by Rabbi Jared H. Saks
Rosh Hashanah 5781
One of my favorite characters in Jewish literature is Oscar Freedman, or Ozzie, in Philip Roth’s The Conversion of the Jews. Ozzie is a thirteen-year-old Jewish boy who wants to understand his religion. He wrestles with and questions his Judaism – and his fellow Jews – in ways that others would not dare. Philip Roth writes:
“What Ozzie wanted to know was always different. The first time he had wanted to know how Rabbi Binder could call the Jews ‘the Chosen People’ if the Declaration of Independence claimed all men to be created equal. Rabbi Binder tried to distinguish for him between political equality and spiritual legitimacy, but what Ozzie wanted to know, he insisted vehemently was different. That was the first time his mother had to come.
“Then there was the plane crash. Fifty-eight people had been killed in a plane crash at La Guardia. In studying a casualty list in the newspaper his mother had discovered among the list of those dead eight Jewish names (his grandmother had nine but she counted Miller as a Jewish name); because of the eight she said the plane crash was ‘a tragedy.’ During free-discussion time on Wednesday Ozzie had brought to Rabbi Binder’s attention this matter of ‘some of his relations’ always picking out the Jewish names. Rabbi Binder had begun to explain cultural unity and some other things when Ozzie stood up at his seat and said that what he wanted to know was different. Rabbi Binder insisted that he sit down and it was then that Ozzie shouted that he wished all fifty-eight were Jews.”
Maybe you’ve been in Ozzie’s mother’s shoes. We read a headline in the newspaper, catch a segment on the evening news, or scroll past an article in our Facebook newsfeed and think to ourselves, “Is this good or bad news?” and what we sometimes mean is this: Is this good for the Jews or bad for the Jews? As Jews, especially as Jews in America, we wrestle with two identities.
I remember being at a NFTY Conclave as a teenager and being heatedly engaged in conversation with my peers about our identities as Americans and as Jews. Was I a Jewish American or an American Jew? Was I first and foremost an American who was influenced by my Jewish identity? Or was my Jewish identity most important, but affected by my patriotism? If I picked one over the other, did that make me a bad Jew or a bad American?
One of the basic principles of Judaism is contained in the words V’ahavta l’re’acha kamocha, “Love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18). There is a long-standing debate in Judaism about this verse. Who, according to Torah and tradition, is our neighbor? Some say that it is re’echa ba-mitzvot, literally, your neighbor in the commandments. That is to say, only our fellow Jews.
Rabbi Art Green, writing for Rabbis for Human Rights, teaches us about the debate regarding this principle. “Rabbi Akiva and his friend Ben Azzai, sometime in the early second century, raised the question ‘What is the most basic principle of Torah?’ What is the teaching for the sake of which all the rest of Judaism exists?
“Akiva had a ready answer: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18).’ Akiva was Judaism’s greatest advocate for the path of love. Akiva was the one who insisted that the Song of Songs was the ‘Holy of Holies’ within Scripture, spoken by God and Israel at Sinai. The tale of Rabbi Akiva and his wife’s love is one of the few truly romantic tales within the rabbinic corpus. So too the account of Rabbi Akiva’s death: When he was being tortured to death by the Romans, he supposedly said: ‘Now I understand the commandment to love God with all your soul—even if He takes your soul.’ Thus it is no surprise that Akiva is depicted as seeing love to be the most basic rule of Torah.
“Ben Azzai disagreed. He said: I have a greater principle than yours. ‘On the day when God made human beings, they were made in the likeness of God (Genesis 5:1-2).’ [This] is Torah’s most basic principle. Every human being is God’s image, Ben Azzai says to Akiva. Some are easier to love, some are harder. Some days you can love them, some days you can’t. But you still have to recognize and treat them all as the image of God. Love is too shaky a pedestal on which to stand the entire Torah. Perhaps Ben Azzai also saw that Akiva’s principle might be narrowed, conceived only in terms of your own community. ‘Your neighbor,’ after all, might refer just to your fellow Jew. Or your fellow in piety, in good behavior. How about the stranger? The sinner? How about your enemy?
“Ben Azzai’s principle leaves no room for exceptions, since it goes back to Creation itself. It’s not just your kind of people who were created in God’s image, but everyone. Once we have a basic principle, or even a set of basic principles, we have a standard by which to evaluate all other rules and practices, teachings and theological ideas, laws and political systems.” Ben Azzai reminds us of the centrality of our human identity. He reminds us that even when we don’t recognize commonalities in the other, they are still present, even if only for the fact that all humanity was created b’tzelem Elohim, in the Divine image.
It is so easy for us to notice the things that are relevant to us, but what Ben Azzai teaches us is that, as Jews, part of our charge is to take note of others, even when their situation doesn’t appear to be relevant to us. It’s easy to care about things that are relevant to us, but God demands more of us than that. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks reminds us that we know that Judaism does not contain within it the whole human story. We didn’t write Shakespeare’s sonnets or compose Beethoven’s masterpieces. We didn’t design the Japanese garden or the architecture of ancient Greece. But these belong to us because we are part of the human story. We are not Jewish because of what others have done to us. We are a people of faith, not fate. We are Jewish not because of what we are or what we are not; but rather, we are Jewish because of what we are called to be.
As Jews, God charges us with the task of being an א֣וֹר לַגּוֹיִ֔ם, a light to the nations (Isaiah 49:6). It is not our lineage, but our possession of Torah that makes us the chosen people. The only privilege we claim as the chosen people is that of serving God. With that privilege comes great responsibility. God says to us, “You, of all the families of the earth, have known Me best; therefore I will hold you all the more accountable for your transgressions” (based on Amos 3:2). Today, as we evaluate our lives over the past year, God reminds us that we have been called to a special task: to represent the image of God in the world.
As you may know, our Tikkun Olam Council at Bet Ha’am has endorsed our congregation’s participation in Every Voice, Every Vote, the 2020 civic engagement campaign of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, an effort to mobilize our voters, combat voter suppression, and engage student voters. Over the summer, we included questions in our High Holy Day survey about your preparedness to participate in the upcoming election. I was delighted to see in the results of that survey that every respondent except for one was already registered to vote. Part of our participation in the civic engagement campaign is the goal of being a 100 percent voting congregation.
If you aren’t already registered to vote, I hope that that will be the first mitzvah you perform in the new year. Unfortunately, registering to vote in Maine can only be done in person, so please contact your city or town hall on Monday and find out how to register to vote if you aren’t already. If you are registered to vote, please request your absentee ballot immediately. Click on the link that Ivan has put in the chat box. And once you have it, return it as quickly as possible, either through the mail or by hand delivering it to your city or town hall. If you are joining us from away, please visit your state’s website and contact your local government so that you can participate in the November election.
Ozzie Freedman doesn’t understand that being the chosen people is about our responsibility to others. His mother doesn’t understand that other people’s tragedies are our tragedies, whether or not any Jews were affected. Our responsibility to represent the image of God in the world and to illuminate it in others is the Jewish people’s highest calling. In the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform of our movement, our Reform ancestors wrote, “In full accordance with the spirit of the Mosaic legislation, which strives to regulate the relations between rich and poor, 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.”
Ibn Ezra, the 12th century Spanish commentator, states that “one who oppresses and one who witnesses oppression and says nothing have the very same status. According to the Torah, there is no such thing as an innocent bystander. The Torah tells us, in Deuteronomy 10:18-19, that God loves gerim—immigrants, refugees, those who fled their native land and came to live with you. God loves the ger, and you, too, must love the ger. So it follows then, that if you want to love a God and serve a God who is on the side of the vulnerable, then it is also your responsibility to stand up on the side of the vulnerable. You cannot be preoccupied with the God of justice and remain indifferent to questions of justice. Good people can disagree with what justice requires of us, but there isn’t room for disagreement about our responsibility to engage” (Rabbi Shai Held).
Participation in any election, but in this year’s election in particular, is our most powerful tool to positively impact the lives of others, to honor the image of God in every person. In the past few months, we’ve seen our nation confront institutional racism in ways that we haven’t in over a generation, but there’s still so much work to be done. How COVID-19 has been handled has affected all of us, but we know that black, indigenous, and other people of color, as well as those living in poverty, with homelessness, or without sufficient healthcare have suffered at far higher rates than the rest of us. Abstaining from this election is a vote against the most vulnerable and that would be an affront to God.
There’s a lot of work to be done to repair this nation. Rabbi Tarfon teaches us, “It’s not your responsibility to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it” (Pirke Avot 2:16). Please, do your part. Shanah tovah u’metukah, may you have a happy, healthy, and sweet new year and may you make it so for others, as well.