, which means sour (chamootzim=pickles). Refraining from chametz on Passover is to remind us to refrain from those things in our lives that make our souls and spirits chamootz/sour - which is, of course, the theme of Rosh Hashanah and the High Holiday season.
- Rosh Hashanah is called Yom Hazikaron - the Day of Remembering. On Passover we remember our leaving Egypt. But for that matter, with the exception of Yom Kippur, EVERY festival mentioned in the Torah - Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot, even Rosh Hashanah - each one is called zekher y'tsiat Mitzrayim - a remembrance of leaving Egypt. Actually, we are commanded to remember leaving Egypt not only on major holidays, but also on Shabbat AND twice daily, during the recitation of the daily Sh'ma.
Why? Because ''Egypt'' was the event that formed us as a people and gave us a purpose. For sure, the purpose of learning Jewish history is not just to regurgitate a bunch of facts - it's to learn who we are as a people. Just as an individual's memories define and shape who he/she is, this memory has defined and shaped us as people - who we are, where we've come from, what drives our existence, and what gives us purpose. Remembering the slavery of Egypt is the reason the Torah gives for keeping the Sabbath, making sure the indentured servant is provided for when he finishes his time of servitude, making sure the stranger, the widow, and the orphan are treated fairly and not disenfranchised. Our fundamental Jewish commitment to ethical behavior - justice and righteousness - is rooted in remembering what it was like to be among the disenfranchised.
By contrast, throughout history there have been many attempts to ground ethical behavior not in memory, but in other more universal attributes of humanity. Immanuel Kant based his philosophy of ethical behavior on reason. The English philosopher Jeremy Bentham rooted his philosophy of ethics in the notion of the greatest happiness for the greatest number.'' David Hume attributed ethics to certain basic emotions: sympathy, empathy, compassion. Adam Smith predicated ethical behavior on the capacity to stand back from situations and judge them with detachment. To be sure, each of these systems has its virtues, but none have proved fail-safe.
But as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks reminds us: Judaism takes a different view. It teaches tha t the guardian of conscience is memory. Driving home this point, Rabbi Sacks quotes the late American scholar of Judaica, Jacob Neusner:
Civilization hangs suspended, from generation to generation by the gossamer strand of memory. If only one generation of mothers and fathers fail to convey to its children what it has learned from its parents, then the great chain of learning and wisdom snaps. If the guardians of human knowledge stumble only one time, the whole edifice of knowledge and understanding collapses.
Or to put it more succinctly: Wipe out a person's memory, and you wipe away who he/she is. Wipe out a people's history, and you wipe out who/what they are.
Now...this may seem obvious to many of us. And yet, the importance of knowing history, of preserving memory, knowing where we as Jews and we as Americans came from, and how we got here - these are no longer as obvious as we might think. And...if/when preserving memory IS important, it is often preserving some memories, but not others.
It's called selective memory...and most of us are familiar with it because most of us have been guilty of it. We know what it is, and we know why we have it - usually to justify or shore up a belief, attitude, or version of an incident in which we have played a role.
But selective memory is not just the haphazard remembering of some things, while forgetting others. ''Selective'' memory is just that - selective: CHOOSING to remember certain facts or events and CHOOSING to forget others. And again, most of us have been guilty of it at one time or another. Depending on the circumstances, it may or may not have serious consequences.
But when the goal is to intentionally revise sacred, long-accepted understandings of a people's experience, the consequences can be quite serious indeed. This was understood already decades ago by George Orwell, the author of the iconic novel ''1984,'' when he observed: ''the most effective way to destroy a people is to deny and obliterate that people's understanding of its own history.''
Focusing on our AMERICAN experience, there are those whose selective memory would concentrate almost solely on America's moral failings. They would have us believe that this nation is - and has always been at its core - a racist, sexist, xenophobic, economically oppressive nation.
These are the folks who have excluded long-studied works of literature and philosophy from the humanities' curricula at various universities because their authors were European white men.
These are the folks who want to remove the names of our Founding Fathers from educational and civic institutions because the men for whom these institutions were originally named were not only white men, but also slave owners.
These are the essayists who want to make the case that America's founding was not only based on slavery, but that the legacy of slavery is still very much a part of the American ethos.
Yes, many of our founding fathers who set out to establish ''a more perfect union'' WERE INDEED white slave owners. But apparently, for some folks, because we haven't achieved a ''perfect union'' in 243 years, the good that HAS been achieved is really of little or no value. And...therefore how we remember our American past needs to be changed - because the flaws of these men make them unworthy of being remembered. For these people, what is ''good'' must really be ''perfect'' - there can be no bad and no ugly.
But no one is perfect. Yes, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and other founders owned slaves, and slavery was bad and it was ugly. And yet these men created what Abraham Lincoln would later refer to as ''a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.'' Lincoln spoke these words after the battle of Gettysburg - one of the bloodiest battles in what Lincoln called ''a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.'' 600,000 lives were lost in that war that was fought over slavery. That's a big test for any nation.
Lincoln was intent on freeing the slaves; and, in America's memory, he is remembered as the Great Emancipator. But Lincoln also believed that blacks were inferior and should not have the same rights as whites. In other words, even with the good that Lincoln did, there is also the bad and ugly truth that the ''Great Emancipator'' was himself a racist.
Nevertheless, regardless of Lincoln's personal views or the other political circumstances that led to his freeing of the slaves, there is no denying it was a good thing: the Emancipation Proclamation was the first MAJOR victory in America's long civil rights struggle - the climax of which would occur a century later.
And when we remember the Civil Rights Movement, two men come to mind: John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Both of them are heroes in the popular American memory. And yet...even with all the good each of them did, there is also the bad/ugly truth that both of them were notorious womanizers.
Lincoln, Kennedy, and King - all 3 were martyrs in the struggle to create ''a more perfect union,'' and many of us may remember the song that sanctified their martyrdom, ''Abraham, Martin and John.'' Indeed, they were martyrs...but they weren't saints. They were humans...
flawed humans. Their flaws were significant, but their flaws don't cancel out the good that they accomplished.
Unfortunately, it seems that of late, we Jews also have not been immune to a ''selective remembering'' of our own. Recalling our past, we too are not immune to raising up only what is good while ignoring the bad and the ugly. Or...focusing on the bad/ugly while playing down the good. When we do it, we think it is for noble reasons. But, although our intentions may be noble, selective remembering is still not honest. And because it is not honest, it is also detrimental to our collective integrity and spiritual well-being.
And...to be honest, it's not Jews on just one side of the political/religious spectrum who have selective memory: Jews on both sides - left and right - downplay or ignore parts of the Jewish experience that may not fit into their particular world view.
Example: Jews in the politically/theologically progressive camp are known for their commitment to social justice...believing that it is the most important Jewish commandment. But a JEWISH commandment is only a Jewish commandment if there is a Commander - if there is a G-d doing the commanding. But it is often the case that some Jews in this camp deny, or are ambivalent, about the existence of such a Commander; or that, in addition to the commandment of social justice, there is a whole host of additional commandments as well!
In their desire to promote Jewish morality, some of these Jews have deemed it appropriate to remove the traditional Haftarah reading for the Shabbat before Purim because it recalls G-d's command to King Saul to wipe out the nation of Amalek. You'll recall that because King Saul did just that, BUT allowed the Amalekite king to live, the Amalekite king fathered children, whose descendant was Haman. Despite the story's lesson that sometimes ''the road to hell is paved with good intentions'' - that allowing the Amalekite king to live had dire consequences for the Jewish people later on - this story is deemed inappropriate for reading in the synagogue because it recalls a time when Jews engaged in genocide and therefore needs to be excised from Jewish memory.
When it comes to the State of Israel, Jews in this camp - both Israeli and American Jews - often dwell less on Israel's achievements and more on Israel's mistreatment of Arabs over these past 70+ years while downplaying the unending violence done to Israelis by their enemies. Echoing the vilification expressed by Israel's enemies - calling it a racist, apartheid state - they ignore the fact that Israeli Arabs are able to vote and have more civil rights than their brothers and sisters in neighboring Arab countries, not to speak of the contributions that Israel has made in the fields of medicine, agriculture, and technology.
Moreover, there are now young adult Jews who are echoing what they hear on campus or read in social media: that actually Israel has no right to exist and that the millennia-old Jewish historical connection to the Land is not authentic. To repeat: Wipe out a people's history and you wipe out who/what they are.
But lest you think I'm picking only on Jews whose politics and theology are the progressive side - I'm not! Those in the politically conservative/religiously Orthodox camp ALSO are known for downplaying or ignoring those parts of the Jewish narrative that don't fit into their world view.
When it comes to our sacred texts, for example, they have been known to ignore or even re-interpret the moral flaws of certain biblical personalities - flaws which Scripture itself does not hide:
- Abraham's pimping his wife to the king of Egypt in order to save his hide
- Isaac's playing favorites among his children, with disastrous consequences
- his son Jacob doing the same thing, also with disastrous consequences
- Sarah's forcing Abraham to throw her maidservant Hagar and her son Ishmael out of the house to fare for themselves
- Rebecca's conspiring with Jacob to hoodwink Isaac and Esau to ensure that Esau doesn't receive his father's blessing
- Moses' losing his temple for a moment and thereby losing his lifelong dream to enter the Promised Land
And, of course, there's David: shepherd, poet, warrior, king, builder of Jerusalem, beloved of the Lord and ancestor of the Messiah - David, who ''got too big for his britches,'' thought he was above the Law, committed adultery, and was a party to murder.
For some Jews, these people are biblical luminaries and, therefore, must be remembered only as saints and not at all as sinners: any wrongs which Scripture reports are to be understood as only apparent and not actual - lest the good they are remembered for be cancelled out by the bad and the ugly.
And when it comes to the State of Israel, there are Jews on this side who, while insisting that the Jewish people have a G-d given right to the Land, ALSO deny or are ambivalent about the existence of such a G-d (You have a ''G-d given'' right to the Land, but you don't believe in the G-d who gave it to you? How does that work?)
And when Israel responds forcefully to attacks on its citizens, some of these Jews do respond with unbridled glee and the joy that comes with the satisfaction of vengeance - with not an ounce of regret. Apparently, they also suffer from ''selective memory'' - choosing NOT to remember G-d's rebuke to the angels when they sang praises as the Egyptians were drowning.
And speaking of Egypt: let's revisit that for a moment, because it sheds light on just how long we Jews have been doing this ''selective memory'' thing. All of us were raised to believe that, from start to finish, Egypt was simply awful...and Cecil B. DeMille's depiction of what Egypt was like certainly reinforces the image that it was the concentration camp experience of its time. But...if Egypt really was a concentration camp, if it was really soooooo bad in Egypt...then why did the people kvetch about going back? Why does the Torah specifically report that, even with everything G-d had done for them - rescuing them from Egypt, splitting the sea for them, making sure they were fed, basically the first verses of the song Dayenu, - they still complained to Moses: ''Why did you bring us to this desert? All we have to eat is this manna. We remember the fish we used to eat for free in Egypt. And we had all the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic we wanted.'' And they kvetched not once, but several times. They remembered not the lash, but the lavish food. They remembered the chow. They forgot the ''OW!'' TALK ABOUT SELECTIVE MEMORY!
So...Why does the Torah include this? Why don't our sacred texts edit out the petty and quite unheroic behavior of our biblical heroes and heroines? Why does the Book of Judges specifically include the narrative about the boorish Yiftach - who was recruited for his skills and talents as a warrior, whose efforts were blessed by G-d - but whose personality and qualities were arguably WORSE than those of a certain President?
Scripture doesn't shrink from reporting all of this because Scripture aims to report the TRUTH - the whole truth. And the sacred task of preserving memory is about preserving the truth - even when the truth hurts. Everything must be remembered: the good, the bad, and the ugly.
This is the season when everything IS remembered...at least by G-d. As we recited a few minutes ago: You remember the work of creation. You are mindful of all You have made, for there is no forgetfulness in Your presence, nothing is hidden from Your sight. During this season, when we are called to examine our deeds in order to become better - but not perfect - people, we can only do that if we ALSO remember everything - the good, the bad, and the ugly.
For us as individuals, as members of the Jewish community and as Americans, the lesson is this: we cannot ''clean up our act'' if we sanitize our past. If our collective American and Jewish conscience is indeed guarded by our collective memory, that memory must not only be energized by a passion for justice and righteousness, but also strengthened by wisdom. And what adds to that wisdom is remembering what The Baal Shem Tov once taught: remembering leads to redemption; forgetting leads to exile. Partial/selective remembering leads to partial, incomplete redemption. And partial, incomplete redemption is, by definition, not redemption at all - it is still being in exile.
May this new year see us making the effort to remember more completely and more wisely. May it see our community and our nation understand and acknowledge that only by remembering the whole truth - the good, the bad, and the ugly - both in our individual pasts and our collective pasts can we turn the bad and the ugly into the good and change past sins into merits - which is the real goal of remembering. Amen.
MAZAL TOV TO...
Maxine Leventhal who celebrated her birthday on October 26
MOVIE NIGHT...November 10, 4:00 PM
Our Jewish Film Series continues on Sunday, November 10 with the film ''King Bibi.'' Directed by Dan Shadur, this 2018 documentary charts the ascent of Israel's media-savvy prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
The brother of fallen Entebbe hero, Yoni Netanyahu, and himself a member of Israel's special forces, ''Bibi'' Netanyahu perfected his skills in communicating to the public as his political fortunes rose. This film looks at how Israel's popular yet controversial prime minister reached his peak through an American style of politicking and an uncanny knack for handling an often critical media and press.
The program begins at 4:00 p.m. A discussion will follow the 90-minute film, and pizza will be served. PLEASE CALL THE TEMPLE OFFICE TO LET US KNOW IF YOU PLAN TO ATTEND. (Thanks to Aaron Leventhal for securing this film for us.)
INTERFAITH THANKSGIVING SERVICE
You are encouraged to join with other area congregations as Temple Sholom hosts this annual service on Tuesday, November 26. The service begins at 7:00 p.m. and will include a time of coffee and refreshments after the service.
TEMPLE OFFICE CLOSED...
The Temple office will be closed on Thursday and Friday, November 28 and 29 for the Thanksgiving holiday.
~ THANK YOU ~
We appreciate the many people who gave of their time, heart, and resources to make our observance of the Days of Awe beautiful and meaningful. The community of Temple Sholom, both members and guests, would like to thank you for making a difference.
Our members who made donations for this year's Memorial booklet and the Break-the-Fast oneg
The members who said ''yes'' to ushering and participating in these services, especially as a late request
Steve Broidy and Rabbi Kozberg for leading the Cemetery Memorial service at Ferncliff Cemetery
Market on the Ridge for their donation of brown paper bags for the Food Drive
Rabbi Cary Kozberg for his pulpit and community leadership throughout these Days of Awe
Our Shofar Blowers - Rabbi Kozberg, Brian Weiss, and Itzca Zohar
Kathleen Leonard and helpers for the many setups, cleanups, and behind the scenes work
Diane Smith for the many tasks leading up to the holidays
Laurie Leventhal and Phyllis Nedelman for chairing Break-the-Fast, and the volunteers who donated kugels, cakes, and casseroles
A BIG THANK YOU to Steve Broidy for his beautiful musical leadership in the High Holy Days services and for his organization and participation with the Temple choir; our Choir members - Linda Chernick, Jacob Daniels, Priscilla Dixon, Larry Turyn, Itzca Zohar - and their accompanist, Carol Harbaugh, for their many rehearsals and hard work. Their music always adds immeasurably to the Worship Services.
Those members who participated in the Sukkot preparations: Dr. Ron Spier for providing the cornstalks; Doug Klang for reinforcing the sukkah; Itzca Zohar for providing the greens; the members who spent time decorating; and Larry Turyn and Itzca Zohar for leading Sukkot service
~ CONTRIBUTIONS ~
- In honor of Maxine Leventhal's 97th Birthday from Fern Leventhal and Family
- In memory of Dr. Harry Stone from Char Schiff
- Many thanks to Rabbi and Sheryl Kozberg for their help and support from Marvin and Sandy Silverstein
- To good friends Susie and Steve Broidy for their thoughtfulness from Marvin and Sandy Silverstein
- Wishing you long life and much happiness in your new home to Eddie and Laurie Leventhal from Stan and Phyllis Nedelman
- In honor of Marvin Silverstein's 2nd Bar Mitzvah from Stan and Phyllis Nedelman
- In memory of Bernard (''Bun'') and Gloria Zitsman from Linda Z. Chernick
- Thinking of you to Sandy Silverstein from Eddie and Laurie Leventhal
- In honor of my mother, Emily Weiler's 94th birthday and my father, Eric Weiler's yahrzeit from Valerie Hinch
- In honor of the yahrzeit for Rabbi Janice Garfunkel from Itzca Zohar
- Best wishes for a speedy and complete recovery to Sandy Silverstein from Stan and Phyllis Nedelman
~ YAHRZEIT LIST ~
NOV 1: Barbara Kempler, Sylvia Anne Lapinsky, Pearl S. Levine, Abraham Silberberg, Arthur A. Strauss, Gloria L. Zitsman, Eva Wile Friedsam, Gabriel Greenland
NOV 8: Helen Pines Alper, Morris Freed, Jacob LaSalle, Joseph S. Lessner, Hilbert Beloff (brother of Larry), Murray Ebner, Arthur Nedelman (father of Stan)
NOV 15: Gertrude Ann Donn, Jeffrey David Ebner (son of Dick), Clarence ''Van'' Gabbard, Phillip Mendelson, Joe Pollens, Percy H. Rosenfield Sr, Ilse B. Sander, Maurice Schechter, Max Stessel, Bernard W. Weiser (father of Judith), Henrietta Marks Goldman (mother of Lloyd), Ruth K. Marcus (mother of Faye Flack)
NOV 22: Joseph Ebner, Joseph Fishbain, Ida Holzman, Judy W. Kossoff, Ch. Bleme Maybruck, Harry Myers, Louis Rich, Aaron Sachs, Stanley Irwin Sachs, Joseph M. Salzer, Norma Thurman, Emilie Turyn (sister of Larry), Elick Zitsman, David M. Levitan, Norman Myron Weiser
NOV 29: Laura Ackerman (mother of Joan), Max Beloff (father of Larry), Shirley Ruth Buchfirer, Martin A. Levine (father of Jeff), Sanford ''Rik'' Newman, Ethel H. Sanders, Sarah P. Silberberg, Edward Frand, Tillie Shifman (mother of Morrey)
DEC 6: Harry Berman, Jean Block, Bertha Frand Ebner, Pearl E. Friedman, Emil Gross, Raymond Schneider (father of Bruce and Larry), Dorothy Bandman, Rose Broidy (mother of Steve), Ben Farber, Leonard Kurland, Abe Margolis (father of Maxine Leventhal), Frances Pollack