Rosh Hashana Day 1
October 3, 2016 | 1 Tishrei 5777
Delivered by Rabbi Neil Sandler
Just over four years ago, Clint Eastwood famously stood up at the Republican National Convention and spoke to an empty chair, much like this one here.
The thing is … Clint Eastwood gave life to that empty chair.
Do you remember who, in an imaginary way, he was speaking to?
It was the President of the United States … quite a creative act that gained a lot of attention at the time.
Though Mr. Eastwood’s performance was criticized by some people it was effective for those who agreed with him.
Was that because he harshly criticized the President?
I don’t think so … at least not that factor alone.
No, Clint Eastwood’s effectiveness was bound up with how he delivered his indictment of the President.
Mr. Eastwood looked straight into the convention audience, leveled his criticism, turned toward the empty chair, paused and deadpanned, “What do you mean, ‘Shut up?’”
People – in the audience and watching at home who had a particular perspective – loved it! They laughed and applauded.
That wasn’t the end of it.
Clint Eastwood went on to put other words into the President’s mouth played by that empty chair … and I can’t repeat them here.
Again, people laughed and applauded.
It wasn’t just Clint Eastwood’s criticism of the President that resonated with those who opposed his re-election in 2012.
It was Eastwood’s ingenious mocking of the President that struck a chord.
It was no longer a given that disagreement should be shared in a respectful manner.
Now, it seemed, it was OK to mock the President of the United States.
Sure, some people were critical of what Clint Eastwood did.
But his act resonated because a significant number of Americans had come to see such public use of coarsened language and images as acceptable.
Friends – The realm of elective politics is only the worst example of this tendency to speak in denigrating ways about others.
It is hardly the only example.
There is no better time than today, a sacred time of introspection, to realize our shortcomings in this regard and to address them.
If we are to give fuller meaning to the challenging spiritual notion of being created in God’s image – we must address this issue.
We must internalize the quality of “ahava” as our tradition understands it; not just as “love,” but as another value that must find constant expression in our lives.
Let’s take a longer look at what we are facing.
Four years after Clint Eastwood spoke at the Republican National Convention, we are in the midst of another presidential campaign.
…And it is not nearly as creative as four years ago.
Now it is quite simple.
In the television commercials we see there is little that separates the nature of the candidates’ appeals.
We hear in strong and sometimes demeaning language not only about why my opponent is unqualified, but why he or she is utterly unfit for office.
Agree or disagree with these characterizations – my point is that they are the primary ones we hear…which doesn’t bode particularly well for the eventual winner who has been demeaned and rejected by a significant portion of the American public.
But after all, we think, that’s them; not us.
That’s not me.
Well, think again.
It’s often said that with age, people mellow.
Is that true for you?
Pick a time frame – five years, maybe ten years.
Are you more or less tolerant of views that differ from your own?
Are you more or less able to find something worthwhile in those views with which you disagree?
Have you become more or less critical of those people with whom you disagree?
Finally, and most importantly, how do you express your criticism of their views?
I know my answers to those questions!
I don’t like those changes in me, but I recognize them.
If you don’t recognize yourself in what I am saying, chances are good that one of two things is true.
Either you are better than me …. I’ll let you think about that one for a bit …
Or you are fooling yourself.
You are not sufficiently self-aware ….
It’s possible that you don’t really mean to view people with whom you disagree as “the other” or to speak of them in demeaning ways.
That’s just the way much of society thinks and speaks today …
And you know what?
Today may not be so different from yesterday in that regard.
Rudyard Kipling, the 19th and 20th century writer, framed this memorable line:
“All good people agree,
And all good people say,
All nice people, like Us, are We
And everyone else is They.”
We? – Anyone who agrees with us is “we.”
They? – Anyone who disagrees with us is “they…” and now that frequently means the “other” who is just plain wrong…and stupid.
This often unbridgeable divide between “us” and “them” and the demeaning language that reinforces it bodes poorly for all of us and the well-being of our community.
The antidote to such “communal illness” lies in giving expression to a God-given capacity – to “ahava …” not as commonly understood as “love,” but rather as profound, even radical, “respect.”
“V’ahavta l’ray’ah’cha kamochah” (Lv. 19:18) – One of the best known verses in the Torah that includes the verbal form of “ahava.”
It is usually translated as “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
“Love your neighbor as yourself” – does that seem plausible to you?
Only several verses later in the Torah (Lv. 19:34), we are instructed regarding the stranger – the ger– “V’ahavta low kamocha.”
Love him as you love yourself. Does that make sense?
How can we love people who we do not view as an integral part of our community?
Here is even better proof that “ahava” doesn’t always mean “love.”
The Talmud describes a surreal situation that likely never actually occurred:
When you stone someone to death, it states, don’t humiliate him. (Sanhedrin 45a)
Why? – “V’ahavta l’ray’ah’cha kamochah” – There’s that verse from Leviticus again.
What a paradox! – Even in carrying out capital punishment, the executioner must uphold the divine image within the criminal he will execute!
Out of love? Of course not!
He must to do so because he continues to recognize the humanity of the condemned man.
He cannot demean him.
The Talmud is speaking about a condemned murderer and says that he is deserving of ahava!
What about the people with whom you and I interact?!
Rabbi Akiba put it this way when he referred to the obligation to respect others as one respects himself/herself:
“K’lal gadol baTorah” – “It is an exceedingly great mitzvah in the Torah…”
Precisely because our experiences challenge us sometimes, and it is so easy to see some people as the “other” and to demean them.
Think about it.
Our tradition has no reason to explicitly remind us to respect others when it is easy or natural to do so.
It reminds us to respect them when it is difficult to do so, when it is much easier to mock and demean them…especially when that seems to be acceptable today.
Friends – We are in the thick of it now … not just the High Holiday season, but also the presidential election season.
Frequently we hear sentiments similar to those of a man who was sitting next to Susan and me on a plane just over a month ago.
We were bemoaning the quality of this presidential campaign – “Yes,” he said, “Every day it seems like each of the candidates says to the other, ‘I disagree with you … and I think you’re an idiot!’”
There is hope.
Just over a month from now it will all end.
The newest or perhaps endlessly repeated broadside from candidate X that begins with the familiar words, “I am ____ , and I approve this commercial” will come to an end.
We will be at peace, and all will be right with our lives again.
Really, do you think so?
What about the terrible things we say about others within circles that readily accept our demeaning words?
What about the insulting things we directly say to people when we strongly disagree with them and they have “pressed” our “angry button?”
I shared this sermon with Susan last week.
I always find it helpful to share my High Holiday sermons with her.
But this time I bristled at her reaction.
“Neil,” she said. “Your examples are negative. You need to share some positive examples.”
“Are you crazy?!” I thought.
“I need to give people examples of how to speak respectfully to each other when they disagree?!”
The truth is that Susan was right. She always is…
If I was teaching a class now I would model positive ways to listen and speak when you disagree with someone.
But I am going to leave that for your therapist…or at least for another time.
In the meantime, what your parents taught you will steer you in positive directions.
When anger wells up and demeaning images come to mind and you are about to put them into words – Count to 10!
Even better, follow this simple rule you learned long ago – “If you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all!”
A pretty simple message, isn’t it? And an obvious one at that!
But ask yourself – If it is so obvious, why do we and those who would lead us struggle so much to abide by it?
“Hayom harat olam” – “Today is the birthday of the world.”
The Holy One has placed us in this world to continue the sacred work of creating this incredible universe we inhabit.
You and I endlessly create with our words.
“Hayom harat Olam” – “Today is the birthday of the world.”
Today is a day when the potential for change is renewed.
Let us take hold of that potential, in part, by being mindful of the ways we speak about and speak to people when we disagree with them.
May the guiding value of ahava – genuine respect – always characterize the sentiments of our hearts and the words of our mouths so that we may truly be God’s worthy instruments in our world…little less than divine.