Monday, October 3, 2011

Rosh Hashana Drasha (Day 1)

Is our perception of God too harsh? I have often been told so by others who struggle to understand the Jewish people's strict observance of certain mitzvot, particularly Shabbat.

How many of you have heard, "c’mon, do you really think that God cares what you do on Saturday?" or "God will forgive you if you just drive this one time."

Sometimes the sentiment is a sarcastic jab, while other times it stems from a true sense of pity. They feel that i am somehow held hostage to some nonsensical superstition that confines me to some intolerable self-imposed prison of the mind. They perceive that Shabbat observance is based on a fear that a cruel and spiteful God will somehow strike me down if I defy Him by watching TV or getting into a car on Saturday.

Those who hold this sad misconception of Shabbat fail to realize that in reality Shabbat has always stood and continues to stand as one of the strongest and enduring of all Jewish political ideas.

In a recent book by Yehuda Avner called, The Prime Ministers, there is a speech by former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin who most articulately made this point in front of the Israeli Knesset.

For much of his career as Prime minister of Israel, Menachem Begin had to focus on foreign affairs. He spent years working on the treaty with Egypt and the war in Lebanon. In the few times in between that he could turn his attention to domestic affairs he had to pick his battles carefully.

One of the battles that he cared deeply about was the issue of whether El Al, the national airline, should be allowed to fly on Shabbat.

In 1982 he delivered a speech on this issue to the Knesset.

Forty years ago i returned from exile to eretz yisrael. Engraved in my memory still are the lives of millions of Jews, simple ordinary folks eking out a living in that forlorn diaspora, where the storms of anti-Semitism raged. They were not permitted to work on the Christian day of rest, Sunday, and they refused to work on their day of rest, Shabbat, for they lived by the commandment, remember the Shabbat day to keep it holy. So each week they foresaw two whole days of hard won earnings. This meant destitution for many. But they would not desecrate the Shabbat day.

In Greece there was a port called Salonika, which had an extensive Jewish population before the war. Most of the port workers there were Jewish, and on Shabbat they did not work. They would forgo their pay rather than desecrate the Shabbat. The non-Jews accepted this as a fact of life. The port was closed on Shabbat. Imagine that!

For those who say that halting on Shabbat would take us back to the dark ages I have this to say: Shabbat is one of the loftiest values in all of humanity. It originated with us, the Jews. It is all ours. No other civilization in history knew a day of rest. Ancient Egypt had a great culture whose treasures are on view to this day, yet Egypt of antiquity did not know of a day of rest. The Greeks of old excelled in philosophy and art, yet they did not know a day of rest. Rome established mighty empires and instituted a system of law which is relevant to this day, yet they did not know a day of rest. Neither did the civilizations of Assyria, Babylon, Persia, India, China - not one of them knew a day of rest.

One nation alone sanctified the Shabbat, a small nation, the nation that heard the voice at Sinai, 'so that your manservant and maidservant may rest as well as you. Ours is the nation that bequeathed to humanity the imperative of a day of rest to apply to the most humble of beings. Ours is the nation that gave the laborers the dignity equal to that of their employers, that both are equal in the eyes of God. Ours is the nation that bequeathed this gift to other faiths: Christianity - Sunday; Islam - Friday.
Ours is the nation that enthroned Shabbat as sovereign Queen.

So are we in our reborn Jewish state, to allow our blue and white El Al planes to fly to and fro as if to broadcast to the world that there is not Shabbat in Israel? Should we, who by faith and tradition heard the commandments at Sinai now deliver a message to all and sundry through our El Al planes - "no, do not remember the Shabbat day. Forget about the Shabbat day. Desecrate the Shabbat day!" I shudder at the thought that the aircraft of our national carrier have been taking off the world over on the seventh day over these many years, in full view of Jews and Gentiles alike."

We cannot engage in profit and loss calculations when it comes to the eternal heritage of the Jewish people. There is no way of assessing the religious, national, social, historical, and ethical values of the Shabbat day by the yardstick of financial loss or gain. In our revived Jewish state we simply cannot engage in such calculations. If it were not for the Shabbat that restored the souls and revived the spiritual lives, week by week, of our long suffering nation, our trials and vicissitudes would have pulled us down to the lowest levels of materialism and moral and intellectual decay.
More than Jews have kept the Shabbat day, the Shabbat day has kept the Jews.
Shabbat is a national political statement of freedom and liberty. However, if only for the political aspect, I believe that our people would have abandoned Shabbat long ago. At a certain point a people becomes too tired and weary from continuous persecutions and destructions to care to teach humanity such values.

The true reason that we have continued to keep Shabbat is because we have always viewed Shabbat not as a burden but as a wonderful gift that enhances our lives.

This idea was beautifully articulated in Senator Joseph Lieberman’s recent book, The Gift of Rest.

In the book he writes that many people frequently ask him, "How can you stop all your work as a senator to observe the Shabbat each week?" To that he answers, "How could I do all my work as a senator if I did not stop to observe the Shabbat each week?"

Every generation has its own pharaoh and its own slave masters, uniquely based on the culture of the time. Our pharaoh may be the electronic devices - computers, televisions, iPhones - that mesmerize us, dominating hour after hour of our lives. Our eyes and faces are glued to one screen or another for much of every day. Even when we think that we are at leisure, they invade our attention, holding us in their grip and separating us from our family and friends - sometimes from our faith. Too often they show us an electronic alternative reality full of negativity, trivia, or degradation. From all this, the Shabbat offers to free us for a twenty four hour period.
Senator Lieberman touches on the true beauty of Shabbat and he relates it in a manner that I believe resonates strongly with most people in this country, Jewish and non-Jewish.

When Jews first came to this country Shabbat observance was an almost untenable challenge, one that often caused financial hardship and usually incurred scorn and ridicule from non-Jewish - and too often from other Jews as well. The men and women that upheld the Shabbat during those years were true Jewish heroes. Despite the hardships of their present time, they had the wisdom to understand the past, and the foresight to see a future when the beauty of Shabbat would once again be valued.

That future has arrived. Today "unplugged days" and other forms of Shabbat observance are in vogue. Young people are yearning to free themselves from the shackles of their technology addiction and experience life in a way that their parents did before there were cell phones and internet. Today people understand more than ever the importance of taking a day to connect with family and God.

Unfortunately, through years of neglect, for many people the skills that are required to truly sanctify the Shabbat have atrophied from disuse.

That is where we come in! Beth Israel synagogue was founded by those heroes who endured the hardships and ridicule in order to preserve Shabbat for the world. Our Synagogue is the only place in the entire state of Nebraska that has consistently maintained the Jewish Shabbat in its most pristine form since the Jews arrived in this state almost 150 years ago. We are now positioned to be THE place where Jews and non-Jews will be coming to learn from us how to sanctify the Shabbat and make it holy.

We have always been a welcoming place for people who wanted to learn from us how to better observe Shabbat, but as this trend grows, so will the people who come to learn and therefore we must work harder to live up to this responsibility.

Every one of us, regardless of how we observe Shabbat now, should look for ways that we can improve our Shabbat observance. The Shabbat lifestyle is an art that takes a lifetime to master. No matter what we feel our observance is, there is always a next level that we can strive for to further enhance how we bring meaning and holiness to the day. Whether it be coming to shul earlier or more often on Shabbat, being more careful in one of the laws, or finding more time for learning Torah or spending time with family and community on Shabbat. There is something that everyone can do. People are looking at us now and we have to set a good example.

Also, we have to be there as a resource for the community. Thank God, we are already as friendly and welcoming as we can be, but there are always ways we can improve. Try to have more guests if we can afford to, or just reach out to people who may be interested and invite them to shul. Let the Jews in Omaha know that all Jews are welcome at Beth Israel.

And finally and perhaps most importantly: some of our fellow Jews who may be interested have been estranged from Shabbat for many generations. As a result there are many different levels of observance, but there is and always has been only one Jewish people!!!! When we reach out to people it must always be with respect and understanding, never with condescension or - God forbid - causing another person any form of embarrassment or feelings that they are being judged by us.

No matter how well we think we keep Shabbat there is always someone out there who are keeping it better than us. Along with Shabbat the Torah says viahavta lirei'echa kamocha - we must love others and treat them just as we would hope to be treated.

These are exciting times. We have Shabbat because great Jewish heroes struggled to pass it down to us. If only they could have lived to see a time when the world started to grow to appreciate the very ideals that they fought so hard to preserve. I am confident that together we will make our ancestors proud and continue to observe the Shabbat in a way that makes it and its values attractive to others and brings true knowledge of God and peace to ourselves, to others, and to the world.

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