Sunday, September 15, 2013

Generations Yet Unborn Are Watching

I want you to imagine the scene.  Moses looks out and sees thousands of people. He says to the people, atem nitzavim hayom kulchem:  you’re all standing here together, the leaders, the men, the women, the children, the stranger, the people who cut the trees and the people who draw water from the wells.  You’re all standing here to enter a covenant.  And furthermore, the covenant between you and God is not just with you.  It’s also with those who are not here today.  ואת אשר איננו פה עמנו היום V’et asher einenu po imanu hayom. (Deut. 29:13)
Rashi, ibn Ezra, Ramban – all interpret this the same way.  Who are the people Moses was referring to who were not there, but who were nevertheless bound by the covenant?  Gam im hadorot ha’atidim lih’yot.  The covenant also includes the generations yet to come.
Poor Moses – by his own admission he is not suited for public speaking.  And he has to consider, when he speaks, not only those standing there, but subsequent generations.
My son went down to DC with a few friends to see the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.
I watched it on computer, hardly the same effect, but impressive nonetheless.
I want us to rewind 50 years, to think back on the crowds that descended on Washington, DC, united by a commitment to the equal rights of all American citizens, regardless of color.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his now iconic “I Have a Dream” speech.  We read it every year at the annual Great Neck interfaith service held at the AME Church in his memory. 
Before he got up to speak, a well-known rabbi delivered a brief speech.  Rabbi Charry referred to it this past Monday. 
The rabbi was Joachim Prinz.  He served as rabbi of a major synagogue in Berlin in the 20’s and 30’s, warning his community of the dangers of the rise of Nazism.  He was expelled from Germany in 1937 and established himself as the rabbi Congregation B'nai Abraham in Newark, NJ, where he served for several decades.
Here are some highlights from his speech:
As Americans we share the profound concern of millions of people about the shame and disgrace of inequality and injustice which make a mockery of the great American idea.

As Jews we bring to this great demonstration, in which thousands of us proudly participate, a two-fold experience -- one of the spirit and one of our history.

In the realm of the spirit, our fathers taught us thousands of years ago that when God created man, he created him as everybody's neighbor. Neighbor is not a geographic term. It is a moral concept. It means our collective responsibility for the preservation of man's dignity and integrity.

When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.

A great people which had created a great civilization had become a nation of silent onlookers. They remained silent in the face of hate, in the face of brutality and in the face of mass murder.

America must not become a nation of onlookers. America must not remain silent. Not merely black America , but all of America.  It must speak up and act, from the President down to the humblest of us, and not for the sake of the Negro, not for the sake of the black community but for the sake of the image, the idea and the aspiration of America itself.

Our children, yours and mine in every school across the land, each morning pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States and to the republic for which it stands. They, the children, speak fervently and innocently of this land as the land of "liberty and justice for all."

The time, I believe, has come to work together - for it is not enough to hope together, and it is not enough to pray together, to work together that this children's oath, pronounced every morning from Maine to California, from North to South, may become. a glorious, unshakeable reality in a morally renewed and united America.  (Rabbi Joachim Prinz, 1963)

Here we have two leaders of the children of Israel addressing large crowds, millenia apart from each other.  And both very carefully considered how their words would impact future generations. 
Rosh Hashanah is a few days away, so I want to be as direct as I can.  As Americans and as Jews, we don’t just speak to one another and we don’t just act for the here and now.  We speak and act to and for those who are too young to listen and those who are not yet born.   
First of all, we need to speak and act, as Americans and as Jews, in a way that will improve the world now and in the future.
How extraordinary that the person who spoke right before the Reverend Martin Luther King was a rabbi!  That he was able to extrapolate from the Jewish experience the imperative of freedom and justice for all!
We need our children and grandchildren, born and not-yet-born, to know that we find it unacceptable when any group, for any reason – gender, religion, race, sexual orientation or ethnicity is discriminated against. 
When our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren ask what we were doing to respond to the civil rights challenges of OUR time, what we were doing to pursue justice for those who are oppressed, I hope we can say that we didn’t sit quietly. 
We have to consider dorot ha’atidim lihyot.  Generations yet to come.
Second of all, we need to consider generations yet to come when we decide how much to pursue our tradition, how Jewish we’re going to be.  My high school drama teacher said that when you’re acting, you have to realize that less is more. 
When it comes to being Jewish, however, more is more.  Each Shabbat is an opportunity, each day is an opportunity, each mitzvah that we can perform is an opportunity, each melody that we sing from our children is an opportunity.  An opportunity to elevate life as a Jew.
Yes, we have to worry about the oppressed of all religions, we have to engage the world with all of its challenges, but those of us who are part of the Jewish people ought to worry and engage as Jews.  If we lose our unique spirit, our unique traditions, our unique connection to the land and people of Israel, our impact will be vastly diminished.
Each generation tends to do a little less than the generation that came before it.  If we do Shabbat thing once a month, our children will do it once every other month. And their children will say, Shabbat?  What’s Shabbat?  I’m generalizing, but for good reason.  What we do will impact dorot ha’atidim lihyot – no guarantee, but we need to stack the deck.
Even when you take your youngest child off to college, your children are still your children.  They’re watching, they’re influenced, by how you celebrate, observe and navigate your life.  By how you bring tradition to bear on life’s joys and challenges. 
Children who participate in religious observance and celebration with their parents may or may not always see the value, but the seeds are planted.  They are watered.  And they are likely to grow. 
Rabbi Waxman, the story is told, was participating in an interfaith discussion when a leader of another faith asked if Jews believe in ancestor worship.  And he replied, “Not really.  We tend more to worship our children.”
The tongue in cheek comment reinforces the point – the children of Israel have always been mindful of dorot ha’atidim lihyot – the next generations.  And will they appreciate both the ways in which we stand apart from the world and the ways in which we stand a part of the world.
My final words this morning are taken from a song by Israeli singer, Avraham Tal.
It’s called Kol galgal, "The Sound of the Circle."  The lyrics are taken from the Zohar, a central text of Jewish mysticism.  (See my previous post for a video of the song, sung by Avraham Tal.)
"The sound of a circle rolls upwards from below, obscure chariots going and revolving. The sound of melodies goes up and down it goes and wanders in the world. The voice of a shofar extends through the depths of stairs, and the circle spins around. That's the sound, the sound of a circle going up and down."
Moses understood, Rabbi Prinz understood, and we understand as well that everything we say and do will impact those who are here, and those who are not (yet) here. 
As we prepare to hear the shofar, I offer us my hope and prayer that our voices, our melodies, our words and our actions – as Jew, as Americans, as human beings, will bring energy and harmony to our people and our planet.  Circles upon circles are depending on us.   
Delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck on August 31, 2013

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