This is my Erev Rosh Hashanah sermon

You might know that I am a theater lover, particularly musical theater.   While in college I did 3 years of summer theater, participating in a number of musicals. My time playing small roles and being in the chorus taught me an important early lesson in life – I was not talented enough to make a career in musical theater. I saw the leading players, who were trying to make it in NY, struggling, spending their time as waiters, waitresses or doormen.

Over the years I have seen many shows, in NY, London, and other major cities, as well as community productions. Needless to say I am a pretty hard critic of theatrical productions – of both the quality of the presentation as well as the content of the play itself. I dismiss a lot of musical theater as “trite,” especially when I can finish the rhymes in songs before I hear them, or when I see the story line as insipid. There are the shows I have seen too many times and never want to see again – like Oklahoma.

Yes, I am really picky about the shows I like. In June, however, I saw Hamilton. I am completely obsessed with it! Hamilton might be the most brilliant musical theater production I have ever seen.   You see, I gravitate towards shows that bring change to musical theater. For example, in 1957 West Side Story opened on Broadway and brought issues of racism to the forefront of the stage. In 1965 Man of La Mancha presented a play within a play. A Chorus Line gave us an inside look at how theater works based on Michael Bennett’s observations of aspiring dancers auditioning for parts at a workshop. In 1987 Les Miserable eliminated dialogue from the show – creating a Broadway style opera – and used musical themes to subtly connect the story lines of opposite characters. Now there is Hamilton, a show that pushes the boundaries of musical theater to new limits in order to teach us lessons on our history, about who we are, and the true makeup of our nation.

In his unique telling of the narrative of Alexander Hamilton’s life, the show’s creator, Lin Manuel Miranda treats the history of the founding of our country with great reverence and respect. Unlike most representations of American history, however, Miranda’s story telling method brings light to aspects of the history, and our nation’s current makeup, that are often overlooked or buried. Too often our history is portrayed in a way that only recognizes a certain group of white, influential figures. “Hamilton” adds a deeper perspective of our history.

How? Well there are two obvious ways. First, his score is a conglomeration of musical styles: hip hop, rock, jazz and classical Broadway – which includes ballads and blues. He uses hip hop to highlight revolutionary activities – not just in the war but to emphasize how our republic was formed and operated. The flow of musical styles from number to number is seamless.   This mishmash of musical style acts as a metaphor for the diversity that makes up our country, which can be eye opening yet essential to the way our country is structured and operates. One of the most classical Broadway style numbers is sung by King George, thus representing the “Old World” as opposed to America’s new ways of doing things, which is often presented by hip hop or rap. During some of his musical numbers Miranda tips his hat to prior musicals with lyrical connections to shows, such as “South Pacific,” “1776” and “HMS Pinafore.” These references, just like the varying musical styles are (I believe) meant to show how our country is a sum total of diverse sources, and that all of these sources are a necessary component of who we really are.

A second teaching tool is the casting. Three key characters in this story are slave owning Virginians, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison – 3 of our first 4 presidents. All of them are played by African Americans. Indeed, the cast of this show breaks all the boundaries of the old school approach to theatrical casting. The mixture of different races and ethnicities hammers home the lesson that our country was founded for everyone, and its story belongs to everyone, not just an elite group of wealthy white men.

Even more, from its very beginning, the show makes sure we understand that it was more than well-known founding fathers who contributed to the strength of our country. For example, during a scene that depicts a cabinet debate over Hamilton’s proposed financial plan, Jefferson states (in a rap style) that Virginia is wealthy, successful and plants seeds, so why should Virginians take on the debt of other states like New York. Hamilton replies (also in rap style) that we know who was actually planting the seeds for Virginians (i.e. slaves) and that Virginians were profitable because of slavery. The message is clear. Not only is slavery wrong (highlighted numerous times in the show), but black slaves were the unseen, unacknowledged resource that provided the platform for Virginians’ (and other southern states) claimed success.

The essence, then, of the lessons Hamilton teaches us is this. Through a radical change in the way show is written and cast, we learn about the diversity of our country from its very beginning, and the contributions of all ethnicities to our country. These facts have always been part of our history – just hidden in the standard historical presentations.   We are, and have always been, a conglomerate of contributors to the building of our country’s success. Sometimes we resist accepting that fact. Lin Manuel Miranda’s work through Hamilton enhances our perspective on American history.

So what does this have to do with us Jews, or Rosh Hashanah? Well, our story is the same. We are made up of varied ethnicities, multiple traditions, and many sources – often from outside the Jewish world. And these outside sources have changed the essence of Judaism, of the Jewish people. Since there is not a Broadway musical to help show these facts, I will share a number of historical examples with you. And please forgive me for not being able to do it in rap style.

The first example, however, is connected to a piece of music we all know (sing a verse of Ma Tovu). According to the Torah, these are the words of Balaam, a non Israelite prophet hired by king Balak to curse the Israelites. If you want to read the full story of Balaam and Balak, see Numbers chapters 22 through 24. You will be very amused, especially by Balaam’s talking donkey that I believe was the inspiration for the old TV show, “Mr. Ed.” On the way to curse the Israelites Balaam encounters God, who changes his mission. Instead of cursing the Israelites, Balaam blesses them with the words of Ma Tovu.

Who exactly is Balaam? Well, Jewish tradition is very hard on Balaam. One midrash says he was destined to be a prophet to the world, and was of greater intelligence than Moses, but was morally deficient. Another says he was an advisor to Pharaoh in Egypt. The Talmud teaches that his name is a play on the Hebrew words balah am which means “he devoured people.” Yet his characterization in the Torah makes him seem like a decent man – just a bit befuddled. Given the strange episode about Balaam in Numbers, it is easy to think he is just a mythological character. However, inscriptions found on a wall in Deir ‘Alla, an ancient town in Jordan, refer to a real Balaam, who is connected with the God Ishtar. He apparently did good deeds on behalf of the people living in that valley.

Why is any of this significant? Because the words of Ma Tovu, which open every Jewish morning service, are attributed to a foreign prophet who archeology shows identified with a non-Israelite god. This, however, is only the beginning of a history of the influence of outside sources on Judaism and Jewish tradition.

After the conquest of the Persian province of Judah in roughly 332 BCE, Greek culture greatly affected Jewish tradition, making significant additions and changes to Jewish practice. During the last 2 centuries BCE, Hellenistic culture had made significant inroads into all aspects of Jewish life. In literature, Biblical stories were recast in Greek mode. For example, Joseph’s story from Genesis was retold as “Joseph and Asenath,” in which Joseph was cast as having the powers of a demi-god, such as Hercules. Joseph is described as coming from the sun on a chariot, bringing the suns rays with him.

We can thank Greek thought for some key ideas we now identify as Jewish – most significantly the concept of an eternal soul. This opens the door to a real discussion of life after death – what really happens after we die? Is there something that lives on? The oldest parts of the Hebrew Bible give no real description or belief in afterlife, but after adopting the idea of the soul, it permeates Judaism. The rabbinic schools of thought, exemplified by the schools of Hillel and Shammai, are based on the schools of Greek philosophical thought. Further, we see a vestige of Greek influence every Pesach when we have the children search for the afikomen during our seder.

Just as there was Jewish pushback against Balaam, there is a long history of Jewish pushback against Greek influence. The Maccabean revolt grew out of a conflict between two groups of Jews: those who wanted to assimilate more into Greek culture and those who saw that assimilation as a threat to Jewish existence and tradition. The Talmud contains much debate on whether Jews should be allowed to study Greek language as well as Greek thought. In the end it is allowed, but not without many objections and arguments.

By the 7th century CE, much of the Jewish population had fallen under Islamic rule. The Islamic culture of the middle ages was one of high intellectual and scientific achievement. A group of Moslem thinkers worked hard to mitigate the seeming contradictions between philosophy and science on the one hand, and theology on the other. The exact same exercise happened in the Jewish world, led by theologians such as Saadia ben Yosef and Maimonides. Both Moslem and Jewish thinkers were studying and applying the philosophic works of Plato and Aristotle to their religions. In 9th century Babylon, for example, Saadia ben Yosef used philosophic reasoning to prove creation ex nihilo and to demonstrate the importance of free will in Jewish observance.

But the influence of Islam on Judaism is even simpler than philosophical. The kippah or yarmulke that many of us wear does not originate in Torah. Research indicates we adopted wearing head coverings to show subservience to God, from the Moslem culture in Babylonia. It took only a few centuries for this to be so identified as something essentially Jewish that by the middle ages a rabbi was consulted on whether halachah permitted prayer services if the men do not wear a head covering. His response was while it was technically ok, it did not feel appropriate.

Even Christianity has influenced the development of modern Judaism. One notable example is the role of the rabbi. Traditionally the rabbi was a teacher, interpreter and judge of law and a community leader. His role was not to lead prayer services, or to provide pastoral care. As Jews became more integrated into Christian communities in Europe and America through the 18th and 19th centuries, rabbis became the Jewish versions of Protestant ministers. There are certainly many factors that contributed to this change, but the change is a fact.

You see, change is a reality that we often resist. Change is built into the very structure of the world from the moment it was created – and that is not just a scientific perspective. Every day of creation described in the first chapter of Genesis describes changes God made to the world. The rabbinic explanation for the second chapter of Genesis that retells the creation story differently than the first chapter, is that God recognized the need to change what was originally created, so God changed creation. Change is built into the DNA of the world.

Change brought by outsiders who we often see as others or even enemies, is a fact we loathe to accept. Yet that is the reality of life. No person, group, religion, or country can live in isolation from the influences of the rest of the world. It is our personal biases and inhibitions that prevent us from accepting the fact that our nation, our religion, and ourselves are all the result of amazing diversity and interaction with others – often our opposites – who cause change.

Yet, that is not the very essence of change. Real change is not just about the changes caused by the nature of the world around us. Real change is about adjusting our perspective, to accept the reality of what the world is – a sea of change – and not be stuck in our preconceived notions guided by our instincts. Real change is about our ability to be open to learning, listening, and even changing our thoughts and beliefs, sometimes in radical ways. And there is a musical play about this. It is Ground Hog Day, a musical based on the movie starring Bill Murray. Do you remember it? Murray is an obnoxious newsman who gets stuck in reliving the same day over and over again. The events of the day do not change, but Murray changes. He becomes a better, more caring person who appreciates the reality of his existence and those around him.

That is the essence of change. The facts of the world are there. How do we perceive them? Are we open to them or not? Are we ready to always learn and modify our perspective on those facts or not? Are we open to learning more of them and thus challenge our biases or not?

Now is the moment appropriate to engage in the self-reflection necessary for personal change. Tonight begins Rosh Hashanah. We always interpret that as the beginning of the year. But the word Shanah also means “change.” Tonight is the beginning of change, your change, my change. Look at this as an opportunity to grow, to learn, to reach a level you have not encountered before. I hope we all embrace this chance. I am. For as Lin Manuel Miranda says playing the character Alexander Hamilton, “I am not throwing away my shot!”

The Day After

This story is based on 4 quotes from Genesis and 2 midrashic references

“And Abraham returned to his young servants. They arose and went together to Be’er Sheva; and Abraham stayed in Be’er Sheva.” Genesis 22:19

It was the day after the worst day in Abraham’s life. He was thinking hard about a life’s journey that was closing in on 100 years. Leaving his family’s home in Haran – was hard. Trusting that he had properly understood God’s directive to him to travel to Canaan, thus leaving his mother and brothers – was hard; especially since Sarah questioned his motives. Dealing with Sarah’s grief over their infertility was hard. Dealing with Sarah’s jealousy of Hagar after Ishmael was born was hard. Having to expel Hagar and Ishmael from their family’s camp was unbearably hard, but God confirmed Sarah’s wish to Abraham, so he did not question it.

Now, here he was, on the day after the worst day in his life. Believing he had once again understood God’s demand, he had taken his son Isaac, to the top of Moriah. Fortunately he left his two young servants at the bottom of the mountain, as he was ashamed to have them witness what he thought God had commanded him to do – to slaughter Isaac as a sacrifice to God. But he did not slaughter Isaac. God sent a messenger at the last minute, literally as Abraham held the knife above Isaac’s neck as he laid shivering with fear on the altar, to stop him, to tell him God knew of Abraham’s loyalty and did not want him to sacrifice his son. A ram appeared and Abraham sacrificed it instead. He felt incredibly relieved. He figured since the incident was over, and Isaac was safe, all of them could go home and continue a normal life.

But that was not to be.

As they were leaving Moriah to meet up with their young servants, Isaac made it clear he could no longer bear to be with his father. “How could you possibly think that the God who cares about human life, would command you to sacrifice me?” Isaac demanded. “You taught me devotion to our God was better than how our neighbors worshipped their various idols, some of whom you told me demand child sacrifice. How can you now say God is any better than Ba’al or Ashteroth?”

“Son, you don’t understand.” Abraham replied. “There are many times we just have to trust our faith in God and not question Him. God was testing me. I don’t know why or for what purpose, but I had to follow God’s command.”

“Nonsense,” said his son. “That’s not how you reacted to God when He told you He was about to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gemorah because of their sins. You stood up for those cities filled with awful people. Why would you not stand up for me? Am I too awful to live?”

“No,” his father replied. “You are anything but awful. God was making a demand of me, not just telling me what He was going to do. There is a difference.”

“If that is how you think, I can’t go home with you.” Isaac said in disgust.

“But what will I tell your mom if you don’t return with me?” Abraham asked his distraught son.

“Tell her I went to a school to get some training in some useful skill. I can’t believe anything you teach me. I need to be away from you. You might think all is OK just because you didn’t kill me, but I have to separate from you to try and understand your insanity.”

“Then I will tell your mom you went to study God’s word with Shem and Ever,” (1) Abraham replied.

“They’re dead Dad. Gosh, I cannot stand your inability to see and confront the truth. Damn, I hope I don’t inherit your blindness to reality!”

So Isaac did not descend Moriah with his father. When Abraham met up with his servants at the bottom of the mountain, they asked where Isaac was. He mumbled something about going off to some school. They did not question him, but they could tell their master was disturbed. In his heart Abraham knew he should go directly home, but he just could not find the nerve to face Sarah. She was way too smart to accept any lie or story about what happened on Moriah. She would be angry that Isaac was not with him. She would be suspicious of any story Abraham told her. Even worse, Abraham knew that on most issues, God affirmed Sarah’s perspective. He did not have the strength to face her recriminations. He realized what a tremendous wrong he had committed to Isaac. Somehow he had misunderstood what God really wanted.   And he had wronged Sarah, by not even telling her that he and Isaac were leaving their camp near Hebron, let alone telling her what he had thought God was demanding. He knew the right thing to do was to return home, to Hebron, to pour his heart out in honesty to Sarah. However, he did not have the nerve. So he went to Be’er Sheva.

Abraham and his young servants found an inn in Be’er Sheva. The 2 young men with him, who worked mostly as shepards, loved the opportunities there. It was a town filled with entertainment, places to drink and eat, and best of all, gorgeous women, who made themselves readily available. So they enjoyed city life. Abraham, however, barely left his room at the inn except to eat. He sat brooding, trying to figure out how to handle things when he eventually headed home. How could he get Isaac to return. How to make peace with Sarah. Unsurprisingly, each day that Abraham avoided going home to Hebron increased his anxiety. In his heart he knew he was failing by not returning to Sarah, by not talking to her honestly about his mistakes, about his now broken relationship with their son. He confronted the truth that it would be Sarah, not himself, who would be able to sit and speak sense to Isaac. But Abraham was a broken man. For the first time he actually felt the weight of his years, the weight of all he had forced Sarah to experience because of his relationship with this invisible God. Yet, if he would be completely honest with himself, God was telling him to go home, to repair his relationship with Sarah. He just could not.

However, Abraham also realized he could not let Sarah sit and wait without hearing from him. So he sent his two young servants. “Go home to Hebron,” he told them. “Tell Sarah I am in Be’er Sheva conducting business, getting some things we need for our herds and household. Assure her all is OK and do not mention that Isaac is not with me.” The two lads then left for Hebron, sad to be leaving the night life of Be’er Sheva, but knowing they had to carry out their master’s demands.

Now Abraham was truly alone. He felt agitated. He could not sleep. His mind was tortured by his torn relationship with Isaac. He kept trying to figure out what he would say to Sarah.

It was late at night. Abraham could no longer stand the mental torture of being alone in his room, so he began wandering in the streets of Be’er Sheva. This was before the Israelite presence of later years dominated the town, so there were a number of cultic temples throughout the city. Some employed prostitutes. Abraham walked in the night without any awareness of where he was going. He did not know he had strayed into an area of prostitution. A very young woman approached him. “You look lost and lonely sir.” She said. “I can help you feel better. Come with me. You look like you are suffering. Let me ease your pain.” It took a minute or so until Abraham realized she was speaking to him. When he finally looked at her, he saw her as an alluring, beautiful woman, who was beckoning him, inviting him. In his state of mental confusion, Abraham followed her, wordlessly, into the side room of a small cultic temple. There he lay with her and fell asleep.

He awoke hours later, his head in her arms. He sat up sharply. “What have I done!?” he thought disturbingly. He turned and saw the beautiful young woman and the worst of his fears overcame him. “What have I done!?” he now said aloud. “You have spent the night with me, my lord,” she replied. The disaster of his time in Be’er Sheva now came sharply into focus. He had betrayed Sarah in the worst possible way. Yes, technically Abraham could be with any woman he desired, and marry as many as he wished, but in his heart he knew his treatment of Sarah had fallen to the lowest of the low. He then had a second revelation. If he was truly taking the teachings of his God seriously, then he had also done this young woman wrong.

“What is your name?” he asked her. “Keturah,” she replied. “Keturah, a beautiful name. Keturah, please forgive me but I have committed a terrible sin with you. I must and will make this right with you.” “Whatever you pay me will be enough,” Keturah replied. “No,” said Abraham. “That is not how my God says I am to treat a woman that I have been with. I am sorry, I must return to my home near Hebron to be with my family, but I promise this – I will return soon and take you to be my wife. You will live a life of comfort, and I will take care of you.” “As you wish my lord,” answered Keturah. She smiled to herself, knowing that if they did indeed marry, it would be a far better life than she could have ever before imagined. And if they did not, her life would be as it was, a zonah in the service of he idol she worshipped.

So finally Abraham headed home to his camp near Hebron. It did not even take him a day. As he rode home on his donkey he worked through in his mind how he would sit and speak honestly to Sarah, how he would tell her the truth about Isaac, what he thought God told him to do, and to deeply apologize for not telling Sarah and for suddenly disappearing from her with Isaac several days earlier. He looked back on his life and realized the burdens he had placed on Sarah each step of the way. He decided to begin by acknowledging to his wife that his decisions had not made her life easy. He realized how deeply he loved Sarah, how much her wisdom, her presence, completed his life. He knew he had to do repentance, to ask her forgiveness. Yes, he was old, but he felt he still had time to try to make things right with Sarah. Abraham was afraid, but now he was also determined.

Earlier, I shared with you Genesis 22:19, the last verse of the account of Abraham and Isaac on Moriah. Here now is Genesis 23:2, six verses later at the beginning of the next weekly Torah portion. “And Sarah died in Hebron, in the land of Canaan. And Abraham came to grieve for Sarah, and to weep for her.”

When Abraham arrived at his camp, he knew immediately something was wrong. Eliezer, his most trusted and chief servant, greeted him with despair engraved on his face. “Eliezer, my friend, what is wrong?’ Abraham asked. “Master, Sarah is dead. The two lads who arrived yesterday are on their way back to Be’er Sheva to tell you. They did not tell us when you were coming home.”

Abraham ran into his wife’s tent. There she lay, motionless, with an expression of deep shock on her face. Abraham embraced her and cried. Eliezer waited patiently at the entrance to the tent. Finally Abraham looked up at him and asked, “When did this happen? How did this happen? She was not ill or feeling sick when I left here.” “Master,” replied Eliezer. “They day you left, Sarah woke up and was distressed to find you and Isaac gone. She told me to send some of our folks out to seek out where you had gone. About 3 days later, a man came here named Sama-el. He told Sarah that you had taken Isaac to Mt. Moriah to kill him, to sacrifice him to your God. Upon hearing his words, she screamed, clutched her heart and collapsed. (2) Master, why is Isaac not with you? Is he truly dead?”

His servant would never vocalize his inner thoughts, but Abraham knew from the expression on Eliezer’s face the disdain he was feeling because of the thought Isaac was dead. “No, Eliezer. Isaac is alive. He decided to attend a school to enrich some of his skills. We will send someone to bring him home to mourn for his mother. Meanwhile I will buy an appropriate place for her burial.”

Abraham was trying to be stoic, to present strength in the face of tragedy. But inside, he churned, he grieved, he tried to reconcile the loss of Sarah before having a chance to talk to her, to repent for the wrongs he had slammed upon her. He had no idea how to handle his guilt. What could he possibly do? How could he possibly repent? Sarah was gone and he had to live with that responsibility.

Abraham had no idea how to manage his guilt. Sarah was gone. There was no way to ever redeem himself with her. In his mind, life was now a failure. He could only think of two things left he could possibly do. First, he knew that Isaac would not only bear resentment towards him, but would deeply grieve over the loss of his mother. So Abraham had to find a wife for Isaac; someone who was as strong and smart as Sarah; someone who could be Isaac’s rock throughout his life, who would be a source of wisdom. So he sent Eliezer back to Nahor, where, he heard, there were some exceptional women, one of whom might be a great partner for Isaac. Isaac might never forgive Abraham for Moriah, but Abraham knew he had to do something to secure Isaac’s future.

The second thing Abraham knew he had to do was to marry Keturah. He truly had no real interest in having a young partner. She could never be what Sarah was. But she was alive and he could do what was right for her. Abraham could not let her live a life as a prostitute. He had been with her. God’s law demanded he marry her. As we learn in Genesis 25:1 “And Abraham went on and took a wife and her name was Keturah.”

I am sure that no one in this room has ever tried to sacrifice a child, at least physically, but perhaps emotionally. I am also sure that every adult in this room has faced a crisis, has had a moment when your actions have created deep pain for your loved ones. I am sure that everyone here has struggled with how to do repentance, has faced fear over having to do teshuvah. How do we handle that moment? I am sure that all of us have had that horrific “day after” our misdeed, in which we churn and grieve over our action. What did we do? Did we hide and delay? That is human nature. Were we honest with ourselves? We know that a delay in confronting the realities of our lives, as hard as that confrontation might be, will only increase and prolong the pain. Yes, we know that. Yet too often we fail to act on that – which is why we need this time of the Yamim Nora’im – the time of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

For this time of year forces us to confront the reality of who we are, of what to do. If we are serious about trying to correct our paths, to heal the wounds we have caused; we should not only engage in confession and repentance, but we try to find actions that can create a new, more positive direction. We cannot reverse the past. We cannot erase the tragedy we might have caused. All we can do is commit to what is necessary to create a new path. One that builds a better alternative to the path we have tarnished. This is Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of a new year. It is called Yom Hadin, the Day of Judgment. We must judge ourselves. Honestly. We do not have to stay mired in the mud of the past.

Abraham could not correct all that happened on Moriah. But he tried to create a new path. The Torah states the following upon Abraham’s death, and I believe it is connected to the path of repentance Abraham chose, “and God blessed, Isaac, his son.” – Genesis 25:11.

May we commit to honest self assessment. May we commit to repentance that begins a new, more righteous path. May this bring God’s blessing upon you and yours as well.

  1.  Genesis Rabbah 56:11
  2. Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer chapter 32

On September 9, 2016, at a fundraising event with the LGBT community in New York, Hillary Clinton referred to Trump supporters as “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic,” and said half of his supporters should be in a “basket of deplorables.” Anyone with a sense of political strategy knew that Clinton’s statement was just plain stupid. It caused many who leaned towards Trump to rally and come together. Soon t-shirts were proudly worn self identifying as the deplorables designated by Clinton. Her statement infused the wallowing Trump campaign with new energy. Yes, it was completely stupid.

But it was also true.

The proof became plain on Friday August 11 and Saturday August 12 through the demonstrations held by various ultra nationalist, white supremacist, and neo Nazi groups in Charlottesville, VA. Go online and look at the images of this group of demonstrators. You will see groups carrying Nazi flags, you will see on Friday night “alt-right” protesters carrying torches that stirred memories of KKK rallies against African Americans. Worst of all, a young man identified as attending the rallies to support his own alt-right views, drove a car into a crowd of counter protesters, killing one and injuring at least 19 others. The video is frightening.

Do you need more proof? Well David Duke, former head of the KKK declared before the protests that these were meant to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump. What promises? Well throughout the whole Trump campaign were constant statements, some blatant, some shady, that signaled to those groups now protesting in Charlottesville, VA that Trump was sympathetic to their feelings.

Yes, it is Trump who holds onto this basket of deplorables.

And he continues to do so even in the wake of the violence caused by the rallies of racist, neo-Nazi groups. Beginning with his morning tweets, Trump has failed to call out these groups by who and what they are. In a formal statement later Saturday afternoon, he condemned “hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides.” On many sides? The implication is that the situation is equally the fault of the counter protesters against racism. This creates a false dichotomy that protesters who believe in evil policies (anti-Semitism, racism, white supremacy) and those who come out to demonstrate against prejudice are equally responsible for society’s problems.

The failure to outright condemn these groups by name further clarifies exactly what Trump is because of the contrast to so many other Republicans and conservatives who have quickly and appropriately condemned these groups and their ideals.  All of this lines up with his failure to 1) mention that Jews were the primary victims of the Holocaust on Holocaust Remembrance day 2) encourage police to be more aggressive and not acknowledge the tragedy of blacks being killed by police. 3) Failure to condemn the bombing of a mosque in Minnesota. 4) failure to apologize to President Obama for his years of leading the birther movement, instead saying his investigations were a good thing.

The basket of deplorables contains a lot more folks than those who demonstrated in Charlottesville. It includes Breitbart News, which tries to justify all Trump does despite mounting evidence of prejudice, sexism and lies. It includes Sean Hannity for simply being a Trump acolyte. It includes any American who cannot see the connection between Trump’s words, mannerisms and behavior and the events that have unfolded in Charlottesville, VA.

Finally, deplorables try to justify Trump by criticizing statements by Obama during his presidency. Did President Obama make mistakes? Absolutely, as no human being is perfect. But he was and is a thoughtful, moral man whose demeanor and behavior inspired calmness and decency. To not see the difference is deplorable.

Once again the issue of immigration has risen to the forefront, creating yet another layer of confrontation in our already super contentious political arena. Usually the immigration argument is over handling “illegal” immigrants. Now there is a new issue, providing a limitation on legal immigration in a manner never before considered in the United States. The new proposal would institute a point system in which those who score the highest points would be awarded entry visas. The key ways to earn points are by age (mid to late 20’s), ability to speak English, having a job offer in the United States, and investing in a business venture in the United States.

Critics of this system say it is completely against traditional American values of diverse immigration and providing opportunity to those in need. They cite the words of Emma Lazarus’s poem “The New Colossus” which is on the base of the Statue of Liberty – in particular the verse, “give me your tired, your poor.” Clearly this proposed immigration system would not allow many, if any, of those to enter.

Supporters of the proposed immigration system answer that it is similar to policies in a number of other countries including Canada, Japan and Australia. They say that polls show Americans want to limit immigration in order to protect the jobs of American workers. Further, they criticize “hyphenated” Americans, saying these folks are reluctant to let go of their original cultures.

Let’s begin by looking at the history of immigration in America. First, to deny that ours is a country built by immigrants is to deny a basic truth. Very few Americans can trace their origins back to 17th and 18th century colonial settlers. Even they can be seen as supplanters of those who were here first – Native Americans. Every historical era in our country had immigrants who were hated by Americans already here. Germans, Irish, Chinese, Eastern Europeans, Jews, Italians, Hispanics all have been despised as newcomers. Yet, all of these immigrant populations have made contributions to the growth and greatness of the United States. It is important to note I have not mentioned African Americans because they mostly did not come as immigrants, but as slaves. I will also note that the great contributions of African Americans to our country, are also indisputable, despite the tragedy of slavery.

Immigration policy underwent a great change in 1921, when the American government established a quota system for immigration. This system limited the number immigrants to 3% of immigrants from a country already in the United States, based on the 1910 census. In 1924 this was revised to 2%. The target was clearly eastern and southern Europeans, including Jews, as immigrants from these countries were seen as taking jobs from American workers. This was a major argument against opening up the quotas in the 1930’s to allow Jews and others being oppressed by Nazi Germany to find refuge in our country. The exception to these quotas was if family in America sponsored the immigrant and pledge they would not end up on welfare. This is what allowed both my mother’s and father’s families to enter this country.

In 1965 the per country quota system was eliminated. There was an overall limit to visas with priority given to skill sets and immediate family relationships. Those having immediate family who were U.S. citizens had no restrictions. There was also a “special” category for those seeking refuge. None of these systems required the ability to speak English, emphasized wealth, or having a job offer in the U.S.

So what to make of this latest proposal? Its restrictions would have kept pretty much all immigrants from non English speaking countries in prior generations from entering this country. To make this personal, if these had been the laws in the 1930’s, none of my family would have been allowed into the U.S. Most likely, they would have been murdered by the Nazis and I would not exist.

I believe America’s greatness is based on three key elements. First, we have a system of government that is the envy of the world. Yes, there have been glitches and problems, but we are human and there will be mistakes. Yet, our system, which strikes a balance between the 3 branches, allows its citizens not just to vote, but to protest, to express their views, and to have their basic rights protected, is the best in the world (yes, I might be biased here). Second, our historic dedication to free enterprise allows anyone who works hard the opportunity for success. Again, there are problems and prejudices, but the opportunities provided by a free enterprise system are the best of our world’s choices. Finally, our country’s tradition is to offer the chance to live in freedom and to build a productive, successful life, to people from all over the world despite their origin, resources, or ability to speak English.

Indeed, immigrants who come here, overcome their poverty, plus learn a new language and culture, provide a strength of character and toughness that our country always desperately needs. America not only benefits financially with new resources, but with diversity of culture. The beauty of music, art, and theater from Americans of diverse origins adds to the wonder and greatness of our country.

Further, I deeply oppose the criticism of people as “hyphenated Americans.” All immigrant groups begin their time in America by hanging together. My German Jewish parents lived in Washington Heights, NY with other German Jews. Further, there is nothing wrong with pride in your culture of origin, be it Irish, German, Mexican, Italian, Chinese, African – or any other. The vast majority of legal immigrants find their place in our society – especially by the 2nd generation. Yes, there are anecdotes of immigrants who fail, but the data proves differently.

Emma Lazarus wrote these words added to the base of the Statue of Liberty in 1903. “Give me your tired, your poor; your huddled masses yearning to be free.” Yes, the Statue of Liberty was not originally a symbol of immigration, but when the words of the “New Colossus” were, clearly it had become a symbol of hope and freedom for immigrants. The current proposed change to immigration would force us to change the words to, “Give me your hired, your sure…” That would change the basic nature of our country and America would say goodbye to a chunk of its greatness.

I recently saw the 2016 Tony winner for best musical, “Hamilton.” It might be the most brilliant musical play I have ever seen – and I have seen a lot of theater. I rank it with the top shows I have attended in the past 50 years, shows like Les Miserable, West Side Story, A Chorus Line – shows that brought something unique and different to the theater world. Each of these shows innovations influenced the world of musical theater. “Hamilton,” from my perspective, is in this category of an innovative show. So much for the review, if you can get a ticket, see it.

But “Hamilton” is much more than a great piece of entertainment. Its structure, from the way the story is told to the casting of the characters, to the mingling of various musical styles – creates great teaching moments on multiple levels. The story, if you are one of the few folks who have not at least read something about the show, is about the life of Alexander Hamilton, one of America’s founding fathers.

Hamilton was an orphan, an immigrant, and an abrasive, brilliant man. He served as General George Washington’s chief aide for much of the Revolutionary War. He was a key proponent of the new constitution, publishing most of the 85 articles of the Federalist Papers. He then served as the first secretary of the treasury under President Washington, creating a financial system that placed the newly formed United States on solid path. His death was tragic, as he was killed in a duel with Aaron Burr over his political opposition to Burr.

In his unique telling of the narrative of Hamilton’s life, Lin Manuel Miranda treats the history of the founding of our country with great reverence and respect. Unlike most representations of this history, however, Miranda’s story telling method brings to light aspects of the history, and our current nation’s makeup that are often overlooked or buried. Too often our history is portrayed in a way that only recognizes a certain group of white, influential figures. “Hamilton” adds a deeper perspective to our history.

How? Well there are two obvious ways. First, his music is a conglomeration of musical styles: hip hop, rock, jazz and classical Broadway – which includes ballads and blues. He uses hip hop to highlight revolutionary activities – not just in the war but to emphasize how the republic was formed and operated. The flow of musical styles from number to number is sometimes stark yet seamless.   This style acts as a metaphor for the diversity that makes up our country, which can be eye opening yet essential to the way our country is structured and operates. One of the most classical Broadway style numbers is sung by King George, thus representing the “Old World” as opposed to America’s new ways of doing things. During some of his musical numbers Miranda tips his hat to prior musicals with lyrical connections to other musicals, such as “1776” and “Pirates of Penzance.” These references, just like the varying musical styles are (I believe) meant to show how our country is the sum total of such diverse sources, and that all of these sources are a necessary component of who we really are.

The second teaching tool is the casting. Three key characters in this story are slave owning Virginians, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison – 3 of our first 4 presidents. All of them are played by African Americans. Indeed, the casting of this show breaks all the remnants of the old school approach to only cast people of the ethnicity of the original historical figure. The casting mixture of different races and ethnicities hammers home the lesson that our country was founded for everyone, not just an elite group of wealthy white men.

Even more, the show makes sure we understand that it was more than the well known founding fathers who contributed to the strength of our country from its very beginning. For example, during a scene that depicts a cabinet debate over Hamilton’s proposed financial plan, Jefferson states (in a rap style) that Virginia is wealthy, successful and plants seeds, so why should Virginians take on the debt of other states like New York. Hamilton replies (also in rap style) that we know who was actually planting the seeds for Virginians (slaves) and that they were profitable because of slavery. The message is clear. Not only is slavery wrong (highlighted numerous times in the show), but black slaves were the unseen, unacknowledged resource that provided the platform for the Virginians’ (and other southern states) claimed success.

A history of our country that fails to acknowledge the presence and importance of ignored groups (e.g. black slaves, women, who although did not vote contributed to the well being of the new country, immigrants) perpetuates a narrative that allows for the dismissal of so much of the makeup of our country. The United States is NOT just a culture derived from Anglo and white Europeans. It is a conglomeration, from its very beginning, of those English/Europeans, Hispanic, Black, Sephardic Jews as well as probably the most dismissed group – native Americans.

Finally, in trying to describe the makeup of “Hamilton,” the mishmash of musical styles, the mixed ethnicity of the casting, the lack of spoken narrative – the impression is one of a completely disorganized show that cannot possibly make any sense. Yet, when you see the show, this polyglot of people and styles is the perfect metaphor for America at its finest. Somehow all of this comes together to form a work of beauty. That is our country – a polyglot of people cultures and styles that despite differences and disagreements, can be a place of amazing beauty. That is what we need to celebrate on July 4.

“Heil Hitler!” began the voice mail. “I’m going to put you in my concentration camps.” The message rambled on in a high-pitched voice with a fake German accent and ended with these words, “You Jews need to stop stealing our money!” The message was left on my office voice mail the night of April 9, right after our congregation’s Jewish Food and Cultural Festival. I heard it the next morning, when I was at Temple getting some things ready for the first night of Passover. We immediately called the police. The officer was so upset by what he heard, I could see him tearing up. “I am Catholic” he said, “and I am so disturbed by hearing this.”

“Are you aware of this?” the email began. The friend of a Temple member saw a posting on FaceBook by a white supremacist that his group was planning a demonstration at Temple Israel. We had not seen it, but went on line to check the posting and the group. Sure enough, the group was calling for a protest at our building because Israel was not letting in enough Palestinians. They called it a protest for diversity. Yet, in looking at the group’s website, they described themselves as European whites. Their basic demands were exactly what you would expect from a white supremacist group.

We have a pre-school of over 100 families with children enrolled. Eighty percent of the pre-school families are not Jewish. Some of them were beginning to panic, as the protest was scheduled to begin during school hours. Again we called and consulted the police. Again, our police department’s response was excellent, giving us lots of guidance, assuring us they knew and were following the man who made the post. They put in place a plan for police coverage. I was not at all worried about this protest having an impact on us, and in fact, as the police predicted, the group did not show up. But the energy spent on preparations and the angst that the threat caused the pre-school and their families was quite disturbing.

At a local middle school, a young woman I am tutoring for her bat mitzvah is regularly called a “good little Jew.” If she makes a mistake some students call it a “Jew move.” She also has heard a joke that goes like this, “What do you call flying Jewish children?” Answer – smoke. Her mom is now working with the Temple, a local Holocaust education organization and the school district (who is being very supportive) to bring in an educational program from the ADL to address these attitudes in the schools that have been affected by anti-Semitism.

At the high school that students graduating this middle school attend, a group of students have been flying Confederate flags on the back of their pickup trucks. After one student stood on the back of his truck waving a flag, some one got so upset that a threat was made against him online. The school heightened security and communicated with all the parents that any student who wished to stay home the next day would have an excused absence. The students flying the Confederate flags were asked not to bring them, as it was causing a disturbance. They agreed but the next day these students plus a few more brought pickup trucks either flying a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag or a banner stating “Make America Great Again.” Some had the symbol of the Republican party others referred to Trump.

Are all of these incidents connected? Absolutely! Since the primary season preceding the 2016 presidential elections, the atmosphere in our country has shifted. Overt expressions of hate, display of offensive symbols, and the belief there is an impurity in our country that must be eradicated have all become acceptable in ways I have never witnessed in my lifetime. The prejudiced dregs of America feel free to express their hatred more openly than ever. Why?

The political left says it is because of Donald Trump. From the opening event of his campaign, which was based on the despising of Mexican immigrants, he made outright expressions of hatred acceptable. We were given excuses by his surrogates – that he is not a politician so does not speak in a politically correct way, that he is just a truth teller, or that the media is misrepresenting what he is saying. All of this was nonsense. The media just reported what he said and people of any conscience objected to the obvious prejudice being openly expressed. Republicans of integrity, and there were many, walked away from their nominee. But Trump appealed to a segment of the country that rarely voted and squeaked out a victory in an election of the perfect storm to upset our political system.

But that is not the complete story.

The left wing shares the blame for this situation. How? Well, I think Bill Mahrer explains that quite well in this You Tube video from his January 27, 2017 show. Here is the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D1r9_tgRgRk

Yes, Mahrer’s language is far more coarse than the language I would use, but his key points are critical. Here is a short summary of his thoughts. Liberals are overly dedicated to political correctness – to the point of placing people whose intent is completely innocent in embarrassing situations. For example, Steve Martin tweeted that when he first met Carrie Fisher he found her beautiful, and then realized how smart she was. He then came under criticism for these comments and issued an apology. Liberals accuse folks of cultural appropriation, of white people taking music, art, and literature of ethnic groups and making them their own. Mahrer points out that America is a melting pot. When did this become a sin?

Add to this the effect of excessive political correctness on college campuses, the institution of trigger warnings, the banning of speakers with whom they disagree, the silly anger expressed about certain Halloween costumes. Most Americans are working people of common sense. They are justifiably annoyed by the insistence of liberals that the content of all our language has to be beyond polite, that it has to be pure and without any hint of even a non-intended insult. The left’s focus on excessive political correctness is irritating to many decent people. What makes this exacerbating is that on issues such as health care, income inequality, and gun control, more people agree with the policies of the left than the right. We need to be fighting for life changing issues and not distracted by our perception of hurt feelings.

As a result, Trump was able to appeal to people through his bluntness. He openly criticized political correctness in a way that enabled him to sell his insulting bluntness as truth telling. All of this gave a green light to people who are now expressing outright prejudice and disguising their bigotry as anti-political correctness. We are seeing the result – open anti-Semitism, open racism, open anti-Muslim words and actions.

So what do we do? We must resist. We must be sure our relationships with other institutions and people who do stand for morality are firm and that we work together to fight prejudice. We must be willing to spend resources on education programs in schools to counter this movement. We must create safe spaces for students who are the victims of bigotry to report and talk about their experiences. We cannot be afraid to engage those who demonstrate bigotry. But we must do all of this in a manner that illustrates the higher morality of our position, of our resistance to these trends. Our words must be expressions promoting peace, justice, and love; for as Michelle Obama put it, “when they go low, we go high.” To that I say, amen!


searchThis photo is of the desecrated Jewish cemetery in St. Louis

Over the past 2 weeks, the issue of anti-Semitism has been elevated to the top of the pile of criticisms being leveled at President Trump and his new administration. Data from the ADL and the Southern Poverty Law Center has shown increases in anti-Semitic incidents, first over the course of the presidential campaign last year, and again in the opening weeks of 2017. Many critics of Trump accuse him of being anti-Semitic. Defenders of the president respond by saying how can this be if his daughter has converted to Judaism and if all of his grandchildren are Jewish?

The tensions over this began to boil over at a press conference on February 17, when the Chasidic reporter, Jake Turx, asked Trump a question. He began by assuring the President he did not think he was anti-Semitic, because of his family relationships, but asked what the administration was going to do about the surge of anti-Semitic incidents. Trump clearly did not grasp the nuance in the question, taking it as a personal accusation of anti-Semitism. He responded that he was neither anti-Semitic nor racist. When the reporter tried to interrupt to clarify, he told him to be quiet and sit down. This exchange fired up criticism of Trump, especially in the aftermath of the administration’s statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day that did not mention Jewish suffering in the Holocaust.

Finally, after the desecration of a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis, and after much criticism by multiple sources – both Jewish and non Jewish – President Trump issued a strong statement condemning anti-Semitism. This still did not satisfy his critics, who held that Trump must be proactive in his stance against anti-Semitism, indeed all prejudice, instead of reactive. So the question remains, is Trump really an anti-Semite?

I would say he is not. This will upset all my friends who are (justifiably I think) critical of Trump. No, he is not anti-Semitic. Trump is anti Buber, as in Martin Buber.

For those who are not familiar with the 20th century Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, allow me to offer a short lesson on his theology. Buber maintained that humans engage in two kinds of relationships. The first is our relationship with the items we use to get things done in every day life, i.e. our car, our clothes, our computer, our food. These relationships he calls “I/it” relationships. We are in relation with “things.” The second kind of relationship is with other humans. These relationships depend on personal connections, or what Buber calls “I/thou” relationships. The best “I/thou” relationships are those in which we feel deep and immediate synergy with another person. We have all had that experience. You meet someone for the first time and there is instant connection, instant appreciation, that both people feel. For Buber, the poisoning of human relationships occur when a person engages another as an “it” instead of a “thou.” In other words, when we treat someone like an object instead of a person who shares with us the presence of God within our souls, they become an “it.”

That is precisely what President Trump does. He does not see others as humans within whom God dwells, but as objects to be manipulated. This attitude was obvious from the very beginning of his presidential campaign, when he targeted Mexicans. In fact, he was not expressing his prejudice against Mexicans, rather he was using them to motivate support in a slice of the electorate that is prejudiced against Mexicans, indeed against any person who is not like them. I would bet that on a personal basis, Trump could care less about Mexicans, about Muslims, about African Americans or about Jews. He sees all people as objects, as “things” to be used. This is proven not just by politics, but by his attitude towards women, which his supporters refuse to acknowledge. All he cares about is how he can use and manipulate people’s prejudices against any of these groups to rally support for himself. In Buber’s language, his only relationships are “I/it.” This manipulation, by the way, includes his supporters, who have been played by a master manipulator and showman.

Our country’s great step backwards, I believe, is in the cold, uncaring way Trump, and his administration, looks at the American constituency. He sees us as two camps, either for or against him. If you do not agree with what he says, you are the enemy. He does not see the need to create any “I/thou” relationships with his opposition. This is completely different, by they way, from both the Obama administration and the George W. Bush administration. Both presidents, while certainly manipulative as most politicians, also had many moments where they demonstrated the desire for connection with the “other,” or at least a reaching out to understand the “other.”

In this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, we read, “When you see the donkey of your enemy lying under its burden and would from raising it, you must nevertheless raise it with him.” Rashi speculates that this only applies to an “enemy” who is Jewish. But in the Talmud (Baba Metzia 32b) is another perspective. It poses the possibility that your helping an enemy, any enemy, may help create an atmosphere of peace, to turn away his and your yetzeir hara, the evil inclination, which leads to aggression. It is our job, as commanded in this week’s Torah portion (and in the previous verse as well) to reach out and help those who we see as our enemy. It is the only way to change hearts.

President Trump is not anti-Semitic. He is worse. He is completely uncaring as to how his words and actions effect anyone not catering to his whim. He treats people like things, not like expressions of God’s presence.