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Rabbi Meszler's High Holiday Sermons 5784

Rabbi Meszler's Words of Inspiration and Comfort for the High Holy Days 5784

Rosh Hashanah
Erev Rosh Hashanah
What Do Teshuva and Tzedek Look Like?
Rosh Hashanah Morning 1: Feeling Powerless
Rosh Hashanah Morning 2: The Golem and AI

Yom Kippur
Erev Yom Kippur (Kol Nidrei)

Yom Kippur 

Watch Selections on YouTube
Kol Nidrei:
Yom Kippur Morning:

Erev Rosh Hashanah: What Do Teshuva and Tzedek Look Like?

    Anne Lamott, in her book entitled Stitches, tells the story of a small coastal town in California (56-60). In 1995, four teenage boys, illegally, went camping outside of the town on Mount Vision. They thought they had been careful. They thought they had put out their fire. They had buried it, but they didn’t realize that there were embers still burning underground. It smoldered for two days until the trees caught fire. 
    The fire burned over 12,000 acres of wilderness and 45 homes. The town was saved when helicopters used water from the bay. No one died, but people lost their homes, possessions and pets, and as Lamott describes it, “the loss of wildlife was unimaginable: birds, deer, coyote, bobcats, mountain lions, beavers. It was as if a bomb had fallen.” (Of course, we cannot help but also call to mind the photos of the tragedy of the recent fire in Hawaii. We know how devastating such a fire can be, and we pray for their healing and recovery while we also donate assistance.)
    During the Mount Vision fire, the boys who had inadvertently started it came forward early on, with their parents beside them. They promptly took responsibility. And after the fire was over, the town held a picnic to honor the heroism of the firefighters. People cried, clapped, and ate too much. The president of the board of firefighters gave a speech, and he added the following. He said he had heard the families of the four teenage boys were thinking of leaving town. Lamott writes, “He thought the town should make clear to the families that they should stay, that they were wanted, and that they were needed. There was sustained applause. People whose houses had burned down came up to the speaker to say they agreed with the plan.” A journalist reported that the town had turned from trying to save itself from fire to trying to save the future of these four young men. The boys faced many hours of community service but not prosecution. Amazingly, people wrote into the local newspaper stories of some of the stupid things they did when they were teenagers.
    What do teshuva - repentance, and tzedek - justice - look like? These are questions we ask on the High Holy Days. Teshuva can be understood as realigning ourselves to God’s will. We often think of it in individual, personal terms, but teshuva also involves society. When harm has been done, the ripples go outward, and many people are affected. How does a community react? What is God’s will for a community in the face of damage or trauma?
    And what is justice? In the Torah we read the famous commandment, tzedek tzedek tirdof - “Justice, justice shall you pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20). If you were to memorize one line from the Torah… it should be the Sh’ma. But if you were to memorize a second line from the Torah, it should be tzedek tzedek tirdof… “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” Jewish civilization is obsessed with justice.
In this vein, the Torah teaches that Moses set aside six cities, three on the east side of the Jordan and three on the west, to become cities of refuge (Deuteronomy 19:2-10). If someone killed another unwittingly, they could flee there for safety and live. This action was necessary because, back in biblical times, justice took the form of a “blood avenger.” If you killed someone (no matter what the circumstances), a family member of the victim was entitled to kill you. It was the literal meaning of “eye for an eye… life for life.” The Torah’s law on the cities of refuge was an innovation in criminal justice reform that interrupted this way of doing things.  The community intervened, and once the perpetrator was safe, there could be a trial. For some crimes, it was appropriate for justice to look like exile or something else. In other words, three thousand years ago, the Torah legislated that thoughtful justice should take the place of blind revenge.
    Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, in her book On Repentance and Repair, points out that punishment is different from accountability, and forgiveness is different from repentance. Punishment tries to satisfy victims’ desire for revenge, but accountability involves the person who did the harm actually taking responsibility. Forgiveness is an act of grace that may or may not be granted, but repentance, doing the work to change, is always incumbent upon the person who did the harm, even if they are never forgiven. 
   In our Western culture, we tend to emphasize punishment and forgiveness, and there is often pressure to forgive even if it is unearned. Judaism, on the other hand, emphasizes accountability and repentance, tzedek and teshuva, which we seem to be sorely lacking as a society. There are movements to try to bring restorative justice to our society, but that is not the norm. How do we focus on the actual harm done and not on what people intended or meant to do? What does a victim need? When do we need to protect people from someone who is a regular threat, and when and how do we rehabilitate and restore certain people to society?
    In the case of the town in California, that community came out on the side of compassion. Expelling the boys from beyond the pale largely did not feel right to their town, even though I can guess the call of the fire chief was not unanimous. The story of the fire of Mount Vision evokes more questions than answers, and perfect answers don’t exist. 
    From the side of the people who lost their homes (and sometimes their pets), what does tzedek - justice - look like? Does it look like money from the families? Does it look like confessing the truth, an apology? Does it look like renewed precautions so it never happens again? Does it look like punishment for the perpetrators? I imagine each person who suffered had their own needs for justice. 
    And from the side of society, what does teshuva look like? Regret? Community service? Jail time? A mark on your record so you have to check a box on a job application for a felony for the next ten or twenty years or even the rest of your life? Does it mean that even if the town is gracious and tells you to stay, you still need to leave to make a new start? When is someone’s debt to society paid? (By the way, I have no idea what the boys and their families actually did.)
    Rather than just think about this as an abstract thought experiment based upon an event in California in 1995, let’s take these questions personally, on an individual level as well. These holidays are Judaism’s metaphorical cities of refuge, where our sanctuary becomes a place and time where we can retreat for moral judgment. What do teshuva and tzedek currently look like in your life? When you look at the harm you may have caused (accidental or not, no matter what you intended to do) or the harm that has been done to you, what do you need to do? 
    Sometimes I may not have even realized I caused harm, but there are embers burning emotionally underground that will later catch fire. How do I find these embers and address them in my relationships? 
    And when someone has harmed me, how shall I respond? When does someone have to pay because otherwise they are getting away with something, and when is forgiveness and grace more appropriate? 
From Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur: these next ten days are an opportunity for refuge, evaluation, soul-searching questions, and perhaps a fresh start… for all of us.

Rosh HaShanah Day One: Feeling Powerless

God, I open my heart to You in truth and in my deepest need this day.
Avinu malkeinu, choneinu v’aneinu - be gracious to us and answer us, ki ein banu ma’asim - because we have no meritorious deeds. We feel as if we have no ma’asim - no actions, no power, no agency, and no control over this world we live in. 
    Aseh imanu, - act towards us, or, understood another way, work with us. Tzedakah va’chesed v’hoshianu - with righteousness and loving kindness, and save us. 
    I feel the power of this prayer this year like never before. Rabbi Akiva once said this prayer to You, God, two thousand years ago, and I sing it with my congregation now.
    Ki ein banu ma’asim: God, I often feel powerless. On the world stage, I watch forces brutalize humanity, and I feel like I can’t do anything about it. Ki ein banu ma’asim: what am I supposed to do?
    Climate change is happening, and experts have called this time the Pyrocene, the Fire Age. My composting, solar power, recycling, and hybrid car don’t seem to make any difference in the face of the drastic, systemic change we need. 
   Gun violence is a national crisis, and despite all of my lobbying, social media posting, and writing, nothing substantial is moving through Congress. It’s been this way for decades.
   War rages in Ukraine, and we still do not know what the outcome will be. We have become numb to the violence.
    Presidential politics are unfolding, and I would like to take the next year and two months off please. 
    The State of Israel has ruptured, and there feels like nothing I can do about it from here. This is a place that is precious to me, but I don’t live there. Democracy is struggling.
    And then there is the rise of antisemitism here in the U.S. My litany of “oy” can go on and on, God.
    And, on the personal level, guess what? Ki ein banu ma’asim - I’ve got bupkis. My children have grown, and I am no longer in the driver seat. I’m not even riding shotgun. I’m not even in the back seat! I am in the way, way back, in the third row, but in the third row of one of those old cars where the way, way back faces backward. That’s the new stage of life in which I find myself. I am looking out the back window, and I can’t even hear what’s going on up front. That’s where I am. 
    And our parents are getting older, and of course there will be health issues. I can’t prevent those. Ki ein banu ma’asim. We do the best we can with what we are given.
    God, how many of us struggle with forces out of our control, forces that affect our loved ones, our health, and our relationships? Cancer? Disabilities? Conflicts? Global issues?
    I am not the CEO of the universe, even though sometimes I forget that at 2 am. I am not in charge. You are. 
    But I also know that’s not the whole story. The truth is, I am not completely powerless. I may feel helpless sometimes, and those feelings need to be felt. My fears are legitimate. The anxiety is real. But I need not be paralyzed. As my wife Rabbi Julie Zupan told me, I may sometimes feel helpless, but I am not hopeless. No one is. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov said, אִם אַתָּה מַאֲמִין שֶׁיְּכוֹלִין לְקַלְקֵל, תַּאֲמִין שֶׁיְּכוֹלִין לְתַקֵּן. “If you believe you can ruin, believe you can repair.” (Likkutei Moharan II:112) I am clinging to these words.
    For this I also know: aseh imanu tzedakah va’chesed v’hoshieinu. We can act with You, imanu - with You, in righteousness and loving kindness. We have power to affect our community and our lives. 
    For the past two years our community was given the opportunity to help out in Ukraine, led by our congregants Marlene and David Bohn. In addition to hundreds of pounds of medical supplies, backpacks, and thousands of dollars, we also raised enough money to donate an electric generator for Jewish Medical Center. The power got knocked out, and our generator had just arrived. They plugged it in and performed two emergency surgeries. Our tzedakah va’chesed literally saved lives in the nick of time.
    Our Temple Sinai social justice team was part of the Feed Kids Massachusetts Coalition. After three years of advocacy, we did it! With the tireless advocacy of congregants like Allison Schnipper, we passed School Meals for All. All Massachusetts K-12 students will be able to receive breakfast and lunch for free without having to prove their poverty or be embarrassingly singled out. Fewer hungry children, better learning, and reduced stigma... a more compassionate and just Commonwealth. No child at a Massachusetts school needs to go hungry again. Tzedakah va’chesed served up on a food tray with a carton of milk. 
    And few of us here can personally vote in an Israeli election, it makes me proud that Israeli Reform Rabbis are at the forefront of the protests. We can support them. And while they are protesting, I am also proud to support the Israeli army and Iron Dome. Protecting democracy is multi-faceted. We have to protest and protect at the same time.
    In addition, I am overjoyed that the Reform movement has increased its financial commitment to sending our youth to Israel this past year. Our B’nai Mitzvah certificates are no longer worth just $250. Now they are worth $3,250 through Yallah! Israel, so the next generation of the Jewish people can encounter, love, and struggle with Israel for themselves. That’s more tzedakah va’chesed
    Finally, our Kulanu committee through the ADL came together to address antisemitism in our community. We need to be vigilant, but we can also stand up and be loud and proud to be Jewish. We can celebrate our identity with joy.
    On a societal scale, just as there is a litany of woe, there is also a long list of ways that we can get involved. We can join the Religious Action Center’s climate campaign. We can engage with RAC-MA to increase affordable housing. We can work with the ADL. And on and on.  
    And God, on a deeper, more personal level, I know the same truth exists, both curses and blessings. I know I cannot control what happens to my loved ones. But they know that I love them, and I know that they love me. I cannot shield everyone or myself from the hills and valleys of life. Life is a package deal, filled with difficulties and joy. And as for my family, I may be in the way, way back, but I am still in the car!
    I have to tell my loved ones how much they mean to me every day. I have to count my blessings. I have to actively show my appreciation and gratitude. 
    And thank God for Shabbat services and Torah study. They keep me grounded and give a rhythm to my life. No matter what else is happening in the world or in my life, there is always a Torah portion of the week, and we are always going to sing V’shamru on Friday night. 
    God, I am so fortunate. I feel so blessed. I am so very thankful in this year of 5784. I am one of the luckiest people on the planet, and I know it. 
    Avinu Malkeinu, choneinu - help us show each other a little mercy and grace. 
    Va’aneinu - we need to work together for solutions. Even if sometimes there are no answers, we still need to respond. A response is different than an answer. We always have the ability to respond with empathy and compassion no matter what we face. We can face it together. 
    Ki ein banu ma’asim - I may not be in control, but actually there is a great deal I can do. As Congresswoman Pat Schroeder once said, “You can’t wring your hands and roll up your sleeves at the same time.” I cannot do everything, but I can try to do my share. 
    Aseh imanu tzedakah va’chesed v’hoshieinu. Act with us, Eternal One. Work with us. Be our partners in this covenant to take care of our world, our communities, and our families. Give us Your energy each day to stay motivated, to give from the heart, to be role models, and to be living examples of Torah-in-action. Save us with sparks of renewed determination, dedication, and love. Help us grow our souls, and nurture the work of our hands. Renew this year for us and with us. 
Y’hiyu l’ratzon imrei fee v’hegyon libi lifaneicha, Adonai tzuri v’goali. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to You, O God, my Rock and My Redeemer.

Rosh HaShanah Day Two: The Golem and AI

“The story of the Golem is a widely known and retold tale from Jewish folklore, particularly associated with the city of Prague. The Golem is a creature made from clay or mud brought to life through mystical means, often to serve and protect the Jewish community from various threats.
“The most famous version of the Golem story involves Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, also known as the Maharal of Prague, who supposedly created a Golem to defend the Jewish community from persecution and violence. The story goes something like this:
“In the late 16th century, the Jewish community of Prague was facing increasing hostility and persecution. Rabbi Judah Loew, a revered and wise leader, saw the suffering of his people and sought a way to protect them. Drawing upon his deep knowledge of Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), he is said to have crafted a humanoid figure out of clay from the banks of the Vltava River. He inscribed the Hebrew word "emet" (meaning "truth") on the Golem's forehead, which brought it to life.
“The Golem was incredibly powerful and followed the commands of Rabbi Loew. It helped protect the Jewish population of Prague by intimidating potential aggressors and even assisting in physical tasks that were beyond human capabilities. However, as the Golem's power grew, so did the challenges of controlling it.
“In some versions of the story, the Golem goes on a rampage, causing unintended destruction. In other versions, it becomes uncontrollable and poses a threat to both the Jewish community and the city at large. In most renditions of the tale, Rabbi Loew realizes that he must deactivate the Golem before things spiral out of control.
“To deactivate the Golem, Rabbi Loew removes the first letter of the word "emet" on its forehead, changing it to "met," which means "dead" in Hebrew. This action causes the Golem to crumble and return to lifelessness, saving the day but also leaving a sense of loss and reflection on the ethical implications of creating such a powerful being.
“The Golem story has been retold and adapted in various ways over the centuries, and it has become a symbol of the struggle for protection, the consequences of wielding great power, and the ethical dilemmas surrounding the creation of artificial life. It has inspired numerous literary, cinematic, and artistic interpretations that explore themes of creation, responsibility, and humanity's relationship with technology.”
    So here’s the thing: I didn’t write any of that. I asked ChatGPT, “What is the story of the Golem?” and in seconds this free artificial intelligence program spit those words out, plagiarized from whatever it found on the internet. In other words, I asked a golem to tell me the legend of the Golem. Welcome to the new world.
    As with all technology, AI can be used for blessing or curse, and I am sure it will be used for both. An editor of a scientific journal told me that an AI editing program was very useful for publishing good science when the scientist’s first language wasn’t English. How helpful!
    But as for ChatGPT, every job application, every essay, and every written creative endeavor could be ghost written and plagiarized by AI. And many people who may have writer’s block for a project will succumb to the use of AI “just to get started,” thinking that if you simply edit what the computer spits out, that will “make it my own.” No, it doesn’t. But now that artificial intelligence in this form has been released, it will always be available to everyone. The toothpaste is out of the tube.
    Questions abound. How do we monitor for fraudulent high school and college essays or job applications? What happens to copyrights? What counts as creativity?
    Judaism has already approached one aspect of this issue. On the topic of plagiarism, Judaism is adamant that you must cite your sources and cannot steal someone else’s words. In the Purim story in the Hebrew Bible, we read, “Esther said to the king in the name of Mordechai". (Esther 2:22) In other words, Esther made sure to quote Mordechai publicly and set a legal precedent called b’shem omro. Therefore, in Pirkei Avot we learn, “Whoever repeats a statement in the name of the one who said it brings redemption to the world.” (Avot 6:6) The Talmud is full of phrases like, “Rabbi Shimon taught in the name of Rabbi Chisda…,” and so forth. In other words, cite your sources and no cheating.
But AI presents us with many more ethical questions: How will our workforce transform when AI can replace people? If someone gets into a car accident with a self-driving car using AI, who is responsible? Who is collecting our data and for what purposes? More complex than just plagiarism, we have now created a full-fledged golem. Unlike Rabbi Loew of Prague, however, since it was birthed, we cannot erase the letter aleph from its forehead and leave it for dead. 
    Back in 1767, as taught by Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin (see, I am citing my sources), Rabbi Zevi Ashkenazi was asked that, theoretically, if a golem was created, would destroying it count as murder? He concluded it does not. His decision is based upon a story in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 65b) where it relates that Rava created a man and sent it to Rabbi Zeira. When Rabbi Zeira asked it a question, it couldn’t speak. Rabbi Zeira told it to return to dust, and it did. It’s a strange story, but there you have it. And we know that the great Rabbi Zeira would never have committed murder, so no, a golem has no soul and is not a person.
    However, in 1903, the radical Hasidic Rabbi Gershon Hanokh Lainer of Radzyn (Sidrei Tahorot 5a) was asked if you could count a golem in a minyan. Let’s say that you have nine people, you are really hurting for the tenth one to complete the prayer quorum so you can say all of the service, and you just happen to have a golem in the closet you could animate by writing emet/truth on its forehead and bring to shul. He said that, based upon the same Talmudic story, if the golem could speak, then yes. The Golem would have the legal status of a human being and exist as if God created it… or him… or her… or them. (Rabbi Byron Sherwin, Jewish Ethics for the Twenty-First Century: Living in the Image of God, 82). 
    On this second day of Rosh Hashanah, we celebrate creation. We read in Genesis that God speaks, and the universe comes into being. Hayom Harat olam - today is the birthday of the world. We also heard the story of the creation of Adam and Eve b’tzelem elohim, made in God’s image. (Genesis 1:27-28) We are partners with God in the work of creation. How do these beliefs apply to today’s world with artificial intelligence?
    We are in the early stages of AI, but Judaism will need to be a part of this ongoing discussion on its ethical uses. We have deeper questions than just ones of liability. What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be in God’s image? What is the role of speech in creation? What kind of creation is soulless, and what kind of creation is holy? When are we partners with God in the work of creation, and when are we not? 
    No one has all of the answers at this moment, and this entire field is a work in progress. Three matters, however, I believe are going to be critical. 
    First, the golem was animated by the word emet, meaning truth. This means that whatever we create and use, it must be done with integrity. 
    Secondly, words matter. Words can hurt, and words can comfort. God created the world with words. We need to use words wisely, and the letters, numbers, and symbols we use for computer code are devarim - words of substance - and have consequences.
    Finally, we are going to need synagogues and other communities more than ever. No form of AI is going to ever be able to give you a hug. No golem is ever going to be able to truly share your joy and your pain. We need each other’s humanity. We need our communities of faith.
    God, enable us to discern truth - emet - from falsehood. Help us to distinguish blessing from curse and the holy from the soulless. And remind us to value human contact, face-to-face, panim-el-panim. We are going to need each other now more than ever.

Erev Yom Kippur - Kol Nidrei: K’Kedem

הֲשִׁיבֵ֨נוּ יי אֵלֶ֙יךָ֙ וְֽנָשׁ֔וּבָה חַדֵּ֥שׁ יָמֵ֖ינוּ כְּקֶֽדֶם
Return us back to You, O God, and we will return. Renew our days as of old. (Proverbs 5:21)

This song from the Hebrew Bible is a prayer for repentance and renewal - teshuva. We pray to God to help us to return… to God. Tell us how to get our lives back on track, and we will do it, the prayer is saying. God, give us divine inspiration. Tell us where to meet You, and please give us some help.

The last word of the prayer, k’kedem, is especially interesting. Renew our days as of old. What does “of old” really mean? When was that? What time period was the Golden Age in our lives? Did it ever really exist? Would we really want to go back? 

The Hebrew word kedem actually has three different meanings. The first definition is “old” as in “an earlier time.”

But the second definition is “East.” Kedem is a commonly used word for East in the Hebrew Bible. 

Now how can this be? What do “early” and “east” have to do with each other? Because in the time of the Israelites, seeing the sun rise in the East was the first thing that happened in the day. Therefore, the concepts of “early” and “east” became linked. 

Which leads to definition number three. The third definition relates to moving forward. Kadima! Let’s move! Onward. And that is because people would align themselves for travel according to the rising sun. (By the way, it is the same concept in English with the word “orientation” referring to the Orient in the East. That is how you would “orient” yourself.) So kedem originally meant facing east, getting your bearings with the rising sun early in the morning and then moving forward. 

That’s a lot in one word, but Hebrew is amazing like that.

So when we pray, “Renew our days k’kedem,” it is as if we are all saying, “God, with this sunrise, please give us a fresh start. Help us move forward and start anew in the right direction.”

The Rabbis take this concept one level deeper. In the Midrash (Eicha Rabbah 5:21), they notice that Adam and Eve are cast east of Eden, and the word used for “East” is kedem. Therefore they teach the prayer means, “Make us like Adam when he was sent kedem, east of Eden.” 

Now, why would anyone pray for that? Why pray to be like Adam right after he was expelled? Wouldn’t it be better to ask to be back in the Garden of Eden when life was effortless? The Torah teaches us that Adam and Eve were cast east of Eden after sinning, and the way back was blocked by a fiery sword. What sense does it make to pray to be brought back to the moment right after they were kicked out? Mussar teacher Alan Morinis responds:

Gan Eden represents the perfection of human life on earth. Given the world we live in, is it perfection we are looking for? As the cycle of our lives moves past the markers of another year – Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur 5784 – the model we find in Adam is of a person who is like us in so many ways. His life has gone in an undesirable way he never could have predicted. This is true for us as well. And because of the crisis, he is dislocated, as many of us feel dislocated in a variety of ways. But after his fall, Adam picks himself up and carries on, and therefore can be a role model of resilience for us. As Elie Wiesel said, “God gave Adam a secret — and that secret was not how to begin, but how to begin again.” This is the renewal we pray for in this season: to find within ourselves, and to be blessed from Above with, the inner resources to begin again; to start this new year with fresh energy, optimism, even the idealism that has been so battered by recent events. (Week 1 Elul 5783, The Mussar Institute, Wiesel, Messengers From God, 32)

In other words, Adam and Eve made a mistake. A big one. But the gifts of that mistake were a newfound humility and a wide open future. With their whole lives ahead of them and a great deal more self-awareness, Adam and Eve were able to face the light of the rising sun and move on. 

From that point forward, their lives were unscripted. Yes, they had been taken down a notch, but was that such a terrible thing? Endless possibilities awaited them. They were no longer living within the childish monotony of being coddled in the Garden. The future was now an adventure. So, they dusted themselves off and made a life. I imagine they were both terrified and excited to start over, and maybe we might feel the same way.

God, renew our days k’kedem. Help us feel that, no matter what mistakes we have made, we can get up, orient ourselves, and move forward. 

We don’t pray for perfection. We pray for resilience. 

We don’t pray for everything to be handed to us. We pray for determination and grit. 

We don’t pray to have our scars taken away. Our scars are part of who we are. Instead, we pray for wisdom. 

We don’t pray to never make a mistake. We pray to transform our mistakes into our teachers. We can hold our mistakes as precious! They mean we have lived! They mean we have taken risks! 

We don’t pray to be brought back to some kind of imaginary, idealized time filtered through nostalgia. It probably never really happened that way in the first place. Instead we pray for a fresh start, a new beginning. 

My study buddy Rabbi Jonathan Kraus often says Yom Kippur is the most optimistic day of the year. Yes, it’s solemn with the confession of sins and fasting, but the truth is, if you didn’t think you could change, you wouldn’t bother. But right now you are here! Your presence indicates that you believe that change is possible! You can pick yourself up from your transgressions and commit to a new morning, just because God and Judaism say so. You can begin again, anew.

הֲשִׁיבֵ֨נוּ יי אֵלֶ֙יךָ֙ וְֽנָשׁ֔וּבָה חַדֵּ֥שׁ יָמֵ֖ינוּ כְּקֶֽדֶם

Direct us back to You, O God, and we will go. Renew us k’kedem - as a new beginning, one of many to be sure, but still another try, a new start. Give us resilience and hope. Help us never give up!

God, we will come to You, and You come to us.

Yom Kippur: The Scapegoat, or What is the Point of Holocaust Education?

On Yom Kippur in ancient times, the High Priest modeled responsibility. He entered the inner sanctum of the Temple and confessed his personal sins. After he had done his own confession, he then acknowledged the sins of the priests and leadership and then after that the sins of the people as a whole. He began with himself and then expanded. After the confession, he placed his hands on a goat that would be sent off into the wilderness as a symbol of the people’s desire to be rid of sin. (Leviticus 16)

The term for this goat was the “scapegoat,” and ironically, as time moved on, the term came to mean the exact opposite of what was originally intended. Instead of taking responsibility for personal and national wrong-doing, to scapegoat came to mean projecting your transgressions onto someone else and blaming them for your problems. 

One of humanity’s most terrible examples of scapegoating is the Holocaust. Scapegoating is what enabled the Holocaust to be implemented. Scapegoating was at the heart of what occurred there and then, and what continues to happen now.

My wife Rabbi Julie Zupan and I were privileged to travel to Poland this past summer on a Holocaust education trip, led by our colleague, Rabbi Fred Guttman. We traveled with public school teachers, mostly from North Carolina, who were getting their continuing education training hours and who taught the Holocaust in some way, either through history, literature, or something else. They were a very thoughtful group.

People asked me why I wanted to go, why we were hitching a ride with this trip. I didn’t necessarily want to go. I needed to go. I have been teaching about the Holocaust for decades, but I had never gone to Poland. It felt like a big gap in my Jewish and rabbinical experience. But even on the plane, I wasn’t exactly sure why I was going. 

On the very first day, almost upon arrival, I suddenly realized I was in Poland to witness and to pray. I wanted to be a witness at these sites of devastation and offer a prayer at each one. Upon my first day in Krakow, however, I struggled with which prayer I should say. Should I say El Malei Rachamim, the prayer that asks God to allow our souls to rest in peace, held in God’s loving and eternal remembrance? Should I recite Mourner’s Kaddish? But the tradition is to have a minyan for Kaddish. A minyan - a quorum of ten Jews - is the critical mass you need to say certain prayers. The large majority of our group was not Jewish. We did not have a minyan. 

I decided to say Kaddish anyway, and as I was saying the words,  I realized I did have a minyan. I felt them. Their spirits were all around me. Hauntingly, I felt called to say Kaddish everywhere I went. And so I did. I often said Kaddish several times a day, at death camps, at the Warsaw Ghetto, at a wall of tombstones that were destroyed by the Nazis and made into a memorial because no one knows where they properly belong.

I had very mixed feelings towards the Polish people. We met heroic Polish educators and activists who are trying to tell the truth about Polish collaboration during the Holocaust. We also met revisionists who falsify history and teach that the Polish people were the primary victims of the Nazis and should be lauded as heroes. During the Holocaust, when given the chance, many Polish people enthusiastically participated in pogroms and even did so in 1946 after war had ended when Jews were supposedly now safe. Antisemitism had been baked into the ground for centuries through church teachings and blood libels. The land was fertile for the death camps. Poland today is divided between those who want to face this past honestly and those who do not or cannot. I can’t help but wonder if the Polish people’s current commendable efforts to help Ukrainian refugees is somehow psychologically rooted in an effort to right a past wrong. 

When we returned from the trip, the question I faced was: now what am I going to do with this experience? And I can’t help but see a disconnect between Holocaust education in the United States today and the current rise of antisemitism we face. Twenty-three states require the teaching of the Holocaust in some fashion, and that number is growing. My trip with the teachers was part of that effort. At the same time, we also face an increase in antisemitic events. According to the Anti-Defamation League, “Antisemitic incidents in the U.S. reached an all-time high last year with a total of 3,697 incidents of assault, harassment and vandalism... This represents the largest number of incidents against Jews in the U.S., recorded by ADL since 1979.”

How can this be? How can the increase in Holocaust education and the rise of antisemitism both be happening?

Many of us have believed that educating people about the Holocaust would help bring down today’s surge of antisemitism, but this is not necessarily so. The North Carolina teachers with whom Rabbi Zupan and I traveled are teaching about the Holocaust in their schools, but they are doing so sometimes under adverse circumstances. Along with books that are being banned mostly regarding gender and racism, there are efforts to remove the graphic novel Maus and Night by Elie Wiesel. 

One teacher related that antisemitism appears in their school district in a disguised form. In their Middle School, Night was rejected because the themes were too adult. In their High School, Night was rejected because the language was too simplistic and didn’t rise to “high school level.” The desired end result is obvious. Wiesel’s Night won’t be taught for any reason that can be found. Something antisemitic is going on.

Writer Dara Horn recently wrote a provocative essay in The Atlantic entitled, “Is Holocaust Education Making Antisemitism Worse?” That is, Holocaust education in the United States is sometimes done badly. Badly done Holocaust education can reinforce stereotypes about Jews. Another common transgression is when the role of righteous gentiles is over-emphasized, and one might mistakenly conclude that every other house in Poland hid a Jewish family. Most disturbing to me, sometimes the Holocaust is taught as abstract genocide-in-general because other people were also targeted by the Nazis, like the Roma, homosexuals, and political prisoners. Now these crimes occurred and are important, but the overwhelming majority of victims were Jews. 

We need to reexamine the goals of Holocaust education. Something is not working. 

Many people claim the goal is “never again.” However, depending upon who is speaking, “never again” can mean at least two things. “Never again” can mean, “never should there be a genocide against anyone again.” This is the universal approach, and unfortunately we have seen many more genocides since the Shoah. “Never again” can also mean, never again will the Jewish people be powerless and unable to control our own fate. This is the particularistic approach and a reason to be Zionist. Both interpretations are necessary.

But more often than not, we find in America that Holocaust education is folded into anti-bullying curricula. “Don’t be a bystander; be an upstander” is the message. “What acts of kindness can you do? Speak up when you see something wrong.” While the phenomena of bullying and being a bystander certainly had their roles in how the Holocaust was carried out, and being kind is important, the political, racial, and systematic nature of antisemitism is much deeper than that. 

That’s why I think we also need to talk about scapegoating, not in replacement of the other lessons, but in addition to. Our communities need to comprehend how antisemitic scapegoating has worked specifically against the Jewish people and then how it is applied to all who suffer from bigotry. Antisemitism is an act of projecting people’s fears and sins onto the Jewish people and is an object lesson in the worst of humanity. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught, “Some are guilty; all are responsible.”

Scapegoating - of anyone - is countered by meeting and getting to know real people and then standing in solidarity with them. We must be both particularistic about antisemitism and universal regarding bigotry. Hillel taught us this truth long ago. “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now… when?” (Avot 1:14)

And we also need to teach positive examples of joyful, Jewish life. That must be part of DEI - Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. We must be a part of that conversation in a positive way. What are Jewish beliefs and ethics? What do Jews really look and sound like, in all of our diversity? What are our holidays and life cycle events? Present-day Jewish customs and celebrations need to be part of the curriculum, just like everyone else. If we are going to celebrate multiculturalism in the U.S, we must be loud and proud about our Jewish identities. And I don’t think the over-the-top movie, “You are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah,” is going to do the job.

The goals of “never again” in the universal sense and “don’t be a bystander” are okay but not enough. They don’t address the rise in antisemitism today. They must be coupled with lessons on how scapegoating occurs, including the history of antisemitism, and celebrations of Jewish life. If we don’t, we are not going to defuse hatred of Jewish people, which has lost its stigma. I worry this might be too much to ask of our already overwhelmed teachers, but if we are going to mandate Holocaust education, we ought to do it as well as we can. We all need to pitch in and do our part.

I would like to conclude with a hopeful story. We were walking around the Jewish Museum in Warsaw, and we reached the final exhibit. At the conclusion, there were videos of Polish people who were looking into their ancestry, and guess what? They were discovering that they were partially Jewish. In other words, for the Poles, one of the messages of the museum is that the history of the Jewish people isn’t necessarily about others. It could be about their heritage, too. 

The question was asked, “How many Jews are in Poland today?” Our guide said, “Who knows? Jews were part of Poland for so many centuries that there was a lot of mixing. Am I part Jewish?” she asked. “Maybe.” 

One conclusion from this can be: when scapegoating another, look in the mirror. If the book of Genesis teaches us anything, it is that we are all ultimately connected, going back to Adam, the first human being. Your enemy in this generation could very well have been your sibling in a previous one. The Talmud teaches, “Adam was created alone so that no one could say, ‘My ancestor was greater than yours.’” (Sanhedrin 37a) We are all ultimately connected.

We need to be both particularistic and universal in our approach to Holocaust education and antisemitism today. We need to be particularistic in fostering and deepening our Jewish identity with knowledge and pride, and we need to be universal in our concern with all civil and human rights. 

May we all stand this day just as the High Priest did thousands of years ago. May we all take responsibility for ourselves, our communities, and our nation. How can we - you and I - both deepen and be more public and proud of our Jewish identity? Let us reexamine what we are teaching the next generation. We need to do more! Grounded in our tradition as we are on this day, the holiest day of the year, may we use our Judaism as an anchor to meet others authentically and to change the world. 

On behalf of myself and my family, I wish you a year inscribed in a Book of Life well-lived, filled with health, love, and blessing.

Thu, May 23 2024 15 Iyar 5784