Kol Nidrei – The Shoot that Rises Up

Congregation Beth Israel
Tuesday, September 18, 2018 | 10 Tishrei, 5779

I do not have a green thumb. I’m fairly certain that any plant for which I have ever been responsible has had its lifespan cut drastically short. When I first moved to Jacksonville four years ago, Naomi’s parents sent me a plant as a housewarming gift and jokingly told me it was a test to see how well I did taking care of something. At least I think it was a joke. Thankfully, they were willing to overlook the results of that test as the plant had a longer life than usual, but still not very long.

Somehow, both Naomi’s and my parents have yet to pick up on this fact (until they read this of course), and still regularly buy flowers, plants, or herbs for us whenever they come to visit. To be sure, we are grateful for these gestures and love the way our house looks for maybe 10 days, but beyond that, well…

If you were to drive by our house right now, you’d see one of those gifts hanging on our front porch. It’s dead. It’s been dead for weeks. At least I’m pretty sure it’s dead. But something amazing keeps happening to this plant. A few weeks will go by and through none of my own effort, enough sun will hit the plant and enough rain will drop down off the roof, that a single flower will bloom and sprout up from its departed cousins. A single blooming flower, growing up above a sea of brown leaves. 

Every time this happens I am absolutely amazed. I was convinced the entire plant was dead, but each time a single sprout keeps coming back. I asked someone about this and they explained to me the concept of perennials, plants that grow and regrow every year as opposed to annuals which bloom only once. Maybe some of you are familiar with this.  I remain unconvinced. There has to be something more to it. There has to be something to the idea that we can be convinced something is long departed, gone from our world, only to see it sprout back to life before our very eyes.

***

I have lived a very comfortable life. In my 34 years I’ve lived in beautiful suburbs, exciting cities, received an outstanding education at all levels of schooling, and have been fortunate enough to find jobs in two different fields. I really cannot think of any opportunities that I’ve been denied. The fact that I can say this, as a Jew, in America, in 2018, is really not surprising. But in many ways it should be. It was only 75 years ago that 6 million of our brothers and sisters, ⅓ of the entire Jewish population of the world was systematically exterminated. It’s only 100 years ago that our ancestors fled their communities in Eastern Europe. These catastrophes, these incidents of complete moral failure are not part of ancient history, although there are plenty of examples there too. These are recent failures, happening just yesterday in the big picture, so the fact that we sit here as comfortable as we are, is miraculous.

And we are quite comfortable. Jews in America are welcomed into all areas of life, into industries of all kinds including public office. In many ways, we are overrepresented in the areas of success. We have it made! As I learned in school growing up, anti-Semitism is part of history, not the present. It’s over. It’s dead. Anti-Semitism is no different than the dead plant on my front porch. And it isn’t. Because anti-Semitism too has a way of sprouting up when we think it’s gone.

We don’t have to look very hard today to find examples of anti-Semitism all around us. In North Carolina, Missouri, and California, white-supremacists and Holocaust deniers are running for office in state legislatures. (Russel Walker, Steve West, John Fitzgerald). According to the Anti-Defamation League, “There were 1,986 anti-Semitic incidents reported across the United States in 2017, including physical assaults, vandalism, and attacks on Jewish institutions.” This marked an increase of 57% from 2016, the largest single-year increase on records going back to the 1970s. “Every part of the country was affected, with an incident reported in all 50 states for the first time in at least a decade.”

We watched in horror at the images coming out of Charlottesville, VA, where just about year ago, hundreds of white nationalists proudly marched through town, unashamed of who they were, their faces and identities proudly on display. Likewise, in Whitefish, Montana, the part-time home of Richard Spencer, a dispute with a local jewish realtor led to the publishing of her address in the Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website, along with the address of Rabbi Francine Roston, a Conservative rabbi who had recently relocated to Whitefish after serving communities here in New Jersey. With her address publicly known, Rabbi Roston began receiving messages filled with racial slurs and images saying Jews should head back to the ovens. She filed numerous police reports, installed a home security system, and even decided to get firearm training and purchased her first handgun. Thankfully, the threats have not yet been acted on, but the message is loud and clear, and the fear they created still remains.

Even here in our own backyard, an explosive device was found at B’nai Abraham Cemetery in Newark just on Sunday morning. The Essex County bomb squad responded and promptly and safely disposed of the device. Even though the device could not have been detonated as constructed, and there has been no clear indication that this was a targeted hate crime, this incident still reminds us of the real dangers that exist.

This is not just an American problem either. In England, billboards began appearing a few weeks ago saying “Israel is a racist endeavor.” According to a survey published last week, 85% of British Jews consider the leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn to be anti-Semitic. If 85% of Jews agree on anything, we better start listening.  These realities prompted a “Stop anti-Semitism” rally to be organized in Manchester on Sunday with hundreds in attendance. A rally, protesting anti-semitism, in England, in 2018. 

Last Thursday, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks spoke in the British House of Lords addressing this resurgence of anti-Semitism.

“The greatest danger any civilisation faces is when it suffers from collective amnesia. We forget how small beginnings lead to truly terrible endings. A thousand years of Jewish history in Europe added certain words to the human vocabulary: forced conversion, inquisition, expulsion, ghetto, pogrom, Holocaust. Once hate goes unchecked, the road to tragedy is short.

My Lords, it pains me to speak about antisemitism, the world’s oldest hatred. But I cannot keep silent. One of the enduring facts of history is that most antisemites do not think of themselves as antisemites. We don’t hate Jews, they said in the Middle Ages, just their religion. We don’t hate Jews, they said in the nineteenth century, just their race. We don’t hate Jews, they say now, just their nation-state.”

Rabbi Sacks raises many important concerns here. That so quickly after anti-Semitism led to our greatest tragedy, it is sprouting up once again. That even with what may seem like small beginnings, terrible endings are not far away. And, perhaps most importantly, that anti-Semitism takes a variety of shapes. As Rabbi Sacks said, today, hatred of Israel is frequently cover for hatred of Jews. To be clear, it is ok to criticize Israel’s actions, I spoke about this on Rosh Hashanah. But to criticize and demonize Israel for existing crosses a line into anti-Semitism. A line that today’s anti-Semites love to hide behind. An editorial in the Los Angeles Times just this past weekend argued that not all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic. Ok, that’s fine. But when the editorial states that “opposing Israel’s right to exist” is a position “that may be held by many people for many reasons, including people who are not anti-Semitic,” this too crosses a line. When the only modern state whose existence is regularly called into question is also the only Jewish state, something feels very uncomfortable. 

As Rabbi Sacks continued, “Antisemitism, or any hate, become dangerous when three things happen. First: when it moves from the fringes of politics to a mainstream party and its leadership. Second: when the party sees that its popularity with the general public is not harmed thereby. And three: when those who stand up and protest are vilified and abused for doing so. All three factors exist in Britain now. I never thought I would see this in my lifetime. That is why I cannot stay silent. For it is not only Jews who are at risk. So too is our humanity.”

We too cannot stay silent for these factors are unfortunately growing here in America as well. While it is still largely contained to the fringes of the political spectrum, on both sides, right and left, there is greater and greater acceptance of anti-Semitic views and anti-Semites themselves. Many love to claim that the threat of anti-Semitism is far worse coming from the other side of the aisle, but if we’re debating whose anti-Semitism is worse, maybe our problems are worse than we thought.

That’s the thing about anti-Semitism though. It’s difficult to judge just how serious the situation is. As it survives below the surface, seemingly extinct and quiet for long periods, we never can be sure if the inevitable sprouting will be just a lone plant or if it will grow into full thicket of weeds. We never know that is, until it is too late.

It’s also disheartening trying to figure out what to do. As Rabbi Angela Buchdahl of Central Synagogue in Manhattan observed, “We can’t win. If we don’t complain, nothing happens. And if we make a fuss, we’re accused of abusing our disproportionate power and influence – which is exactly how Jews have been slandered for centuries. Unfortunately, (we may have) begun to internalize this prejudice. And it can make us hesitant to stand up for ourselves.”

This evening marks the fifth Kol Nidrei on which I’m speaking as a rabbi. (There are a few more if you count rabbinical school) Looking back at my sermons from previous years, I tend to speak about something more hopeful, something that can set our tone and direct our focus for the remaining hours of Yom Kippur. I’ve spoken about the wonder of visiting Israel, the wonder of seeing our world from space, the wonder of seeing our world from here on Earth, and the wonder of seeing my son for the first time. But on this year, on this occasion, my sense of wonder is much more a sense of wondering what happens if these disturbing trends continue.

But, even amid this darkness there is also good news, because anti-Semitism is not all that survives beneath the surface and grows up again.

וְיָצָא חֹטֶר מִגֵּזַע יִשָׁי וְנֵצֶר מִשָּׁרָשָׁיו יִפְרֶה׃

Isaiah 11
1 But a shoot shall grow out of the stump of Jesse, A twig shall sprout from his stock. 2 The spirit of the LORD shall alight upon him: A spirit of wisdom and insight, A spirit of counsel and valor, A spirit of devotion and reverence for the LORD. 3… He shall not judge by what his eyes behold, Nor decide by what his ears perceive. 4 Thus he shall judge the poor with equity And decide with justice for the lowly of the land. 

This passage from the Prophet Isaiah is often pointed to as the beginning of Messianic imagery, the Mashiach. The “anointed one” who tradition teaches will ultimately lead us to redemption. 

The passage continues: 
6 The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, The leopard lie down with the kid; The calf, the beast of prey, and the fatling together, With a little boy to herd them. 7 The cow and the bear shall graze, Their young shall lie down together; And the lion, like the ox, shall eat straw… 9 In all of My sacred mount Nothing evil or vile shall be done; For the land shall be filled with devotion to the LORD As water covers the sea.

It’s fitting that this passage also begins with the image of a single shoot rising out of a stump – a single shoot of life coming forth from something seemingly already dead, because this has been the reality of so much of our Jewish history. What if instead of reading these verses about a single person, we read them about a single people, our people. Our collective story is exactly this – every time they think we’re just another stump, a dead plant to forget about on the front porch, our shoots rise again and we survive.

When Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians and our entire way of life was uprooted, our shoot rose up. When the Greeks desecrated the Temple, the Maccabees led a revolution and our shoot rose up. When The Romans destroyed the 2nd Temple and our religious identity was forever changed, we adapted and our shoot rose up. When the Crusades brought violence and death to the Jews of Europe and the Holy Land, we persevered and our shoot rose up. When Jews were blamed as the cause of the Black Death and anti-Semitism spread across Europe, our shoot still rose up. When the Inquisition ended the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry, ending a period of high culture, art, and thought, our shoot still rose up. When Pogroms arose in Eastern Europe forcing our great-grandparents to flee, there too our shoot rose up. And even, when the Nazis came and tried to exterminate us all, our shoot continued to rise up. 

Our history of anti-Semitism is long and tragic, but our survival through it all is inspiring. We have been called the ever-dying people, but we are also the ever-living people. Always finding a way to adapt, to survive, and live on. To continue to exist and live in whatever conditions are thrown at us, before finally finding a way for our shoot to rise up again.

Tomorrow morning we’ll recite U’netaneh Tokef one final time during these High Holidays and again we’ll say בְּרֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה יִכָּתֵבוּן וּבְיוֹם צוֹם כִּפּוּר יֵחָתֵמוּן – On Rosh Hashanah our fate is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed. This year, let us consider not just our own fate, but the fate of all our people. So that our shoot will always continue to rise up. Let us pray and work to make the words of Isaiah’s other great prophecy ring true –

כִּי מִצִּיּוֹן תֵּצֵא תוֹרָה וּדְבַר־ה׳ מִירוּשָׁלִָם׃, For instruction shall come forth from Zion, The word of the LORD from Jerusalem.

וְכִתְּתוּ חַרְבוֹתָם לְאִתִּים וַחֲנִיתוֹתֵיהֶם לְמַזְמֵרוֹת לֹא־יִשָּׂא גוֹי אֶל־גּוֹי חֶרֶב וְלֹא־יִלְמְדוּ עוֹד מִלְחָמָה׃

And they shall beat their swords into plowshares And their spears into pruning hooks: Nation shall not take up Sword against nation; They shall never again know war. (Isaiah 2:3-4)

May these words be the fate we seal on this Yom Kippur.