Invocation for State of the City 2017
Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon
The Chinese have perhaps the only continuous culture that is older than Judaism. And they have a famous curse: it is, “May you live in interesting times.”
My friends, we live in interesting times.
The last five months in America have been about as surprising as any in the last 15 years, and we have all learned that many things we believed may not actually be true. And we have even learned that some important people believe things we know not to be true.
There are many lessons in such a period in history, some of which may not be evident for a while. But one of the lessons is surely about appreciating what is real, and meaningful, and true.
This week in Jewish tradition we read the Torah portion of Ki Tisa in Temple, the famous story of the Golden Calf. Just after receiving the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai, including the injunction never to worship idols, the Israelites fear that their leader, Moses, has abandoned them and failed to return. They compel his brother Aaron to make them an idol out of their own jewelry, and he does so, and they immediately begin to worship a golden statue. In fact, they do this while Moses is still up on the mountain receiving the written commandment that tells them not to do exactly this. And after violating this central commandment they start to party…
This Biblical episode demonstrates the innate human tendency to abandon what is real in preference for what is immediately gratifying. We all have the capacity to worship our own golden calves, to chase the trivial and fake in preference to what is real. Ultimately, in our story, the ancient Israelites repent, and gradually come to realize that the eternal values enshrined in a deep ethical tradition far supersede the transitory flash of superficial gratification. They come back to what really matters, to morality and meaning. They return to what is real, and true.
For many of us, politics, particularly national politics, has become a kind of obsession, a new Golden Calf, if you will. We used to simply read the newspaper in the morning, or listen to the radio news on the way to work, or watch the evening news shows. But now? Now, our phones pursue us with nonstop newsfeeds, our ipads and laptops bristle with tawdry tales of national and international scandal for any political flavor you prefer. Facebook and Tumbler and Twitter—oy, Twitter—provide us an endless flow of political stories as sensationalized as “reality”-TV shows. We never seem to escape the building and breaking of Golden Calves in every part of our lives.
And yet, we who live in this great community know that the values of our community, and the things that have true meaning in our lives are not to be found in this national obsession. We know that it is building our city—our wards—our businesses—our schools—our communities—our churches and synagogues and mosques—our homes—our families—that really matters. It is creating justice and fairness, helping the needy, protecting the stranger and refugee. These are what is real. This is what is true.
In my tradition, we are all given the opportunity to know what is real and meaningful, and we all have the chance to focus on the aspects of our lives that ultimately matter, and to act in ways that reflect those great values. And so we pray: God, our Creator and Protector, may we each make this choice to live our lives in dedication to the choices that lead us and our city to a time of health, prosperity, peace, justice, mercy, compassion, and goodness. May this be Your will; and most of all, may it be ours.