Skip to main content

Don't Separate Yourself

Yom Kippur Evening Sermon

On the plane home from Israel I met a man from Louisiana who had just finished working on an oilrig off the cost of Haifa.  He was returning home after spending six months working on the rig.  He told me of the Leviathan gas field which as the name suggests is immense in its proportions and almost messianic in its promise of natural gas riches.  When the messiah arrives, the rabbis teach us, we will eat the flesh of a roasted Leviathan.  I am not sure if that sounds like it will taste good, but such is the legend.  I was saddened to learn that he never once visited Israel’s shores except to travel to and from Ben Gurion airport.  He did promise that he would visit Jerusalem on his next trip.

It saddened me that he was so close to Israel and yet did not take the opportunity to experience the country.  But what made me even more disheartened was the distance he expressed to our own, shared country.  Somehow we started talking about politics, the upcoming elections and President Obama.  This was probably not my wisest decision.   Let’s debate politics with a tobacco chewing, large oilrig worker from Louisiana who you can’t run away from.  But I was jet lagged and tired.  It was 330 in the morning and our flight had arrived before the JFK workers were even ready to usher us off the plane.  Somewhere in the course of the conversation he said, “Obama is your president.  He ain’t mine.”  I don’t know why he thought he could pigeon hole me.  Maybe it was because I spoke about my worries about the environment and climate change in response to his accusation that Obama is killing the oil companies.  Still I could not let the “He ain’t my president” go.  I said, “I understand that you did not vote for him.  It should not matter who you voted for or who I voted for.  He is still our president.”  Maybe I should have realized that rabbi does not carry so much authority among Louisiana oilrig workers.  He turned to me and said, “No. He ain’t.  He’s a communist. He closed down the oil industry and eliminated jobs.  He ain’t my president!”  To be honest, I cleaned up the story a little bit and edited out some of his more colorful adjectives.  I said, “I don’t want to argue about the specifics.  You know the oil industry much better than I ever could.  He is still our president.”  “No he ain’t.  He is yours, not mine.”  I then said, “What’s the weather supposed to be like?  What are your plans for when you get home?”  There we were: two Americans standing next to each other, both anxious to exit the plan.  And yet we stood oceans apart. 

This evening I wish to reflect on this encounter (it was certainly not the experience I expected from my annual trip to Israel) and offer some observations about the upcoming elections and American democracy.  Come November many of us will be disappointed and maybe even angry.  I don’t know how many of us will be upset.  Maybe it will be 50% or 60% or even 70%.  Not everyone is going to have the guy they voted for in the White House come January. Here is my belief.  The greatest moment of American democracy is not the celebrations by the winner and his victory speech but the concession speech by the loser.  He speaks of ideals.  The loser inevitably speaks about American values.  I am most comfortable and at ease in that place, not with losers per say but with values and ideals.  The winner speaks of grand promises, promises that will inevitably disappoint.  No one can live up to all that he promises.  Looking back on recent history some of our greatest moments were Bush vs. Gore, not necessarily the Supreme Court decision, but Gore bowing to the Court’s authority and reminding us of the meaning of American democracy.  Or perhaps you prefer John McCain’s concession speech.  I remember in particular him quieting those who heckled at Obama’s name.  In their losses they reminded us of what is truly important.  I wish McCain was on that plane with me.  We should hold on to those moments.  We tend to forget such matters in the months preceding elections.  We yell at friends.  We change the subject to the weather.

My objective is not to suggest who we should vote for.  To advocate for one candidate over another would be a betrayal of the trust you place in me.  That is not the rabbi’s job. I disagree with my many friends who have signed on to “Rabbis for Obama.” My great worry is what happens on November 7th and even more important how everyone feels on January 20th.  On that day there should be no winners and losers.  Once the election is over, once the inauguration occurs, all should say “Our president is…”  We disenfranchise ourselves from the very democracy that granted us so many freedoms and opportunities when we say, “He ain’t my president.”  That is my chief worry.   I am not 100% sure if this trend has grown larger since Obama became president, if he is even more polarizing than his predecessors.  Sometimes it appears so but I recall the left casting themselves aside during the Reagan years.  I am certain however that we should be united in battling this trend.  You can have your issues with Obama’s positions and policies.  You can have your debates with Romney’s ideology and promises.  But come January 20th one of them is going to be our president.  He is not just ours if we voted for him.  He is ours because we are Americans.  It seems so basic.  It also seems far too fleeting.

Why do we count things in terms of winners and losers?  When did we begin to measure everything, even our elected leaders, in terms of winners and losers, in terms of you are only mine if I chose you?  Perhaps this is the latest realization of the primacy we place in individual choice and how we overly indulge personal preference.  If my guy doesn’t win then he ain’t mine anymore.  Then this country is not ours?  This view seems particularly acute regarding Israel and most importantly Iran.  So let me offer some observations about the Iran crisis, its march toward nuclear weapons and how Israel and the United States is addressing this problem.  There are three points about which we should agree.

#1. Iran represents an existential threat to Israel and a danger to the United States.  To say otherwise is to misread history and especially modern Jewish history.  We must never attempt to explain away antisemites, most especially dictators with genocidal aims.  Bill Keller wrote the following in last week’s Times: “Despite the incendiary rhetoric, it is hard to believe the aim of an Iranian nuclear program is the extermination of Israel.” (The New York Times, September 9, 2012)  Such an evaluation is dangerous and naïve.  Such assumptions are a luxury we can ill afford.  We must always take antisemites at their word.  When they say they want to kill us, we believe them.  I wish I could believe otherwise, but we cannot, we must not.  The lessons of history are etched on the millions of graves we can no longer even find.  When it comes to antisemites with dangerous weapons, there is no other way of reading our history.  When someone rises up to say he wants to destroy the Jewish people and its nation, and when he rushes to acquire the means to do so, believe him. 

#2. This does not mean that a pre-emptive strike or an Israeli or American attack is the right response.  Have we not learned that war is messy and unpredictable?  Had we not gone to war in Iraq Saddam Hussein might have provided the needed deterrent against Iran’s desire to rule the Middle East.  Surgical strikes like those done recently in Syria and many years ago in Iraq no longer appear possible.  I do not believe that there are easy answers to this question.  How to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons defies simple answers.  Clearly there are disagreements between the Obama administration and Netanyahu’s government regarding these answers.  I do not believe however that there is disagreement about the question.  I continue to believe that the United States and Israel share an unbreakable friendship and partnership.  It will continue regardless of who our next president is.

Let us admit.  It is possible that US and Israeli interests might diverge.  The judgments of these two nations and its leaders may differ.  This is not to say that Iran and its desire to build nuclear weapons is not a threat to the United States and its interests.  Have we not learned that oceans can no longer protect us from terror and attack?  Iran and its proxies have attacked the United States before.  Have we already forgotten the embassy hostage crisis or the bombing of the marine barracks by Hezbullah?  Make no mistake. Iran represents a threat not only to Israel, not only to the United States but to the world.

#3.  We depend on no one but ourselves.  This is the most basic definition of Zionism. Zionism is about an independent Jewish nation that defends its own interests and secures the Jewish future through strength.  Perhaps this is naïve, especially in our interconnected, or hyper-connected, world.  I recall recent history.  During the first Gulf War, Israel and in particular Tel Aviv, suffered Scud attacks from Iraq.  Had Israel responded militarily to these attacks, the fragile coalition that Bush Senior had brokered would have unraveled.  Israel restrained itself.  Was this a good decision?  Clearly it kept the coalition from fraying.  The limited objectives of the war were achieved and the Powell doctrine affirmed.  Saddam’s army was pushed out of Kuwait.  Yet Israel’s failure to respond was a mistake of Zionism.  Its decision was a psychological blow to the country’s psyche.  It was attacked without provocation and did nothing but huddle in bomb shelters and safe rooms.  I do not pretend to think that such decisions are easy, that the agonizing choices leaders face especially in war rooms are simple, but I can say with certainty that Israel’s restraint in the face of attack undermined one of its core principles and its very identity.  While Israel may not be able to go it alone militarily it needs to psychologically.  It must do so because this is the very essence of Zionism.  

Only Israel and its leaders can determine which actions will best protect its citizens.  This is not because we don’t know enough or we don’t care enough.  It is not because the US is untrustworthy.  It is instead because Israel and the US see the world through different lenses. The nature of having a Jewish state is that we cannot depend on the world—even our greatest ally. We will write Jewish history ourselves—for better or worse. It will no longer be done to us.  We will never again be victims. Israel must defend itself.  Israel will defend itself.  The Jewish people will remain strong.  Chazak v’amatz.  Be strong and resolute, the Torah demands.

I have an unshakable faith in friendship and the friendship between Israel and the United States.  It is a friendship that transcends particular presidents and their parties.  I resent being tugged between opposing sides, as if my commitment and love for Israel is a punching bag.  The tradition argues, “Imo anochi b’tzara—we stand together in trying times.”  It does not mean that we always agree, but we stand together especially when there is a crisis, especially when we are tested, most especially when in sorrow or under duress. 

Let me be clear.  If Israel attacks Iran, which is its right, if that is what its leadership deems is the best way to protect the Jewish nation from Iran’s genocidal aims then the debate ends.  We stand with our people.  Some might say that the time to stand together is when the threat is raised.  Indeed we should be united in recognizing this threat.  We must vigorously fight those who dismiss Iran as a real threat to the world.  There remains however an open question of how best to fight this.  That is the only question currently open for debate.  If Israel attacks, if the United States attacks, or if God forbid, Iran attacks us, then “Imo anochi b’tzara…we stand together and united.”

Our views, our opinions, can be divided but we must remain one.  Still we continue to hear, “He ain’t my president.  He did not say what I wanted.  He stands for everything I am not.  He does not have Israel’s back.”  But he is, no matter who he is, no matter what his decisions might be.  I can disagree with him.  I can advocate for different positions.  I will certainly shout for all to hear that Iran represents a threat not only to my people but to the world as well. In the end the man in the White House is mine whether I voted for him or not.  And come January, he will be my president, whether I chose him or not. 

There are many issues that divide us. I am sure there are differences of opinion regarding taxes and immigration, the environment and unemployment.  I am certain that there are many opinions sitting in this room.  There is only one community.  There is only one country.  And we have only one president.  All of us. 

When we disenfranchise ourselves by drawing a line between ourselves and our leaders, we cut ourselves off from the community.  Is not this what we criticize the Haredi, the ultra-Orthodox, for, separating themselves from the society that sustains them?  Are we then any better?  I have always believed that elections are about the ideas and person who might make our country better.  I have always felt that we are at least supposed to try to improve our nation, our world and our lives.  It is supposed to be about our community not simply our individual lot.  I see taxes for example as part of my obligation to others.  Sure I don’t want to pay any more and I make every legal effort to pay as little as possible, but taxes are one way I participate in this community, in this country.  They are my obligation just as tzedakah is my mitzvah.  We cannot afford to draw ourselves outside of the circle of obligation.  We must redouble our efforts to draw ourselves in.  We must relearn the meaning of sacrifice.  I wish both candidates spoke more about obligations instead of what I might personally gain by their election.

Perhaps we should even reinstate the draft.  Dare I say such things?  My children’s grandparents might certainly take issue.  We need it.  We require what it nurtures for the community.  When American Jews served in the US armed forces in appreciable numbers, we understood better the meaning of democracy and the import of sacrifice.  Then our lives were defined not by opportunity and privilege but instead by duty and obligation.

My friend and student, Charlie, the US marine, who is serving in Afghanistan with a defense contractor reminds us of what this means.  His fiancee Ali teaches us as well about the meaning of sacrifice.  They are only together for these few weeks because he managed to grab a precious break for the holidays.  There is not of course a universal draft or even anything approaching national service. Imagine what it would teach us, and our children.  I could speak as well about Chris Stephens, the American diplomat, who gave his life serving our country.  Here was a man who gave his life so that democracy might flourish, however tentatively in the Arab Middle East. 

How are we not any better than the Haredi if we fail to pledge ourselves to the betterment of our world and most especially our nation?  If we do not sacrifice for others then how are we any different?  Don’t say we are better because we live in the modern world, because we participate in a modern economy, because we hold jobs and don’t just study all day and night.  We must give back.  We must serve—not just our small communities, not just our people but also the country and world.  The United States is not just a place to live and work.  It is an idea that must be served and protected.  This country is not just a collection of diverse towns and peoples.  The United States is a community.   It must forever remain so.  I remain deeply concerned that when we withdraw into our hamlets, when we stop speaking about the common good and the needs of all, we lose sight of what is supposed to be our impact.  “All the nations of the world shall bless themselves by your descendants,” God tells Abraham.  (Genesis 22:18)

2,000 years ago Rabbi Hillel said, “Al tifrosh min ha-tzibbur—don’t separate yourself from the community.”  Hillel was right then.  He is right now.  The greatest danger is not Obama.  The greatest threat is not Romney.  It is not about taxes or the economy, health care or even who better has Israel’s back.  It is instead about separating ourselves from the community.  It should not be, “My guy didn’t win, so I am out of here, I am checking out.”  To be part of a community, to be a citizen of a democracy, means that you don’t always get your choice.  Your ideas don’t always hold sway.  Your vote does not always make you a winner.  But it always counts.  You are forever a member of the community.  We are forever part of something greater than ourselves and our own personal interests.  We must fight the impulse to say, “He ain’t mine.” 

I cannot say for sure who our leader will be come January.  I am certain that whoever it might be, he will my president.  I am certain he will be mine.