Being an Exceptional People
Erev Rosh Hashanah
Happy New Year! I spent my junior year of college in Madrid, Spain. In the program I participated in foreign students were assigned to live with local families. Given my concern about living with a Catholic family in what was a very Catholic country I wrote Madrid’s only rabbi, an Orthodox rabbi, to see if he could find a Jewish family with whom I would be able to live. He succeeded and found me the Ben Chimol Family. The Ben Chimol’s were originally from Morocco and consisted of a Mom, Dad and three sons, one of which was my age.They had fled Morocco around the time of the Sinai/Suez War of 1956 as did many Jews throughout North Africa and the Middle East. Arab states unable to directly engage in war against Israel chose instead to make their resident Jews existence intolerable. Fortunately for the Ben Chimols they heralded from Spanish Morocco making them Spanish citizens and therefore holding Spanish passports. In 1947 850,000 Jews lived in North Africa and in Arab Middle East states; today only 8,000 remain, 5,700 of which live in Morocco.
I lived with the family for almost entire year. Simi, the mother, treated me like her own son, her fourth son. I learned a lot about Sephardic Judaism that year. Simi kept a completely kosher home. The family attended worship every Friday night, save the mother who would remain at home preparing the Sabbath Meal, and on Saturday mornings and on all the festivals with me always in tail. I can’t say that I still recall many of the Sephardic melodies from North Africa but I do remember so many of the traditions. One of those traditions we do here at Temple Sinai when Torah is read. When a parent comes forward to make an aliyah we ask the children of that parent to rise in honor of their parent. That is a Sephardic tradition I learned in Spain!
Spain in the 1970’s wasn’t a particularly hospitable country to Jews. I think it would be fair to say they were somewhat tolerated but nowhere near being embraced. Men, who chose to cover their heads in public, would don a hat never a kippah. Jews would hire fellow Jews knowing that a Spaniard might never offer them a job. The father, Jaime, worked for the synagogue as dues collector. The synagogue was protected 24/7 by Madrid’s police force. And you would rarely if ever share publically your religious status. Centuries of anti-Jewish teachings of the Church was well embedded in the Spanish psyche.
The truth be told not has changed dramatically in forty years. Recent polls show that 85% of European Jewry are afraid to publically share its Jewish identity.
On Friday nights after we returned from Kabbalat Shabbat worship we gathered around the dinner table for a traditional Moroccan Sabbath meal which consisted of: spiced fish, boiled chickpeas, eggs and beef, Moroccan couscous, roasted eggplant salad, roasted red peppers, wine and bread. The bread was not challah. My Moroccan family knew nothing of the European tradition of challah. For them it was always French bread. It was a feast. I’m salivating just thinking about it. The candles were blessed by the mother. Then the wine was blessed by the father. And here is where it got interesting.
Beyond the fact that the Sephardic melody for the Kiddush is dramatically different from our Ashkenazi melody there was something he did in the middle of the Kiddush. When he got to the verse, “Ki vanu vacharta, v’otanu kidashta mee-kol ha-a-meem,” meaning: “You chose us and sanctified us from all the peoples,” he would raise the Kiddush cup even higher in his hand. Well known is the tradition of raising the Kiddush cup throughout the entire blessing. But I had never known anyone to raise the cup even higher when arriving at this particular verse.
You know for many years the Reform Movement never would say, “mee-kol ha-a-meem,””From all the people.” Yes we would say, “Ki vanu vacharta, v’otanu kidasahta,”“You chose us and sanctified us,” but no “from all the peoples.” In Union Prayer Book Volume I for the Sabbath those four words never appeared save only in the Union Prayer II for the High Holidays. However they eventually would appear in the publication of the Gates of Prayer in the early 1970’s.
It wasn’t until then as Reform Jews that we came to understand ourselves as not only “chosen and sanctified” but even more importantly distinct “from all the peoples.” We went from being chosen to being chosen unlike any other people on the face of the earth.
What caused this shift? What made us more cognizant of our special status? More than anything it was the Holocaust. Prior to the Holocaust an overwhelming number of liberal, progressive Jews believed Western society would always be a warm and welcoming home for enlightened and liberal Jews. It had been right up to and even during the early days of Holocaust that these liberal Jews believed in the notion of social Darwinism. Shoulder to shoulder, we along with the well-meaning of all societies and nations would build a better future of all humankind. After the Holocaust the idea of working with all of humankind to build a better tomorrow seemed, at least from a Jewish perspective, a lot less likely. Reformers came to the very bitter realization that too many were more interested in killing us than working with us.
As the world came to see us as the “other,” even the “evil ones” we came to see ourselves as unique, uniquely chosen by God and uniquely different than those about us.
We see this also in the Aleinu prayer. “Let us now praise the Sovereign of the Universe and proclaim the greatness of the Creator who has set us apart from the other families of the earth, giving us a destiny unique among the nations.” Following the Holocaust Jews, even Reform Jews, were coming to see the world with different eyes. Yes there are some who share our vision. However there are those who not only vehemently disagree with our vision but wish to do us harm.
We are a distinct people and endowed with a unique destiny. We gather this evening to remind ourselves of this eternal truth. Sad that so many have forgotten and others are unaware because they were never taught of this important lesson.
As the dangers of the world abound and the value of human life diminishes more than ever we should be that unique voice that unique people ever reminding humankind of the eternal truths our ancestors taught.
David Harris, President of the American Jewish Committee, shared his views as to the importance of a Jewish identity. What does being Jewish mean?
- It means embracing the deep symbolic meaning the rabbis gave to the story of Adam and Eve. Since all humanity descend from the “” couple, each of us, whatever our race, religion or ethnicity, shares the same family tree. No one can claim superiority over anyone else. In keeping with this teaching Talmud reminds us, “Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.” Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:9. As Jews we are lovers and preservers of life, all life.
- It means entering into a partnership with the Divine for the “Repair of the World-Tikun Olam.” This is a sacred task not to be turned over to a higher authority, or to fate but that it’s our responsibility. We should pray as if everything depended upon God. We should act as if everything depended upon us. The mystics reminds us that the world is filled with broken fragments, illness, war, hunger, homelessness, loneliness and pain. As Jews it is our sacred task to bring wholeness again, to take the fragments and repair, rebuild our broken world.
- It means that we are persistently living lives based on Torah and Halacha, laws and statues which establish a moral code. We are tasked to pursue justice, to treat our neighbors as we would wish to be treated, to welcome the stranger, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to shelter the homeless, to protect our environment, to care for the elderly. It was through us that God made known The Ten Commandments, the eternal, universal and ethical code of conduct.
- And here I quote David Harris word for word, “And finally, as Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel once said, it means not necessarily seeking to make the world more Jewish, but rather more human. That is the goal animating our people, through good times and bad, from the beginning of this extraordinary historical journey to the present day.
These are just some of meanings of our Jewishness. There so many more: Israel, our Jewish sense of connectedness with Jews from all over the world, our commitment to learning and teaching, our commitment to philanthropy and our commitment to social justice.
We have much of which to be proud, not in a boastful way but in a way that makes us feel as if our lives have purpose and importance. We have taken what our Creator has bestowed upon us and have dedicated our brains, our talents, our energies to help create a better world for all of God’s creatures.
More than ever this world needs our help. More than ever we need the will and commitment of the entire Jewish community. Hear the sound of the shofar and please, please answer the call.