No Apology Necessary



Rabbi Rosette Barron Haim

The Temple-Tifereth Israel

“Dear Aly,
      I want to tell you about how you became the hero of a gym full of Israeli soldiers: The same Israeli soldiers who have to deal with Iran’s nuclear threat to the Jewish state; the same ones who serve two-to-three years of their lives; because
we have to because there’s no one else that would do it besides us.”

This is how a letter posted on the facebook page of Olympic gold medalist Aly Raisman, the American and Jewish gymnast who performed to the tune of Hava Nagila in London, began. It’s from an officer in the Israel Defense Forces. It continues like this:
     “You picked a song for your floor routine in the Olympics that every Jewish kid knows, whether their families came from the shtetls of Eastern Europe, the Asian steppes of Azerbaijan, the mountains of Morocco or the Kibbutzim of northern
Israel. It’s that song that drew almost everyone at the Israeli army base gym to the TV as soon as the report about you came on the news this morning. After showing your floor exercise to Hava Nagila, the announcer told about your gold medal with unmasked pride, and of your decision to dedicate it to the Israeli athletes who were killed in the Munich Olympics in 1972.
     There were some tough people at that gym, Aly. Men and Women, Battalion Commanders from Intelligence, Captains from the navy, Lieutenants from the Armored Corps and more. You probably understand that words like ‘bravery’ and ‘heroism’ carry a lot of weight coming from them, as does a standing ovation (even from the people doing ab exercises.) There was nothing apologetic about what you did. For so long we’ve had to apologize for who we are: for how we dress, for our beliefs, for the way we look. It seems like the International Olympic Committee wanted to keep that tradition. Quiet, Jews! Keep your tragedy on the
sidelines. Don’t disturb our party.
     They didn’t count on an 18 year-old girl in a leotard. There wasn’t one person at the gym who didn’t know what it was like to give back to our people, not one who didn’t know what happened to the good people who died in 1972, not one who didn’t feel personally insulted by their complete neglect
in the London Olympics, the 40 year anniversary of their deaths, and not one who didn’t connect with your graceful tribute in their honor.
     Thank you for standing up against an injustice that was done to our people. As I was walking back to my machine at the gym, I caught one of the officers give a long salute to your image on television. I think that says it all.

     Sincerely, Dan Yagudin Officer, Israeli Defense Force”

Today is Yom Kippur; it’s the day on which we often talk about making apologies to the people whom we have hurt with our words and our deeds. It takes a lot of courage to return to these people and to ask for their forgiveness.

The words “I’m sorry” are perhaps the hardest words to say in the English language. We, adults, practice teaching this expression to our children so the lesson will carry through into adult life. You, younger people sometimes have it easier at this time of year because you have your parents prodding you—pushing you to say you are sorry.

Still sometimes we make excuses for why we should not apologize. We say things like there’s no opportunity, She deserved it! I’ve never been treated that way before, how dare they!  It was his fault! We are reluctant to apologize because it puts us at risk. To make an apology is to do two opposite kinds of things at the same time. We make our self a little smaller and at the same time become braver so that we can apologize and fulfill the meaning of this day, and fix the wrongs we commit on any day.

While we know we should apologize for many things we have done, we sometimes also make excuses and therefore fail to apologize—even though we know it is the right thing to do. But there are moments in your life when it takes even more courage NOT to apologize! Today I want to talk to you about NOT apologizing for YOUR JEWISH SELF!

As you probably remember from this summer, one young woman in particular, Jewish-American gymnast Aly Raisman dazzled audiences in the arena and around the world with her floor routine set to the crowd-pleasing “Hava Nagila.”  It was as if when they put the shiny gold medal around her neck, they were also placing on her a spectacular Jewish star.  It was a moment of pride for every Jewish boy and girl, who had ever danced to Hava Nagilah at his or her bar/bar-mitzvah and every couple who danced it at their wedding, and the many who have danced it in the streets of Jerusalem on Israel’s Independence Day. As one commentator noted: Aly’s victory with that particular song was the cheer that filled the moment of silence that wasn’t for the 40th anniversary of the Munich Games. It was as if the 11 Israeli athletes and officials and a West German police officer who were massacred by Palestinian radicals—it was as if they all stood like parallel pillars next to her. It was as if she lit the number 11 like Shabbat candles and made them shine brightly as a memory of hope for Jews all over the world and for all the nations of the world to see. In that moment, Aly did not apologize for being Jewish. Rather she did the brave thing to fix the wrong committed by those who would insult the memory of the Israelis and the Jewish people. As she stood on the medal platform she demonstrated the moral courage: the kind of courage it takes to stand up for your beliefs even when the whole world seems to be against you.

In that moment it was as if Moses was passing the mantel of leadership to Aly with the same words that he used when he charged Joshua as the next leader of The Jewish People: Moses said to Joshua “chazak v’amatz—Be strong and of good courage.” Joshua became a leader of our people in a crucial time as they were about to go into the Promised Land, and Joshua would need courage to deal with the battles ahead and to make the land blossom. Of course, they were entering what is today the Land of Israel, a land blossoming out of a desert, a land that I hope each of you will have the chance to visit soon because it is our holy land filled with both history and fun. When you kayak down the Jordan River, you’ll appreciate even more what it must have been like for the ancient Israelites to cross over that same river 3000 years ago. This past summer a group of our Temple families kayaked down that very Jordan River. Afterward we went zip-lining into the river. Let me tell you the people from 10 years old to 70 years old exhibited great courage in that moment too! It made me think of a movie I saw–“We Bought a Zoo!” –maybe you saw it too. One line in that movie has stuck with me. It went something like this “Sometimes all you need is twenty seconds of courage…And I promise you, something great will come of it.”  

Maybe it took Aly more than 20 seconds of courage to make the selection of Hava Nagilah, but certainly something great has come out of it for her and for the Jewish people. Less than 20 seconds after she began her performance a whole stadium, and all those watching on around the world began clapping to the rhythm of a song that has lifted our people from darkness to light. Taking on the mantle of the Jewish people, she brought justice to a situation that others would just as soon have forgotten.

Aly, without making any apology for her strong Jewish identity, made her mark with the song Hava Nagilah—with a song that simply says “Let us rejoice and be happy, Let us sing and be happy; awake my brothers and sisters with a happy heart.” According to some sources this melody began in the shtetls of Eastern Europe as a Hassidic niggun—a melody of joy without words. Later the words were written by Abraham Idelson, and it became the song of the Kibbutznicks as they settled Palestine and danced in joy at the establishment of the State of Israel. It’s a kind of anthem of Jewishness as it tells our long history: a song of hope, even–as one contemporary Jewish singer explained, “even as it has some bitter chords.” (Danny Massing). When we heard it at the Olympics it reminded us of all that! It made us think back through the ages of all the times we’ve needed a song of celebration to lift our Jewish spirits and give us the courage to continue.

Courage—“chazak v’amatz–be strong and of good courage”—these are the same words we use when we call a 13 year old boy or girl to recite a blessing over the Torah. Like the Olympic athletes preparing for their sport, these bar and bat-mitzvah students have spent years and months practicing so they could reach for their personal gold! They have had to make sacrifices of their time, focus their energy on their goal. Sometimes they’ve even had to miss sport practices, or sit out a show or a game to figure out the complicated schedule of their Jewish lives. They have had to call upon their strength of character and good courage to tell their coaches that their Judaism is important to them. The sages say—kasha l’hiyot Yehudi—Sometimes it’s tough to be a Jew! A lot is required of us!!

But you see, unlike Aly, most of us will probably not be a gold medal contender at our extra-curricular sport or after school involvements. However, each and every one of us from young people to grown ups has the critical responsibility of wearing a gold medal for Judaism. Each of us must constantly be reaching for the Jewish standard of excellence which will be a blessing for us and bring us honor personally, and also represent our tradition to our guests of family, and friends, some for whom the Jewish ceremonies may be their first experience of Judaism. And each of us is also representing Judaism for the world to see what we value.

As each individual steps up to profess his or her commitment to our Jewish tradition—to our God and our people–we are making a pledge similar to the one that the Israeli soldiers make as they pledge to protect the Land of Israel for all our people. Thankfully, we do not pick up guns to protect the Land, but we must, therefore, do our part to protect the spirit of the Jewish people. It is a pledge we make that remains at our core all our days. Studying Jewish traditions, standing on the bima for a bar/bat-mitzvah and for your confirmation, sitting at your Shabbat or holiday table at home, exhibiting the values of tzedakah and gimilut chasadim—giving of our hearts, these are like being on the medal platform of Jewish life. This is the way we protect the continuity of our tradition. And what is as important as standing on the platform for special moments, is what happens the day after them.  

You know a lot of athletes have won medals, and then after they get their picture on the box of Wheaties cereal or on the cover of Sports Illustrated Magazine, then they kind of fade away from our memory. But I think Aly is going to be unique, because she was not just an athlete; she unapologetically carried her Judaism like a flag for all to see. And similarly, as each young person maintains his or her commitment to their Judaism, their glory will not fade. Think of how when you sit at the holiday table celebrating Jewish moments or when you make a blessing over the Torah, you are saying the same blessings just like your parents, grandparents, and great grandparents have been doing all the way back over 2000 years. Their influence remains a part of the person you have become.

There are things we have done for which we are required to apologize— even if we are reluctant to do so–especially in this season. However, no apology is ever necessary for being Jewish. We should be proud of all the opportunities available to us as Americans, but let us not forget that we are Jewish too. When we stand up for our right to uphold our commitment to our Jewish way of life, let it be with joy in our hearts. Let us call upon our sacred courage to proudly stand up for Jews all over the world!

When you hear the song Hava Nagilah play at your bar or bat-mitzvah or at your wedding, and you are put on chairs and lifted up high in the air, let it be because you have lifted your Jewish self high in the air for all to see. As you are holding onto the chair for dear life—with your 20 seconds of courage, let it be because you lift high your values and you hold tightly to them. Let it be because you have made the courageous choices which will represent yourself well, and in so doing represent your Jewish community well, and thus you shall be a light unto all the nations of the world. May you always sing of your Jewish self with pride and find great joy in this new year. Amen.

Let’s join together in joy and sing a little bit of Hava Nagillah together (American Girl doll Molly attached to a chair wearing a Jewish star is hoisted in the air as all sing together.)