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It's All About the Kippah and Concession Speech

My Rosh Hashanah Morning sermon about how custom, rather than law, are integral to our families, community and country.  

An Upper West Side synagogue recently announced that it will no longer serve lox. Can you imagine? A shanda! Its leaders argue that they wish to help reduce pollution and the environmental impact of overfishing. And while salmon farming is indeed environmentally damaging and provides eighty percent of the salmon we eat on a far too regular basis, can you envision break-fast without bagels, cream cheese and lox? The rabbis added this note to their announcement about the elimination of lox from the synagogue menu: “We know that for some this is a heretical move! We are here to support you as you process this change.” Such changes make us feel as if we are mourning the loss of something precious. Messing with we have come to know as traditional foods can be tantamount to heresy.

Our holidays seem to turn on food. And lox is right up there with the other High Holiday staples like round hallahs and apples and honey. The funny thing is that we have only been eating lox in recent years—at least if you measure time in the thousands of years that amount to Jewish history. My Nana never ate lox in the shtetl in which she was born and from which she fled. If she ate any fish, it was the less expensive carp that was ground up into gefilte fish. Claudia Roden, author of The Book of Jewish Food, writes there is no evidence that Jews ate lox in Eastern Europe. Apparently, it is an American Jewish creation and dates back about hundred years when salmon from the Pacific Northwest became available in New York thanks to the railroads. Most of the immigrant families from whom we are descended and who lived in the 1920’s and 30’s could not afford a refrigerator and so cured fish was the perfect solution. And herein is how our beloved custom was born.

The origins of customs are often mysterious. Their power, and hold, over our lives remain profound. Families are defined by them. Communities are sustained by them. Countries are upheld by them. Customs are distinct from laws. Yet they often tug at our hearts in even more telling and significant ways. This morning I wish to explore customs and their importance to us: to our community, to our families and to our country.

Let’s begin with some familiar examples: the kippah and tallis. I have often found it curious that people feel more strongly attached to the kippah or yarmulke. Its origins date back to the Talmud whereas the tallis is a mitzvah, and commandment, and found in the Torah. The tallis is law. The kippah is custom. Originally the kippah signified an extra measure of piety and was optional. It gained wider acceptance in medieval times. And now many people feel it is required. There is something about the kippah that suggests its power transcends any commandment or law. There have been many shiva minyans when I gather the group together to begin the service and people start asking me if I have kippahs. While I do have kippahs and prayerbooks in my bag, people rarely ask me for prayerbooks and only kippahs. When I was a far younger rabbi, I would cite chapter and verse suggesting that any head covering will do. It’s optional. You can wear a baseball cap, I would add. The words are far more important than a kippah. The prayers are far more significant than some silken black cloth or a felt yarmulke with a bat mitzvah date from decades ago. Or are they? My learned opinions were greeted with bewilderment.

Even that tattered kippah offers comfort that little else seems to provide. The kippah is a connection to generations gone by. It does not matter that we wear it at few other occasions than services, weddings and funerals. The kippah centers. It connects. I cannot explain it entirely. I honor the custom. I let go of trying to argue that it is less important than the legally required tallis. Customs accumulate power that laws cannot quantify. They bind us together. They define communities.

Every synagogue sings Adon Olam but very few have a cantor who sings it so magically or a rabbi so poorly while dancing so emphatically. Every synagogue recites the Shema as required by Jewish law, but some sit, and others stand. No law commands the tunes which accompany our prayers, but people are attached to some as if they were given on Mount Sinai. Every synagogue has aliyas to the Torah on Yom Kippur morning but few honor all those who were married in the past Jewish year as ours does. It is the seemingly small and even idiosyncratic customs that make our synagogue our own and Congregation L’Dor V’Dor our home.

The Jewish word for law is halachah. It derives from the Hebrew root meaning “to go or walk.” It suggests a path or better, walkway. Custom is called minhag. It is related to the word “to drive” not like Moses drove the car but as Moshe drove the flock into the wilderness. (Exodus 3). It is fascinating that both custom and law suggest movement. They are not static. They carry us through life. Just as Moses drives the flock through the wilderness, custom drives us along the path.

Many families gather for Passover seders, but over time each of them develops their own minhag and customs. There are varied observances regarding who hides the afikomen and who redeems it. When I was growing up only the child who finds the afikomen was given some coins. Today, every child receives a gift. In some families, children band together to hide the afikomen and the adults have to search for it. While this inevitably delays the start of the second half of the seder, for families who do seder in this way, they would never dream of doing Passover any differently. Their way is the only way they believe the Seder has ever been celebrated or should be celebrated.

When couples get married, they often must negotiate differing family customs. I, for example, thought it was normal for birthdays to simply be acknowledged. A card, and perhaps a check, along with a phone call is all the day demands. Saying “Happy birthday” was the essence. Susie hails from a family who believes gift giving defines not only birthdays but pretty much every day and certainly every visit, and as many occasions as possible. I have to admit I was a bit surprised to get a Valentine’s Day card from my in-laws in our first year of marriage, but I remain forever grateful for their unending love and support. Of course, in one of our first years of marriage, when I simply offered Susie “Happy birthday, sweetheart. I love you so much.” and did not accompany that with a gift or even flowers, I soon discovered that the customs with which I was raised might require some adjustment. Marriages, or any significant relationship for that matter, are about the meshing of different customs. You have to take the idiosyncrasies with which you are raised and mold them into something slightly different, while still remaining loyal to your birthright. And so, customs evolve.

Back to food. Haroset recipes are also as varied as the countries from which we fled. The familiar Ashkenazi recipe of apples, walnuts and lots of Manischewitz is often spiced up in Sephardic homes with dates, pistachios and even rose water. One year we gave our son Ari, who was then beginning his cooking adventures the opportunity to prepare the haroset. We told him the most important thing is that it just has to look like bricks. That year we ended up with bananas in our haroset. And guess what? We pretty much have had bananas in our haroset every year for the past twenty years.

What makes families our own are those small, occasionally quirky things that make them different and provide us with a private language and a comforting pattern to move us through the years. My favorite Jewish custom is the blessing of the children every Shabbat evening. Although we recite the tradition’s prescribed words, it is our opportunity to hold Shira and Ari close and kiss them on their heads. Even when our children grew older and were racing to leave the house or were worried that holding their heads would mess up their hair or now when they are only home for the holidays, this custom has become so engrained that we cannot imagine giving up the opportunity to hold them close, kiss them and bless them at least for that moment. We move through the week, often in different directions, but on Shabbat and holidays we draw close if only briefly.

Whether it is watching the Giants or Jets games every Sunday or organizing what many now see as the obligatory Friendsgiving celebration the day after Thanksgiving or the furious search for the afikomen every Passover these are the customs that define families. These are also the customs that when loved ones who have now died but, in the past, sat beside us at the table or near us on the couch, give us pangs of longing. At first, we say to ourselves, “I don’t even want to watch the game.” Or “Who I am to lead the seder?” But then when we grab hold of those family customs, they mysteriously carry us forward. Customs define families. Hold on to them. Find some new ones. Finesse the tradition’s directions and make them your own. And one day, you will look back and not even remember how they were started or when you added this or that, but you will be unable to imagine your family without them. So let me now loudly proclaim, “Happy Valentine’s Day Mom.”

There are no laws prescribing these customs. They are what make families are own. They are what define us.

Countries too have customs. If you have ever had the privilege of being in Israel for Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, you would discover that at 10 am, the air raid sirens wail throughout the country to begin a two-minute period of silence. People stop their cars in the middle of the road and stand. Here in the United States, visit Arlington Cemetery and observe the ritual changing of the guards surrounding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Some customs are profound. And others are mundane. Who can imagine a baseball game without the seventh inning stretch? And yet it is these customs that define our American culture. This is why people were so offended when football players kneeled for the National Anthem. There is no law mandating that we stand and take off our hats just as there is no law that every Israeli motorist stops on Yom HaShoah, but these customs seem definitional. That is of course why Colin Kaepernick’s, and other players’ protests were so effective. They goaded us to look within. They stabbed at the seemingly sacred.

The concession speech is another American ritual that makes this country a unique democracy. Again, no law demands it, but custom requires it. Just as we recognize the importance of customs to families and communities, so too we must bow before its significance to our country. The first public concession in a presidential race was delivered by telegram. In 1896, Democrat William Jennings Bryan offered these words to Republican William McKinley: "I hasten to extend my congratulations. We have submitted the issue to the American people and their will is law." I have been thinking about this custom for some time. Until recently I had not thought it to be so significant. I fear now that letting go of it may forever fray the ties that bind us together and make us one united country.

President Trump’s failure to offer even a modicum of concession continues to undermine our nation’s democratic foundations. His refusal to do so in 2020 continues to sow lingering doubts in 2022. My friends, let me be forthright. This entire fragile project is built on the supposition that our elections are fair. In the days after the polls close, Democrats and Republicans as well as Independents, must all be willing to say, “It’s over.” This is not to say that elections are perfect or that there are not mistakes here and there, but overall, we must say together, “It is over. It worked. And let’s get behind him. Or let’s try to work with her. Or even, let’s gear up for next time.” If we cannot offer simple phrases such as these, and we are not led to say such words, we are lost. Let me be crystal clear. Only unfounded theories can sustain the notion that President Biden did not win more votes in November 2020 and enough electoral votes to become our 46th president. I fear that we may be entering a period where every election result will be disputed, that Republicans and Democrats will soon both refuse to concede and that a significant percentage of voters will say in effect, “She is not my representative.” Or “He is not my senator.” Already such voices are growing louder and more menacing.

People think that victory speeches are the more significant, but I have come to believe that the concession speech is the more important. The candidate receiving the most votes makes grand promises that often go unfulfilled whereas the candidate with fewer votes doubles down on the values that hold us together. I don’t remember President Obama’s speech in 2008 but the words of Senator John McCain (zecher tzaddik l’vrachah—may the memory of the righteous be a blessing) still ring in my ears. He said, “Whatever our differences, we are fellow Americans. And please believe me when I say no association has ever meant more to me than that. It is natural to feel some disappointment, but tomorrow we must move beyond it and work together to get our country moving again. We fought—we fought as hard as we could. And though we fell short, the failure is mine, not yours.” The failure is mine.

Nothing screams the High Holidays and this day’s message more than those words. “The failure is mine.” This is the essence of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We are imperfect creatures who create imperfect institutions, who make mistakes and miss the mark. And the only corrective is to admit such failures and move forward. Character truly shines when we are called to own our mistakes. And it is this custom of conceding election results that move us sometimes haltingly and other times grudgingly and perhaps even painfully from one election to the next. But it is this custom that drives us along the path.

I recognize that some might accuse me of being partisan. Let me acknowledge before you the successes of President Trump’s administration. He is deserving of praise for facilitating the development of the Covid vaccines that have helped pull us through this pandemic. He is deserving of unending thanks for brokering the Abraham Accords between Israel, the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco and that have brought a new level of peace and prosperity to parts of the Middle East and especially to the Israel I cherish. In the last weeks a Jewish wedding was held in Abu Dhabi. 1500 guests attended. This is unprecedented. It is historic. My heart is filled with gratitude.

Even though I can enumerate such successes, our democratic republic only moves forward if we honor the results of our elections. It is the only way this thing works. One person has to say, “The election is over. My opponent is now my president.”

Let me also add, President Biden deserves criticism for not calling out pro-Democratic party groups who are spending millions of dollars ($40 million to date) in Republican primaries to help nominate those candidates who deny the 2020 election results. Perhaps this is good strategy and shrewd calculation to support candidates who one thinks will be easier to beat in November, but it is antithetical to what should be our shared mission of upholding the integrity of our electoral system. Shame on President Biden for not calling this out loudly and forcefully. It is not simply about winning. It is about holding the nation together and more importantly, staying true to the values that define us. We are all called to make sure everyone can participate in voting. And then, before we cast our votes we fight like mad and argue and debate the issues and candidates. But when it's all over we get behind our elected officials.

The whole American democratic project may hinge on a custom that usually goes unnoticed and unheralded except by a candidate’s most devoted followers. It does not matter that John Adams did not give a concession speech and only privately conceded to Thomas Jefferson and that this custom in its present form does not date back to our nation’s founders who dreamed up this precious but fragile American democracy. What matters is that this custom has become foundational. It is what drives us forward. I feel like with every passing month, it is as if we are trampling upon those flimsy, silken kippahs that held us together at shiva minyans when we believed our small world was falling apart.

Customs move us forward. There are no laws that demand them. Without them we cannot move through the generations. We cannot find our path. Without customs families lose connections, communities wither and countries lose their way. Families are defined by customs. Communities are sustained by them. And countries must be upheld by them. Custom moves our American democracy forward and from one generation to the next. God bless the United States of America!