A Rabbi’s Thoughts on Rosh Hashanah—by Peter Eisenstadt

A rabbi, in her study, a few hours before the beginning of the New Year, speaking to herself:
Oh jeez, its erev Rosh Hashanah, and I still have no idea what I am going to speak about in my sermon tonight. I’ve got to deal with my procrastination this year. Maybe that’s what I can talk about, how the calendar is inexorable, and time and tide wait for no one, etc., and calendar events like Rosh Hashanah force us out of our paths of least resistance, and make us change our behavior. Or maybe I could just say because I waited too long to write a good sermon, I wrote this one instead, and that’s what happens when you delay too long, and let it be a lesson to you. No, too meta, and it will go over too many people’s heads. Anyway, if I gave a bad sermon, most people probably wouldn’t notice anyway.

Maybe I could just do the usual, say it’s so good to see you all, and that if some of you High Holyday Jews could manage to get your fannies in the pews on your average, garden-variety Shabbat, and you gave us as much money as you are paying for your daughter’s special soccer coaching, maybe our social hall wouldn’t look like one of those Roman antiquities after ISIS got their paws on it. Nah, that’s too negative. People don’t want to be hectored, and they have heard it all before. Anyway, there’s something magical about seeing all these people bursting the building to its seams—my cup overfloweth and all that.

Perhaps I could speak about how after the bitter fight over the Iran deal among American Jews—it doesn’t really have a good name, does it—the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action hasn’t really caught on—it’s time for binding our wounds, and I could sound real Lincolnesque, malice to none and charity to all and all that jazz. But I don’t believe it. As Peter Beinart said this week, there is no such thing as the American Jewish community; it’s just an artful fiction. I think the raised tempers have been, on the whole, a good thing. The right-wingers have always been sore winners, and of course now that they for a change were beaten, even sorer losers. Let them pout, let them call every Democratic member of Congress except for Chuck Schumer and his cronies anti-Semites, let them call every M.O.T. who supported Obama a self-hating Jew. We do need to come together in times of emergency, but we need to understand what we are coming together for, and supporting the abstraction that most American Jews call “Israel” doesn’t cut it anymore. Anyway, the real question is not whether the Democrats will turn against Israel’s genuine security interests but whether Obama and Netanyahu will go all kissy-face and they will all make up, and serious discussion of the settlements will remain a non-topic. Yeah, if I go there again and Mr. Schwartz from the board will go ballistic again and insist that I read one of his stupid pamphlets. Just too divisive, unfortunately. Save it for a Shabbat without a Bar or Bat Mitzvah when all we have are the handful of regulars.

Here’s an idea: I just went to the supermarket and saw a Rosh Hashanah display; honey cake, teglach, Kedem grape juice and all that. Why is it that no supermarket ever has a Yom Kippur display? How can food companies make money off fasting? And if a day like Yom Kippur can’t be commercialized by Wegmans and their peers, does it really exist? No, too weird.

Then there’s the refugee crisis, and whether this calls us to repentance. I’ve never been a big fan of repentance. Why should you have to wait until you feel you are guilty to do the right thing? And it leads to everyone saying, look at the other guy, I’m not responsible, it’s not my problem. And they are right. Look, let’s face it, the “responsibility” for the chaos in Syria starts with the Syrians themselves, and in ever widening concentric circles, includes the bordering countries (including Israel), the other powers in the Middle East, the great powers, the EU, and I suppose, the guy who murdered Ali, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, back when. And maybe I could say how much it makes my blood boil to hear leaders from Slovakia, Hungary, and Poland, say that they only want to accept Christian refugees to maintain the Christian character of their still largely Judenreined states. Another posthumous victory of Hitler. On the other hand, Germany, by accepting by far the largest number of refugees, is the moral light of the world in these dark times. God always keeps things interesting, doesn’t she?

But the real point I want to tell my congregation is that please, don’t feel sympathy, don’t pity the refugees, don’t try to do something for them out of the kindness of your heart. Pity and sympathy are always condescending emotions, expressed by those in comfortable situations to those less fortunate. They are distancing emotions, ways of avoiding treating the refugees as fully human, as fully your equal as we see with Donald Trump rantings. (By the way, is there anyone, who has spent as much of his life dealing with all the Jews in the business world in New York City who is less of a mensch?) They are us, members of my congregation, they are us. They have all of our rights, they are citizens of the same planet, they should be treated as we would want ourselves to be treated if we were in similar straits. They should demand equality with their hosts, and not be satisfied with the lukewarm bath of tepid toleration. And there’s all this Jewish stuff relevant here—my father is a wandering Aramean, and wherever Aramea was, it wasn’t too far from Syria. Did the Pharaoh worry about anchor babies? Just because the refugees were born in Syria doesn’t mean that they don’t the same right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness as your own kids do, as does yourself. Don’t open your hearts, open your borders; and charity begins at home; the US should deal with our Mexicans; Israel with its Sudanese and Eritreans, and everyone has a shared responsibility for the Syrians. That will make some of the Republicans in the congregation mad, but I’ve dealt with that before, and I can do it again. But do I really want to come off again as this stern moralizer, this sackcloth and ashes doom-prophesying Jeremiah? That act is getting stale. And anyway, people don’t listen, or just discount as the rabbi being the rabbi.

I’ll lighten up. You can’t be a pessimist on Rosh Hashanah. Maybe I can forget the sermon altogether. I don’t think people will miss it. I think I can get by if I just wish everyone a sincere and heartfelt L’Shanah Tova, on this, the birthday of the world, and let everyone go home a few minutes early. But the paradox of new beginnings and celebrations of new years is that everyone wants a change, and it rarely comes, except usually in the form of things that are depressingly old. But it is the hope that “this time, things will be different” despite everything that logic and the weight of history tells us, that keeps us going, despite everything, you know, that line by Beckett, “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” And may you be inscribed in the book of life for a happy and healthy year, and be satisfied that you once again avoided death by wild beasts. Or something like that.