“All of It Is Completely Worth It.”

Yom Kippur Sermon 2019 ~ Makom Solel Lakeside Congregation

This year screenwriter Aaron Sorkin adapted the novel To Kill a Mockingbird for the theater. I had the chance to see it on Broadway with my dad. Interestingly, while the movie version is dominated by Gregory Peck playing the father and attorney Atticus Finch, the play is driven by his eight-year-old daughter Scout. One of her scenes has imprinted itself in my mind and heart.

It is the scene where Tom Robinson, the accused African American client, is in jail. A group of men dressed covered in white sheets—the KKK—has come to lynch him. Atticus had learned of their plans and is standing in front of the jail. Scout is hidden behind it, watching the men confront her father on their way to Mr. Robinson.

It is the scene where Tom Robinson, the accused African American client, is in jail. A group of men dressed covered in white sheets—the KKK—has come to lynch him. Atticus had learned of their plans and is standing in front of the jail. Scout is hidden behind it, watching the men confront her father on their way to Mr. Robinson.

Everything stops. Mr. Cunningham takes off his white sheet. We in the audience recall another scene in the play where Atticus Finch had helped out Mr. Cunningham, whose farming livelihood had been hit hard by the great depression. The tension then melts into a tender moment of human connection. Mr. Cunningham turns to Scout and says it is indeed him, and thanks her for the kind words about his son. He calls the other men away, and Tom Robinson’s life is saved.

Why is this scene so powerful? One reason is Scout’s courage. She steps up in the midst of a confrontation to save a man’s life. Another reason is her emotional intelligence. She seemed to know exactly what to say to Mr. Cunningham to get him to back off. Another reason is her love of her father. She sees him defending an innocent man with his life. And she risks her own to protect him.

But there’s something more. She believes in human possibility. She has a certain innocence, a hopefulness that leads her to believe the men about to fight her father and murder an innocent man might still have a spark of goodness inside of them.

In this regard, I thought of a quote from another young woman whose story is memorialized in another famous book, though this story is a true one. In the Diary of Anne Frank we read the words, “It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.” It’s that sentiment—that idealism and hope—that Scout’s actions displayed. That’s what moved me and everyone in the theater.

And yet, in both To Kill a Mockingbird and The Diary of Anne Frank, there is no happy ending. We do not leave feeling people are really good at heart. Their endings are not like the endings of the stories we may read in Chicken Soup for the Soul. They leave us pained, even unsatisfied. In doing so, they capture a core Jewish belief: the world as it is is not yet the world as it ought to be. And that leaves us—those in this makom—with the task of repairing, of healing in it.

In other words, perhaps what moves us most about that scene in to kill a mockingbird is not the sense of innocence, the naivety. It is the sense of hope, of faith, of confidence in the ultimate good of which we are capable. Scout’s intervention, her actions her courage remind us that WE ARE CAPABLE OF SO MUCH MORE THAN WE think we are.

When we are no longer 8 years old, though, we develop limiting beliefs. Beliefs about our intelligence, our skills, our fears, our potential. Now, as adults, some of these limiting beliefs are unconsciously buried within us. Others we may be aware of but don’t know what to do about. These limiting beliefs hold us back. They keep us in a state of inaction, of fear. They tell us to stay behind the wall, as Scout was tempted to, rather than step out and speak, as she did.

Today, on this most sacred day of year, we have the best opportunity to look closely at these limiting beliefs. We can ponder them and commit to do something about them. The first step is to convince ourselves we can overcome them. We need to believe that we are capable of more than we know. That takes effort. It takes courage.

In the exodus story, the Israelites did not believe they would ever leave Egypt. They laughed at Moses. But over time they did. They saw what God—and they themselves—were really capable of. And we need to see what we are capable of. And it’s often much more than we think.
That truth jumped out at me as I worked with my daughter Allie on a project. She had to do a profile of someone her age who was doing something unique.

She found a story about a 10-year-old girl in Washington, DC. This girl, Sarah Hinesley, had just won the national handwriting contest. But something else was special about Sarah. She was born without any hands. She holds the pencil between the ends of her arms to write. I’m sure people told her she could not write. They told her she couldn’t play sports.

But in the story about her victory, we also learn that besides writing, Sarah likes to create art, ride her bike, play basketball, read and swim. Like Sarah, we all have our struggles. We all have our limiting beliefs. Some are minor. Perhaps we think we can’t cook. Or we think we can’t say the prayers in Hebrew. Or we think we’re bad with directions. And some are bigger.

Perhaps we think we can never forgive our mother or father. Or we think we can never have a meaningful relationship because of our own personal or emotional baggage. Yet, Sarah—and this day of Yom Kippur, of renewal and possibility—remind us that we are capable of so much more than we know. They beckon us to see the possibilities for our lives, to imagine what we can do, regardless of age or background. We can do so much. As my friend Jason Hartman put it, “It is an amazing time to be alive.”

Now once we see the possibility, we have to begin the journey. Let’s return to the exodus story. As you may recall, after the 10th plague, the death of the first-born sons of Egypt, Pharaoh finally lets the Israelites go. Right after they leave, however, Pharaoh changes his mind. He sends Egyptian troops and chariots after them. Soon the Israelites arrive at the shores of the Red Sea. What should they do?

They have no ships to sail across. And the Egyptians are closing in on them. Now of course we know what happens next. God splits the sea.
But there is a midrash, a legend, about what happened before God performed the miracle.

The legend tells of a man named Nachshon. He was standing with Moses and the rest of the Israelites. He heard the Egpytian chariots coming from behind. He saw that no one was doing anything. The people, including Moses, were just frozen. So what did he do? He started walking into the sea. He kept walking until the water reached his eyes. Then God split the sea.

What’s the message of that story? We need to take the first step. We need to act even when we are afraid. Life is not like a GPS or google maps. We don’t always know the exact steps for getting from where we are to where we want to go. All we know is that we have to start. And once we start, we begin to realize what more we are capable of doing. Taking the first step opens up more possibilities. The hardest part is starting.

To be honest, this truth guided our congregational fusion. When Rabbi Serotta and I and a few lay leaders sat down a few years ago, we did not know how to bring together two successful vibrant synagogues. We did not have a blueprint. We didn’t have an instruction manual. But we did see possibilities. We saw how together, our congregations could make a bigger impact on the community. We saw the way we could grow our religious school—Lev Learning–to serve more students and help them feel a closer connection to our tradition.

We remembered the way our Jewish people have always been on the move—and we needed to keep moving and changing if we are going to survive and thrive in the future. So we took the first step. And, like Nachshon, we just kept walking.

Ask yourself: What’s the first step you need to take? What are your limiting beliefs? We all have them. Some are small. Some are large. Every step we will bring us forward. Now we will trip sometimes. But as the great Israeli poet Chayim Bialik said, “There is no worse failure
than a beginning that stops there.”

After seeing the possibilities and taking the first step, we need to bring others with us. Let’s return to the Exodus journey once again. Moses is, of course, front and center. But who would Moses have been without Aaron, his brother, his spokesman? Moses, as we read, had a speech impediment. The only way he could communicate was through his brother Aaron.

And who would Moses have been without his sister, Miriam? She was the one who ensured the Israelites had water during their journey through the wilderness. Her name itself means “from the sea.”

And what would Moses have been without his father-in-law Jethro, who tells Moses he has to stop making all the decisions himself and appoint lower officials and judges to bring order and stability. We only realize our own greatest possibilities when we work with others to achieve them. Realizing our dreams depends on helping others realize their own.

And together we not only realize our dreams. We do things we never imagined we were capable of doing.

I began by discussing a play—To Kill a Mockingbird—I saw over the summer. Well, I also saw a particular musical over the summer here in Chicago. It’s called Come from Away. It tells the story of the people in a tiny town called Gander, in Newfoundland, Canada. Gander has 3500 residents.

The airport in Gander had at one point been the largest in the world because as the most eastern point in North America, it was a refueling stop for transatlantic planes. But by the 1990s, with new airplanes, it no longer served that role. On September 11th, 2001, however, 38 planes were diverted to the Gander airport. 7000 passengers—scared, hungry, shocked—descended on the town.

What happened next? The ordinary people of the town did extraordinary things they never imaged they were capable of doing. They housed, fed, clothed, secured, comforted and bonded with the passengers. They opened their homes and their hearts. Fear and anxiety transformed into hope and friendship. We saw what people can achieve.

Particularly moving and symbolic is true-to-life scene where a Gander resident brings one of the American passengers to church and they join another passenger in the singing of the Catholic prayer of St. Francis. The music of that prayer soon merges into the singing of Oseh Shalom, our Jewish prayer for peace, and then a medley of other prayers for peace. It’s a touching example of the way faith need not divide us, but can bring us together. We can find hope amidst tragedy.

But that’s not all I took from the musical. I also realized that we have a limiting belief that we need tragedy to bring people together. Is that really true? Do we have to experience tragedy in order to listen to one another, respect one another, join our hands and voices together with one another?
I don’t think so.

The challenge for each of us—HaYom, this day—is to look closely at ourselves and see the capacity we have to be like the people in Gander. We do not have to endure tragedy for our best selves to emerge. Our inclinations, our souls are not set in stone. That is a limiting belief.
And the opposite of a limiting belief is a liberating truth. And Yom Kippur offers us a powerful liberating truth—we are not yet who we are meant to be. We can change, grow, embark on teshuvah, return and renewal.

We can work on ourselves—HaYom, this day, and every day—to cleanse ourselves of the prejudices, excuses, fears, we so often cling to. Our liberating truth is the power to uvarchta vachayim, to follow the example of Scout, of Nachson, of the people of Gander, and choose life.

And that is the greatest liberating truth of them all. It erases, in God’s magnificent Book of Life, all the limiting beliefs and excuses we put before ourselves. As Nadia Bolz Weber, a powerful and contemporary writer put it, “And this is it. This is the life we get here on earth. We get to give away what we receive. We get to believe in each other. We get to forgive and be forgiven. We get to love imperfectly. And we never know what effect it will have for years to come. And all of it … all of it is completely worth it.”

“We Cannot Stop Noticing”

There is a story about a rabbi in the early twentieth century. His name was Henry Cohen, and he served in Galveston, Texas, for 50 years.

For about ten years, Galveston was a principal port of entry for immigrants into the United States from Russia and Eastern Europe. And Rabbi Cohen was an advocate for many, and in 1911 an imprisoned immigrant requested a meeting.

He was awaiting extradition back to Tsarist Russia, and he insisted to Rabbi Cohen that he was not a criminal but was entitled to political asylum.

Rabbi Cohen believed him and took up his case. He intervened with the authorities but lost his initial appeal on the man’s behalf. Cohen then took the case to the Supreme Court of Texas and to the Governor of Texas, each time with the same negative result.

Finally, he sought an interview with President William Howard Taft. After many frustrations, he was granted an appointment with the president on the strength of his reputation. And he pleaded the cause of the prisoner. Taft listened and then shook his head.

“I am sorry, Rabbi . . . much as I admire the way you Jews stick together . . . try to help one another, I cannot see any reason for intervening this case. I’m sorry I can’t help your fellow Jew.”

 “Jew?” said Rabbi Cohen. “Who said he was a Jew? He’s a Russian Christian.” “A Christian?” echoed the president. “But why are you concerning yourself with him?” 

The rabbi replied. “He’s a human being, isn’t he?” 

And so it happened that the president cancelled the extradition order. (Found in Rabbi Cohen’s autobiography. Thank you to Elliott Cosgrove for alerting me to the story.)

This story resonates with us. It resonates with us because of who we are, whether we come to this synagogue twice a year, or twice a day. It resonates with us whether we were born Jewish or simply choose through our family to connect ourselves with this community. I dare say it resonates with us whether we are conservative or liberal,  young or old, whatever our background.

And it resonates with us today, this evening,  because of the climate of our country, the challenges we face, the words we hear, the dangers, the anxieties we feel. We may not always agree on policies. We may not agree on what government needs to do or what legislation needs to be passed.

But we do know our values and character. What is so often lost in the flood of headlines and tweets is the set of core values for which we stand. The sound of the shofar pierces into our hearts and reminds us of them.

And what values do we stand for? A commitment to equality, a concern with the outsider, the marginalized, a persistence, even occasional stubbornness to bring justice into this world. So let’s look a little more closely at them. 

First, a commitment to welcoming the stranger, the immigrant, the outsider, is encoded in our spiritual DNA. The immigrants who came from Germany, then Eastern Europe, then the former Soviet Union…we know that history because it’s many of our histories. That history—coupled with those of other groups—made America what it is today. Just this year I married a couple in which the bride was the child of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. And the groom?

Well, he was born in Bosnia. But he was born when it was still part of Yugoslavia. His dad was from Croatia. His mom was from Serbia. When they were part of Yugoslavia, the groups got along. But after the fall of the Soviet Union, the two sides were at war. The groom’s father was a successful doctor, but his family was attacked, and he had to flee to Germany, leaving his wife and newborn son—the future groom—behind.

Eventually, the mom and son escaped by walking across the border into Romania under the eyes of a sympathetic border guard. In Romania, the father picked them up and drove them to Germany. Even though he was a highly respected doctor in Yugoslavia, the only job he could find in Germany was as a construction worker. The family applied seven times for asylum in the United States. Finally, they made it and arrived here penniless. 

Ultimately the son worked hard, majored in computer science and biology at Stanford, and is now in his final year as a medical resident doing cutting edge research in pediatric oncology. Where would America be without immigration? 

And where would America be without our Jewish voice–We helped define America as a place, a culture, a nation whose identity rested on a promise of freedom and opportunity for every new arrival. Oscar Handlin, a Jewish professor at Harvard, was the first person to describe America as a “nation of immigrants.”

Emma Lazarus, America’s first Jewish poet, inspired the world with her words describing our country as a place welcoming all the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

That’s one of the reasons the events of this year– the pictures of children separated from their families, sleeping on concrete floors—horrified us. That’s why we cried and instantly empathized with families fleeing terror to find a better life here.

 But it’s not only our feelings of compassion and empathy. It’s also an awareness of our own vulnerability. Rhetoric against immigrants is rhetoric against Jews. 

The times when America turned away from the world—when we closed our borders, when we talked of invasions, infestations, of  people being disloyal and savages—those were the times when antisemitism rose. And it’s happening now.  For the first time in at least 60 years, American Jews are really scared. This year we saw 11 Jews at prayer murdered at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. We saw a gunman storm into a synagogue in San Diego and shoot at the rabbi. A 60-year-old woman jumped in front of the rabbi and lost her life. 

People ask me what we can do. We can call it out. We can write letters and work with our extraordinary tikkun olam taskforce. We can go into schools and churches and mosques and work with and teach others about the reality of antisemitism . We can push for more laws with greater penalties for hate crimes and hate speech. 

But this is not a sermon about policy—this is a message reminding ourselves of a core spiritual commitment: to speak out against hate. Hatred of the immigrant, hatred of the outsider, hatred of Jews.  They are interconnected, and when we fight antisemitism, we are also fighting for the rights and the dignity of all. When we speak out for immigrants and outsiders, we are helping sustain America as a place where the Jewish community has thrived like never before.

When we adopt a refugee family, as we recently did for the third time—and when we protest at a detention center, as Rabbi Ike and many of our congregants did this year, we are reminding the world that the Jewish people—indeed, this congregation—proudly stand for particular values. As the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, HIAS, put it in their motto, “We used to take refugees because they were Jewish. Now we take them because we are Jewish.” 

Now the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society helped many of our ancestors in settling in their new home. As we come together as a community, as Makom Solel Lakeside, we are creating a new home. Now for some of you here, this space may not yet feel like home. And for others of you, it has been a second home for decades. But wherever we come from, we, right here, right now, are creating a spiritual home together.

That’s one of the reasons we chose the name Makom. Makom kind of sounds like home. It even sounds like shalom. But there is, potentially, a deeper meaning still. And we find it in an intriguing story from the Book of Genesis.

Jacob leaves his homeland. On the first night of his journey, he lays his head down on a rock and falls asleep. He dreams of a ladder between heaven and earth. Angels go up and down the ladder. When he wakes up from that dream, he proclaims, “God was in this makom, this place—and I did not know it.”

Is God in this Makom? Well, it looks like it. We have a beautiful  ark, ner tamid , a sacred stunning space. But the real answer really depends on what we do here. This makom depends on us. 

Whether it is truly infused with justice and sacredness depends on us. Whether in 50 years, our descendants will look back at this moment and say—they made a courageous decision, they built a makom, a place of inclusion and hope and spiritual growth and tikkun olam—what they answer depends on us. Will we truly open our arms in welcome? Will we act on our values?

Of course we say yes we will. But that’s easier said than done. Earlier, I mentioned Rabbi Henry Cohen who, although not terribly well-known to history, hit the headlines because of a remarkable moment of clarity and humanity in his encounter with President Taft.

Well this item is about a far more famous individual, namely Rabbi Stephen S Wise. For many years he was acknowledged as one of the most important figures in American Jewish and religious life. My friend Rabbi Michael Zedek shared with me a story about Rabbi Wise.

In the 1920s, he made a trip to China, and he was disconcerted during the trip about his experience being transported around in rickshaws by painfully thin and tuberculin drivers. He writes that he could hear those drivers coughing through the night while he was ensconced in his hotel. His hosts informed him not to worry. “In a week you won’t even notice,” they said. Then, Rabbi Weiss writes, “They were right. I stopped noticing, and that, I must admit, was the most embarrassing moment of my life.”

We cannot stop noticing. We cannot stop noticing the gun violence in our streets of Chicago. We cannot stop noticing the families split apart by a corrupt criminal justice system and broken immigration system. We cannot stop noticing the assault on our social and democratic values we see on display here and Israel.

But we also cannot stop noticing our own biases and prejudices. We cannot stop noticing when our own self-interest and excuses stop us from doing what we know is right.

50 years from now, sitting in this sanctuary, I hope they say at that we did notice. That we did notice and amplify the efforts of all of our members and organizations working for justice. That we did notice what is right and good about our country and our tradition and voted and organized and acted to preserve them.

That we did notice and cherish our histories—of Solel and Lakeside—our histories of intellectual and social justice, the histories and memories and values each of us cherish as our own—and then supercharged them together in this makom!  

In this vein, I think our purpose as Makom Solel Lakeside is to become, in the coming years, more like ourselves. That together we fulfill the original purpose of both our founding congregations. What does this mean?

Allow me to illustrate with a story from one of my favorite writers, Thomas Merton. Merton was a novelist who had achieved great success and fame by the late 1940s. Then he decided to enter the priesthood and become a Trappist monk. Eventually he wrote several more books and became a leading spiritual figure. Among his collected writing is a powerful correspondence with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. 

Well a few years after Merton had entered the Trappist monastery in Lexington, Kentucky, several old friends went to visit him. They expected him to be a completely different person. He had, after all, given up fame and fortune and entered the priesthood. But after they talked for a while, his friends said to him, “Tom,” he said, “You’re the same guy. You haven’t changed at all.” 

“Why should I?” Merton responded. “Here, in this place, our goal is to be more like ourselves, not less.” 

That is our goal as well. To become more like best selves. To live our Jewish values. To feel with empathy, as our immigrant ancestors did, the heart of the stranger. To meet with vision, as our Solel and Lakeside founders did, the hopes, the needs, the dreams of a changing Jewish community. To act with courage, as our congregants and members and community do today, to build a Makom, a spiritual home, overflowing with justice, compassion, and holiness. 

The 3 Types of Anti-Semitism

This week police discovered Nazi symbols in a middle school restroom near my home.

Last month a gunman burst into a San Diego synagogue and began shooting, killing a 60-year-old woman.

Six months before that, a domestic terrorist in Pittsburgh murdered 11 Jews at prayer. Antisemitism is growing across America.  [It’s why I wrote the book First the Jews: Combatting the World’s Longest Running Hate Campaign.)

This antisemitism does not come in one flavor. It uses different justifications and ideologies. This diversity is part of what makes antisemitism so dangerous.

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10 Things I Wish Everyone Knew About Passover

Every year, millions of Jews gather around a table and celebrate Passover. We tell the story of the biblical exodus from Egypt. This festive meal is among the oldest religious rituals in the Western world.

As the author of a book on Passover and a lifelong participant in its celebration, I’ve learned that Passover has a deeply meaningful message – but it also generates lots of confusion. Here’s what you should know, if you’re not familiar with the holiday:

1. The Last Supper was not a Passover seder.

The Last Supper is one of the most famous stories (and paintings) in the world. According to the Gospels, it takes place on Passover. But it was a meal, not a seder. What’s the difference?

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Who Else is Happy About the College Admissions Scandal?

As you probably know by now, several high-profile actors and corporate executives paid millions of dollars in bribes to get their children into top universities.

Journalists describe it as the biggest college admissions scandal in American history. 

This incident reveals many sad truths. Some people feel entitled to unearned privileges.  They break the law to get what they want. 

And some students have no compunction about lying and cheating to get into a school where they don’t belong. All of this is true. 

But I think there is a tremendous bright side.

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3 Lessons from the Secret Vatican Archive

For many years, I’ve heard rumors about a secret Vatican archive. This archive holds papers detailing the actions of Pope Pius II during the Second World War. 

Why did he not protest when the Nazis emptied Rome of its Jews? Should he have spoken out? Did he tacitly help Nazi criminals after the war? Or did he do what he could behind the scenes to aid the allies? 

The secret Vatican archive may soon reveal the answers to these question. What will we learn? Is it important? Will it reveal anything useful for Christians and Jews?

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5 Ways to Stop the Spread of Anti-Semitism

Today the US Congress plans to pass a resolution condemning antisemitism.

The immediate imputes for the resolution are the remarks by Representative Ilan Omar. She said American Jews support Israel because they are more loyal to Israel than America.

The resolution also comes in the wake of a tremendous rise in antisemitic incidents in the United States. Jews are the #1 victim of hate crimes in America. This truth shocked me when I saw it, and that’s why I wrote First the Jews. 

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3 Ways to Combat Anxiety

A reader sent a question recently. He asked if Judaism sees anxiety as a sin.

He pointed to a verse in the Christian Bible where it says, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”

Do not be anxious about anything… Is this possible? Are we doing something wrong when we feel anxious?

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