When our synagogue chose the phrase “We Are The World” as our theme for this year’s High Holidays, we were intentional about recalling the 1980s, especially as we have begun the Hebrew year 5780. And so, as we begin the ‘80s once again, I hope you’ll indulge me as I tell a story from my experience during the ‘80s.
My family moved to Denver in 1981, just as I was about to enter kindergarten. I was the youngest kid in my class, and I showed an early interest in my schoolwork, especially social studies. I memorized the order of the American presidents in second grade, and I found myself perusing my family’s encyclopedia in my spare time. When other kids played together on the playground, I usually amused myself, or found one person to talk to at a time. I didn’t think any of this was weird; I was a first-born child without a trusted older sibling to advise me otherwise.
So I didn’t know what to do with myself when, starting around the third grade, I began getting teased. There was no single culprit, no bully leading the pack. But around that time, I began to realize that I was being excluded, that I was singled out for being different, and not in a good way.
My reactions to not being cool changed over time. Sometimes, I was sad and withdrawn. Other times, I was angry, and occasionally did mean things to get under the skin of the popular kids. Eventually, as a couple of boys came around to befriend me, I began to model their behavior to figure out how I was “supposed” to act, and it was then that I learned a basic but key lesson: the kinder I was, and the less judgmental I was to others, the more likely I would receive kindness in return. It was a while before that advice proved prophetic, as it sometimes takes a while for children to learn to prefer kindness over coolness. (Some people never learn it.) But as my elementary school days neared their conclusion, it became clearer by the day.
On my last day at that school, when I “graduated” sixth grade on June 7, 1988, I knew I wanted to share what I learned with my class and their families. Now, keep in mind, I was in a small Jewish Day School, and was one of only 13 students in my class, so every kid got to make a speech at Graduation. Most of my classmates named their speeches something like “Memories” or “My Favorite Project”. Meanwhile, mine was entitled, “The Search For Respect”. While my speech didn’t criticize anyone for teasing me in the past, I made sure to remind everyone of that key lesson I’d learned in recent years.
I don’t know whether this message resonated, but I know it impacted one person. My classmate Moriah was never particularly friendly to me while at school, and she was among the people who teased me the most. But that night, right after graduation ended, she handed me a note. It said:
When you read your speech about respect, I really felt bad and now I know how it feels. I’ll never do it again. I’ll never forget you.
Your Friend, Moriah
Moriah, who was born in Israel, returned there that summer, and I never heard from her again. I have no way of knowing whether she changed her ways and became a more consistently kind person. I’d like to think she did, whether I had anything to do with it or not. If anything, her note reminded me that an intentional life focused on respect and being non-judgmental is not only appealing, but also proper.
I realize that the message of respecting others seems so simple and obvious. But if it were, we’d be a lot better at it. If anything, as a society, we’re a bit worse than before, and I fear that this is happening at a crucial time in our history. So this Rosh Hashanah, during which our Torah readings focus on the triumphs and shortcomings in Abraham’s life, I’d like to talk about one of the last significant things Abraham does, in which he models the kind of behavior beneficial for not only his generation, but for many generations to follow.
I’m referring to the events in Genesis Chapter 23, just after the episode when God commands Abraham to bind his son Isaac to an altar, but then accepts a ram as a sacrifice instead of Isaac. Abraham returns home to Hebron to discover that Sarah had died, and for the first time, the Torah describes a person in mourning, as Abraham bewails his wife’s passing. After a short time, he seeks out the local authorities to purchase a proper place to bury his beloved. The give and take between Abraham and the Hittites is marked by a politeness that is at once refreshing and suspicious. The Hittites offer Abraham his choice of burial locations for free. Abraham instead offers to buy from a man named Ephron a cave in an area called Machpelah. Ephron himself then offers Abraham the cave and the land around it for free. Abraham, however, insists that he purchase the area for 400 shekels of silver. Ephron finally accepts these terms, and the account concludes by saying, “Thus the field with its cave passed from the Hittites to Abraham, as a burial site.”
During this negotiation, Abraham’s words and actions are respectful and deferential. But what’s curious about this interaction is how concerned Abraham is to ensure that he is the proper owner of Machpelah. The medieval Torah commentator Chizkuni claimed that once the sale becomes official, Abraham takes the town seal and attaches it to the official document registering the transaction, so the Hittite townspeople wouldn’t one day claim that Ephron didn’t have the legal right to sell the property. Chizkuni teaches that, even in this seemingly simple interaction, Abraham accomplishes multiple goals. First, he finds Sarah an appropriate resting place, but more than that, he establishes a legacy in which future generations will benefit. Indeed, not only is Sarah buried in the cave of Machpelah, but eventually, so is Abraham, as well as Isaac and Rebecca, and later Jacob and Leah. And he does this not with trickery or condescension, but with decency and humility. In spite of his great wealth and stature in the community, Abraham does not claim entitlement to the choicest burial spot in the land; rather he acts as a modest person with a simple task to complete.
Abraham’s actions send the message that being respectful and achieving one’s goals can work hand-in-hand. Showing respect doesn’t make you a pushover, and seeking what we need out of life doesn’t necessitate attitude or cynicism. That very lesson I learned in elementary school is modeled by the very first Jew, and therefore should be a foundational lesson for all who observe this beautiful tradition we call Judaism.
As the coming year unfolds, it is incumbent upon all of us to take this lesson to heart and to model it for our community. One example is how we talk to each other about Israel. It used to be that Israel was a common thread that bonded all Jews to one another, but right now, that simply isn’t the case. For those of you who had the chance to hear Rabbi Daniel Gordis speak in Charleston a couple of weeks ago, you know that the chasm between American Jews and Israelis has been widening for some time, even though we may have only begun to realize it recently. But it’s more important than ever to listen carefully when someone speaks passionately about the Jewish state, regardless of whether we agree or not. The multitude of issues facing Israel — a deadlocked political landscape, the threat of terrorism, the place of Palestinians and Arabs within Israel’s borders (however those borders are defined), and the gulf between some of its religious and secular factions — requires reasonable dialogue and an openness to hear different voices. Doing otherwise will only weaken Israel’s chances to make it through these turbulent times, and it will weaken the American Jewish community as well.
A second example of how we take this lesson to heart is how we maintain friendships and relationships during this divisive political climate in America. It’s one thing to observe the fractured jungle in Washington and to shake our heads in befuddlement; it’s another to see how infrequently citizens at home tend to interact with people of different political persuasions, as well as how explosive things can get when they do interact. With the possibility of impeachment in the air, not to mention a boisterous presidential election still more than one year away, the possibilities for further divisiveness seem endless. Abraham’s example of respectful, yet insistent give-and-take with neighbors who are quite different from him should be the model for how citizens can move forward calmly and rationally.
And third, it is vital to know how to deal with our Jewish neighbors where we live. It is often said that the Conservative movement, of which our synagogue subscribes, is a big tent; it’s a place where numerous forms of observance can coexist under one roof. This congregation fits that notion, and then some. There are some in this room who observe Shabbat strictly, others loosely, while others haven’t connected with the ideas of Shabbat at this point in their lives. There are some in this room who keep Kosher both inside and outside the home, others who do so inside the home but not outside the home, others who mix milk and meat but avoid eating pork and shellfish, and still others who haven’t found a meaningful way to bring the dietary laws into their lives. And yet, we are all in this room together, learning from each other and sharing with one another. Why? It’s partly because, I hope, of a common respect we share for the core traditions of a Conservative synagogue. It’s one of the wonderful things about this congregation, that no matter what your Jewish observance is outside this building, we can support the importance of this synagogue maintaining a Kosher kitchen, and we can understand the necessity of properly observing Shabbat and holidays when we are in this building. When we respect these guidelines, we are better able to accept one another in spite of any personal differences, and we are better able to be a community of holiness.
What’s more, this principle of respect is an important part of selecting a new spiritual leader, as I’m sure there will be many discussions of what kind of candidate will work best for this congregation. I, for one, am confident that the next person who has the privilege to be rabbi of this congregation will see the holiness and decency that lies within the hearts of all who are invested in this community, and will then shepherd it to even greater heights.
I don’t wish to speak of respect as if I’m an expert in the subject; I’ve certainly had many moments, from elementary school through present day, when I have fallen short of the ideals I’ve been stressing. Rather, my message today is aspirational, filled with hope that at this pivotal time in our history, both worldwide and locally, we can realize what my classmate Moriah learned back in the 1980s, which is how essential it is to make respect a foundational principle to achieving what we want out of life. Because in the days ahead, there is a lot at stake. I’m reminded of the phrase from the Broadway show Hamilton, “History has its eyes on you.” Indeed, right now, history has its eyes on us. The state of Israel faces threats both internal and external — will all those who care for the Jewish state listen constructively, or will we drown in divisive rhetoric? American democracy is more perilous than it’s been in generations — will its stakeholders insist on listening to one another, or simply stay angry in their separate corners? Synagogues like this one face the challenge of making Judaism relevant to Jews with multitudes of observance — will we be open to diverse expressions of our tradition while still maintaining communal standards for all to respect?
Whatever choices we make, let us walk in the ways of Abraham, who showed both his generation and the ones that followed that showing respect and achieving success do not have to be separate goals, but can be one and the same. History has its eyes on us, and with that knowledge, may we show the generations that follow us that these ideals could guide us to a new year of sweetness.