“To Boldly Go” – Shabbat Lech Lecha, Friday, October 15, 2021

Captain’s Log, Stardate 11-13-2021

The recorded response of Captain James T. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise – also known as actor William Shatner, who on Wednesday boldly went where no one his age has gone before, as one of four passengers who reached just into space in the Blue Origin New Shepard rocket.

“What you have given me is the most profound experience,” Shatner told Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos after landing back in the Texas desert. “I hope I never recover from this. I hope that I can maintain what I feel now. I don’t want to lose it.”[1]

Shatner’s ten-minute flight — including a few fleeting moments floating in zero-gravity – did just reach into the final frontier, 66 miles up from earth and four miles beyond what is considered the edge of space. It may have been akin to the blink of an eye compared to the career Shatner has had playing Captain Kirk on a Hollywood soundstage since 1966. But the power of the blast-off, the view of the earth from above, and the miracle of a safe and soft landing was obviously and deeply profound.

“To boldly go where no man has gone before . . .” Even those of us who grew up on Star Trek in all its incarnations will always hear Shatner’s voice speaking those words in the original series intro. And how timely it was that he should fulfill that mission for himself during the week when the Torah gives us a story about another powerful journey that carries its own cosmic importance.

Lech lecha, God says to the Chaldean man Avram, son of Haran. “Go forth from your native land, from the land of your birth, from the house of your father, to the land that I will show you.”

Lech lecha. What a curious and unique command. Not just lech – “Go!” – but Lecha lecha. “Betake yourself.” “Go for yourself.” Some commentators dismiss it as an idiom, a mere feature of the Hebrew language.

But we want more. We look for a deeper message. After all, as author Aviva Zornberg points out: “For the first time [in the Torah], a journey is undertaken, not as an act of exile (Adam, Cain) or a quest for domination (the generation of Babel) but as a response to a divine imperative.”[2]

And so the Midrash gives us the gift of this inherent meaning: “Lech Lecha: Go forth to find your authentic self, to learn who you are meant to be.”[3]

But there’s a twist: God does not call Avram by name. His calling is unique, and the details of his journey intensely personal. But the call is not inherently his alone. And so we are free to imagine ourselves as the one being called. We may well see ourselves in Avram’s place, feeling the urge – the necessity — at some point in our lives to boldly go where we have never gone before, feeling that the time and the travel are right.

Many of us left the places where we were born and where we grew up long ago. We have journeyed across the country, or even around the world. We go for love, we go for professional challenges, we go for the sheer adventure of going.

Some of us go when we are young, with nothing holding us back or keeping us in place. Some of us change the trajectory of our lives when we are older. Maybe not 75 like Avram, or 90 like William Shatner – but old enough to know that the chance to boldly go doesn’t happen every day. We seize the chance and embrace the unknown.

Today, our country is filled with travelers doing just that. They pack up and go. As Abby Vesoulis wrote this week in Time Magazine, “If April 2020 was the month of pink slips – as the rapid spread of COVID-19 resulted in the loss of 20.5 million jobs – then Fall 2021 is the dawn of their revenge. A record breaking 4.3 million Americans quit their jobs in August across an array of industries . . . meanwhile, the 7.7 million people who remain unemployed aren’t, for the most part, jumping at the roughly 10.4 million job openings.”[4]

A lot of people are just fed up with their nasty, back-breaking jobs and lousy working conditions. With low wages and unaffordable child care weighing on them, as former Labor Secretary Robert Reich put it, “Workers are burned out. They’re fed up. They’re fried. In the wake of so much hardship, and illness and death during the past year, they’re not going to take it anymore.”[5]

For these travelers, the pandemic has been a stark reminder of the hardness and fragility of life that Captain Kirk saw passing by him out the window of the Blue Origin capsule this week:

“To see the blue color whip by you and now you’re staring into blackness,” Shatner reflected back on earth. “In an instant, you go, ‘Whoa, that’s death.’ That’s what I saw.”[6]

I always wonder what blackness Avram must have seen in his life to be so utterly and immediately willing to boldly go on God’s command. Was it the pointless idolatry that surrounded him in Haran – his friends and family worshiping imagines that they had carved with their own hands? Was there hunger? Violence? Or did he simply lift up his eyes, as he would when God sent him on the next part of his journey, and see that blue sky calling him out of the blackness?

Avram would lech lecha, go forth to find himself in a place where his gifts would flourish. He would be tutored by the land and the trees. He would learn from the sky and from the voice that called to him out of the heavens.

We, too, learn and grow and change and dare from so many influences in our lives: The people we meet. The people we love. The books we read. The flavors we eat. The colors at which we marvel. And, especially lately, the air we breathe, the smiles we reflect, and the care we give to one another. The very power of being able to awaken each day. These are the gifts that we learn never to take for granted.

Some of us “betake ourselves” to lands unknown. But even for those of us who find these gifts in the immediate vicinity where we grew up, every day offers us challenges and opportunities. Life is not static, anywhere we are.

Change is an integral part of life. We can try to resist it. Or we can “boldly go” – as our ancestors did – to become the people God meant us to be.

Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our mission on earth, and to the final frontier. As we say together: Amen.

###

©2021 Audrey R. Korotkin


[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2021/10/13/shatner-blue-origin-space-tourism/

[2] Aviva Zornberg, as quoted in the footnotes for Genesis 12:1 in Etz Hayim Torah and Commentary (New York: The Rabbinical Assembly, 2001), p. 70.

[3] Mei Ha-Shi-lo-ah, as quoted in the footnotes for Genesis 12:1 in Etz Hayim, loc. cit.

[4] https://time.com/6106322/the-great-resignation-jobs/

[5] Ibid.

[6] From the Associated Press article datelined Van Horn, Texas, published in Altoona Mirror for Thursday, October 14, 2021, page C-1.

Yom Kippur Morning 2021: Open the Gates to Joy

I have to hand it to our man Moses – God’s beloved, and our most revered prophet. After all the grumbling and kvetching and threatening in which Moses has engaged through much of his farewell address to the Israelites – after all that, he finds the right words at just the right tiAs we’ve discussed for weeks now — going chapter by chapter in Deuteronomy on these Friday nights through the summer — Moses has spent an inordinate amount of time warning the people of the threats they face from the Canaanites who live just over the Jordan River. Chief among these threats is idolatry – the fear that the Israelites will find life just too hard on their own, and they will think it’s easier to blend in with the people who already live in the Promised Land. Including worshiping their gods. Everything Moses has worked for since God’s call to him at the Burning Bush could be lost to the lure of idolatry.

He’s tried to literally put the fear of God in them – warning them of the divine punishments that await them for their sins.

But in this morning’s reading, which comes close to the end of his oration, Moses pulls back on the pummeling and instead focuses on the promise.

The Eternal your God, says Moses, is establishing you “as the people whose only God is the Eternal, as you had been promised, and as God had sworn to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” Moses assures them that all future generations of their children, and all who will choose to join the Jewish people, are part of that covenant — as though we ourselves were standing on the banks of the Jordan.

And then, he gets to the most important message:

“For this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you, nor too remote. It is not in heaven … nor beyond the sea…No, it is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart, and you can do it.”[1]

Moses is no less worried that Jews will find it much easier simply to stop living like Jews, eating like Jews, praying like Jews, or dressing like Jews. He’s still afraid they’ll find acculturation – or even assimilation – too powerful a draw. He’s, frankly, terrified that the experiment in Jewish self-reliance and self-governance will be too intimidating for the Israelites to do for themselves, once God has left them to their own devices.

But instead of threatening them with punishment because of their presumed weaknesses, he blesses them with kindness and promise and a future of freedom and joy because of their intrinsic strength.

And I’d like to take my cue from Moses this morning.

On Rosh Hashanah morning, I focused on the threat that we all face from rampant anti-semitism, from the right and from the left. Of the Jew-hatred that lies at the heart of conspiracy theories of all sorts that spread like a plague in our country today. Like Moses, I warned what would happen if we capitulated. If we decided it was too hard for us to be Jews, and just assimilated into the larger society. In other words: What will happen if we let the bullies win.

But there’s another way to beat the bullies. And that’s not only to stand up for ourselves but to fully affirm our Jewishness. Embracing it. Rejoicing in Jewish life, in all its fullness.

There are so many ways that Judaism influences the way we behave every single day. Beyond worship and study and lifecycle events, our Jewishness permeates the way we see the world, and the way we live in it

I was inspired by a recent essay by David Harris of the American Jewish Committee. Harris took time away from his own regular warnings about antisemitism to pen an OpEd entitled “Time to Affirm Jewish Pride.” And I want to share with you my own version, in hopes that you, too, will be inspired to work for the better world that Judaism imagines for us all.[2]

I’ll use the model of Edmond Fleg’s iconic reading, “I Am A Jew.”

I am a Jew because Judaism brought to the world the notion of the one and only Creator God who established this world in all its beauty.

I am a Jew because Judaism brought to the world the notion that all of humanity is commanded to care for this world, to sustain this beauty.

I am a Jew because Judaism brought to the world the astonishing idea that every single human being is equal in God’s eyes – and therefore must be equal in our own.

As the Torah teaches over and over, without qualification: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

And as the rabbis taught:

“All of humanity emanates from one single human being in order to maintain peace among people – so that one person cannot say to another: my father is greater than your father . . . .

“Any person can stamp out several coins with one seal and they’d look alike. Only God stamped people with the seal of Adam, the first human being, and not one of us is the same as any other. And since all humanity descends from one person, each and every person is obligated to say: ‘The world was created for me’ – since any one of us could be the source of all humanity.”[3]

I am a Jew because our experience of slavery reminds us that any group of people in any generation can be imprisoned by fear or hate – and because it is our responsibility to toil unceasingly for the redemption of anyone else who is enslaved. As Elie Wiesel said at his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance regarding the oppressed of the world, we must remember . . .

“that when their voices are stifled we shall lend them ours, that while their freedom depends on ours, the quality of our freedom depends on theirs.”[4]

I am a Jew because, when we have been abandoned by the world – literally left for dead – we resurrect ourselves and recommit ourselves to not only surviving but thriving in the most inhospitable circumstances.

I am a Jew because I am so very proud that, generation after generation, my people have overcome the limitations and discriminations imposed upon us. With hard work and brains and creativity, both in Israel and around the world, we have helped the world cure diseases and explore the universe and purify drinking water — and create beautiful music and art and dance and literature and theater in astonishing volume and quality, far beyond our numbers.

I am a Jew because I believe in the responsibilities of mitzvah and tikkun: to spend each day looking for ways both to be grateful for what God has given me, and to look for ways to make life better for others.

As someone who has been through life-threatening illness, I have a deeper appreciation for being able to open my eyes every morning – and a deeper sense of responsibility for how I’m going to use the hours I/ve been given. As a Type-A who wants to complete every task with perfection, I accept what Rabbi Tarfon taught: “You are not required to complete the task, but you are also not free to refrain from it.”[5]

Or, as my wonderful commentaries professor Rabbi Ed Goldman taught: God expects us to do the best with what we’ve been given – no more, but no less.

I am a Jew because, as the song goes, wherever I go, there’s always someone Jewish. I can walk into any congregation in the world and lend my voice to the communal pleas and offerings and thanks to God.

I am a Jew – in short – because it brings me such joy. The lightness of Shabbat when it starts and the lingering sweetness when it ends. The smiles around the Seder table, and the eagerness of children to answer the four questions and find the afikomen. Dancing with the Torah on Simchat Torah, and dancing the hora at a bat mitzvah. Standing under a chuppah with a couple as they pledge themselves to one another according to the traditions of Moses and Israel. Seeing the proud tears of a parent at a bris or baby naming, knowing that their love of being Jewish remains alive in another generation.

I am a Jew because, every year, God grants me the gift of forgiveness and the possibility of advancement, using my brain and my heart and my hands to make this year better than the last.

I am a Jew because I have the honor of being part of a kehillah kedoshah, a sacred community, that is dedicated to advancing Jewish life, and Jewish learning and Jewish prayer — year after year, generation after generation, with intense pride and immense joy. Despite the pains of loss and the pains of advancing age, despite the shrinking numbers and the financial challenges, I know that – in this new year — you all (WE all) will step up as one, and bring the world a little closer to tikkun, to the way that God intended for the world to be.

On this most sacred day – on this Sabbath of Sabbaths — Moses comes to remind us that we must look beyond the fear of failing, to the joy of success. There is no greater gift in living our Judaism this way, each and every day. It is very near to us. It is here, in our mouths and in our hearts. We can do it.

Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own mission here on earth, as we say together: Amen.

#####

©2021 Audrey R. Korotkin


[1] Deuteronomy 29:9-14, 30:11-14

[2]https://act.ajc.org/site/MessageViewer;jsessionid=00000000.app20122b?em_id=10685.0&dlv_id=8761&NONCE_TOKEN=BB871A5817E8C3334C9E3D639E0F02ED

[3] Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5, expanded.

[4] https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/1986/wiesel/26054-elie-wiesel-acceptance-speech-1986/

[5] Pirke Avot 1:16.

“Who Do You Think You Are?” – Kol Nidre 2021

On Friday, April 12, 1907, the British newspaper “The Jewish Chronicle” highlighted this upcoming Bar Mitzvah on its front page:

“GERSHON – Samuel, second son of Mr. and Mrs. L. Gershon of 93 Downs-road, Clapton, N.E., will read a portion of the Law at the South Hackney Synagogue on the Sabbath next April 13th.”

Now, that would not be especially noteworthy – except for the fact that Samuel Gershon was the great-grandfather of Harry Potter himself, actor Daniel Radcliffe. And it was a fact – and a heritage — that Radcliffe knew little to nothing about until he appeared on the television show “Who Do You Think You Are?”

Daniel Radcliffe was just an ordinary British lad growing up in London. But his maternal grandmother, whom he knew as Muriel Gresham, was really Muriel Gershon – and her whole family were Jewish immigrants from Europe. Her father Samuel, the aforementioned Bar Mitzvah boy, inherited a jewelry business from his father, Louis Gershon. But it foundered so badly in the hands of Samuel and his brothers that they faked a robbery in order to collect the insurance – a scheme so shameful that Samuel later committed suicide.

The ancestry show, “Who Do You Think You Are” goes for the gut – the emotion, the huge revelations, the celebrities learning family histories that are usually heartwarming and sometimes lurid. But the basic question is the one all of us ask at one time or another: Who do I think I am?  

And it’s not just a human question. It’s also a Jewish question. In fact, it’s the Jewish question on Yom Kippur.

Throughout this Day of Atonement, each of us is asked to go on a journey. From belief to reality. From self-delusion to self-awareness. We will try to come to grips with where we have fallen short in the past year, how our understanding of ourselves may somehow have gone astray, and how we need to change our patterns of thought and behavior to get on the path of life we really want.

Now, we know that the journey is never as easy or straightforward as it seems. It’s not a wide, straight path like a boulevard. Our journey to self-realization is complicated and sometimes unpleasant. We might take steps backward before we can move ahead. And sometimes we simply can’t separate belief from fact, or fantasy from reality.

In fact, scientists now tell us that everything we perceive in the world around us is filtered through our own prior experiences. This sometimes-heated conversation between our senses and our memory can be such a balagan that one researcher called it a “controlled hallucination” – something that, as columnist David Brooks wrote, “is the closest we can get to registering reality.”[1] 

Researcher Nadine Dijkstra phrased it a little more nicely: “We do not see things as they are. We see things as we are.” [2]

Think of the ways our past can influence what we see around us. If we think we’re bad at math because we’ve failed tests before, we’re going to go into the SATs with a preconceived notion about what we can expect from ourselves. If we are coming out of a bad relationship with someone who has been insensitive – or even abusive – we might tend to overreact to things that a new partner says and does, or take them the wrong way, presuming the pattern will repeat itself.

We may see clearly the statistics that the COVID vaccines work, and the fact that masking helps prevent transmission IF everybody wears them. But if we are filtering that information through past feelings of helplessness, or bad past experiences with getting a shot, we might act on emotion rather than information.

In other words, writes Dijkstra, “our perception of the outside world is strongly influenced by what we believe.”

What science is telling us is important, and we have to understand this about ourselves. It’s really, really hard to challenge or change a set of beliefs that has guided our behavior– even if the result has not been what we’d like. It’s hard to get off the hamster wheel, or out of the rut, or even out of a life of self-abuse. It’s how we are wired as imperfect human beings – and our circuits sometimes go ka-floo-ey.

But hey – especially considering everything we’ve all been through for the last year and a half — it’s okay to acknowledge that change is hard, and it’s scary, and it’s painfully slow. In fact, it’s more than okay. It’s absolutely necessary.

And Judaism understands that.

In fact, Judaism knew this well before scientists did. That’s why we were given the gift of these Days of Awe and this day of Yom Kippur in particular.

This is the day we get off the wheel and out of the rut and into God’s space and God’s time. A whole twenty-four hours with nothing to do but reflect and refresh. To admit that what we believe about ourselves — and other people — can and must change. To acknowledge that what our experience teaches us – and how it colors the way we see the world – may well be faulty. To accept that the world outside of us is not static, and our own stubbornness is not going to hold it back. So, as the world evolves, so must we. To believe that, as Moses assures the assembled Israelite nation in tomorrow morning’s Torah reading, we can handle this. So:

“Who do I think I am?”

I am an imperfect creature. I was created from clay but with the breath of God giving me life, simply trying to navigate this life as best I can. Hillel taught me that the fundamental truth of Torah is: “What is hateful to you, do not do to anyone else,” and it’s up to me to recognize when I’ve reached that line.[3]

I am an important creature. I have been born into a world that is fractured and troubled. But humanity, created at the close of Creation, was put here to heal it. As God said to Adam: “Take care of My world. If you do not, there will be no one to do it after you.”[4]

I am a redeemable creature. I make a lot of mistakes, often based on past experience, or faulty perceptions. But the rabbis have taught me: “A person should always be pliant like a reed, and not stiff like a cedar.”[5] I have to be willing to change my ideas about other people, and the events of the world as they unfold, as well as my own behavior. Or I’ll end up unable to function in the world at all.

I am a creature who deserves to love and to be loved. As God said to Israel: “My children, what do I seek from you? I seek no more than that you love one another and honor one another.”[6]

I am a creature resolved to elevate my life from day to day, and from year to year. The school of Hillel taught that, in matters of holiness, one should always begin in darkness and conclude with light. And, for me, every day of my life is a matter of holiness.

Who do I think I am? I was created in the image of God. And so, like God, who said to Moses at the Burning Bush, “Eheyeh asher eheyeh,” I am what I choose to be.

Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our mission on earth. As we say together: Amen.

######

©2021 Audrey R. Korotkin


[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/02/opinion/brain-reality-imagination.html. Quoting neuroscientist Anil Seth of the University of Sussex.

[2] https://nautil.us/issue/104/harmony/the-fine-line-between-reality-and-imaginary?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=post&utm_campaign=fineline&fbclid=IwAR0ss2T4zEv_YupgakcmV6N1GdetlScyyKDvIR9GWkJp-DvUBPZmDI56Yxg

[3] Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a

[4] Midrash Kolelet Rabbah 7:28

[5] Babylonian Talmud Ta’anit 20a.

[6] Seder Eliyahu Rabbah 26., as included in Bialik and Ravnitsky’s The Book of Legends: Sefer ha-Aggadah, English edition trans. William G. Braude, p. 646.

Rosh Hashanah Morning 2021: Reclaiming Our Joy

I have to admit, after almost a dozen years here in Altoona, I’m still sometimes taken aback by random questions I get about Judaism – from lay people and even from pastors. Some are pretty sophisticated and respectful questions about theology and practice. Some are as basic as: “So Jesus was Jewish?” And “Where do you do your sacrifices if you don’t have a Temple?”

For years, we had a great annual interfaith series that explored a lot of issues of faith and fiction, and conflicting narratives and beliefs. That kind of played itself out before COVID, so we’re left with conversations on the congregational or individual level. I always appreciate it when I’m invited to teach about Judaism instead of having non-Jews trying to figure us out for themselves using their own texts and theology.

And what I’ve figured out is that at least some of the misunderstandings about Judaism evolve from this morning’s Torah portion: the Akedah, the binding and near-sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham, at the command of Abraham’s God. In fact, this one story – which is never mentioned at all in the whole rest of the Torah – becomes fundamental to the two monotheistic faiths that were spawned by ancient Judaism. But fundamental in a way that leads to a lot of confusion and some occasional bad feelings.

In Christianity, Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his own beloved son Isaac is superseded by God’s total sacrifice of his beloved son Jesus, and therefore the unique Divine covenant shifts away from us to Jesus’s followers.

In Islamic tradition, the child who is saved is Ishmael and not Isaac – which means the Divine covenant belongs, not to Isaac’s descendants (that would be us) but to Ishmael’s.

And maybe that’s why we read the story of the Binding of Isaac on Rosh Hashanah. For us, the New Year means a new commitment to our behavior, and to our treatment of other people and our world. But it’s also a time for renewing our covenant with God and our faith. When we hear the sounding of the shofar on this day of judgment, we ask God to remember the selfless act of Abraham, the binding of Isaac – and the covenant that is binding in all generations of their descendants, both by blood and by choice.

It’s a reminder, not just to all Jews but to all humanity, that it was our Torah and our people and our prophet that brought to the world the whole concept of Divine love – and of the joy that we share in the Divine promise of redemption.

We rabbis talk a lot amongst ourselves about how to talk to non-Jews. My experience tells me that we have to meet people where they are, and start from what they know, what they don’t know, and what they think they know but really don’t. But first, we have to suss out whether it’s worth having that conversation at all.

I think of it in terms of the four children we read about at the Passover Seder: The wise child; the wicked child; the simple child, and the child who does not know how to ask.

For the person who does not know how to ask – we must start the conversation, as the Haggadah teaches us: “This is because of what God did for me when I went free from Egypt.” We explain that we see ourselves as though we ourselves are of the generation that was redeemed – and that the existence of us as a Jewish people today depends on our ever-present appreciation that redemption is a gift to be savored and shared.

For the person who is simple, we have to take things one step at a time. We must be patient in explaining how we Jews moved from Biblical ways of life two millennia ago. We must teach how Judaism was reborn and restored in a world without a Temple or priests or sacrifices – and that the genius of the early rabbis was their ability to create exactly what God promised to the people through Moses:

“You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to Myself,” God said. “Now therefore, if you will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then you shall be My own treasure among all peoples; for all the earth is mine. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation.” (Ex. 19:4-6)

The person who is wise already knows that our notion of Jews as God’s “treasured” people does not deny or disrespect anyone else’s beliefs. It doesn’t make us superior. Nor does it endow us with any right to control anyone or anything beyond ourselves.

In any of these three situations we can sit with neighbors and colleagues and friends, and we can have rational and honest discussions about – well, pretty much anything, from the nature of the world to the responsibilities of humanity.

It is the fourth person – the person who is wicked who is the cause for concern.

In the Haggadah this is the child who says: “What is this observance to you – to you and not to me.” Today, this is the person who sees the Jew as the “other,” as something less than human, as something to be feared, and despised, and defeated. Today, this is the anti-Semite, the Jew-hater. Today, on a day of joy at the coming of this new year, the anti-Semite creates among us a sense of dread that this year will be just as scary as the last.

It’s no secret that antisemitic incidents remain at an historically high level in this country. Even with the pandemic, 2020 saw a total of 2,024 incidents of assault, harassment and vandalism reported to the Anti-Defamation League.[1] Now, we haven’t had any violence in our area – although I know some of our members are still afraid since Tree of Life, even with the hardening of our building security. But we have had other incidents. Antisemitic leaflets have been distributed in Altoona in the past year, as well as in State College. And many congregations whose congregations rely on live-streamed services have been Zoom-bombed by Jew-haters who get into the service and scream horrific threats at Jews at prayer.

But here’s what I think is the worst and ugliest aspect of antisemitism today: It comes at us from both sides.

It comes from the far-right: From neo-nazis who beat up Jews walking to synagogue and vandalize Jewish cemeteries with swastikas. From white supremacists who scream “Jews will not replace us,” in their torch-lit marches, and fill the internet with lies about the Rothschilds and George Soros paying for black and brown people to come to this country to de-populate and pollute the blood of the white Christian majority.

These horrific lies have been repeated by elected officials at all levels, who are too gullible or too bigoted to be able to separate truth from clear and crazy fiction. Antisemitism is an old and vile conspiracy theory that now links other conspiracy theories together in new ways, in new social media avenues that spread as quickly – well, as quickly as a virus in a pandemic.

But antisemitism also comes at us from the far left. It comes from Jew-hating demagogues who are leaders of organizations like the Women’s March and the Chicago Dyke March and Black Lives Matter, who hijack their groups’ purported goals of freedom and equality, and who reject or deny the facts of Jewish minority persecution throughout history.

Antisemitism comes from left-wing groups on college campuses across the country, where Jewish students are subject to harassment, physical threats and emotional intimidation – because of their commitment to the existence of the State of Israel or regardless of it.

Antisemitism comes from those who wrap their hatred of Jews under the banner of anti-Zionism – as though singling out the Jewish homeland, the only democratic nation in the Middle East, for condemnation isn’t bigotry at its worst. As though harassing and threatening American Jews for Israel’s mere existence isn’t as obvious a hatred as Nazi salutes.

And it comes from those who have used America’s current reckoning with race as the lens through which they demand all the world be judged – including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is not racial at all. It’s about two semitic peoples with dueling narratives about history and land. It involves an Israel where only a third of Jews today trace their lineage to Europe – and more and more are from Africa and parts of Asia.

But a pretty good chunk of American Jewry seems ignorant of all this. A national survey this summer by the Jewish Electoral Institute showed that 25 percent of respondents agreed that Israel is an apartheid state, and 34 percent agreed that Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is similar to racism in the United States.[2]

And, yes, partly because of this, antisemitism also comes from some young Jews who are eager to prove their credentials as progressive activists.

They march with pro-Palestinian protesters who demand the land “from the river to the sea” – which requires the destruction of the State of Israel. They are willing to discard a key part of their identities: their Judaism – the faith tradition that gave much of the world its moral foundation in the first place.

Antisemitism is a travesty of humanity. It is patently absurd that there should be such paranoid hatred of point-two (0.2) percent of the world’s population.

And here’s the irony. We American Jews – especially in the non-traditional streams of American Judaism – we are steadfast defenders of everybody else’s rights. Immigrants. Gays and lesbians. The homeless and the hungry.

And we should be. As God’s “treasured” people, we have a unique responsibility to fulfill the moral imperative of the Torah to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. We have thousands of years of experience of being the “other” — and we know that nobody deserves to be a paranoia-filled punching bag for anyone else. Not immigrants. Not people of color. Not women. Not poor people. Nobody.

But: We also have the responsibility to fulfill the teaching of the great sage Hillel the Elder:

“If I am not for myself, who will be for me. If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

We are often taught that Hillel was going from the lesser mitzvah to the greater, encouraging us to think beyond ourselves to all of those who are persecuted or disadvantaged or vulnerable. But I would suggest a slightly different reading.

I think Hillel deliberately started with the phrase “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” I think he firmly believed that we Jews must stand up for ourselves first. Because if we don’t – we won’t be here for anyone else. We’ve talked a lot about personal self-care in this past year. But we have to start talking about national self-care, too.

Every generation of Jews has faced an existential threat in some place, from some group. Every generation of Jews has been persecuted, hated and feared for no other reason than that we exist.

 Every generation of Jews has been the object of absurd and obscene paranoid conspiracy theories, from blood libel to white-supremacist replacement theory to space lasers.

But we have survived because we believe in ourselves. In our divine purpose. In the promise of our homeland, restored after two thousand years, even with all its flaws and failings. And we believe we are responsible for handing the covenant that we celebrate today to the next generation, and the one after that. We would not be here today, at the beginning of this New Year, without that belief in ourselves.

We have to stay vigilant. And we have to remain united. We must ensure that our children are neither the ones who don’t even know how to ask – nor the ones who absent themselves altogether. And we cannot be silent in face of hatred. As Elie Wiesel once said: “Neutrality helps the oppressor.” 

Last night, I spoke of the joy of just being human. This morning, as we tell the sacred story of our origins, I speak of the joy of being Jewish – of living and loving and praying and helping in this world, in the way Judaism teaches. A joy that no one has the right to take away from us.

Let this New Year be the one in which we reclaim our joy. A New Year when we can openly celebrate our faith in God and affirm our moral covenant with humanity. Let us demand freedom from fear and baseless hatred. If not now, when?

Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own mission here on earth. As we say together: Amen.

#####

©2021 Audrey R. Korotkin  


[1] Numbers according to the annual ADL Audit of Antisemitic Incidents, issued for 2020 on April 27, 2021, the second anniversary of the deadly antisemitic attack on Chabad of Poway, California.

[2] Jewish Electoral Institute National Jewish Survey of 800 Jewish voters, conducted June 28-July 1, 2021. http://www.gbaostrategies.com

Erev Rosh Hashanah 2021: A Case of The Twisties

I’m looking out at all of you tonight — and even though we are completely on Zoom once again, I can’t help but smile. Mostly because you are you. And I love every single one of you. And I love that you are all here for yourselves, and for each other. I know it’s not where we hoped to be tonight. But regardless of the fears and the challenges and the distractions all around us, we are here. Good job, everyone.

It’s so hard to express what we have gone through in these months of pandemic. But a recent event half a world away gave me the exact word I’ve been looking for. We have all had a case of the “twisties.”

I’d never heard of that word until last month’s Covid-delayed Summer Olympics in Tokyo, when American gymnast Simone Biles – considered by many to be the greatest in history – suddenly withdrew from competition after a major scare during practice.

Biles had some trouble on the uneven bars. Then she tried to rehearse her floor routine and found herself literally in uncharted territory as she attempted her tumbling. “That’s when the wires just snapped,” she later said. “Things were not connecting, and I don’t know what went wrong.”[1]

What went wrong, apparently, was that Biles had developed a case of what they call the “Twisties” – a sudden lack of awareness of where she was in mid-air. Biles is renowned for adding all kinds of twists and contortions into her flips and somersaults as she soars through the air, including a double-twisting somersault dismount on the uneven bars that makes her look like she’s weightless in slow-motion.

 And then, suddenly, she couldn’t do it. “My body and my mind weren’t in sync,” she said. “That’s what I couldn’t wrap my head around.”[2]

I cannot think of a better way to describe what each of us has gone through in the past eighteen months. Our bodies and our minds out of sync with each other and with everything going on around us. Our sense of powerlessness overwhelming us, as everyday tasks that were once routine became obstacle courses that constantly changed – or like a maze with no beginning and no end. Remember, in the Harry Potter movies, the stairwells at Hogwarts that kept shifting and taking the students anywhere or nowhere? Yeah, like that.

We started out with so much energy in the spring of 2020, presuming a brief shutdown that surely would end by late summer. We fell into “languishing,” as the current vernacular calls it, when we realized we were in it for the long haul. The ups and downs have only accelerated in the past few months: Vaccinations became widely available but then half the adult population rejected them. People desperate to get out of town flocked to vacation spots on the shore or in the mountains or in the parks – but then were exposed to the Delta variant that attacks even those who have gotten their shots. School systems planned all summer for full openings, but then in late July, kids started getting really sick. Heated rhetoric and disinformation continue to cause emotional whiplash.

Back in May of this year, columnist Kathleen Parker wrote how wonderful it was to attend the Carolina Cup Steeplechase Races down in our adopted second home of Camden, South Carolina:

“The sight of so many smiles and cheeks and noses and chins was both jarring and joyous, as well as somehow unexpected,” she wrote. “I joked to my husband that I didn’t recognize people without their masks.”[3]

Two months later, at the end of July, Parker wrote of the brewing civil war between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated. She even compared it to the worst sectarian violence of the Iraq War when neighborhoods and families were torn apart by their differing responses to the U.S.-led invasion of their country.[4]

Of course we have a case of the “twisties.” How could we possibly avoid it?

But, you know what? Somehow we are negotiating all of this amazingly well. For the imperfect, stiff-necked humans that we are – somehow we are maintaining our bearings. It’s not easy, and it’s not always pretty. But I think each of us is doing pretty well in the worst circumstances most of us have ever experienced.

I think our pandemic-induced case of the “twisties” has made each of us feel more vulnerable. And even with a sort-of end in sight, we still can’t gauge just where we are – we just still seem to be floating in mid-air. One reason, I think is that, whatever “normal” looks like at the end of this is not going to be the “normal” we left 18 months ago.

There have been techtonic shifts in education, employment, and housing. We may be facing new choices about where we live, how we work, what we expect from our kids and what we are able to leave to them. We’re seeing huge gaps in job availability, child-care accessibility, and housing costs. And we have seen tens of thousands of workers lost to drug addiction: By one account, prescription opioids accounted for forty-four percent of the decrease in men’s labor force participation in the past twenty years.[5]

Among those of us gathered to welcome our New Year tonight, some have lost jobs. Others have suffered terrifying illness. A number of us have lost a loved one – and have not been able to mourn them as we would want. All of this will pose challenges to us that will seem insurmountable. But somehow, we will get our sense of “air awareness” back again.

Today is Rosh Hashanah – the day we celebrate as the birthday of the world. It comes around every year on the first day of the month of Tishri – but the cycle of the year is not a perfect circle. It does not come back to the same space where we left it last year. It’s more like a spiral – like a Slinky toy that coils back near where it came from, but farther ahead. Even if we wanted to go back to where we were a year ago – or two years ago — we couldn’t.

We have to move forward, whether we like it or not. We have to grapple with change and new challenges and doors that open in front of us while other doors close tight behind us. That old reality no longer exists.

Today is Rosh Hashanah – the day we fear as the day of judgment, when – according to our tradition – the good we have done in our lives is weighed against the not-so-good.

Our prayers will tell us that life and death hang in the balance. Our Torah readings will teach us that we can choose life – physical life, spiritual life, emotional life – not by being perfect. But by being human. Not by trying to emulate someone else, but by being the best of ourselves.

The famed Chassidic master Rabbi Zusha – an old story tells us — was laying on his deathbed surrounded by his disciples. He was crying and no one could comfort him. One student asked his teacher, “Why do you cry? You were almost as wise as Moses and as kind as Abraham.” Rabbi Zusha answered, “[But] When I pass from this world and appear before the Heavenly Tribunal, they won’t ask me, ‘Zusha, why weren’t you as wise as Moses or as kind as Abraham.” Rather, they will ask me, ‘Zusha, why weren’t you more like Zusha?’ And then what will I say? [6]

Then what will I say? That’s the question each of us asks of ourselves tonight.

In one sense, these Days of Awe pose this tremendous challenge to each of us. But in some ways, I think they’re designed to remind us that we should cut ourselves some slack. That, even (or especially) on this “Day of Judgment,” God expects each of us to strive, not for perfection, but to be the best “me” that we can be. That is what will bring us a sense of satisfaction, a sense of relief, and – most of all – a sense of joy. Joy at just being us. Joy at just being human.

That’s what I thought about when I saw the photo of Simone Biles right after she finished her balance beam routine – the one and only event she competed in, at the very end of the Olympic gymnastics competition. It wasn’t her best performance of all time. It wasn’t her most difficult.

She had to take out the twisting moves on the dismount that had made her famous – and substitute one that was just hard by the rest of the world’s standards.

She did it. She did it well enough to earn a bronze medal. And she – Simone Biles, the perfectionist, the “greatest of all time” – was really good with that. She wasn’t judging herself against anyone else’s standards. “I was,” she said, “just going out there doing this for me.”[7]

And that photo. Her hand over her heart, a lightness in her step. A smile on her face. Not the forced smile all gymnasts flash before they start a routine. But a genuine glow from inside of her – happy at re-discovering, maybe for the first time in a long time, what it is that made her fall in love with gymnastics in the first place. What made her feel grounded in a world suffering from the “twisties.”

Today is Rosh Hashanah. The birthday of the world and the day of judgment. A day of reflection and of celebration. A day when we take stock of the past and move into the future.

As we celebrate our world, we also celebrate ourselves. All through the six days of creation, God took stock: “Vayar Elohim ki tov” – and God saw that it was good. It was only after the sixth day, the day that humans were created, that God saw and: “Hinei tov me’od” – behold it was very good.

The world is better – MUCH BETTER – because we are in it. As the gates of prayer and forgiveness open wide to us on these Day of Awe, the choice each of us faces now is simply how to make our very presence something full of purpose and of joy. Tonight, you all got a very good start. Good job, everyone.

Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our mission here on earth. As we say together: Amen.

######

©Audrey R. Korotkin 2021


[1] https://www.wsj.com/articles/simone-biles-olympics-gymnastics-beam-11627983483?mod=searchresults_pos2&page=1

[2] See Note 1.

[3] Kathleen Parker, “Thankfully, We Get To See Faces Again,” published in the Altoona Mirror on May 29, 2021.

[4] https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/07/30/will-delta-variant-turn-americans-against-one-another/ accessed on line August 9, 2021.

[5] “Mystery of the Missing Workers,” Bloomberg Businessweek, August 9, 2021, pp. 29-31. Article cites May 2018 research paper published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland.

[6] https://www.sefaria.org/sheets/115569.2?lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en

[7] https://www.nytimes.com/live/2021/08/03/sports/gymnastics-olympics-biles-beam-final