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The Soul of Our Nation - Rosh Hashanah First Day 2017 Sermon

Rabbi Mike Swarttz

Today is the first day of the Ten Days of Repentance, Aseret Y’mei Teshuvah, a period of reflection, introspection and soul-searching.  We are bidden to reflect on where we went wrong, where we erred, or sinned, where we went astray in the past year, to ask forgiveness of those whom we hurt, and to redirect our lives on a better path, to turn in the right direction. Teshuvah implies “turning,” or “returning” to the right path.

While this message is targeted to us as individuals, it applies to us as well on a collective level, as Jews and as Americans, perhaps particularly in this tumultuous time that we live in. So I have decided this year to focus my reflections on this first day of Rosh Hashanah on the collective, or national, need for Teshuvah; tomorrow I will focus on the individual level.

First, a little background. In June there was a fascinating exchange among several rabbis that played out in the Jewish press.  The initial article, entitled “Why I Keep Politics off the Pulpit,” contended that politics and the pulpit do not mix.  This position was that we come to the sanctuary to find comfort in one another’s embrace, and protection from the harshness of the political world.  Counter-arguments stated that we do not live in a vacuum, and that Jewish tradition obliges us to fight not only for Jewish interests but for a decent America and a better world. Besides, we cannot be safe in an unjust and angry America--recent events certainly lend credence to this position.  Furthermore, asserted another rabbi, “If religion has nothing to say about the world we live in, if it addresses no reality outside our door, especially when that reality causes anguish and pain, what then do we need religion for?”

This debate among my colleagues took me back to my youth.  That’s right, I was young once. I consider myself a child of the 60’s, which was a very turbulent time in America.  The youth culture was a very activist one, participating in the Civil Rights movement and protesting the war in Vietnam. In high school and college I was somewhat involved in these causes, as well as in the struggle for freedom for Soviet Jews. 

These were causes that were taken up through study, discussion and action in Jewish youth movements.  I experienced this in USY, or United Synagogue Youth, the Conservative youth group.  We were young Jews seeking to find a way to address what was going on in the world around us through a lens of Jewish values and Jewish tradition.  We had models of religious leaders using their faith traditions as commentary and critique of the social issues of the time—questions of war and peace, of justice, equality and freedom.  People like the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., Father Daniel Berrigan, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Rabbi Yoachim Prinz, Rabbi Israel Drezner, and many others. These were religious leaders who sought the connection between the immediate and the transcendent. We also looked much closer to home to our synagogues and our rabbis for guidance and validation.  I found it from mine, Rabbi Sidney Greenberg; not everyone did.

There were tens of thousands of young Jews who were active in these movements for social change.  Most of them were totally removed from their Jewish roots, although it could be argued that their commitments were fueled by the Jewish impulse for Tikkun Olam, for the repair and healing of society’s ills. I was in the minority of young Jews who sought the connection between our activism and our Jewish tradition.

We again find ourselves in a very turbulent time in America, a time of polarization and divisiveness, uncertainty and anger, such that we haven’t experienced in decades, perhaps since the 60’s. And we face the same questions today regarding the role of religion and religious institutions in addressing the issues of the day. What do Jewish teachings and values have to say about what is taking place around us?  What role do the synagogue and other Jewish institutions play in addressing the concerns facing our increasingly fractured and divisive nation?  Are these matters appropriate to be aired from the pulpit, or should the sanctuary be a sanctuary from the harshness of the political world? How do we navigate what seems to me to be the increasingly blurred boundary between moral and political concerns?

That aforementioned exchange among rabbis took place in June.  That was a time of innocence.  Because since then, Charlottesville happened.  The images of that August 11-13 weekend in that otherwise quiet and bucolic university town are seared on our hearts and into our brains. What happened in Charlottesville merely six weeks ago changed us and changed our country.  It happened in Charlottesville, but it happened to America. Call it a watershed event or a wake-up call. It has not faded away into distant memory, like so many news stories—far from it! It was a challenge not just to American Jews but to all Americans who value freedom, tolerance and human dignity.  Charlottesville was terrifying, yet hopefully not a sign of things to come. That will ultimately depend largely, I believe, on how we, and our leaders, respond to it and any future neo-Nazi activities. We expect and we need leadership, moral leadership in particular, at a time of crisis, and not only did we not get it from our President, but he made a really bad situation far worse with his unconscionable remarks about there being “blame on both sides” and that there were “fine people on both sides.” Thankfully much more appropriate and unequivocal reactions came from other leaders—Senators and Congressmen, CEO’s and even the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who issued highly unusual statements denouncing the Nazi march and what it stood for.  Their responses in part helped to fill the moral void.


White supremacy is nothing new, it has tragically always been a part of the fabric of our society.  For decades it had operated on the margins; the bigots laid low.  However in the last few years the hate mongers have been emboldened to come out into the open.  Have you noticed that virtually every article or news story describing the reemergence of white supremacy uses that word—“emboldened”?  Charlottesville was an alarming and dramatic expression of this trend.  


There has always been a great discrepancy between the ideal America and the real America.  In his poem Mourning What We Thought We Were, Frank Bidart writes, “America is a great Idea: the reality leaves something to be desired…” There is a great chasm between the idea, or the ideal, and the reality of America.  There always has been, and the people who have suffered the most are its minorities, most notably people of color.  Religious minorities have suffered as well, we Jews among them. Thankfully we have overcome many of the barriers we encountered in wanting to be full participants in the promise of America.


A national Heshbon Hanefesh, soul-searching, is desperately needed. Can we work toward the stated goals of a society in which all men—and women—are treated as equals; a society of liberty and justice for all; a place where people are judged by the content of their character, and not by the color of their skin?  A country that is e pluribus unum, out of the many, one? An America that provides what Elie Wiesel, who loved this country, described as “Opposition to oppression in all its forms, defense of all human liberties, celebration of what is right in social intercourse?” I hope that we can and I believe we can.  For I believe that what is at stake is the soul of our nation. And what we need now is a national Heshbon Hanefesh, an accounting of our collective soul.   


The ideal America espouses a theology of difference, which asserts that no one group has the right to impose itself on others by force. That concept comes from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his book, The Dignity of Difference.  Sacks argues that God asks us to respect the freedom and dignity of every person, especially those not like us.  Sacks is speaking globally, asserting that in our day when peoples of different religions, cultures and languages have been brought closer together than ever before through globalization and technology that we have to respect people who do not look like, pray, or speak like we do. He argues that seeing difference as a threat is a primordial instinct going back to humanity’s tribal past, and that it is massively dysfunctional in an age in which our several destinies are interlinked. Even as that applies on an international level, it is that much more urgent closer to home, within our own society.

Since its inception, the United States has been a society in which one group—white people—has imposed itself on others by force.  Hatred, fear and subjugation of the Other have been our country’s reality.  The notion that “all men are created equal” remains aspirational; we are so far from treating all of our citizens as equals; the chasm between that ideal and our reality remains vast.

Charlottesville. “They are still fighting the Civil War” in the South, my parents used to tell me.  They were basing that on their visits to North Carolina to visit the family of my aunt, the woman that my Uncle Marvin, my mother’s brother, married when he was stationed in the military in Winston Salem.  The recent controversies surrounding the Confederate flag and statues of Confederate leaders are a stark reminder that a sizeable minority of our country regrets the outcome of the Civil War, believes that slavery is an acceptable institution, and certainly looks upon Blacks and non-whites in general, and Jews, as inferior.  One commentator called Heather Heyer, the young woman who was killed in Charlottesville, as the “latest casualty of the Civil War.” There is a sad truth to that.

Charlottesville was a crude and harsh reminder that there is a cultural and moral divide in our nation. On one side are those who believe in a diverse America based on the theology of difference.  Who believe that everyone is created in the Divine image and therefore worthy of being treated with dignity and respect. On the other are those who prefer the past when power and control were wielded by the white majority and where minorities—Blacks and Jews in particular—were not equal and knew their place.  The future of the soul of our nation depends on which narrative will emerge as the dominant one.


What We Can Do

Racism and hatred are still deeply engrained in our country.  If there is good news, it is that as horrific as Charlottesville was, white supremacists are still on the margins of our society, despite their recent emboldenness.   And our Jewish community is not nearly as powerless as we were in the 1940’s when Europe’s Jews were being systematically slaughtered and we had little influence over governmental processes and decisions.

Charlottesville must be an exception and not the beginning of a trend.  We need to do what we can to enable our country to live up to its stated ideals of equality and dignity for all of its citizens.  There are several things we can do:

First-- We are blessed with an organizational infrastructure, Jewish and otherwise, that monitors and combats extremism, hate groups and hate crimes.  Organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center, the ADL, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, and the American Jewish Committee.  These groups not only monitor and report, they also interact with public officials on the local, regional and national levels to influence policy and legislation.  They are worthy of our support because of the crucial and critical work they do on behalf of American Jewry as well as American democracy. 

Second—There is strength in numbers. Coalitions with other minorities are critical, most notably with African Americans and Latinos.  We are more effective in promoting equality and fairness when we work together as a united front.  We are safer and more secure when we join up with other groups to support, defend and comfort one another.

I have been reminded of that over the past several months by my work with the Worcester Black-Jewish Alliance, a new initiative of the Jewish Federation of Central Massachusetts, the Worcester NAACP, and the Worcester Black Clergy Association.  Our group formed about 7-8 months ago.  Several members of Beth Tikvah have been involved with us.

Blacks and Jews have often been allies over the years, and it is a natural alliance.  We share the Exodus narrative of going from slavery to freedom.  Both groups have fought that fight in America. Jews have achieved more in that struggle than African Americans have thus far.  And both groups are targets of white supremacists.  If you scratch a racist, you will most likely find an anti-Semite underneath, and vice-versa.

For our first event the Alliance sponsored “Songs of Hope,” a concert featuring Black and Jewish performers.  The concert, which took place on September 10, was by every measure a huge success—the turnout, the performances, and yes, the food. Significant mention was made of the Jewish involvement in the creation of the NAACP as well as in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s.  For my invocation I quoted part of a speech given by Rabbi Yoachim Prinz at the historic Civil Rights March on Washington. Prinz preceded Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech.  Rabbi Prinz was from Germany and served as a rabbi there until he had to flee after Hitler came to power. On that memorable day he addressed the enormous crowd:

“I speak to you as an American Jew…It is not merely sympathy and compassion for the black people of America that motivates us. It is above all and beyond all such sympathies and emotions a sense of complete identification and solidarity born of our own painful historic experience.”


As Jews we are mandated to work not only for our own rights and our own protection, but to come to the aid of others who are weak, oppressed, and vulnerable.  I remind you of the famous words of Reverend Martin Niemoller, a German Lutheran pastor who condemned the cowardice of German intellectuals following the Nazis’ rise to power and their subsequent purging of their chosen targets:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

It is worth noting that Niemoller’s words are engraved on a plaque at the New England Holocaust Memorial in downtown Boston, which has been vandalized twice over the past several months.

By the way, the Jewish Federation already has a Latino-Jewish Roundtable, and we have discussed the possibility of creating alliances with the Muslim and Indian American communities as well. 

3- Third-- We can demonstrate proactively, and not only react to expressions of hate and prejudice. It is for this reason that I proposed to our Board, and they endorsed my proposal, that we have a short candlelight vigil in the parking lot before Kol Nidre next week.  I proposed the vigil after hearing about the three armed neo-Nazis who stood across the street from Congregation Beth Israel in Charlottesville as the congregation gathered for their Shabbat service.  I believe it is appropriate that we do this outside, in public, and by candlelight, in opposition to the tiki torches of the Charlottesville hate mongers. As someone said, “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” Our world is imperfect, and so we respond with hope. Our world is full of darkness, and so we respond with light.

In closing: We come together today and tomorrow to celebrate the Jewish New Year.  Rosh Hashanah is a time of introspection and renewal. Implicit in the notion of Teshuvah, which means turning, or returning, or repentance, is the idea that we have the capacity to change, to learn from our errors, or sins, and to do better in the coming year.  We strive to narrow the gap between where we are and where we want to be. So Rosh Hashanah is a time of hope, hope for a better year, a better future. Because we have the capacity to change, we need not be bound by our past, our past mistakes or our past sins.  We can learn from them, grow, and change.

As it is true for each and every one of us as individuals, so it is for our beloved country.  We can do Teshuvah.  We can do better and be better, if we have the desire and the will to do so. The soul of our nation depends on it. Kain y’hi ratzon, may it be so.

Thu, June 13 2024 7 Sivan 5784