Rabbi Isaac Serotta
Rosh Hashana Morning 5779
My son, Yehuda, accompanied me on a Lakeside Congregation trip to Israel. We had one specific goal on our trip, and that was to find a shofar for him to blow. We had a free afternoon our last day in Jerusalem so we wound our way into the Old City on its stone streets to a shop we had scoped out in the Jewish quarter. They sell nothing but shofarot. No trinkets or souvenirs, no other ritual items, Shofars R Us. We set out to find the perfect shofar. Shofars are like magic wands in the Harry Potter Books, you don’t so much pick one out, as one picks you. There is only one way to find the right Shofar. We played every horn in the store, making a joyful noise in the city of Jerusalem.
The shopkeeper didn’t mind. Maybe he was a little deaf. Maybe he was used to it. Shofar blasts rattling off the stone walls were a good advertisement for him. Shoppers came in and started asking me about Shofarot, for display and for use. Finally, with tired lips, Yehuda chose a shofar whose notes were sharp and clear. We carried this 3 foot long shofar wrapped in bubble wrap all the way home, and Yehuda played it in this sanctuary for a couple of years and then it went with him to Iowa and Minnesota and now Colorado.
Hearing the shofar is one of our most beloved traditions. It is the reason that many people come. There is the joy of watching our children hear it. There is excitement and anticipation when we see our shofar blowers, Adam Whiteman and Douglas Smith holding it and preparing to sound the notes.
The Bible mentions the shofar 47 times, and it has different purposes. The shofar might announce a processional, be used as a signal, as a call to war, to induce fear, to end plagues. In the Torah, it says, “In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall rest for a holy day, a day of remembering loud blasts, zichron teruah.” That’s really all the Torah has to say about Rosh Hashanah.
Maimonides wrote about the meaning and purpose of the Shofar’s blasts a thousand years ago, saying, “Awake you sleepers from your sleep and ponder your deeds, remember your Creator and return to God in repentance.” Maimonides hears the shofar like an alarm clock. Even though many people may fall asleep in temple, he doesn’t mean it literally.
He goes on to say, “Do not be like those who miss the truth while following other pursuits. Look at your soul and consider your deeds; turn away from wrong paths, and make a new start.” Rabbi Sidney Greenberg, a colleague of mine, says, “these are surely days when religion should be a disturber of the peace, a goad to conscience, and a blazing sense of restlessness to right the world’s wrongs.” So today, we hear the shofar as a wake up call, a reminder of our rights and responsibilities as Jews and as Americans. Elections approach and we cannot be asleep. The Reform movement in our nation and in Illinois is getting together and getting organized. RAC (Religious Action Center) Illinois organizes Reform Jews across Chicagoland and the whole state to stand up and be counted on issues of meaning to our community. Our board voted unanimously to be a Brit Olam Congregation, a nationwide effort of which RAC Illinois is a part, to join hundreds of Reform communities around the country and remind those who come to worship to really hear the words of the prayers and the sound of the shofar and recognize that we have a sacred obligation. We have an obligation to vote.
Rabbi Yitzhak (Berachot 55a) in Talmudic times said, “A leader is not to be appointed unless the community is first consulted.” Today, our vote is how we get consulted. If we don’t vote, and don’t encourage others to do so, if we suppress any vote, then the community does not get its full say in who will lead us.
As a people we have rarely lived in a nation as aligned with our own religious teachings. In 1843 President John Tyler lauded the free expression of religion in our nation, “The conscience is left free from all restraint and each is permitted to worship his Maker after his own judgment….The Mohammedan…to worship according to the Koran; and the East Indian might erect a shrine to Brahma if it so pleased him….The Hebrew, persecuted and downtrodden in other regions takes up his abode among us with none to make him afraid…and the Aegis of the Government is over him to defend and protect him. Such is the great experiment which we have tried, and such are the happy fruits which have resulted from it; our system of government would be imperfect without it.”
Louis Brandeis, the first Jewish supreme court justice, said in 1915 “Not since the destruction of the Temple have the Jews in spirit and in ideals been so fully in harmony with the noblest aspirations of the country in which they lived.” He, of course, spoke before the birth of the modern state of Israel, but his point is still relevant. The Jews have never had a home like America. We have been welcome here because of the separation of church and state that President Tyler admired. Beyond that, our traditions teach us the same values that are the noblest aspirations of America.
It has never been our place to sit idly and just let history unfold. From the time Abraham disrupted the status quo and left his ancestral home to begin the journey of the Jewish people we have been wandering Arameans. We have been victors and victims, but we have never stood on the sidelines of world events.
In this nation we cannot be complacent. Anti-Semitism is not dead and gone. Though Jews are loved and welcomed by the majority of our nation, there is still a dark underbelly of Jew hatred. And it is not going away quietly. Anti-Semitic screeds have appeared on synagogue lawns in recent days, swastikas still appear in bathroom graffiti and on synagogue doors. Holocaust denial and conspiracy theories still have adherents and some of them aspire to positions of power, and others, including in the highest halls of power look the other way to garner their votes.
But we are not voting for ourselves alone. Our tradition teaches that we not only lift our own burden we help our neighbors, even our adversaries in lifting their burdens too. Our rabbis taught in the Talmud (Baba Batra 8a): “If you live in a city for 30 days you must contribute to the food pantry, for three months, contribute to the charity box. For six months you must give to the clothing fund. After nine months, [healing the sick] and burying the dead. After a year, you must contribute to the strength of the city.”
Though the laws of the Bible were written long before the invention of democracy, it seems clear that it should be a Jewish imperative to vote. In 1885, the Reform Movement in America wrote its first platform, and at the last minute they added a brief section crafted by Rabbi Emil Hirsch of Chicago, “we deem it our duty to participate in the great task of modern times, to solve, on the basis of justice and righteousness, the problems presented by the contrasts and evils of the present organization of society.”
This is not a political statement. It comes from the deepest wisdom of the prophets from generations of old. As proud Jews and proud Americans we cannot stand idly by while our neighbors bleed. We cannot be silent when hundreds are murdered in the streets of our city. We cannot be silent when those who are sworn to protect all our citizens are sometimes the source of violence. We cannot stand aside as families seeking help, home and asylum are separated and no one can seem to reunite them. We can’t be silent when science is denied, when the earth is literally shaking from the fractures of unfettered energy mining, where the air and water gets poisoned by relaxing regulations, where children’s brains and bodies are damaged by cover ups of contaminated water.
We cannot stand silent as Anti-Semitism rises. But we know that hatred of Jews is just one part of a larger hatred; a part of racism and Islamophobia, and homophobia. It is easy to think that things are better than they were a year ago, because so few white supremacists came to Washington DC a month ago when so many showed up in Charlottesville last year, but that is not true. Every indicator of hate crimes is up. These haters don’t need to show up for protests because their agenda is becoming part of the mainstream. They are not going back to hiding under rocks, they are saying out loud what they used to say in private and they are saying it with few repercussions.
Those who call our attention to these things are not prophets of doom, but prophets of hope. They hope that we will wake up and do what it takes to make our broken world whole again. Standing up for justice is not political. The prophets of old were not standing for a political party, they stood up for justice for rich and poor alike. They stood up to say that every human being is precious. All of us are a part of God, each one b’tzelem Elohim, made in the image of God. Similarly, our American constitution is not just for Democrats or Republicans, and not just for American citizens. It proclaims a message to the world, that every person has a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
On this day of sounding the shofar let the sound wake us up to what we can do to create a more just world.
First let us vote. How is it that after every election we hear what a dismal turnout of eligible voters there has been? I would like to think that it is not true among Jews, not in our congregation, but I fear that we may not be so different from everyone else. If you are not registered, register. If you cannot get to the polls because of work or travel or other difficulties, request an absentee ballot and fill it in. If you employ people make sure that they have the flexibility to vote or help them get the absentee ballots they need.
I would love to see our congregation be a 100% voting congregation. My kids are registered where they now live, Colorado, Washington State, Pennsylvania. Their votes are very powerful, make sure your kids know how important it is to vote. In an essentially two party system sometimes we have to vote for the least worst option, but even then that vote makes a difference. There is a difference between least worst and worst. And if we vote in primaries maybe we can get to a place when we have candidates that are good and better instead of worst and least worst.
And besides your own vote, volunteer and help get other people registered and out to vote. You can go the non-partisan route, joining League of Women Voters for example. They do not endorse candidates but they do have a goal of getting every eligible voter registered and voting. Or you can join the campaign of the candidate of your choice and help get out their voters. We are a better nation when a larger percentage of people votes.
And third make it possible for people to vote. In America we have a right to vote. Political power has been used to gerrymander districts, to purge voting rolls, and shorten pre-voting hours for partisan ends. We should always be pushing for more voter inclusion not less.
It is important to make our vote count and to make sure we make good decisions about our votes. I have said before, a candidate who doesn’t believe in science should never receive a vote. It is not my only screen, but it is my first. You can debate about what policies we should put in place to heal the planet, but denial of science is not a policy, it is suicide. I have spoken about the environment many times over the years, but if you need a reminder: Climate change is real. It is serious and urgent and it is caused by human activity. And most importantly, we can fix it.
The shofar is calling us. The alarm sounds and we may not like it. Not many people love their alarm clock, but we cannot hit the snooze button. The brokenness will not heal itself, we need to set the bones so the fractures may knit. We need to heed the prophets. In two weeks when we celebrate Sukkot, the festival of booths, we need to make it the festival of voting booths.
We need to be passionate and insistent advocates for tolerance and enduring kindness between diverse people. To pursue justice is to create a society that protects and enlivens everyone. Let us be relentless, tireless builders of that society in our nation and the world in the year 5779.
It is a mitzvah to hear the shofar. It is a time of waking up, and it is a time to be one as a community. Let us hear the call to act together to make our world better. We cannot wait for the election that comes after this one. Today begins ten days of heshbon ha-nefesh, an accounting of our spirits. Now is the time to stand up, be counted and make a difference.
Ken y’hee ratzon.