Rosh Hashanah Day 1, 5781
On Friday, May 9, 1958, Rabbi Jacob M. Rothschild, of the Hebrew Benevolent Congregation in Atlanta, delivered a sermon called “Can This Be America?”
White nationalists—terrorists—burned crosses and lynched men across the South. In 1956, a bomb misfired at Martin Luther King Jr.’s home in Montgomery. During the year leading up to his sermon, white nationalists had set bombs, or tried to set bombs, at forty-seven places—at black churches, at white schools that had begun to admit black children, at an auditorium where Louis Armstrong was playing. Most were directed at African Americans, but they were also directed at Jews, at synagogues and community centers in Charlotte, in Nashville, in Jacksonville, in Birmingham. In March 1958, some twenty sticks of dynamite, wrapped in paper yarmulkes, had exploded in an Orthodox temple in Miami.
“Our first duty is not to allow ourselves to be intimidated,” Rabbi Rothschild told his congregation that May. Five months after he delivered his sermon, fifty or so sticks of dynamite exploded at his own temple on Peachtree Street, Atlanta’s oldest synagogue, blowing a twenty-foot hole in a brick wall, toppling columns and shattering stained glass windows. “Negroes and Jews are hereby declared aliens,” said the bomber who called in to take credit.
“Can this be America?” Asked Rabbi Rothschild in his sermon.
62 years later I stand before you, my congregation and like Rabbi Rothschild I ask the very same question: “Can this be America?”
History repeats itself? Or maybe it never really changed. Whichever, but Rosh Hashanah 2020 like Rosh Hashanah 1958, finds us an angry nation, desperately in need of healing.
The battle lines are drawn: Red States vs Blue states; white nationalists vs black lives matter… Remember that old musical satire from Tom Leherer back in the 60’s celebrating National Brotherhood Week:
(Sing) “Oh, the white folks -Hate the black folks.
And the black folks,- Hate the white folks
… the poor folks, hate the rich folks
And everyone hates the Jews”
His humor was painful 50 years ago and it is no less painful today. We still haven’t learned how to live with one another have we? In 2020 hate and anger still resonates in ways that love and trust can only envy.
I could now rail against the injustices of our day, but I am reluctant to add fuel to the fire. I could preach to you about how Black Lives Matter as I believe they do. I could cry out in pain over the death of almost 200,000 people lost to a terrible disease and the unnecessary suffering of too many of them. And here I speak from the personal experience of a rabbi who stood with too many of you at the graveside of your loved ones during those early terrible days. White Supremacists chant openly in the streets of America that “Jews will not replace us!” And we are under attack just as we were in the days of Rabbi Rothschild – certainly I could give a sermon about that. And don’t even get me started about politics. So much to be angry about.
Maybe what the doctor ordered is a good righteous indignation sermon, I could pound the podium and fulfill my biblical prophetic mandate to rail against the injustice that surrounds us at every turn. Maybe that is precisely what this moment demands. I could do that. In fact – I could do it quite well. And at the end — I would certainly feel better – get it all out – right here, right now. You could be my therapy.
But at the end – I would feel better and you would feel worse and I would convince no one to do anything.
I have not come here today to aggravate you and you certainly don’t need me to tell you how wrong things are in this country right now – you certainly don’t need my help to be angry – we are all doing that quite well on our own – thank you.
No, I want to be part of the healing that so far – seems to lie beyond our reach. “Can this be America?” Rabbi Rothschild asked and I stand before you as your rabbi asking the same question he did 62 years ago. I want to be the kind of leader he was, the kind of rabbi you need me to be at this critical moment – and I am not at all sure what to say to you.
So after much thought, I decided not to speak to you at all.
I decided that the one who really needed a good talking to was me. I stand before you today to deliver a sermon that was written with only one person in mind – me. I invite you to listen in, I hope you will learn something, maybe you will agree, maybe you will disagree – but, et hatotai ani mazkir hayom – it is my sins that I wish to confront today not yours.
What does it mean to be a leader?
Rabbi Jacob Rothschild z”l was a great leader, a great rabbi. Maybe outrage comes more naturally when there is a 20-foot hole in the brick wall of your sanctuary. Maybe it is easier to speak the truth when you stand amidst the rubble of crumbled columns and shattered stained glass.
But truth be told – are we not standing in the midst of similar destruction today? And I am troubled by my silence. Do you think Isaiah or Jeremiah were worried that somebody might be offended when they railed against the injustices of their day?
And the more I wrestled with this — the more I realized this is not just a sermon for me. It is not just about my own strengths and deficiencies as a leader. For you are about to embark on a search for a new rabbi. Maybe, by letting you in on my inner dialogue, maybe I can help as you begin to quantify what you need and want in your next rabbi. You see after 26 years as your rabbi; after 42 years of being a rabbi – I have developed some opinions about what I think a good rabbi looks like and what it means to be a leader?
And it makes no difference what kind of leader you are, you might be a rabbi but you might be the leader of a shul or a business, a politician, a parent trying to lead a family; you might be trying to lead the United States – the qualities that make for a great leader are exactly the same.
There may be different areas of competency needed for each of these varied leadership roles – but the human qualities that make for a great leader, are, in all of them, exactly the same. If we want strong and healthy families, if we want strong and healthy shuls or a strong and healthy country – we need strong and healthy leaders.
Over the 4000 years of Jewish history – we Jews have known many great leaders. From Abraham to Elie Weisel, from King David to Mordechai Anielewicz – the leader of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, from Miriam with her timbrel to Golda Meir with her cigarette. They have all excelled in different ways with far different skill sets – but their human qualities were remarkably similar. And maybe the reason for this similarity — is that they all learned how to be a leader from the same person, the leader par excellence, the standard by which every future leader would be compared: Moshe Rabenu – Moses.
Moses towers over almost every other figure in our history. And not only our history – his relief is a constant presence over the gallery of Congress and there is a statue of him in the Library of Congress. The words he uttered are carved into our Liberty Bell. Christains sing their gospel hymns about him; Moslems celebrate him as Nebi Musa, and for we Jews he is Moshe Rabeinu – Moses, our rabbi, our ultimate teacher, our leader, bar none. When Blacks dreamed of freedom from slavery – they sang of Moses who led his people to the Promised land. Moses is the leader that all other leaders in the last 3500 years have been measured against.
And to understand Moses you need to understand the terrible leader he stood in opposition to: Pharaoh. The contrast between them could not be more dramatic. Pharoah is convinced he is all knowing. Moses readily admits that he is clueless when it comes to leading a people. Pharaoh is impressed with his own wisdom and qualifications; Moses is overwhelmed by his deficiencies and inadequacies. When Pharaoh gets the idea to enslave the Hebrews he is immediately convinced that it is the best and wisest idea: “Come, we will show how wise we can be with this people…” (Ex. 1:10)
And as evidence to the contrary begins to trickle in, as plague after plague begins to mount and the suffering to his own people increases, as it becomes clearer and clearer that maybe his was not such a good and wise idea – pharaoh is incapable of learning, of admitting that he might have been wrong. One of my teachers said that a subtitle for the Torah could have been: “The Education of Moses.” Moses is the teacher who forever remains an eager student – willing to learn and to grow. The Moses we see at the end of Deuteronomy is a far different man and leader than the one we first meet in Exodus.
When looking for your new rabbi – look for a good teacher, of course – but even more importantly, look for a good student who is willing to accompany you on a lifelong journey of learning, growth and development.
Who do you think will be the better parent, the better business leader, the better politician? The one who knows it all or the one who admits that he or she has much to learn. Pharaoh was impressive, no doubt about that. But Moses led his people to the Promised Land as Pharaoh’s troops drowned in the sea.
In Pharaoh, the Bible introduces us to one of the most enduring metaphors in world literature: Pharaoh’s hard heart. Pharaoh’s hard heart is not a coronary condition. The bible is not giving us insight into the nature of pharaoh’s circulatory system – but it is giving us insight into the nature of his soul.
And if Pharaoh is he of the hard heart, what do we know about Moses’ heart? One of the earliest stories that the Bible shares with us about Moses is the time he came out of the palace and saw the Egyptian taskmaster beating the Hebrew slave? He is moved to act on behalf of the vulnerable and powerless. We are told so little about Moses’ early years but what we are told is that he was a man of compassion and empathy, moved on behalf of those who suffer and in need. If Pharaoh was a hard-hearted leader, Moses was determined to lead with love and compassion – his was the soft heart.
Looking for a new rabbi? I recommend you check out his or her heart. A great leader can always get good advice from those who are smarter, but the rabbis insist that in taking the measure of a person we place the measuring tape – around their heart – not around their head. It is the size of the heart not the size of the ego or the intellect that makes for the best leaders.
Where did Moses’ empathy and humanity come from? He didn’t learn it by having Pharoah as a mentor. Egyptain royalty was not known for its compassion and sensitivity. The midrash suggests that when Bat Pharaoh, when Pharaoh’s daughter found Moses floating in the basket in the Nile and brought him into the palace to raise him as her own, she needed a wet nurse – someone to care and feed him. According to this midrash, Yocheved, Moses’ actual mother was chosen for the job. And according to this same midrash in addition to feeding and caring for him, Yocheved raised him with the values and sensitivities that would eventually produce one of the greatest leaders in world history.
In the Talmud – the essential quality of a Jew is that we are rachmanim b’nai rachmanim – “we are compassionate children of compassionate parents. (Bavli, Kiddushin 4a). The Hebrew word for compassion – rachamim – literally comes from the root rechem which means a mother’s womb. Jewish compassion the hallmark of our people springs from our mothers – who in the tradition of Yocheved raised generation after generation of Jewish children and Jewish leaders with compassion. Looking for a new rabbi – talk to their mother.
Power too often leads to arrogance which too often leads to cruelty. This is what Moses witnessed being played out before him. But Moses was not Pharaoh – he represented a radically new kind of leader. When Moses stood before Pharaoh, the most powerful man on earth, he had nothing.When Moses demanded: “Let My People Go!” He stood at the behest of a God who could not be seen and a people who were slaves. Moses had “nothing” and Pharaoh had “everything” but you know how the story ended. Love triumphs over hate every time. It may take awhile. A lot of damage may be done in the interim – but the story always ends with love. I know you are going to tell me that history does not exactly seem to be a love story – especially for we Jews. But it is, it really is. This is my story, our story and I’m sticking to it.
Throughout his life Moses was a model of humility and modesty. In Numbers 12:3 it states: V’ha Ish Moshe Anav M’od, mikol adam asher al p’nay hadadama. “Now Moses was a very humble man, more so than any other man on earth.”
The Torah speaks to Moses’ humility – and wants us to understand that not only was he humble, but when it came to humility, he was the Gold Medal Olympic champion – there was no one in the world more humble than him. Do you think there is any relationship between Moses – the greatest leader the world has ever known – and Moses the most humble person the world has ever known – naw couldn’t be – could it?
The truly great leader is able to turn experience into graciousness. It starts with the recognition that any success that has come into your life – is not a result of your strength, your brilliance, your insight or your talent – (although a good dose of these things can be very helpful) – no the best things in life are fully undeserved.
The people we admire most — are all humble and gracious. Theirs, like Moses’, is a quiet strength, a soft power. Kindness is not a weakness but the essential element of their true strength.
The prophet Hosea said it best: Higid lecha adam ma tov u’mah adonai doreysh mimcha – “It has been told thee O’ Man what is good and what the Lord requires of Thee: To seek justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.”
All those questionnaires about what are the qualities you would like to see in your new rabbi? My advice to the Rabbinic Search committee is just remember what Hoshea said and you can’t go wrong. Find someone who has a passion for justice, embodies graciousness and kindness and is humble – and I promise you will have a phenomenal rabbi. Hosea told me so.
I don’t know if any of you are Louise Penny fans. She is a mystery writer. I’ve read all her books. I read her latest Inspector Gamache novel over the summer as I was working on this sermon and it dawned on me that one of the reasons I loved her books was because her protagonist, Inspector Gamache the head of the Surritte De Quebec, is precisely the kind of leader that I have been speaking about. I know he is a fictional character – but I find his gentle wisdom and incredible inner strength a welcome escape from the non-fictional leaders that fill our news cycles. At one point, Inspector Gamache gives one of his acolytes some advice. I would like to share it with you. “Before you open your mouth to speak”, Gamache said – “ask yourself three questions: Is it true? Is it kind? Does it need to be said?” Truth, kindness and discretion -this is the foundation upon which a humane society is built – these are worthy traits in a rabbi – in a leader of any kind. Can you imagine how much pain and aggravation we could have avoided these last few years if our national leaders would have just asked themselves these three questions before they spoke? “Is it true? Is it kind? Does it need to be said?”
Can you imagine how much pain and aggravation could be avoided in our own lives if everyone of us would just ask ourselves these three questions before we speak: “Is it true? Is it kind? Does it need to be said?”
And finally, the rabbis ask, why did God need Moses at all? Why didn’t God lead us to the Promised land b’chvodo v’veatzmo? Why did he need a middle man, Moses merely to repeat His words?
In his famous commentary to the Torah, Rashi attempts to answer this question by stating: “God spoke to Moses, because Moses was willing to listen.”
The Israelites were more interested in talking to God, in verbalizing their own desires and wants. They were more interested in being heard by God than in hearing what God had to say to them. It is as if God said to Moses: “They are not listening to Me – you give it a try.”
Which brings me to the last thing you need to look for in your new rabbi, in any leader, in any arena – someone who knows how to listen.
I have no doubt that Pharaoh was a much better speaker than Moses was. What is the only thing that the Bible tells us about Moses’ speaking ability? Yup – he was kaved peh – he had some kind of a speech impediment. And yet – he was God’s choice for leadership.
And thousands of years later we still think that when it comes to leadership, talking is more important than listening.
I realize there is a certain irony in the fact that I am giving a sermon on the importance of listening. Rabbis do a lot of talking. We teach, we preach, we speak at funerals and weddings and Bar/Bat Mitzvahs and baby namings. Some of you have very kindly said to me – I am going to miss these sermons. I hope the new rabbi will speak as well as you.” I always say thank you when I get such a compliment – I try and receive these compliments with humility and graciousness (an aspect of leadership I have already spoken about) – but I’ll let you in on a secret: Whether or not my successor speaks as well as I do? I just hope, for your sake, he listens better than me.
Over the past 26+ years my most precious moments with many of you – are moments when I said absolutely nothing. You turned to me at a critical moment in your life – you poured out your heart to me – and I listened.
I have sat with many of you over the years – in your living rooms and kitchens, in hospital rooms and funeral chapels – I have held your hand as you shared your pain and sorrow – and if you think back on those moments – you will realize that I said very little. I held your hand, I gave you a hug (once upon a time we were able to do those things)- and I am always amazed that when it comes time for me to leave and I am feeling so inadequate that I had offered you so little in the way of guidance, so few words of wisdom – you will inevitably say: “Thank you rabbi, you have been such a great help, I feel much better.” Were you just being polite? I suspect sometimes it was nothing more than that – but I have learned not to underestimate the power of being a sympathetic listener. The rabbis suggest that God gave us two ears but only one mouth as God wanted us to listen more and to speak less.
For the past 26 years I have had the privilege of being your rabbi. We have done a lot of good things together – -but there is so much more I could have done, should have done. But, through it all you have been with me, supported me and loved me – and as a result I did not have to go it alone. And I hope you feel that I have been there for you and with you – that you did not have to go it alone.
The true leader does not walk out front saying follow me, or from behind telling others the way to go. No, a true leader is the one who walks by our side – holding our hand, figuring it out together with us. Isn’t that what the Torah portion for this Rosh Hashanah says about father Abraham and his son Isaac as they journeyed to that terrible, awful moment that would change their lives forever – v’shnayhem holchu yahdav – the two of them walked together.
This is not goodbye — looks like we will journey a little longer together. This was supposed to be my final year as your rabbi, my last Rosh Hashna sermon, but our leadership has asked me to extend my retirement by one year to allow us to get through this terrible and awful ordeal of the Coronavirus and I have agreed.
But as you begin your search for a new rabbi in earnest – I hope you will remember my words – but more importantly I hope you will remember the example of Moses and Abraham and Hoshea. Examples of leadership that resonate throughout the ages.
Can this be America? Yes, I am afraid it can and I am afraid it will be until we learn to do what leaders and rabbis greater than I were always willing to do: to confront hatred and bigotry – look it straight in the eye and call it out for what it is.
I am not that rabbi. I hope your next one will be better. But for 26 years my message has been a simple one: always choose trust and respect over fear and anger.
Our salvation will not come from yelling at each other or preaching to one another. No it will come only with a willingness to learn from one another; a desire to walk humbly with each other and an ability to open our hearts and listen to the other.
For 26 years I have tried to listen to you. I hope that you are listening to me today.