September 25, 2014

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon, Temple Emanu-El, Tucson, AZ

An artist goes to the gallery where his work is displayed. The gallery owner tells him: "I've got good news and bad news for you."

"Tell me the good news first," the artist says.

"The good news is that a man came into the gallery yesterday, asking if I thought the price of your paintings would go up after you die – and, when I told him yes, he proceeded to buy every piece of your art in the gallery."

"Great!" says the artist, "And what's the bad news?"

And the gallery owner answers, "The bad news is: that man is your doctor."

Or an older man goes to his doctor to find out the result of his lab tests.

"I've got good news and bad news," the doctor says.

"Give me the good news first," the patient replies.

"The good news is that you have only 24 hours to live."

"What!" the patient blubbers. "If that's the good news, what's the bad news?"

And the doctor answers, "The bad news is that I forgot to call you yesterday."

Good news, bad news. Usually, in our society, of course, it's the bad news that predominates. You know the old cliché, "no news is good news"? Well, as far as the media is concerned, good news is also no news. Whether it's newsfeeds on Yahoo, Google, Twitter, or Facebook, websites like the Huffington Post or the New York Times, cable TV news on CNN or Fox, radio news, or the old-fashioned print journalism of newspapers and magazines, even fake-news shows like The Daily Show or the Colbert Report, what makes an item newsworthy is that it's bad news.

Have a great story that uplifts humanity? It might have made a good segment on Oprah, when she was still doing schmaltzy TV, but it's unlikely to become an actual news story, and certainly not a viral one. This was true in the days of Walter Cronkite, it was true in the era of William Randolph Hearst's yellow journalism, and it was true all the way back to the days of the prophet Jeremiah. Bad news sells papers, today it generates viewers and click-through readers. It has always been and always will be this way.

But some years it seems like all the news is bad.

In 5774 year we had plenty of it. The summer war in Gaza came up out of nowhere—like a Hamas terrorist emerging from a tunnel—and dragged on, bringing a sense of vulnerability to Israel and spreading lurid photos of Palestinian casualties around the world. In Syria and Iraq ultra-violent Islamist-led civil wars against fascist military dictators raged like out-of-control forest fires, slaughtered hundreds of thousands of civilians, and made millions homeless. Reporters were kidnapped by the ISIS terrorists, and a Jewish one was publicly beheaded, as were two British reporters, while ancient Christian communities in Iraq and Syria were destroyed and more thousands were terrorized and killed. There were wars and terror attacks in Afghanistan and Libya. The whole Middle East teetered between warfare and complete chaos.

In Africa, Islamist Boko Harem terrorists in Nigeria slaughtered thousands of people and kidnapped hundreds of young women, in Somalia and South Sudan ongoing civil wars ground on, and the horrible Ebola pandemic in Africa killed thousands and created panic among many more.

Europe wasn't much better. The Crimea was stolen from Ukraine by Russia under its czar, Vladimir Putin, and then eastern Ukraine became a European warzone that threatened to engulf the region.

And two Malaysian Airlines planes filled with ordinary people—actually, one of them was full of extraordinary people, AIDS doctors and activists—fell from the sky, one shot down brutally by pro-Russian militia in Ukraine, and the other mysteriously lost with all aboard in the Indian Ocean.

America wasn't spared bad news, either. Race riots exploded in this land of the free yet again, this time in Ferguson, Missouri, in another racially-influenced police shooting. We never seem to learn, do we? Politically, with the endless gridlock in Washington, no action was taken on policy issues that plague our country: immigration, assault weapons, financial disparities that damage the fabric of our country.

In our Tucson backyard 75,000 unaccompanied minors from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Mexico entered America illegally this year, and we are trying hard to figure out what to do with them. In spite of the clear need for immigration reform, no action will be taken until after this election cycle politicizes things so virulently that reasonable solutions become impossible.

Even in comedy there was bad news: first Robin Williams died, and then Joan Rivers.

5774 seemed like a true series of unfortunate events. Is this new year just a bad moon rising with trouble 'round the bend?

I am, at heart, an optimist about this complicated planet, and I have great confidence that we will rise from all the bad news and reach a better place. Even in the massively troubled Middle East there are possibilities for sudden, rapid improvement. Perhaps all it will take is an ice bucket challenge or two—that, some fortitude in the face of the crazies, and a large helping of extra effort from God.

But there is one area in particular in which the news last year was most profoundly troubling. It came in the form of a frightening acceleration in the rate of Anti-Semitism, demonstrated by a rash of events from Europe to Africa to America to Australia.

Here, too, there is good news and bad news. But perhaps the best way to demonstrate that is through a story.

During Nazi times, two Jews meet on the street in Berlin. One of them says, "I have good news and bad news."

"So, tell me the good news first," the other answers.

"The good news is that Hitler's dead."

"Oh, wonderful, a miracle!" says his friend. "After such news, no news can be truly bad news, but anyway, tell me the bad news next."

And his friend answers, "The bad news is that the good news is not true."

I have to confess, on the subject of anti-Semitism today, good news is not much in evidence.

In recent months anti-Israel rallies have turned into anti-Semitic riots in France, while the Jewish Museum in Brussels, Belgium was brutally attacked in a murderous act of jihadi terror. "Death to the Jews!" shouted protesters at pro-Palestinian rallies in Belgium and France. "Gas the Jews!" yelled marchers at a protest in Germany. According to a recent survey, one third of all European Jews are currently considering emigrating out of Europe.

And it's not just Europe. This summer there were reports of rabbis and congregants attacked all around the world: in France and Belgium, of course, but also Ukraine, Germany, Morocco, Tunisia, Australia, even Miami. Rallies against the war in Gaza became excuses to recycle the worst anti-Semitic lies in history, including a resurrection of the medieval blood libel in Seattle, Washington—the Blood Libel! On posters in Seattle! Suddenly, being against civilian deaths in Gaza was an excuse to spout anti-Semitic rhetoric and post images Joseph Goebbels would have been proud of. A new ADL study confirmed that there is a lot of anti-Semitism in the world: 75% of the residents of Muslim countries in the Middle East and North Africa have anti-Semitic views, plus 70% of Greeks, 60% of Malaysians and Armenians and even 53% of South Koreans hold anti-Semitic views. South Koreans? Where no Jews have ever lived? What's going on?

This past summer I was asked by our excellent Adult Education Academy Committee, chaired by Dr. Steve Shawl—you can find brochures at your seats today; sign up for any of our many great courses!—I was asked to teach a class on the subject of Anti-Semitism. This request has been made many times before but I've always demurred. After 16 years at Temple Emanu-El I've taught every area of Jewish thought, practice, text, and history except a course in Anti-Semitism. I really did not want to spend time researching why people have hated us so much for so long, and the many awful ways they have expressed that hatred. Judaism is a life-affirming, joyous celebration of the best that is human. Why bury ourselves in the morass of our persecuted past?

But this time, with everything going on in the world, I broke down and taught it. And a funny thing happened on the way to the Adult Education forum: I discovered that exploring anti-Semitism is perversely but genuinely fascinating. There was plenty of bad news to find there, God knows. But it was also compelling to try to figure out where anti-Semitism came from and why it has proven to be so persistent in the face of logic, reason, and even self-interest.

I rediscovered something I learned long ago. First, being different is not always an advantage. Most people are uncomfortable with anything or anyone that is too different, and respond with fear, anger, and even hatred of any minority culture, especially an identifiable one. We Jews have always been a little different from our neighbors, recognizably so in diet, clothing, ethics, and worship, among other things. We see this difference as affirming holiness in the world; others simply see it as odd, even alien. And difference is the first step towards persecution.

The second element in anti-Semitism is the common human need for a scapegoat. While originally a concept from our own Torah, a way to transfer human sin to an innocent beast that sent into the wilderness on Yom Kippur, the process of finding an easy target upon whom to blame all societal ills is an innate requirement for every society. We need to blame someone when things go wrong. In some parts of America it is common to fault African-Americans; in some places it's more traditional to blame Native Americans; in Arizona the scapegoat for most social ills is likely to be the immigrant. This is wrong on every level, but the blame-the-outsider-game has been ubiquitous everywhere in the world in every era. And we Jews often fit that need.

The third thing I discovered is that anti-Semitism has an ideological basis. It is rooted in the insecurity of the belief system of the anti-Semite himself or herself. For example, in its earliest days, Christianity had a huge public relations problem. Although Jesus was born to a Jewish family in the Galilee, Christianity itself came out of first century Israel, and virtually everyone who ever knew Jesus was Jewish, Jews simply didn't convert to the new faith in any substantial number. The national religious group that produced Jesus and were the only people who had actually known the guy Christians thought was God, didn't think that was true. And no matter how convincing the arguments that Christians made, Jews didn't want to switch to the new religion. They liked Judaism, and didn't believe in Christianity.

This was a huge Achilles heal for early Christianity. If the Jews, who actually knew Jesus, didn't think he was God, why should anyone else?

That little problem began the great religious persecutions that have haunted our people ever since. It became essential to demonstrate that there had to be an innate flaw in the Jews, some problem in our very makeup that made it possible for us to miss the obvious divinity of the protagonist of that faith. There must be something deeply wrong with these Jews or they too would have jumped for joy at the thought of conversion. They were stubborn, obstinate, probably even bewitched by the devil. And it went downhill from there.

For once you begin to demonize another people, once you claim that there is something intrinsically morally wrong about them, you are sliding down a slippery slope of villainization that leads, ultimately, to the Holocaust.

That is a powerful lesson to anyone who would denigrate an entire group of people, or a whole religious culture, as a collective. Start by attacking the legitimacy of a people, and you can end up with genocide. This should be a warning, for example, to anyone who believes that all Arabs, or all Muslims, are somehow evil. It has happened to us so often that we need to guard against falling into that trap.

Actually, there is some good news on anti-Semitism. We are fortunate in America that the anti-Semitic wave in Europe has not truly reached our shores. In fact, you can make a case that anti-Semitism in America is at a historic low. We are ridiculously well accepted in America, even loved. Surveys show that Jews are the religious group most highly thought of in the U.S., and that parents would rather their children marry Jews than members of their own faith. Wow.

But the bad news is that just when you think that anti-Semitism is going, going, gone, it rears its ugly head... in rallies in places like New York, Boston, Los Angeles, and Seattle.

It is likely that anti-Semitic activity will continue to grow internationally. It is in the soil of Europe, after all, and the Middle East is where the Nazi ideology took deepest root and has had its greatest success. You might even think that there is nothing you can do about this as an individual. After all, these are global issues, and the roots of this racist religious bigotry go back more than two thousand years.

But there is good news and there is bad news. The bad news is that there is indeed anti-Semitism on the rise. It must be resisted, and answered.

But the good news is that you actually can do something about it. And you can do so in a unique way this year.

This Rosh HaShanah we begin the Sabbatical year, the Shmittah. You will hear more about this each week, beginning at Yom Kippur, and there is a Shmittah shelf in our lobby, thanks to Louise Greenfield, Sharon Geiger, and Norma Cohen. So what is the shmittah? In the Biblical period, every seventh Jewish year was a special year, a sabbatical, a time when the land was allowed to lie fallow and rest, and the people, too rested from their agricultural work and ate only the produce that the land naturally produced. It is a reminder of our deep debt to God for the bounty of the natural world.

But the sabbatical year was also when the people were assembled together—Hakheil et ha'am gather together as a kahal, a congregation, the Torah commands us in the section on the shmittah year, the Sabbatical. This unity was required because in the sabbatical year we were to gather as a sign of strength, the strength that comes in numbers. We all know that two people can lift much more than one, and much more than the sum of what two could do on their own. When we join together we can do more. It's always a good thing to share the burden.

Gathering together also has another purpose: it provides protection and security from attack. Huge flocks of birds, which like flocks of Jews never seem to be going in exactly the same direction, nonetheless are well protected against predators. The larger the flock, studies show, the less vulnerable the individuals prove to be. Fly with others and you will be safer against attack, from anti-Semites and others.

But this principle of hakheil, of gathering for the year of sabbatical, is not really about physical work, or even mutual protection. It is about the creation of a true kahal, a congregation that works together in a concerted effort to accomplish great and good things that no individual could do alone. The initial ingathering of people was designed to allow for the creation of the sanctuary, and the building of a mishkan, a truly sacred place for God's divine presence, God's shechinah, to dwell, the real meaning was not just physical but spiritual. Last Shabbat in the Torah portion of Nitzavim—which we will read again on Yom Kippur morning—the whole people of Israel assembled, creating a great kehilah, a complete congregation of the peoplehood of Israel.

We, too, belong, all of us, to this incredible, historic true community. We are Jews, and it is our gift and our responsibility to unite with all Jews. For if we do that, if we stand not just with the great nation of Israel but with the people of Israel, if we act to support and connect and bring blessing to the whole house of Israel, the challenges the anti-Semites present can and will be met.

And something much more important will be accomplished as well.

For when we Jews come together, as we do today, we create an entity that is incredibly strong spiritually. It is the unity of our vision and our dream of being a truly holy people, an am echad v'goy echad, that allows us to accomplish absolutely anything. It's true, we are a fractious people, and getting Jews to agree on a course of action might truly require a divine edict like the shemittah year. But when we manage it, when we truly unite, then we can accomplish everything.

The way to start, of course, is here, at home, in our own congregation, Temple Emanu-El, our mikdash me'at, our own sacred community of prayer, study, social action, and dedication. If we begin here, uniting as one, we will have taken a great first step.

And then, we can find the way, in our lives and in our hearts, to unite with Jews everywhere in the world, beginning in our synagogue and our congregation but moving outwards and upwards to embrace all Jews and forms of Judaism. When we do that we will be taking the best step towards guaranteeing a truly good year—even, God-willing, a year of good news.

You can begin, personally, by discovering the person next to you today is part of klal Yisrael, the larger family of Israel. And the person on the other side, too, is actually part of this greater unity, that shared membership in the peoplehood of Israel. Each of you is a part of what will make this 5775 year special, strong, and holy for you and for our community. And all you need to do to make this happen is to reach out in unity.

As we experience this season of teshvuah, of return, there is bad news and good news. The bad news is that time flies. The good news is, you're the pilot. You control your own destiny. And together, we all control our shared destiny.

May we all learn to fly together, and so make this a year of goodness, blessing, holiness, and unity.

Leshana Tova Tikateivu v'teichateimu. May you be written and sealed in the Book of Life for a truly good year, filled only with good news.


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