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Changing Our Perspective

What follows is my sermon from Rosh Hashanah morning services.


Shanah Tovah! May it be a good year, a sweet year. May it be a year of health and happiness. And may this coming year not be as exhausting or as consequential as the one in the rearview mirror. Let 5782 be ordinary. I can’t remember a year in which so much happened. I don’t even know where to begin. Should I talk about antisemitism? Hurricanes? January 6th? Abortion rights? Israel’s ongoing battles—on Gaza’s border, in the university and at Ben & Jerry’s? This maddening pandemic that we thought would already be behind us? Afghanistan? You know I would like to say, “All of the above!” That of course is way too much for one sermon. Well, it was way too much for one year!

Let’s turn around and examine the past. Let’s figure out what Jewish lessons we can discern from this painful year. On this Rosh Hashanah let’s focus on the outside world. Let’s look at contemporary events. Judaism offers us help. It offers us answers for how we can make sense of our reeling world. We need our Judaism to offer us a way out of all these messes. This morning let’s look out. Let’s look back. We begin with the last weeks. This morning let’s tackle just two recent events: the Hurricane and Afghanistan. Tomorrow morning, I will examine abortion rights.

Hurricane Ida. In case seven inches of rain, streets transformed into rivers, people drowning in their apartments as well as cars, didn’t convince us, climate change is real. In case the drought that plagues the American West, the Colorado River drying up, forest fires producing so much smoke and toxic fumes that we choke on it here in New York, didn’t convince us, climate change has already happened. The weather is changing before our eyes. I watch the Weather Channel more than the news. My phone flashes more alerts for weather emergencies than Instagram DM’s. Ok, that may have more to do with the fact that I am no longer in high school, but you get my point. When Ida rolled through our area, my phone wailed with alarms. Tornado warnings. Flash flood emergencies.

And we should be wailing just as loudly as those sirens. We should not be screaming about what one political party is doing better than the other. Do you think the weather is partisan? Here is the simple but brutal truth. We can’t keep living the way we live and expect that we won’t pay the price. Sure, my new generator might insulate me from the challenges of the next storm. Now, if my house loses power once again—and you know that it is going to happen with more frequency—then at least I can have heat when this coming winter delivers feet of snow rather than inches. What about the millions, no billions, of people who cannot afford such luxuries? Open your heart, rabbi! Think about others. 70% of New Orleans still did not have electricity by the beginning of Labor Day weekend! Nearly 1 in 3 Americans were affected by a weather disaster this summer. Something has to change. Actually, let’s say that better, we have to change. It is up to us.

And what does Judaism say about all this? It teaches that we are custodians of the world, that we must care for this big, beautiful, and nourishing divine gift. It also teaches, and this is the most important and fundamental point, that the land does not belong to us. We don’t own it. The earth is borrowed. We are tenants. We are living on someone else’s property. We are living in God’s house. That shift is the crucial change we must make in how we view the world. If we start with the premise that this is mine, that I own this plot of land or this piece of property, then it follows that I can do anything I want with it. I can tear down this tree or plant these flowers or enlarge my kitchen or extend my driveway. Some might respond, “Well first you have to ask the zoning board.”

But that Long Island reality of town boards to which we go for approvals is not equal to what Judaism says. Our tradition wants us to ask these questions, “What do the birds say? What does the land require? What do the animals need? What crops should be grown on Long Island?” If the earth is ours—and I mean ours in the sense of every living thing that God created—then the question is not about my wants or my desires but instead about all of our needs. If we ask, not what do I want but what does the earth need if even just a few more times, if we focus less on what do I want but instead what does God’s beautiful, but obviously crumbling, house need, then we will be better off. If we ask this question just once a week in the coming year, we will perhaps have brought some measure of healing to all this hurt. We have to shift our perspective.

Sure, it is about replacing our lightbulbs with LED bulbs and maybe even driving a Tesla or fighting to make sure that more of our power plants use renewable energy, and advocating our cities have a lot more green spaces to help absorb all of this water or bike lanes to help reduce car pollution. It is about working to reduce our carbon footprint. And I am proud that our sanctuary is only illuminated by LED bulbs, but we need to be more. At this juncture, it needs to be a daily shift, or at least a weekly change. No amount of sand can save our beaches from the encroaching sea. On the East coast there will be too much water. On the West there will be too little.

Here is a rather unpopular suggestion. Eat less meat. Meat production uses far too many resources. Look to the Colorado river. Scientists suggest that if Americans avoid meat one day each week, they could save an amount of water equivalent to the entire flow of the Colorado each year and that would be more than enough water to alleviate the shortages the West is now experiencing. (The New York Times, August 27, 2021) Believe me. I like a good steak. I especially love brisket and chicken soup this time of year. Of course, I recognize that a weekly Beyond Burger is not going to save the earth. But we have to stop thinking that way. We have to stop saying, “It is too big for me to fix.” Instead, we should be asking, "How do we shift our perspective?"

Buy as much local fruits and vegetables as possible. Try to skip the blueberries in the winter and only buy them when they are in season in the Northeast. Savor the local melons you can buy at this time of year. Buy eggs at the farmers’ markets. If the answer to our children’s desperate plea for ice cream when they discover that there is none left in the freezer is to say, “Wait I will be right back.” And then we jump into the car and run out to the supermarket just to get that pint of Ben & Jerry’s (sorry, I mean Ralph’s ices) instead of saying, “I already went to the store this week. It will have to wait until the next shopping trip.” then we have not shifted our perspective.  If my answer to forgetting one small item on my recent Amazon order is to order it anyway because I have Prime and the shipping is free instead of waiting at least to combine it with other items, then I have not really shifted my perspective. Just because the shipping is free and I am not charged for it, does not mean there is no cost. It’s not just about my dollars. It is instead about figuring out how we can better live in this beautiful, and wonderful, world that God created for all of us and for every living being. It not just about me and what I want right now. Everything depends on shifting our perspective.

#2. We also have to change our perspective when it comes to the war on terror. And so, this brings me to our nation’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. Let me say this clearly. I am ashamed of our withdrawal from Afghanistan. It’s not that I disagree with the decision to withdraw—sadly we failed to accomplish all of our lofty goals save the original mission of taking the fight to those who attacked us on 9-11. I disagree with how we withdrew. We abandoned people who staked their lives on American idealism, who risked life and limb fighting alongside American soldiers. This is not how we should do things.

President Biden deserves credit for finally ending the war in Afghanistan, but he also deserves blame for how we left. Why was it so hard? Change the deadline. Why did we not extend the date for the troop withdrawal by months, if need be, until every one of those patriots who earned the right to be called an American if for no other reason than they fought alongside us and supported us, was brought here so that they could build the American lives they dreamed about creating. When the Torah speaks about loving the stranger it is talking about such people. It is talking about people who want to be part of our community, or in this case people who so believe in what our country stands for that they fought to become one of us.

Leadership is about owning the successes and even more importantly the failures. It is about admitting that we placed too much faith in technology and machines, in armaments and troop numbers, rather than approaching Afghan culture with humility. We failed. It saddens me to say that out loud. It angers me that the Taliban will now, almost certainly, prevent women from going to school and persecute those they consider non-believers. I still believe with all my heart that democracy, however flawed, is the best system of governing, but haven’t we learned that it can no longer be imposed by armies. Democracy has to be what Afghanistan builds for itself—sure with our help and assistance but not with our weapons. I still believe there are plenty of Afghans who want democracy, and many who wanted to come here to experience that, and we to our shame, left them at the airport—literally. We abandoned our calling. We reneged on our ideals.

This does not mean we should not have gone to Afghanistan in the first place. We sent our soldiers there to root out the terrorists who attacked us on 9-11 and the Taliban who gave them safe refuge. We have every right to attack those enemies who are bent on our destruction, who stay up late at night planning ways to kill Americans. Then our idealism blinded us. (It blinded me.) We lost our way. What does Judaism have to say about all this? Our tradition argues that a war fought in self-defense is a milchemet mitzvah, an obligatory war. That does not mean you can do whatever you want when fighting wars. That does not mean every battle is righteous. Our self-avowed enemies are human beings in our tradition’s eyes and must remain so in our own eyes. Fighting with drones, fighting from afar, blinds us to this fact. The tragic mistake we made from the very beginning and that caused us to most lose our way, was calling all of this, the war on terror. Words matter. They have consequences.

If we are not honest with ourselves about who we are fighting against, then we cannot win the war. It should be painfully obvious who we are fighting. There are people who describe themselves as America’s enemies. We went to Afghanistan to make war against Al-Qaeda. And we continue to fight against Islamic militants. Let me state what should be obvious. Our war is not with Islam, or with the millions of Muslims who find great spiritual truths in this faith, but with those fundamentalists who see the destruction of everyone and anyone who does not believe or act as they do as their religion’s purpose. Our twenty-year war was with fundamentalism in general and Islamic fundamentalism in particular. Language matters. We were confused at the beginning about who were fighting against and what we were fighting for. And so, we are confused in the end.

Here is another unpopular observation. You cannot fight a war on terror with armies. That battle can only be fought in our hearts. Terror and fear are matters of the heart. And no surgical strikes—there really is no such thing in war, or acceptable collateral damage—again there is no such thing when other human beings are killed, will assuage a fearful heart. No amount of troop deployments will safeguard us against terror. Against terrorists yes. Against terror, no. Only a proper faith can do that. Again, this is about shifting our perspective. It is about naming things in the right way. And that is up to us. It is not up to our political leaders. It is up to us.

Soldiers cannot fight our battles of the heart. Armies are supposed to protect us against those enemies who rise up against us. That has not changed since the Bible. Faith is meant to strengthen our hearts so that we can face any terror. That has also not changed since the Bible. In the Psalms, King David declares: “Should an army besiege me, my heart would have no fear; should war beset me, still would I be confident.” (Psalm 27) The shields we truly need to protect us are those that we wrap around our hearts. When we do that right we will not be afraid. Then no one can terrify us. When our armies know who they are fighting against and our hearts know what they are protecting us against, nothing can defeat us.

Get that right and we will win any struggle. It is up to us. It’s not up to President Biden or his predecessor Former President Trump. It is in our hands. And you want to know where that starts? You know how we are going to start fixing these messes and pulling ourselves out of these disasters? First things first. It is about changing our perspective and saying, “This far and no farther. I am going to do things differently.” It is going to change with me. It is not about what I want, but what the world needs. It is not about what my leaders say but more importantly what I hold in my heart.

The Talmud teaches, “What is a person asked when he or she arrives in heaven?” Among the questions. “Did you have hope for redemption?” Did you have hope in the future? Jews must never lose this hope. As hard as it is, we have to hold on to hope. And this year our hope starts with changing our perspective. Look at those wars overseas and say instead, “How do I continue the fight within me?” Look at the world not as how many pieces do I own, but what does the world need from me.

And then we can look up from this exhausting year with a measure of renewed hope. We will have gained a strengthened heart and a changed perspective. The world depends on it. The earth depends on us.