To Choose Life: A Sermon by Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson
Delivered at Sinai Temple, Los Angeles - Rosh Ha-Shanah 2011
My friends, with all that s going on in the world, this has been a week of devastation and a challenge for all of us. Today, Rosh Hashanah, we come together historically to rededicate ourselves to the sovereignty of God, to the notion that God is, in some important and mysterious way, a melekh, a Majesty who rules over us. Just look at virtually any page of the Mahzor, and there you see again, and again, and again, “Eloheinu, ve-Elohei Avoteinu… Our God and God of our ancestors, reign over all the universe in Your glory, and in Your splendor be exalted over all the earth. Shine forth in the majesty of Your triumphant power over all the inhabitants of Your world, that every living form may know that You have formed it, and every living creature understands that You have created it, and all with life’s breath in their nostrils may declare: The Holy One, God of Israel, is sovereign, and God’s dominion rules over all.”
I can’t help but wonder: given that we have just endured a week in which two large buildings in Manhattan were destroyed, in which the Pentagon was attacked in Washington, in which the world shows weariness before the fight has even begun, I wonder why we are sitting here and reading a book that speaks, repeatedly, about God as Sovereign?
Why do we sit and talk about God being Ruler, when God’s children are being blown up? Why do we speak about God’s law uniting all humanity, when freedom is under assault? When the very foundations of democracy are being attacked and when, in some corners of the world, people were dancing in the streets and passing out ice cream and candies to children as a way of celebrating this attack against democracy? And why in a year, in which Israel has been suffering these attacks relentlessly, why would we be reading from a tired old book some abstract theological concept about this divinity to whom somehow we must pledge an allegiance today.
I know that you read the newspapers as well as I do, and I am sure that you watch TV better than I do. So I don’t want to speak about this issue as a pundit. I am not here to offer you policy suggestions, I am not here to analyze to situation in strategic terms, but I’ll tell you what I am today - today I am a simple Jew. I am a citizen of the United States, and I need to come together with you today to make some kind of religious sense of what has gone on. I need to understand why when we gather together, our tradition will have us speak of God’s sovereignty. I need to know why that matters in the world, and I need to know where to go from here.
It is my hunch that we all need that today. So, I want to start by thinking about God as Majesty.
All people serve a master. It is an illusion of modernity that freedom somehow means freedom from all authority. And it is, I believe, the wisdom of our tradition to remind us that the power that we have as human beings is to choose what will be our master in life. The choice, then, matters essentially, because, there are many masters competing for our loyalty. There are fame and youth, and power, and wealth, and prestige, all of these masters seeking our service and countless people throwing away their lives in the service of these very masters who ultimately turn on those who serve them and abandon them. The only master worthy of service is a master so large that the distinctions that human beings normally makes - the pettiness of our ambition, our frailty, our greed, fade into insignificance. In choosing your master, friends, choose one whose service is freedom. Choose one who calls you to an adult maturity and summons you to take responsibility for your own life and for the world in which we live. It turns out then, that in choosing the master, the only master worthy of service is God. That is why, perhaps, our tradition indulged in an ancient pun, in speaking about the Ten Commandments engraved, carved into the rock, the Torah uses the word harut - to engrave. But you know, the Torah is written without vowels and without punctuation, and so the Rabbis play with the consonants: al tikra harut, ella heirut – Don’t punctuate the Hebrew as “engraved”, but as “freedom.” For the only freedom given to adult human beings is to take responsibility for a life of law, and order, and justice. Freedom is not the freedom to simply pursue our own momentary whims, that’s a form of slavery. Freedom is the ability to stand tall and make of your life a shield, so that others may also live in freedom.
And what than, if God is our master, what than is the core of divine service? Here, I turn to one of the Torah’s most famous passages that we read only last week. In speaking to the people of Israel, God says the following words, “I call Heaven and Earth to witness this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse, therefore choose life that you and your offspring may live.”
I’ve often pondered that passage and thought to myself: what kind of God needs to tell us to choose life? But this week makes clear: there are people out there who reject life. There are people out there whose rejection of life is so strong that they would rob others of that blessing as well. And I recognize again God’s wisdom in telling us that choosing life is not some passive thing we do by inaction. Choosing life takes willing choice, it takes consciousness, it takes attention, and it takes discipline. To choose life, we have to resolve on what it means to live with meaning, and with purpose, and with dignity.
• To choose life means to know yourself so well that you know who you truly are. So that when others seek to make you into someone else, you are able to know, “that’s not me and I won’t go there.” We live in a world that presumes to tell us that some people are better than others, and that some ways of being human are worthy of dignity, and that others should be ignored or removed. To choose life means to choose to be yourself, trusting that God made you as you are, and that you, therefore, have a purpose as you are.
The great Rabbi of the Talmud, Rebbe Akiva, told the remarkable story during another time of devastation and violence. At the time where the Roman Emperor had made it a capital offense to observe Judaism and to live a life of Torah, Rabbi Akiva insisted on publicly teaching Torah. His disciples said: Master, don’t you know that in teaching Torah, you endanger your life? The Romans have made it a crime! Rabbi Akiva responded with the following fable:
There was a time once when a fox was walking by a river stream and saw a large school of fish swimming frantically upstream. And the fox said to them: “Brothers and sisters, why are you swimming this way?” and they said: There are fishermen down at the other end with nets and they seek to trap us and to take our lives. And the fox said to the fish: “You don’t need to swim away from them. In fact, you don’t need to stay in the water at all. Come out here and live with me! My ancestors lived with your ancestors very happily, come out of the water and I will take care of you.” And the fish turned to the fox and said: “They call you the smartest of animals, but you cannot be very clever, because if we are in danger here in the water which is our natural place, how much the more so would we be imperiled where we to live our home to try to live in yours.”
In a world that tries to tell us to abandon who we are, to walk away from our Jewish heritage and a life of Torah and Mitzvot, to choose life means to reject that false choice. It means in a face of terror and violence to affirm that we are, as we have always been, Am Israel - the Jewish people, and that we have, from the beginning of our time, wrestled with what it means to serve God and to magnify and glorify God’s kingdom in the world. The terror has no power over us, because we remain in our natural place, in our synagogues, in our schools, studying and living Torah.
• To choose life means to illuminate God’s image in our fellow human beings. It is, I think, one of the crowning points of glory of our Torah that at it’s very inception it tells us that each and every human being is fashion in God’s image. “Na’aseh adam be’tzalmenu - Let as make humanity in our image,” says God. And that means, then, there is no human being devoid of the divine.
• To choose life means to resist stereotyping, our fellow human beings, and I point out here that we as Jews bear a particular responsibility in that area. Both because we have suffered by being stereotyped by others, and because we have been for this century engaged in a political struggle that puts us at odds with most of the Arab world. It is, therefore, doubly incumbent upon us, to make sure that Arab-Americans and Muslims are not scapegoated because the terrorists who committed this act share their faith. We must stand up in democracy for the core conviction that people are judged by their deeds, and not by their ethnicity, and not by their labels. And if we do not do that then we have nothing to say when people turn against us in that very same way.
• To choose life means to choose a life of service and I think here, particularly, of the heroic fire-fighters and police who gave their lives in a hundreds, so that their fellow citizens should live. And I pray that we will never again take for granted the courage and the honor of serving in a police force, in the fire force, and in the military. These men and women put their lives at risk so that we may live. They deserve our honor and our respect.
I think not only of those men and women, but I think of the stories now coming out of the World Trade Center, of the heroic men and women who made sure to help their fellows get out of the building alive. Of the people who stopped along their way to help someone who was a little slower, someone whose legs were failing them, someone who could not catch their breath. Their names we will never know in full, but their heroism ought to inspire our own.
Think of the countless volunteers of this past week. In the hundreds of thousands, people all over this country and all over the world have been asking, “What can I do to help?” and have been stepping forward in a variety of ways. And I think that remarkable story that is found in the Talmud in Massekhet Sanhedrin. It is told that once Rabbi Joshua ben Levi, one of the great Rabbis of his generation encountered the prophet Elijah. You know that, according to Jewish legend, Elijah never died. He was whisked up to heaven in a chariot and he comes down every now and then to talk to us about the age of the messiah, an age of world peace and harmony. There, standing by the tomb of another great Rabbi, was Elijah. So, Rabbi Joshua ben Levi approached the prophet and he said to him: “Master, When will the Messiah come?” And Elijah said to him: “Go and ask him yourself.” So the Rabbi said: “Where is he?” And Elijah responded: “The Messiah is standing by the gates of the city. That’s where the lepers gather. And those people with leprosy are constantly wrapping and wrapping their bandages and treating their wounds. He sits among the lepers also bandaging and re-bandaging. But where others take off all the bandages and than put on all the bandages, the Messiah is not so. The Messiah takes off one bandage, cleans the wound and re-bandages it immediately because he thinks, ‘perhaps, my service will be needed by someone else. I need to be ready to help.’”
Imagine a tradition that speaks of a Messiah who was injured, and who, even while tending his own wounds, is worried about caring for those of other people. I think about that vision of Messiah this week when I read about Dan Lopez, who worked in the World Trade Center. After the building was hit, he used his cell phone to call his wife, Liz. This is what he said to her: “Liz, it’s me Dan. My building has been hit. I made it to the 78th Floor. I am OK. But I am going to remain here to help evacuate other people. I’ll see you soon.” And those were his last words. I think of the paradox of Dan Lopez choosing life by dying, by choosing to place himself at the service of other workers in that building, he made of himself a monument to the choice of life. He stood up at the last moment to this brutal terror.
• To choose life, my friends, means to live life to its fullest. The poet Allen Ginsberg spoke about “the dearness of the vanishing moment.” The present is rapidly receding into the past and our only choice is whether we choose to live this moment or merely wait for some other moment yet to come. But life is merely a series of moments and if we don’t train ourselves to live in the present now, it will pass us by, leaving us with nothing. In that light, I wonder, if you had only 60 seconds and could make one phone call, whom you might call and what you would say? I want to share with you some of the words of some of the people who faced exactly that choice:
Stuart Meltzer called from the 105th Floor. He phoned his wife and he said to her: “Honey, something terrible is happening. I don’t think I am going to make it. I love you. Take care of the children.”
Mark Hogan on United Flight 93 phoned his mother and he repeated three times: “I love you. I love you. I love you.”
On flight 175, Brian Sweeney called his wife: “I just wanted to let you know that I love you and I hope to see you again. If I don’t, please have fun in life and live your life the best you can. Know that I love you and that, no matter what, I will see you again.”
One friend in the building didn’t have a phone, so, he e-mailed another friend: “I don’t think I’m going to get out. You have been a really good friend.”
Veronique Bowers phoned her mother. She said: “Mommy, the building is on fire, there’s smoke coming through the walls, I can’t breathe. I love you Mommy, goodbye.”
• To choose life means to know whom you would call and what there is to say and to remember that nothing else really matters: the people you love, spending time with them, showing them that you love them, letting them love you. That, it turns out is what God has made us for, and what constitutes God’s highest service.
Our agenda for the coming year is to choose life. I need to warn you that it is not an easy choice to make. There will be people who will seek to take advantage of the violence and the terror to remake us in an image of the terrorists. There will be people who will respond to the terror by bigotry of their own. (Last week we heard Reverend Falwell and Reverend Robertson blame a whole host of innocent people for the terrorist attacks in a way that can only make these men look petty and small.) We must resist the temptation to do the same.
In that regard we have no better guide for how to choose life than the words of the prayer we have already recited this morning. Rabbi Amnon of Mayence wrote the Unetaneh Tokef in a similarly difficult time and he closed his prayer with the following powerful words: “U’teshuvah, u’tefillah, u’tzedakah, ma’avirin et ro’a ha-gezerah – but repentance, prayer, and deeds of love remove the severity of the decree.” Notice, that Rabbi Amnon recognizes that we cannot remove the decree. What has been done has been done. It was wicked, it was devastating, and it has assaulted us all.
But the consequences of what have been done – that is in our hands. I want to unpack his religious language into more contemporary concepts:
“Repentance” – teshuvah – translates into paying attention to our own inner life, to what goes on inside our souls and that, my friends, we control. We have the choice to abandon our complicity, to abandon our slavery to habit and drudgery, our indifference to our fellow human beings and the way we have trained ourselves not to look people in the eyes and to see them as a human beings. This I understand to be Teshuvah.
“Prayer” means turning beyond ourselves and reaching out to a world beyond. It means addressing each other in a fullness of being. It means being able to beseech God on our behalf, in memory of the deceased, on behalf of those who are still ill and suffering, on all of God’s children who are in need of healing, who have suffered loss.
And, finally, “deeds of love” translates into the need to take action. It is insufficient to simply be in touch with your own inner life and to commune with the divine. At times such as this, the service of God requires hands – reaching out to our fellow human beings, repairing the world. You are God’s hands.
So, we must mobilize this year on behalf of New York and Washington, two beautiful cities that symbolize freedom. We must find ways to contribute and to help whether that means contributing blood or supplies, giving to charity, or providing for our own needs in this city.
My friends, we must stand tall with Israel. Here I will violate what I told you and I will say something political. Make no mistake about it that when the enemies of freedom identify their targets, they are correct in understanding that their enemies are the United States of America and Israel, sister democracies committed to the notion that people have a right to their own destiny and their own freedom. They are not wrong – those who live their lives by terror and darkness – to see us as their enemy. And at this time let no one question our resolve, with our brothers and sisters in Israel, on the right of the Jewish people to self-determination in our own land, in our own state.
And let no Jew doubt that the Jewish democracy in the Middle East is unafraid of peace with its neighbors and is willing, even now, to discuss a real peace, a peace with security, a peace that will benefit not only Israel but the Palestinians and our other Arab neighbors. But let nobody confuse our unflagging commitment to peace for weakness. We will fight for our children’s right to go to bed safely, and we will fight for our own safety and security just as would any free people.
If the events of the last week leave us with any message, the message must be – as it has always been – that freedom requires eternal vigilance, that liberty requires determination, and that the revolution that was launched by Israelite slaves leaving Egypt thousands of years ago, the sparks of that revolution, which shined in 1776 and gave birth to this nation (which saw itself as a new Israel expressing an old Covenant), that that revolution still remains incomplete. In affirming your master, know that you are in the service of a master who demands the freedom of the heart, and soul, and mind. In the coming months and years, we can best fight terror by re-committing to civilization, to democracy, and to a life of Torah and Mitzvot.