Sermon – Parshat Ki Tetze
August 25, 2018 | 14 Elul 5778
Delivered by Rabbi Neil Sandler

Last week in Rabbi Rosenthal’s sermon, he spoke briefly about the difference between calling yourself an “American Jew” and a “Jewish American.”

He suggested to us that the difference between the two is meaningful.

I want to give you one example that potentially reflects this difference and its meaning.

I am not certain it does; it might…at least in some instances.

Here’s the scenario.

Perhaps you have heard or even experienced a variation on it.

You have received solicitations for two very worthy causes.

One is Jewish; the other is not.

You might have said to yourself – “What should I do?”

“Should I give to one cause and, if so, which one?”

“Should I split my contribution between them and, if so, what should the split be – equal amounts to both…or not?

Are you an “American Jew” or a “Jewish American?”

The answer might influence your decision.

Here’s one variation on that scenario;

You shared your contribution dilemma and how you resolved it with a friend.

She was critical of your decision.

“Why did you give money to organization X in the general community?”

“Do you really think it makes much of a difference to them?”

“With far fewer people to support that Jewish organization, you would make a much bigger difference by contributing more money to it.”

Have you heard something like that?

If so, maybe you are a “Jewish American…” with an emphasis on “American.”

On the other hand, if you gave your entire charitable gift to a cause within the Jewish community, you might have heard this criticism –

“Aren’t you a citizen of the United States and the world?”

“Do you only care about Jews?”

Have you heard something like that?

If so, maybe you are an “American Jew…” with an emphasis on “Jew.”

If you have experienced something like one or both of these scenarios, know that you have joined in a dilemma that Jews have faced for 2000 years.

It just looks different now than it did until relatively recent times.

Once upon a time, when we lived as a minority outside the mainstream society, the Rabbis said we ought to take care of the needs of those who were not Jewish “mipnay darkay shalom” because those were the “ways of peace…”

Translation – It would not have gone well for Jewish communities dependent on the good will of others to have ignored the needs of those outside the Jewish community.

But most of us here today don’t know such a world.

We are no longer outside the mainstream.

Our society, our world is open to and welcoming of Jews in every way.

So, if you have heard or participated in one of the scenarios I mentioned – you stood in the midst of what is usually viewed as a conflict.

The particular (“the Jewish”) versus the universal (“everyone”).

Should we care only about our own or should we also care about others?

The truth is that reasonable arguments can be made in support of both directions.

But I want to suggest that while our Torah Portion today highlights the conflict in incredibly ambivalent ways, our impending celebration of Rosh Hashanah provides us with some wise direction.

First, the parasha – It is filled with laws.

Here is one set of those laws.

I hope it won’t cause you “Torah whiplash,” a particularly painful malady.

First, there is this – the Israelites should not let a single Ammonite or Moabite enter into the community.

(Don’t worry about exactly what that phrase “enter into the community” means. Just take it as face value as an expression of welcome or, here, just the opposite – exclusion.)

Wanna to know why?

Do you want to know why the Ammonites and Moabites were to be excluded?

Because when the Israelites were journeying in the wilderness toward the land of Israel and they went through the land of Ammon, the Ammonites weren’t good hosts.

They did not offer the Israelites food or drink.

And as for the Moabites? – When the king of Moab needlessly feared the Israelites and what they might do to his kingdom as they passed through it, he hired Bilaam to curse the Israelites.

Remember Bilaam? The talking donkey man?

For those two reasons apparently, no Ammonite or Moabite could become part of the Israelite community.

Got all of that?

But just a few verses later the Israelites are told not to abhor the Edomites or the Egyptians; in fact, they may be admitted into the Israelite community.

What?!?!

Lay aside the Edomites for a moment.

Everyone here knows the part that ancient Egypt played in our people’s past!

On the one hand, Egyptians, who enslaved our ancestors, could be welcomed into the Israelite community, and, on the other hand, Ammonites, who didn’t run to greet the Israelites in the wilderness with cookies and milk, could never be welcomed!

See what I mean by “Torah whiplash?!”

It doesn’t make much sense to include this group of people and exclude that group … until you see that one of the groups, those pesky Edomites, are referred to as “acheecha,” your kin.

So our Torah Portion heightens the ambivalence about who is part of us. –

Relatives and the descendants of Egyptian task masters are to be included, while everyone else is to be excluded.

But then Rosh Hashanah arrives and provides us with different direction regarding the choices we may make between us and them, between the particular and the universal.

On the one hand, Rosh Hashanah clearly embodies the particular.

It is our new year; to be celebrated in our unique, Jewish ways.

As we read Torah on Rosh Hashanah, we recognize that the Abraham/Sarah/Isaac narrative is the beginning of the story about our people’s continuity and relationship with the God of Israel.

Yet, at the very same time, we offer familiar words in our services on both days of Rosh Hashanah- “hayom harat olam” – “Today is the birthday of the world,” not of the Jewish people, but of the entire world …

In other words, Rosh Hashanah is also a celebration of the universal, of what all of humanity shares.

Friends – Today we live in a terribly divided, often polarized, world.

Just turn on one of the 24-hour news channels and the message is clear, if unspoken.

There is our way / There is their way… and their way is wrong; it is false; it is invalid.

Either/or… in other words, the triumph of the particular.

But Rosh Hashanah comes along, especially welcome in this regard this year, and says, No, it’s not “either/or.’”

It is “both/and.”

There is value in perpetuating commitment to the particular (to the world inside these four walls), and there is value in perpetuating commitment to the universal (to the world out there).

We can and must find ways to embrace and support both.

The beginning of the New Year quickly approaches.

The year 5778 will soon conclude.

May the year 5779 be a year in which we embrace and contribute to the well-being of our Jewish community and seek to make a difference in our larger community and world.

Amen.