I am not among those who routinely dismiss President Obama’s presidency as a failure, nor do I count myself among those who see him as an enemy of Israel. I regard him as a good and honorable man- a thoughtful man- who was swept into office on the wings of his great oratorical skills. In so doing, he carried on his back the desperate hopes of an American people, fearful that the economic meltdown of 2008 was destroying the way of life that they had come to know, and depend on.
As I walked down the hall of my synagogue towards my office earlier this week, I was distracted by the happy sounds of young children having themselves a very good time. I detoured into the room where our Nursery School had gathered for a “holiday feast,” and everyone- faculty and children- was in costume. There were Pilgrims, and Native Americans, and even a few turkeys thrown in for good measure. I couldn’t help but smile- such a sweet scene!
Falling as it did this year so close to the seventy-third anniversary of Kristallnacht, when German and Austrian houses of worship literally went up in smoke and flame, I feel as if I personally haven’t paid enough attention to the sixteenth anniversary of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin.
There are many things in this world that are sad, and there are some things that are sadder than others. But within that hierarchy, there is nothing sadder, in my humble opinion, than the willful abuse of children. When those who are least able to defend themselves physically and emotionally are allegedly subjected to the most horrific kind of victimization, then we intuitively know that we have reached the bottom of the barrel of human behavior. No child should have to suffer that indignity, and live with that shame and psychic pain.
Some years ago -- when my son-in-law, then in Rabbinical School, was graduating in Newport, Rhode Island from Officer Development School in the United States Navy as a newly minted Ensign -- I wrote a piece for this paper titled “The Sin of My Generation.” While watching him parade proudly with his fellow graduates in his dress whites, sharply saluting his commanding officer, I was overwhelmed by a sense that I had failed the sailors and soldiers who had served during the Vietnam years by denying them the right to take pride in their service.
The title of this piece is, of course, taken from the painful but magnificent song from Jonathan Larson’s RENT titled “Seasons of Love.” As two of the protagonists are slowly dying from AIDS, their friends struggle to assess the value of their lives, which they know will end far too early.
Over the years, I’ve had what must be tens of thousands of conversations with congregants, and strangers that I’ve met in the context of my work. I couldn’t begin to count the number of times those conversations began with the words “Rabbi, can I ask you a silly question?”
The good teacher — or should I say the wise teacher -— will tell you that there are no silly questions. There are silly answers, to be sure, but very few if any silly questions.
What follows below is a very slightly edited version of the sermon I delivered on the first day of Rosh Hashanah in my own synagogue. It was as much a personal statement about my own quest to invest life with meaning as it was a conventional sermon, but upon reflection... if that isn't legitimate fodder for a sermon, I'm not sure what is.
I hope that you find it meaningful, and I wish you all a G'mar Hatima Tovah-
At this time of year, I am often greeted by friends and congregants with some version of “this is your busy season, isn’t it?” Accountants like to say that this is “The rabbi’s April.” The teller at my bank this morning, an Indian woman, said benignly, “you have some holidays coming up, don’t you?’