1st Day Rosh Hashanah Sermon

Rosh Hashanah - Day 1 - 2012/5773
Prioritizing Our Values

A theme of the High Holiday season is חשבון הנפש “cheshbon ha-nefesh” - loosely translated as introspection but more literally taking an accounting of ourselves. Our spiritual job this season is to take stock of our lives - spend time understanding who we are and what we stand for. We ask ourselves, what are the core values upon which we live, that drive our everyday lives? How do we know how to make the ethical and moral decisions we have to make every day? How do we know how to treat our spouse, to respect our parents, to love our children, to relate to our colleagues at work, to supervise our employees, to buy stock? Everything we do from the mundane to the significant is based on some core of ethics that we have developed for ourselves. Usually we make these decisions pretty quickly without giving them a second thought, but more major decisions - where to send our kids to school, who we will marry - are based on serious deliberation.
This High Holiday season provides us the annual opportunity to take stock of our lives. Jewish tradition teaches us that we need to do this spiritual work either to reaffirm the righteousness of our decisions or to make changes if necessary. The חשבון הנפש helps us understand the source of our decision making process.
I attended Jewish day schools for almost all my school years K-12. I only experienced public school in 7th grade. I went to Jewish day camps in the summer time, camp Ramah overnight camp once, and trips to Israel with my family many times. Clearly the values training I had was Jewish. But it was also American. I remember reciting the pledge of allegiance and singing either My Country ‘tis of Thee or America the Beautiful every morning. I learned American history and took school trips to the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall. I learned about the Constitution and the ideals on which our country was founded.
But I must admit that I would consider myself an American Jew rather than a Jewish American. My inclination always tends toward Jewish values over American values because that is who I am and how I identify myself. My father is a rabbi and the values taught at home were Jewish. I took Jewish studies courses in college, spent a year of university in Israel and went to rabbinical school. I am Jewish through and through.
So when issues arise in life I instinctively think about them in a Jewish way. If it’s the economy or drilling for oil in the arctic or foreign policy or defense I automatically think about them Jewishly. I think about how we treat the poor, I think about environmental impact, I think about being a light unto the nations, I think about the appropriate use of force. No matter the issue I reflect upon it through my Jewish values glasses.
All of us will have an opportunity this November to understand our own values system when we see the Maryland ballot. On November 6 we will be asked to vote on three issues that affect our society. These three issues have been divisive and polarizing. The issues get to the root of the values of our society and which values we want to uphold at the expense of other values.
One question is about whether we want a casino to be built at the National Harbor in Prince George’s County. Even though the casino is miles and miles away from us and may not affect our daily lives at all, as citizens of Maryland we have a right to determine what values we think Maryland should uphold. Do we think our State should make money and support education through revenue generated from a casino?
Judaism is quite clear about gambling. The one source which is always cited discusses which people are fit to serve as a witness. Being a witness according to Jewish law involves both knowledge of the law and tradition and also certain character traits. One who משחק בקוביות “mesachek bakoobeeyot” - plays dice - is ineligible to be a witness. Supposedly one who gambles wastes time from more honorable pursuits and also wastes hard earned money that would otherwise be used to support one’s family.
But in America certain forms of gambling are legal. Almost every state has a lottery, many states have some kind of gambling - from slot machines to table games - and non-profit organizations are allowed to run bingo. There are horse tracks and dog tracks and off track betting. There are office pools for the super bowl or the college basketball tournament. Many of us play in weekly or monthly penny poker games. Are these wrong? Since many of these are already legal in Maryland why not allow the casino to be built especially since much of the revenue will be used to support our public schools?
Education is of course a Jewish value too. It is incumbent on us if we are parents to teach our children and if we can’t then the rabbis say we must hire a teacher. For at least 2,000 years all Jews took this value seriously and made every effort to ensure their children received proper training.
So it is appropriate to support educational initiatives, but we must ask at what price. Is it ok to support gambling in order to support the public schools? Or put another way, just because something is legal doesn’t necessarily mean that it is right. We all know the detrimental affect addiction has on one’s life. Should the State encourage opportunities for gambling? Should the State tempt the possibility of increased organized crime that casinos seem to engender? Should the State turn down what could be a golden opportunity to make money especially in this poor economy? Am I saying that we should vote no on this question in November? I’m not here to tell you how to vote, I only suggest that there is a lot to think about and many factors to weigh, including the Jewish perspective, as we make this decision. It is too simple to say that this ballot question is about gambling vs. education. It’s not black and white.
Another question on the ballot deals with the children of illegal or undocumented immigrants. Known as the Dream Act, the question is whether these children who have been students in Maryland public schools can be allowed to pay in-state tuition in Maryland state colleges and universities. Can these children be considered citizens of Maryland when applying to Maryland colleges? This is a fascinating question and Judaism has much to say about this.
It is clear from our tradition, all the way back to the Torah, that we are supposed to welcome the stranger in our midst because we were once strangers in the land of Egypt. Even though the Torah anticipates settling the land of Israel and making it our national and religious home, it recognizes that there will still be non-Jews in the land. We are supposed to welcome them in and make life comfortable for them.
Now of course it makes sense that there should be laws today on how people can enter our country and live here. Some countries in the world are more restrictive than others and we all remember how those restrictive American policies affected the lives of the Jews of Europe before and during WWII. It is clear that America was founded by immigrants and that we are a nation of immigrants. We are also a country with a clearly defined legal system and our immigration policy is constantly under scrutiny and attack - should there be tighter border control, do state police in Arizona have the right to pull over motorists suspected of being illegal immigrants to name just two recent examples.
Though it is a Jewish value to welcome in the stranger it is also a Jewish value to ensure that all in the community are properly cared for. If everyone in a town isn’t gainfully employed for whatever reason, the town is to have a soup kitchen and other funds available to support the poor. The Jewish sources also claim that Jews and non-Jews are to be supported from communal funds in order to ensure peace or more simply good neighborly relations.
How America welcomes people into our country should always be under review. But  once people are here and their children are allowed to enroll in our schools, should the children be punished? Should the children be punished for the actions of their parents? The Torah is mixed on this. In the 10 commandments we are told that God פוקד עון אבות על בנים “pokayd avon avot al banim” - God punishes the children for the sins of the parents. But in Deuteronomy in the portion Ki Teitzei it says “parents shall not be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their parents; each is to die for his own sin.” So which is it - do parents pass culpability on to their children or not?
The question in November isn’t about whether the children of illegal immigrants should be considered illegal or not, it’s whether the children should be allowed to receive the same benefits as legal citizens of our State. That is a difficult question to answer and valid arguments can be made on both sides of the issue - from both the American legal perspective and the Jewish traditional perspective. We need to decide based on our value system, which would be more important to consider.
Finally our ballot will have us consider whether to allow same sex marriages to be performed in our state. Our state legislature already passed this law but on condition that it be put to a referendum in November. We know that more and more jurisdictions across the country are legalizing same sex marriages, and if they are not legalizing then they are accepting them if performed in another jurisdiction. For most it is seen as a reflection of human rights. Our country is based on the principle of the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness without regard for race, color or religion. And now many argue that should be extended to sexual orientation as well.
If we apply Jewish values and laws to this issue we might think that Judaism opposes a homosexual life. The book of Leviticus in chapter 18 clearly states that a man shouldn’t lie with a man in the manner of lying with a woman, it is an abomination. And chapter 20 in Leviticus states that the two men who do so should be executed. For centuries that has been the law regarding homosexulaity.
Only recently - 6 years ago - did the Law Committee of the Conservative Movement (the body that decides issues of Jewish law for Conservative Jews) apply different modes of legal interpretation to this issue. A paper which received a majority of 13 votes (out of 25) argued that homosexuality should be considered today an issue of human dignity. It is true that the Torah and rabbinic tradition regarded heterosexulaity as the norm. The relationship of a man and woman sanctified in marriage is the ideal for which all people should strive. Homosexulaity was seen as deviant behavior. It was an abomination because it was seen to be a choice, just as one would choose to violate the laws of shabbat or kashrut.
But what if, this paper argued, homosexulaity isn’t a choice? What if medical science could prove that homosexuals are born homosexual? Should they then be punished for something that is out of their control, or should they be forced to live a celibate life or worse a life of a lie in a forced heterosexual relationship? The authors of this paper which include the current chair of the Law Committee and the current Dean of the JTS rabbinical school argue that human dignity trumps all else. I think they convincingly make the point that a person’s dignity is to be upheld and fought for over anything else. Though the law may have read that homosexulaity is an abomination, that should be overruled if one is by nature a homosexual.
Therefore by extension this paper argues for homosexuals to be treated equally under Jewish law allowing them to be cantors and rabbis and to be married. Just last spring a ceremony was written by these same authors to be used for such a commitment ceremony. Accordingly we could view this question on the Maryland ballot in a new Jewish light, one that would support this new legislation.
Let me reiterate, my purpose here isn’t to tell you how to vote. My purpose is to highlight Jewish perspectives on these issues that will educate us as we go to the polls on November 6. We can’t help but vote our conscience. But the question is what is our conscience? How do we develop our conscience? Can our conscience evolve? How do we know we are comfortable with our conscience?
One possible course of action is not to vote. The percentage of eligible voters voting in each presidential election has declined - until 2008. 61.6% of those eligible voted in 2008 - just under ⅔ - and that was the highest percentage since 1968! Surely that represents many factors including apathy or the sense that one vote doesn’t really matter in the end. And we might feel that way in this election as well. We might feel that these issues don’t affect our lives - we don’t live near the National Harbor, we don’t know any illegal immigrants and we’re not homosexual so who cares - let someone else fight that battle.
But our conscience should force us to care. We only have this one life to live and it should be as meaningful as possible. We can’t view our life as just providing for our family or trying to find pleasure and relaxation. Life is about responsibility. It is about recognizing how remarkable it is that we are alive and responding to that by making our lives remarkable. We can’t just sit back and let others vote and make choices for us. We have the right and responsibility to make a difference.
That entails being properly educated about the issues. We need to know what the context is to these issues and that context is both American and Jewish. A piece of ourselves goes into making these choices. Since one of our pieces is Jewish that should naturally be included in our decision making process.
As this high holiday season progresses let’s be sure not to be complacent. Discomfort or challenge such as this is good because it causes us to think. It causes us to evaluate our value system. It causes us to possibly reorganize our priorities. All of these things allow us to grow and become more enriched. In the end it doesn’t matter how we vote, but only that we vote responsibly and with meaning.
May this high holiday season be one of serious חשבון הנפש so that we feel blessed and make those around us feel blessed as well. Shanah Tovah.