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Chayei Sarah Sermon

This evening we learn of three cities and three lessons.  Each of these cities offers us a value and a cautionary note.  We relearn these values and we recall their accompanying cautionary notes.

The first city is from the Torah portion.  It is Hebron.  In this week’s Torah portion Sarah dies at the age of 127 years.  Abraham mourns her and seeks to buy a burial plot.  He purchases the Cave of Machpeleh from Ephron, the Hittite.  We learn that Abraham pays more than the asking price and thus Hebron becomes the first Jewish city.  From this city we are reminded that the land, the land of Israel, is holy.  It is made holy by Sarah’s death and by Abraham’s purchase.

Here is where it all started.  Our faith began in Hebron, located in the modern day West Bank.  Thus it is not just any land that the Palestinians claim. It is our people’s as well.  When it comes time to make peace (may that day be very soon) it will not be as simple as withdrawing from Gush Katif in Gaza.  And if you recall this recent history, remember that was not so simple or easy.  In Hebron we still feel Jewish history and its reverberations.  There one can sense Abraham’s and Sarah’s presence. 

Still our cautionary note is that the land is not more holy than people.  No place is worth more than human life and preserving Jewish democracy.  Even a place as holy as Hebron, with its many Jewish resonances, is worth sacrificing for the sake of furthering democracy and saving lives.

The second city is Berlin.  We think of it because of our recent commemoration of Kristallnacht.  On November 9, 1938 in Germany and Austria, and in particular in Berlin, the Nazis perpetrated this night of broken glass.  There are many dates to which we can point and date the beginning of the Holocaust.  This date would be one.  On this day the Nazis destroyed and burned synagogues and Jewish books.  And on this day the world stood by.  Kristallnacht was reported but little if anything was done.  The Nazis were allowed to destroy Jewish lives and homes with impunity.

We are reminded that even the most cultured of places can become evil.  The place that gave the world Beethoven and Schopenhauer also gave rise to the past century’s most unparalleled evil. 

Lest we be naïve, we must proclaim that antisemitism still exists.  We hear its venom coming from Iran.  It exists even in the United States.  There are tinges of it emanating from Occupy Wall Street.  This is a movement that is all about anger and not about reform and change.  Protest for something rather than against something.  Use feelings of disenfranchisement as a tool to better our world.  From the memory of Jewish Berlin we are cautioned: stay vigilant.  Never be so quick to dismiss racisim and antisemitism.  It can arise anywhere and everywhere. It can be found in any city.

The third city we think of is our very own New York.   We think of it because of Thanksgiving.  Here in New York we enjoy unprecedented freedoms.  This country is built on immigration and meritocracy.  Here anyone can build a life for him or herself..  That is what we celebrate and give thanks for on the upcoming holiday of Thanksgiving.

On this day we celebrate these freedoms especially, most notably the freedom of religion.  Here we can be proud Jews and loyal Americans.  We must remember that the freedoms we so relish must remain open to all.  We celebrate that anyone can be successful here.  We not only celebrate our own successes but the openness by which anyone can find success.  We must caution ourselves not to close these doors of opportunity to others.  What was opened to us should remain open to all.

In 1790 George Washington sent a letter to the Jews of Newport and in particular to the leaders of the Touro Synagogue.  He was responding to their words of congratulations when he became our country’s first president.  It is his words with which I conclude.  His words serve as the best reminder of what is great about this country.  Forgive his highfalutin English. It is how people wrote and spoke back then.
The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my Administration, and fervent wishes for my felicity. May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.  May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.
Amen, President Washington.  May we always remember what each of these cities teach us. May we continue to cherish the values they have granted us.