Rabbi Rosette Barron Haim
Rosh HaShanna 5774
I had been summoned to the court as a character witness for a friend. I was supposed to tell the court that the defendant was a good person and describe some of the good things the defendant had done that would contribute to others seeing a fuller picture of the person. I thought I could do that without reservation, yet I was beginning to feel nervous. How well did I really know this person? I could remember the time the defendant brought soup to a sick friend, and how the defendant frequently held the door open for the elderly. But did I know if the defendant was honest in business, faithful in relationships? It was almost like my mind was cross examining itself. Was there a time the defendant slipped up, got angry, over-reacted? No, I did not think the defendant would kill anyone in deed, but what about the occasional injuring of a person’s spirit with words. Was there the sin of coveting or jealousy that may have led to stealing another’s pride? Maybe the judge would show some compassion regardless of my testimony. I began to question the credibility of my testimony, and I realized my character would also be examined. As my mind raced full of thoughts about what kind of character evidence I would present, I heard my name. I was being called to the witness stand.
In the American judiciary system, we use “character evidence” to put a person’s actions into context, to create a broader picture of the person so that the judge or jury can then make a proper assessment. While in strict terms it is lawyers who make use of character evidence as they seek to defend their clients, the truth is we use it all the time. If a person comes in for a job interview, we ask for references. If we are asked to write a recommendation letter for someone, or if we even make a sidebar commentary about a person, we are in essence submitting character evidence into one person’s assessment of another. Character evidence attempts to establish by reputation or opinion that based on a person’s past performance, he or she will have a propensity to conform with that kind of behavior in the future.
And what about this thing called character? Derived from an ancient Greek word character refers to a mark impressed upon a coin. When I read that description, I immediately thought of a famous passage in the Talmud: “If a human being stamps several coins with the same die, they all resemble one another. But the Ruler of Rulers, the Holy One, Blessed be God stamps all human beings with the die of the first human created in God’s image; and yet not one of them resembles the other. (Mishna Sanhedrin4:5) Implied in this notion of character is our uniqueness; and created in God’s image gives rise to expectations of certain moral attributes. As we will hear throughout the High Holy Day liturgy, God is described as Adonai Ayl rachum, v’chanun, erech apayim v’ rav chesed…God is merciful and gracious, endlessly patient, abundant in kindness. Stamped with the God’s image, we, too, must strive to emulate God’s character: showing mercy, being gracious, patient and kind.
And when we fail? The liturgy of the season has us confess a litany of offenses in the formula “al cheyt shechatanu–for the sin which we have committed,” and we quickly realize this communal confession is merely a safe way to confront the sins which I have commited. The “I” becomes the “I”-of Integrity in my character.
Integrity is sometimes hard to define, but you know it when you see it and when it is absent. We don’t have to go to the headlines of New York’s Jewish politicians to get a lesson on integrity, we can find those lessons within ourselves. A dictionary definition describes integrity as the “steadfast adherence to a strict code of moral or ethical values; incorruptibility; a quality or state of being whole…complete.” This definition points to the familiar Hebrew word—shalom. So often we translate shalom as “hello, goodbye and peace.” But more than that, the Hebrew root of shin, lamed, mem, yields the word shalem, which means “whole.” Integrity is being shalem—feeling whole—from the moment we say hello to the world, to our final goodbye, so that we truly rest in peace. And until then, every night as we lay our head down on our pillow, our mind plays with the character evidence of the days procedings.
Now imagine that you have been summoned as a character witness to a unique kind of courtroom—the sanctuary. No subpoena arrives at your door; instead you are summoned by the sound of the shofar. The date for your appearance is Rosh Hashanah. Rosh Hashanah goes by many names, one of which is Yom HaDin/The Day of Judgment. This is the day on which God metaphorically sits on the Divine bench while books containing the deeds of every human being is reviewed. It’s as if God, the Judge of All, weighs each of our deeds on the Scales of Justice deciding into which book to inscribe our name. The tradition says: Into the Book of Life are immediately inscribed the few who are completely righteous. The Book of Death is reserved for those who are completely evil. And for the rest? Our deeds teeter on the balance. On Yom HaDin/on this Day of Judgment, the defendant is You; the attorney for the defense –You; the prosecution—You; the character evidence—your deeds. You cannot lie, evade or deny anything, for you realize the Judge knows all anyway, for the Judge is YOU too. Even as the metaphor of the season has us consider how God will decide, it becomes clear that it is we, we—ourselves who seal our fate not so much for “who shall live and who shall die,” but for the kind of life we will experience. Because we know who we are, this day gives us the opportunity to throw ourselves on the mercy of the court of self-judgment. On this Yom haDin, every human being put forth his or her personal character evidence, and submits their personal good deeds for evaluation according to the highest standard for integrity. God’s “Book of Life” is becomes our “Book of Character.”
As we take the stand with evidence in support and against ourself, we realize our actions belong in a larger context. This day is also known as Yom HaTeruah—the Day for the sounding of the Shofar. Called to testify on our behalf and to put our being into a broader picture is the ram’s horn. Rabbi Abuhu asked, “Why do we blow shofar on the horn of a ram? And he replied, “God announces, ‘Blow before me on the horn of a ram so that I may remember the Akeydat Yitzchak, the Binding of Isaac, when Abraham in complete faith was willing to bind his beloved son Isaac; and I will consider it as if you performed their deed, and it was you who was willing to sacrifice before me. I will remember the ram caught in the thicket and replace your deeds with the offering of the sound of the shofar.”
The shofar is meant to be the convincing evidence that not only on account of our own good deeds and character traits do we seek mercy in the Court of Judgment, but we submit the merit of those who came before us as our own. There is profound truth to be found in the reading before the Kaddish which claims “What they did is part of what we have become.” These words are not just for those who have passed away in our immediate generations, but for the merit derived from our ancestors and bequethed to us. The shofar is our ancient symbol that reminds us that we are part of a great people whose historic good reputation has shaped us.
The shofar calls are traditionally heard while in a standing position. Is it to show honor or respect to this ancient symbol? I don’t think so—that would be idolatry. I think we stand because the shofar is a call to transcend the moral relativism of our day, and to stand up for enduring beliefs and values—to stand for something as did our ancestors. I once heard it put like this “Unless you are willing to stand for something, you stand for nothing.” The shofar summons us to enter our personal courtroom to examine our character evidence and to do so with the whole of the Jewish people. The hollow, piercing sound of the shofar which links us to our people’s past, and reverberates in our soul at this season, is a call to make known what we stand for and what we won’t stand for. Our future and the future of our people depends on our knowing! The shofar is our call to be clear as we answer “What are you willing to take the stand to defend?”
On this Day of Judgment, the shofar summons us to stand in defense of our own personal lives, and it invites us to submit in our defense the merit of the whole of the ancestral line of the Jewish people. Moreover, the shofar is a call to serve as character witnesses for the State of the Jewish People.
During these Days of Awe, the State of Israel approaches the remarkable anniversary of 40 years since the Yom Kippur War. The number 40 is significant in Jewish tradition. If we consider that 40 is the number of weeks of gestation for a full term baby, then we understand that in biblical parlance it means a moment of birth or rebirth. For example, in the story of Noah’s ark when God realized that the human beings had become corrupt and were not living up to the notion of being with God’s character, God salvaged the animals and Noah’s family, then made it rain for 40 day-sy, day-sys. While it is a child’s favorite fanciful story of the animals marching in two-by-two, it is God’s dramatic “do over,” and we have a transformative moment when the world is recreated. Similarly, when Moses stayed on Mt. Sinai for 40 days, then came down carrying two tablets, the Law transformed the the Jewish people and the world. Forty is also the number of years the Israelites wandered in the desert until they were prepared for the transformative moment of reentering the Promised Land as a free people. Forty means more than just a long time in the biblical tradition; each time forty is mentioned what follows is a significant transformation in moral character and world order.
To serve as good character witnesses for the State of Israel today, we need to better understand the transformation which has occured 40 years after the Yom Kippur War. We begin with a review of a few facts about the Yom Kippur War itself. In 1973 Yom Kippur fell on October 6. While Jews were honoring the holiest day of Jewish year, Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq led Arab nations in a surprise attack against Israel. The Arabs made a significant miscalculation in thinking it would be difficult for Israel to round up the troops. Infact, because the civilian army soldiers were mainly in synagogues, word spread quickly that they should report to their units. Nonetheless, Israel’s very survival was in peril. Unique to this War as opposed to the War of Independence in 1948 and the Six Day War of 1967, was the massive U.S. resupply of planes and weapons which helped Israel to victory. As outlined in the book Defining Moments: Stories of Character, Courage and Leadership (p. 266), in that moment it became “clear to the pro-Israeli community in the United States that the center stage for protecting Israel’s interests [had] shifted from the financial to the political arena.” Taking responsibility for Israel’s lack of preparedness, within the year Golda Meir resigned as Israeli Prime Minister. Additionally, King Hussein renounced Jordanian claims to the West Bank to open the way for the PLO to establish a Palestinian state there.
Since then and to date we have what Middle East negotiator Aaron Miller describes as “Long movies” –The Israel-Palestinian Peace process, The Arab Srping which has become a conflict for all seasons, the Iran Nuclear threat, and now Syria’s use of chemical weapons. The stakes are high as nacent democratically elected rulers who lack the understanding of essential principles like majority rule with minority rights, have compromised the gold standard for the region. Indeed, the regional upheaval approaches almost biblical proportion.
As Israel leans into the next forty years hard lessons have been learned and new character traits developed. Israel atones for the sin of complacency, of lowering her guard after the Holocaust and not recognizing that the Jews still live in a hostile world. Forty years after the Yom Kippur War while there are more moving parts than ever before, Israel remains a beacon of democracy in the Middle East and a partner in shared values with the United States.
Speaking at an AIPAC Policy Conference (AIPAC standing for The American Israel Public Affairs Committee) Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared “Israel is not what’s wrong with the Middle East, it’s what’s right about the Middle East.” To offer character evidence in support of what’s right about Israel, we might call Warren Buffet, considered the most successful investor of this century, to speak to Israel’s stability and integrity. But actions speak louder than words. In 2006, Buffet made a highly touted initial investment of four billion dollars in the Israeli tool firm Iscar. It was the first time in Berkshire Hathaway’s history that it acquired a company outside of the US. Shortly thereafter, the Lebanon War broke out. Understandably, Buffet became oncerned about the war’s impact on production, Buffet was told there would be no interruption in their deliveries, and with workers’ families were moved out of harms way, production continued even ahead of schedule. Consequently this past May, Buffet invested another¬¬ two billion dollars to take complete ownership of the company. Unequivical in his testimony, he declared “Israel is the leading, largest and most promising investment hub outside the United States.”
What’s right with Israel is its status as an incubater for promising technology which is changing the world. Israrel’s drip irrigation technology, watering each plant with minimum evaportaion of reused grey water, is feeding the hungry on every continent. Medical breakthroughs every day coming out of Israel are saving lives regardless of the country of their origin and their enmity toward Israel. Even Syrian patients brought to Israeli hospitals for treatment recognize this truth. The transformation is not only to be found in the burgeoning industrial technology, but as well in the nurtured individual spirit. Any myriad of companies and people can testify that modern Israel is the fulfillment of ancient Israel’s mission to be a light unto the nations.
And to shine that light brighter and shed a wider swarth, American young adults between the ages of 18 thru 26 years are enriching their lives and serving as key character witnesses by claiming a free trip to Israel as their Birthright. Studies show that one of the most important elements of Jewish identity is an affinity for Israel. Like the biblical Joshua and Caleb sent to scout out the land and bringing back good reports, hundreds of thousands of young people have taken advantage of this wonderful opportunity. Digging up pottery shards that have not seen the light of day, or been held in Jewish hands in thousands of years, Birthright participants are reclaiming the Jewish people’s love of Israel and returning with reports of enjoying Israel’s happening nightlife, swimming in its glorious waters and meeting its remarkable people. Moreover, they are inspiring their parents to conquer their fears of traveling to the birthplace of their Jewish heritage. (Incedently, registration for Birthright winter trips opens in seven days! And closes almost immediately with the huge numbers applying for a place.)
While our young people see their birthright as an opportunity for free play, for their Israeli counterparts, their birthright comes at great personal expense of time and treasure, and and tests their talents to survive. Some of you may remember me telling you that on one of our Temple Family trips to Israel, I took our group to a shabbat service at a Reform synagogue in the suburbs of Tel Aviv. Near the end of the service the rabbi invited to the bima parents with their 18 year old sons and daughters who were about to begin their military service in the Israel Defense Force. As these parents stood next to their children in front of the Torah, they stood up for their belief in the land of Israel. And even though few in our group understood the words those parents spoke to their children, no one could mistake the mixture of fear and pride in every parent’s eyes as they prayed for their child’s safe return.
Fast forward to our Temple just last month. A recent program with our Federation afforded us the opportunity to have what’s known as by the letters Shin shin—which stands for Shnat Sherut meaning Year of Service wherein an 18 year old Israeli volunteers in the US before going into the IDF. Our Shin Shin, a young man named Ziv, helped to create programs to bring the land, culture and people of Israel close to our youth…and in the process he got to enjoy his youth for a bit longer too—he even got a speeding ticket on his way to Temple.. Recalling what I’d seen in Israel a few years earlier, on Ziv’s last shabbat here, I called him along with his American parents—Scott and Ann Garson and Cantor Kathy and Rommy Sebo to the bima. With tearfilled eyes, we offered him the blessing of our tradition. I think our congregation understood the power of that moment too. Kathy later shared with me, that Ziv told her, he would always remember that moment, and made her promise that if anything happened to him, she’d do his eulogy. There is great irony in calling the year here in America his sh’nat serut—a year of service.
What then is our shnat sherut—our year of service offered in return? If in our generation we forget the longing of our ancestors and are reliant solely on the news to shape our views of this land –a land precious to our history, the guardian of our Jewish identity and the source of our feeling confident in the larger world, how will we give credible character evidence? If we allow the conversation to become a “you people” conversation instead of one about “our people;” if we forget that every step was promised in the Bible, that at every turn there is so much beauty, and that there the vibrant heart of the Jewish people is beating to more than the rhythm of Hava Nagillah, then how will we actualize our fundamantal teaching that Kol Yisrael aravin zeh b’zeh, that as Jews we are responsible for each other. At this juncture in history, I believe we serve Israel when we take the stand in Israel’s defense.
And who is the judge before whom we must stand to give testimony? Is it the United Nations where even the Secretary General Bon Ki-moon recently admitted that Israel is discriminated against; where Israel is branded with characterizations and labels that are not even used to describe the world’s worst regimes? Each year when we take the Confirmation Class to NYC, we make a special stop at the United Nations for two reasons. We want our young people to appreciate their heritage as members of this congregaton of Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver who in 1947 argued before the United Nations for the establishment of the State of israel. And we want them to recognize how Israel is represented: to understand the isolation Israel faces amongst the other 192 member states which have passed more anti-Israel resolutions than resolutions condemning genocide, warfare, and human rights violations throughout the world. We want them to see the Palestinian propoganda in the halls of the United Nations, and comprehend that there are judges biased against Israel who call upon Israel to make unreasonable tangible concessions of Land for an untenable nebulous peace. Forty years after the Yom Kippur War, we have entered a new chapter in Middle East, a chapter where careless ink serves like a consent form for violence and it is signed in halls where justice once held sway. We want our young people and ourselves to stand in support of the fact that Israel is a viable democracy which must be able to defend its own borders with its own children. Visiting Israel can be expensive, but we must still help Israel by learning about its struggles, its problems, its very reason for being, and educating ourselves about our responsibility to this distant land.
We Jews live in what can rightly be considered the most fortunate time for our people. Our justice system upholds the principle of “innocent until proven guilty,” allowing us to live with a feeling of safety and security. Like Queen Esther of the Purim story, we have influence in some of the highest places. But if you this remember favorite Biblical story, then you’ll remember that while in Persia, she lived in the palace and enjoyed a wonderful life, she was afraid to go to the King to ask for the protection of her people. However, addressing Esther’s reluctance to intervene, her uncle Mordecai encouraged her saying “Who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis.” Perhaps we, too, are granted our position to be an advocate for Israel in just such a time.
And remember the biblical story when the Israelites were about to cross over the Jordan River to settle in the land, all the twelve tribes were supposed to go forward to engage in battle, but the two tribes of Reuven, Gad and half tribe of Manasseh said they wanted to stay back, that they liked it on that side of the river. Moses told them they could settle there, but only after joining with the rest of the tribes to secure the land. We, who have settled on this side of the ocean, do not have to feel compelled to uproot ourselves, but neither are we absolved from our responsibility to our people and our spiritual homeland. (Wolpe, Floating Takes Faith, 30).
Recall that when our United States Army has been at war, we, who do not engage in battle, undertake a whole array of active ways to support our troops. While we may not put on the uniform of an Israeli soldier either, we must take up their battle in every way possible, from afar supporting the troops through such organizations as the Friends of the Israel Defense Force; or invest in Israel in ways that bond us to Israel’s security. There is an alphabet soup of ways to serve Israel. And in particular when it comes to support and advocating to the ruling powers of our country, our efforts are enhanced though AIPAC–the American Israel Public Affairs Committee which helps to advance the relationship between the United States and Israel through our congressional leaders, and with our help leverages more than $3.1 billion of support for the development of necessary weaponry like the Iron Dome which has helped to save thousands of lives in these past few months, and who knows how many more might be saved in these next few days. AIPAC advocates and I believe, a secure peace is best protected by a strong collaboration between the United States and Israel. Ours is the task to ensure this friendship that rises above personalities in favor of perseverance that strengthens both countries in their shared efforts to counteract the great enemies of civilization. Our united voice of reason and rational understanding of the region must serve as credible character witnesses to counter the delegitimization campaign that confounds our students on college campuses and confuses our elected officials in Washington, and even ourselves. In taking the stand as good character witnesses for Israel, we encourage others to stand with us for Israel’s fair treatment.
When our name is called to the witness stand, let us advocate for others to see a fuller picture of Israel and act as the protectors of the country that shares our fundamental vales. When we are cross examined by those who would prosecute Israel, let us be clear that Israel has demonstrated by past performance that she stands ready to undertake the heart wrenching action of uprooting her people for the sake of peace; we can assert without reservation that Israel upholds critical standards between wrong and right in a region that has few standards for integrity elsewhere. Let the ram’s horn be our call to action to work for redemption of all children sacrificed on the altar of war.
When we rise for the shofar sounds this Rosh Hashanna, let us know with certainty what it is we stand for. Let us answer the piercing call upholding the good character with which we were created and clinging to the integrity of our deeds. Let the shofar call us to cherish the merit of our ancestors and to defend those principles that have given us the courage to celebrate our Jewish selves even in America. Let the sound of the shofar call us to action in making known what we stand for and what we won’t stand for when it comes to preserving our ancestral homeland in this modern era. Now is the time to dedicate ourselves anew to be good character witnesses for ourselves, for the future of our people, and for the State of Israel.
As we come before God, the Judge of all Judges, we beg:
Remember us for Life O Sovereign Who desires life, and inscribe us in the Book of Life –The Book of Character for Your sake, O loving God. We pray for life not just in length of years, but a life of mission and purpose that we may we work for peace, for a feeling of shalem, of wholeness in our world. Amen