A sermon for Rosh Hashana
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of time, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair." (Good Writing, No? Not mine.)
Those are the opening lines of Charles Dicken's novel, A Tale of Two Cities. The story unfolds during the French Revolution.
The comparison of the two cities is startling. Peaceful, cosmopolitan, London, a constitutional monarchy where grievances were resolved through the courts ... and across the channel, Paris, tearing itself apart in an angry revolution.
The author depicts the evil side of the French Revolution in the depraved character of Madam Defarge. She, together with wild bands of hoodlums dragged anyone who looked guilty to the infamous guillotine. Forty-thousand people from children to the elderly, were decapitated. Most without reason, all without justice.
The impoverished French citizens had reasons to demand change. The corrupt government provided luxury to the very wealthy while the poor suffered in abject poverty. But did it have to take form in the slaughter of so many innocents? The worst horrors were instigated by self-proclaimed leaders like Madam Defarge. They assembled huge angry crowds of hungry, deprived citizens. With lies and false promises, they roused them to attack anyone they suspected of being responsible for their misery.
Allow me to update Charles Dickens novel. My tale of two cities opens not in Paris of 1789, but Chancellorsville of 2017.
I am a member of the Rabbinical Assembly of America, an organization represents all conservative rabbis. We have all taken a pledge together without Orthodox and reform brothers and sisters. Together, we ask all Jews in America to condemn the actions of skin heads, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and Ku Klux Klan without reservation. Included in that madness are the unaffiliated haters who drive speeding cars into crowds of innocent protesters.
Every student of Jewish history knows the key words. When we hear angry crowds shouting “we will not be replaced by Jews” we know what we have to do.
We heard other hateful chants and were appalled, but we were particularly around by those words. “We will not be replaced by Jews.” That sent a familiar chill up our backs. We recall the painful taunts leveled at six million of our people. We Jews have only one response to those haters. Never again. That is our wake up call. Never again.
In 1933, when we heard those words from the emerging Nazi party, their leader accused us of being overly sensitive. It was only the anger of a few bad people, nothing to be taken seriously. Six million of our brothers and sister were told they were being unfair. The assaults on a few innocent Jews were the work of a few bad people. Aren't there bad people everywhere?
No, no, and no! There is no way to honestly dismiss the events of Berlin in 1933 or Charlottesville in 2017 as a clash between two equally angry mobs.
The Jews of Europe were not equally responsible for the persecution they suffered. There were no good people among Nazis. Some today would have us believe no one was really serious when they shouted, "We will not be replaced by Jews." That is a despicable lie. They were serious. Deadly serious.
Yes…this year we experience some of the worst times in our great country. But it was also - for the American people - the best of times. A time to be proud of our heritage, our freedom, the love of our country. We demonstrated our willingness to lend a hand to our neighbors in need.
I will speak to you now of the second city. It is no London nor Paris nor...Charlottesville. The city I speak of is Houston after Hurricane Harvey. Remember the constant flow of heroic images cluttering the TV. On every channel, we saw feat of heroism; acts of compassion, devotion to neighbors and strangers alike.
A broadcaster saw a driver drowning in his truck. She immediately contacted - on the air - a police boat that saved the man's life.
An African-American boy carrying an Asian-woman and her infant child through raging water.
And who can forget the image of a young boy with water up to his neck, carrying a small box on his head containing a puppy!
Everyone of all faiths, all colors, all the neighbors who put their own lives at risk to lend a hand wherever they could. Why did they do this? Because in times of real peril, the best of our humanity emerges. That is the true greatness of America.
Our task this Holy Day that begins the year 5778 is to restore hope to a beleaguered humanity that has much to be proud of.
If only we allow ourselves to be guided by two great sources of truth: the Bible that commands us to love our neighbor as ourselves and the wealth of fairness and compassion in the Constitution of the United States of America.
These can be the best of times. Houston can inspire us to find new beginnings of peace, love and tranquility.
Finally, I want to remind you of the blessing I left you with last year. It is a Chinese proverb.
That the birds of worst and despair fly about your head, this you cannot help but that they build a nest in your hair, this you can - and must - prevent.
I WISH YOU ALL A HAPPY, HEALTHY PEACEFUL NEW YEAR. FOR US, FOR ISRAEL AND FOR ALL HUMAN KIND. LET US ALL SAY, O-MEYN."