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“Our Connections” - Erev Rosh Hashanah 5779

09/11/2018 02:17:49 PM


Rabbi Jonathan Biatch

Hinei matov, umah na’im, shevet achim gam yachad.

The words from Psalm 133: ‘How sweet it is for humanity to dwell peacefully together.’

How many times have we read or sung these words of unity!

How often do we enjoy hearing people of varied faiths or nations intone these sentiments!

And as many times as we have sung them, how often it is that we have regrets that we’ve been unable to fulfill their vision.

Still, we Jews maintain them as a goal and sustain them as our Jewish firmware: because their fulfillment could help restore our fragmented nation; they have potential to bridge the chasm between and among our Jewish cousins; and they provide inspiration to repair interpersonal relationships that flounder on the rocks.

You know, the simple problems we face.

So, I invoke this psalm on this Rosh Hashanah night, because the ideal of dwelling with all humanity in unity must never disappear from our vision. We each need to be engaged in bringing about this dream of unity. And this dream begins with our working to improve the human condition on this planet.

 Look: Each of us plays a part in the ongoing story of human elevation. That is why I’ve been writing via email and in the bulletin recently about the legend of the Lamed vav-niks, the so-called Thirty-Six Righteous souls. Our tradition tells that their concealed efforts at resolving human dilemma is critical to the very existence of our planet.

The typical Lamed vav-nik story[1], for example, brings us Shmuel, a simple, poor cobbler who is so kind and selfless that his fellow townsfolk think he is simple and stupid. In the course of time, Shmuel's sincere prayers about rain save the town from destruction, yet most of the townsfolk are skeptical about him. They wonder why God would listen to naïve, pathetic Shmuel.

As in most such stories, the townsfolk run to ask their rabbi about Shmuel. While pondering the question, the rabbi has a dream in which Shmuel's true identity as one of the Thirty-Six Righteous people is revealed. The next morning the rabbi tells the townsfolk about Shmuel’s identity, but when they go to look for him, they discover that Shmuel he has moved on to another town.

A few months later, a new cobbler comes to town, and even though he's poor, the people treat him with great respect, thinking that he too could be a Lamed vav-nik. “After all”, they reason, “you never know”.

That is the end of this story. And yet, I like to imagine that the townsfolk begin to treat everyone in town with greater degrees of kindness because, well, “you never know”.

There could also be a Lamed vav-nik sitting next to us tonight. ‘You never know’. But let that possibility begin to change our behavior for the better, toward that person sitting next to us and toward our fragmented world. For then, even in our small corner of the world, we can begin to fulfil the goal of dwelling truly in unity.

Hinei matov umah na’im; shevet achim gam Yachad. ‘How sweet it is for humanity to dwell peacefully together.’

*     *     *     *

“Dwelling peacefully together in unity” has obviously been difficult, or else we’d have accomplished it already. Human behavior actually demonstrates that many people think quite selfishly about the world and their place in it. So, perhaps there is a clue in this psalm that hints at the difficulty of our living together peaceably.

The Hebrew word “shevet”, “dwelling” or “existing”, in the phrase “shevet achim gam yachad”, has a homophone in Hebrew: “sheivet”, which translates into the word “tribe”.

When read using this translation, the psalm would yield a more particularistic image. “How sweet it is when a tribe of brothers and sisters is together.’

What does it mean to be a tribe?

On the positive side, a tribe fosters strength and cohesion among a group of otherwise disparate people. A tribe’s people work together toward a common goal. A tribe publicly celebrates its victories, and communally nurses its members after a defeat.

Yet living as a tribe also leads to self-absorption, insularity, and a suspicion of outsiders. An inward turning tribe yields defensiveness, intolerance, and prejudice, and people who defend the group even through violent means.

I am certain we know of groups of people, either in history or in present day, who share these qualities.

In our world today, many are rightly critical of tribalism. In her recent book Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations, academic Amy Chua questions how the United States can possibly maintain itself as a democracy, as her citizens shift away from common ideals and move toward greater tribal self-identification.

Our nation, she observes, is unique in that it was founded on a shared set of ideas and hopes, such as freedom of speech and religion and commerce, and not on common ethnic or cultural characteristics such as race or genetic commonalities. Over time and even through a civil war, our nation remained together and eventually adopted the qualities of, as she terms it, a “super-group”. Such a tribe can include individuals from many different ethnic, religious, racial, and cultural backgrounds, all subscribing to that set of common ideas and hopes I just mentioned.

Membership in this super-tribe has not required its members to conceal or disown their subgroup identities. In our day, Chua laments, loyalty to certain interests, such as strong religious viewpoints or extreme interpretations of the constitution, have evolved to outweigh the common national ideological considerations.

This has led, she concludes, to a fragmenting of our nation into self-interested and polarized tribes. And she questions whether we can maintain our national sense of purpose in light of people’s obsession with their own particularistic needs.

I will leave it up to political scientists to determine the legitimacy of her geopolitical theories. But I would ask us to think about how the modern phenomenon of tribal identity affects us as Jews, a people dedicated to improving the world in which we live.

The biblical concept of tribalism is seared into our Jewish psyche. We were once twelve tribes; we were reduced through exile and assimilation to, essentially, one tribe; and we existed over centuries as that self-absorbed, suspicious, insular, defensive, sometimes intolerant, and prejudiced group of people we know so well. We have been zealous, and we are nothing if not fiercely loyal to members of our tribe.

And yet…we know there is a difference. For we Jews have also looked outward, fixing our sights on the greater good AND seeking out ways to actualize that value.

When we wrote Talmudic laws of good neighborliness, they were for both the Jews and non-Jews living among us. When we dreamed and prayed for the coming of the Messiah, we acknowledged that all people in the world—not only we Jews—would benefit from such a miracle. We undertook moral leadership when few others would. We believed our responsibility directed us to repair the schisms within the human family.

In seeing ourselves as a “sheivet achim gam yachad”, as a ‘tribe of people together’, we have also perceived two pathways ahead of us, and we must continue to take them both simultaneously.

We need to appreciate who we are: our origins, our cultural uniqueness, our instinct to turn inward, and our desire to remain forged together.

At the same time, we must also assume responsibility for making the world better. We must take seriously the midrashic intent of God’s taking Adam and Eve around the Garden and explaining to them the purpose of humanity.

‘Look at my works!’ says God in this midrash. ‘See how beautiful they are, how excellent: For your benefit, O humanity, I created them. Do not mess things up; (I think God's language may have been a bit more colorful). If you do, there will be no one else to repair it.’”[2]

This is how we actualize the vision and the values contained in that psalm, saying ‘How sweet it is to dwell even as a tribe together.’

*     *     *     *

But is it sweet? Is being part of all this Jewish enterprise worthwhile?

Each Rosh Hashanah, or at some other Jewish milestone along our lives, each of us asks this question of ourselves. We have obviously answered “yes”, because we are here tonight, with this community, and we perceive some benefit, some advantage, some blessing in our gathering to celebrate the New Year with one another.

Think about this for a moment. Think about our connection to the Jewish community and the reason we have decided this year to be sitting here with a portion of that community. When we consider that fewer than half of the Jews in our country actively affiliate as Jews, we must wonder what is it that keeps us attached to one another.

About a month ago, at its annual retreat, I asked members of our Men’s Club to address these matters, but we looked at them from a slightly different point of view.

For this night—for this coming year—for the next period of our lives as Jews living in this complex world—I ask that we all consider these questions.

First, imagine the world in which our great-grandparents lived. Now, most of us did not know our great-grandparents, let alone knowing anything about their religious or cultural values, so this may be a challenging task. But let’s try.

Next, think about the kind of Jewish knowledge and inspiration we believe we need—and actively search for—today. What kinds of Jewish wisdom and insight do we think we require to lead fulfilling lives as members of this faith community?

Finally, imagine writing a letter to our great-grandparents, asking for their insight and wisdom in helping us maintain our connection to Jewish life today.

Knowing what we know and what we need, what advice would we request of them? And how do we think they would respond?

And there was a second question I posed to our Men’s Club members.

Think—now—about the world of our great-grandchildren. Some of us here tonight may have great-grandchildren, thank God, and those who do can perhaps see hints, small elements, of the world that those young’uns will inherit. But most of us will not know great-grandchildren, or can even envision what wonders and dangers their world will consist of.

Next, think again about the kind of Jewish knowledge and inspiration we need today to lead fulfilling lives as members of this faith community.

Finally, visualize writing a letter to those great-grandchildren, or our great-great grandchildren, telling them what you think is essential for them to know about Judaism, and what would be essential for them to do Jewishly, to preserve Judaism for the future. What should they appreciate about the heritage we’re passing down to them? What lessons should we impart about the meaning of Jewish identity today? What are the undercurrents of which they should be aware as they navigate their lives as Jews?

While I can’t share with you the specific answers of our Men’s Club members, I would offer three observations they made about their reasons to remain connected to Judaism.

By the way, this discussion took place among born Jews, Jews who made the choice to convert to Judaism, and non-Jews who are actively considering conversion.

First, they acknowledged the importance of knowing the history of our people’s 4,000 year-long odyssey. Over time we have acquired, and have come to appreciate, our remarkable resilience to forces that would have otherwise destroyed what we have developed: the moral and ethical value system by which we live our lives; the ethnic and cultural treasures that make our lives joyful; the passion for education and knowledge that propels us to survive, and that others envy.

Further, our Men’s Club members realized that our lot is cast with the Jewish world, and this fate cannot be altered. Because of pressures from inside and outside our community, we could not depart from this tribe even if we wanted. Somehow, we are inescapably tied to this peoplehood and to one another.

Finally, over the course of our history—in each generation, at some point—we have come to make peace with our being different and distinct, and maybe even a bit outside the mainstream. At the moment when we accept this singularity, we begin to live lives unencumbered by oppression and doubt, lives that contain confidence in promoting our world view, lives dedicated to preserving what is essential to us.

*     *     *     *

One generation ago, a passionate preserver of Jewish life, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, provided these definitions of being Jewish. He would say that a member of our tribe should have these qualities.[3]

“Who is a Jew?’ asks Heschel. A Jew is “a witness to the transcendence and presence of God.” But a Jew is also “a person in travail with God's dreams and designs, a person to whom God is a challenge, not an abstraction.”

 “Who is a Jew?’ asks Heschel. A Jew is a person who has the “ability to experience the arrival of Friday evening as an event.”

“Who is a Jew?’ asks Heschel. A Jew is “a person who knows how to recall and to keep alive what is holy in our people's past, and to cherish the promise and the vision of redemption in the days to come.”

These were all our particularistic ideals.

Then comes the kicker.

“Who is a Jew?’ asks Heschel. A Jew is “a person who cultivates passion for justice…and whose integrity decays when unmoved by the knowledge of wrong done to other people.”

*     *     *     *

My friends:

Our presence here tonight, together entering this New Year, signifies our membership in this ongoing tribe of Israel, a tribe which is so precious and dear. And the challenge for us in the new year to come—the balance that we need to find, in reality, in each generation—will be to strengthen the bonds to our tribe, while at the same time maintaining our mission of making the world accepting of the needs of everyone on the planet.

The rabbis say that we might not complete this work, but that we are bound to remain involved in it.[4] Then we can truly say that we have striven to bring unity to humanity, establishing a world where there is true unity among peoples and tribes of all nationalities, races, and religions; the spectrum of gender identifications; all of the ideologies and passions that is the make-up of all humanity.

Hinei matov, umah na’im, shevet achim gam yachad.

L’shanah tovah.


[1] You Never Know by Francine Prose, Greenwillow, 1998.

[2] Midrash Kohelet Rabbah, 1 on Ecclesiastes 7:13

[3] “A Time for Renewal”, essay of Abraham Joshua Heschel (Germany and United States, 1907-1972), found in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1996.

[4] Pirkei Avot 2:21

January 19, 2021 6 Sh'vat 5781