Rosh Hashanah Morning Sermon 2012 / 5773

It is wonderful to see all of you this morning as we come together to welcome the new year and to celebrate its potential. It is also wonderful to have the opportunity to formally welcome Cantor Moses to her bimah, as she is now part of the TSTI family. I am excited to see the innovations she will roll out during the months and years to come. This morning, however, I want to discuss a few changes we are implementing immediately. They are changes I have long wanted to see made at TSTI.

First, beginning on Yom Kippur, seats in the sanctuary will be offered on a sliding price scale. Those seats with good sight-lines and easy access to the restrooms will be available for a surcharge.

Second, beginning this year, when assigning B’nai Mitzvah dates, those times of year when there are the fewest weather concerns, such as the early fall and late spring, will be available as part of a new premium temple membership.

And third, since there are multiple melodies for each prayer, and we all have different preferences, each week, those who plan to attend Shabbat services can determine which melody will be sung through an online auction.
And, beginning in 2013, we will have a similar online system to choose each week’s sermon topic.

I’m excited about these changes, and I hope you are too.

I am, of course, also kidding. Such things aren’t funny and we at TSTI would never implement such absurd changes. Then again, in today’s world, such grotesque policies are being implemented in more and more places. For, as Michael Sandel notes in his book What Money Can’t Buy:

There are some things money can’t buy, but these days, not many. Today, almost everything is for sale.

Here are a few examples he cites-

If you are in prison in Santa Anna California, you can now get a prison cell upgrade for just $82 per night.

If you are in Minneapolis and are driving alone, you can still use the carpool lane to save time. It will just cost you $8 per trip.

If you are a hunter in South Africa and you want to shoot one of the few remaining black rhinos, one of the most endangered species on the planet, it will cost you just $150,000.

And the list goes on… and on.

And don’t worry if you aren’t able to afford such luxuries, because just as there are new ways to spend money, there are also new ways to make it. For example,

Thanks to a recent campaign by Air New Zealand, you can now rent out your forehead or other body part as advertising space.

You can earn $500 or more by serving as a human guinea pig in a drug safety trial.

If you are willing to fight in a private army in Somalia or Afghanistan, you can earn up to $1000 per day. And to think the word mercenary used to have a negative connotation.

And if you are a second grader in an underachieving Dallas school, you can read a book and make two bucks. Yes, we are now paying kids to read.

As Sandel writes,

We live at a time when almost everything can be bought and sold.

He continues,

The most fateful change that unfolded during the past three decades was not an increase in greed. It was the expansion of markets and of market values into spheres of life where they [simply] don’t belong.

Sandel suggests we need to be concerned about such changes because they introduce an ever expanding degree of inequality. As he further notes –

We have drifted from having a market economy to being a market society. The difference is this: the market economy is a tool…  for organizing productive activity. [It is often a good tool and it works.] A market society [however] is a way of life in which market values seep into every aspect of the human endeavor.

In a market society, no matter where you are, no matter what you are doing, money is the bottom line. Period.

Unchecked, it can lead to an increasingly coldhearted society, one in which

we place policy before people,

earnings before individuals

and corporations before compassion.

It is in such a society that, for example,

Someone can save a life but get into trouble because doing so conflicts with company guidelines.

Just this year, in fact, a lifeguard saved a man’s life, but because it was against corporate policy to do so on that particular stretch of beach, he was summarily fired.

When contractual obligations take priority over human life, the market is in control and our priorities are skewed. It stands in stark contrast to pikuach nefesh, the principle in Jewish law that saving a human life overrides virtually any and every other consideration. (Source)

The Midrash relates that when Rabbi Joshua ben Levi went to Rome, he saw marble pillars covered with sheets, so they wouldn’t crack from the heat, nor freeze from the cold. He also saw poor people, with only a reed mats protecting themselves against the elements (Pesikta d’Rav Kahana 9).

The rabbi was struck by the stark contrast between what he saw in Rome and the Jewish values he embraced and taught, values that make people the most important consideration of all.

Our own Rabbi Herbert Weiner relates: “this is . . . the difference between Rome and Jerusalem. It is not that Rome did not value human life nor that Jerusalem did not value marble pillars, but the order of priority, what first and what is second, was off.”

Yes, marble pillars should be safeguarded, but the treatment of the poor has to come first. It didn’t in Rome and, increasingly, it does not in 2012 America. An America where, to quote Paul Krugman, “Compassion is out of fashion”. (source)

When the market drives social policy,

when we think only of ourselves

and we lose sight of our responsibilities to one another, things go awry. This approach may work in the short term, but eventually, we will all pay the price

Last summer, one of the presidential candidates told an audience that

It’s individuals and their entrepreneurship that have driven America. America is not a collective where we all work in a kibbutz… [], instead it’s individuals pursuing their dreams.

He’s not wrong. America is not a kibbutz. (In fact, having largely become privatized, a kibbutz is no longer a kibbutz.) And he is correct. The American entrepreneurial spirit has been key to our national achievement. But he’s wrong in that his statement focused only on the individual. And while America is not a collective, nor should it be, a basic sense of concern for one another is critical if we are to be more than a national corporation.
But too often, as soon as we begin to talk about our responsibility toward one another, there are those who immediately label it as socialism. And that misses the point.

You see, it isn’t socialism when we are concerned that children are going to bed hungry two miles from here.

And it isn’t socialism when we express concern that the most vulnerable in society have fewer opportunities than ever before.

And it isn’t socialism when we want our seniors to have access to medical care.

No, that isn’t socialism, that’s a society. And a society requires a balance between the individual and the collective. It requires us to, at some level, understand that we are ultimately responsible for one another. And that is what Judaism has always tried to teach.

And that is a message we are not hearing enough of in 2012 America.

There is a lot of individualism out there. There are also people who understand the need to provide a balance between the individual and the collective. And some of them, many of them, are part of the wealthiest 1%.

I recently watched some videos from Warren Buffet’s “Patriotic Millionaires” initiative. It is an initiative in which the wealthy call on the government to raise their taxes so that the poor and middle class are not additionally burdened. It was striking to hear what these wildly successful individuals had to say.

One said: “I’m a millionaire. My government gave me student loans and I got a great education. The small business administration lent money to my company which then made me millions. I want to give back.”

Another said: “I believe that in America the difference between the haves and the have nots might relate to material objects or private schools but it should never amount to meaning that some Americans should go without food, shelter or health care.”

Another said: “I’m a millionaire because of our society so I’m willing to invest in [our society].”

And another said: “We shouldn’t be wallowing in our riches while everybody else is suffering. It is simply unfathomable that we can be in this condition and not feel a responsibility. If you want to be self interested you better be self interested with wisdom and you better take care of the rest of the country.”

Now, none of these folks are giving up their wealth. Not one of them is becoming an ascetic. I suspect they all live in nice houses, drive nice cars, and take nice vacations. And all were more than happy to self-identify as rich. Most actually began with “I’m a millionaire…”

But watching the videos I was, time and again, struck by the fact that they all used words and phrases that have not been a regular part of our national discourse in recent years. Words like “responsibility” and phrases like “giving back”. And while you may or may not agree with their position on taxation, the idea that we plant seeds now for the future, that we arrived at this point because of those who came before us and, as a result, we must look out for those who follow us, is difficult to dismiss. It is also the most Jewish of mindsets.

Social conservatives often invoke Sodom and Gomorrah as a warning to us that those activities they deem inappropriate— often sexual— were the cause of that city’s downfall. By extension, they preach, that current behavior, often sexual, is the source of the troubles we now face. What is striking is that other than not welcoming strangers (Genesis 19:4–10), the Torah gives us few details about why Sodom and Gomorrah were actually condemned. Those details are filled in by later Jewish teachers, and they do not reference sexual behavior. No, they suggest that God’s decision to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah was due in part to their lack of generosity and caring: As the prophet Ezekiel teaches (16:49) “[the residents of Sodom and Gomorra] had plenty of bread and untroubled tranquility; yet they did not support the poor and needy.”

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin puts it more succinctly when he writes that from this we learn that “a society’s lack of charity makes it worthy of destruction.”

And it isn’t just charity. It’s social responsibility, as well.

As much as we love children, Elana and I decided many years ago not have kids. When we pay property tax each year, much of the money goes to the public school system. Elana and I will never see any personal return on our “investment”. Yet were we given the option to opt out, to choose not to support public education, we would not take it. The reason for this is simple. Elana and I are both products of the public school system. We want to make sure that children growing up today have the same benefits we had. Moreover, we understand that an educated populace is good for the country AND it is good for us. We feel a responsibility to our community and to society.

The midrash tells of a group of people traveling in a boat. One of them took a drill and began to make a hole beneath his seat.

“What are you doing?” his companions shouted.

“What concern is it of yours?” came the reply, “Am I not drilling under my own place?”

“But what happens to you,” came the reply, “Happens to us all.” (Quoted in Midrash Rabbah, Vayikra 4:6).

In the Torah God asks Cain where his brother Abel is to be found. Cain, of course, knows exactly where Able is. After all, he has just murdered him. God knows as well. After all, in the Biblical mind, God is both omni-potent and omniscient- all-powerful and all-knowing. Still, God asks the question and Cain replies, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

The answer, is, “YES Cain, you are your brother’s keeper. Yes Cain, you are responsible for him. Yes, Cain, your future is intertwined with Able’s.” But Cain misses the point. And too often, so do we.

An old tale tells of a son walking with his father. The boy is distressed as they pass hungry beggars in the street, see people with crippling illnesses, and witness other scenes of suffering. “This is terrible,” the boy says to his father. “How can God allow this? Why doesn’t He send help?”

To which the father replies… “He did. He sent you.”

Perhaps our ancestors said it best when they wrote in the Talmud, “If I am not for myself who will be for me?  If I am only for myself, what am I?”

Striking a balance between our individual interests and our responsibility to one another is the only way to build a society that is caring and compassionate. And that process begins with each and every one of us.

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