Erev Rosh Hashanah, 2005

Reb Nachman of Bratzlav, a 19th Century Hasidic rabbi, taught that we are born into a world where there are many bottles on a shelf, and each bottle bears a label describing its contents. Some bottles are marked good or bad, powerful or weak, beautiful or ugly, winner or loser. As children, we believe anything we read, but we’ve lived for a while, we are shocked to discover that every bottle is mislabeled, and we spend our lives putting the right labels on the right bottles. This is how we get ourselves a heart of wisdom.
Tonight I’ll explore the bottle marked “hero”, and I invite you to look at the differences between what the world calls a hero and how our tradition defines it. In Torah, physical might isn’t heroic, and neither is great wealth and power. We know, however, that we live in a world where those who possess these qualities are crowned as celebrities, because fame and heroism have become synonymous. Heroes never lose and are never wrong.
This is human inclination, to worship external power, and that’s why Torah is such a book of surprises. It may be how the physical world works but not heaven. The first Jew, Abraham, must give up his many worldly possessions, his good name, and his social position, to go to an unknown land. Abraham agrees, and so far so good. But soon we have a hero challenged by reality. On his journey through Egypt, the Pharaoh wants Sarah for himself. Abraham does what any one might do, and asks Sarah, his beautiful wife, to help him out.
He tells her, “If Pharaoh knows that we’re married, he will kill me to have you. Tell him that you’re my sister.” This is heroic? To lie and give up his wife? Doesn’t Abraham have enough faith that God will save him and Sarah to make good on the divine promise?
When Abraham allows Sarah to mistreat Hagar and cast away Ishmael, his first-born son, to die in the wilderness, we again question his integrity. When he prepares to kill Isaac to prove his faith in God, we question his sanity as well. He has waited for this child until he is in his nineties, to be born. What kind of father would obey such a command? Tomorrow morning we’ll question his decision.
But for now we wonder what kind of God asks such a thing. Before we’re too judgmental of God in setting up this test, consider this. Perhaps God is the hero of our story in allowing us to see Abraham’s imperfection. We read this part of Torah at this time of year because it is the story we most need when we look at ourselves. It gives us hope that we, with all our flaws, can become heroes, too. The flaw is key in awakening the hero within, because it is from our mistakes that we learn to do better and find redemption. Abraham becomes our hero because he doesn’t give up on himself or on God.
He also possesses another trait that makes him a hero. Abraham has holy chutzpah. He is the first human to challenge God’s righteousness. Upon hearing God’s plans to destroy the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, he asks, “What if there are 50 righteous there?” God says, All right, I’ll save them. Abraham, however, isn’t satisfied and continues to ask what if there are forty, and so on, until God says, “I will not destroy, for the sake of ten.”
Imagine being the one God has chosen to create a great nation. How willing would you be to question the Holy One’s judgment? Maybe God will find you to be a crank, a pest, and a doubter of God’s wisdom. God might revoke the promise. But God did not reject Abraham, God loves him all the more for disagreeing with the killing of innocents. Notice that Abraham challenges God’s justice, not mercy. If God can be challenged, how much more must we confront one another! This is the heroism that God expects of us.
Being a hero is more than being a nice guy. The easiest thing is to say, hey, that’s her problem, not mine, when someone behaves unjustly. So often we merely shrug in the face of insensitivity, rudeness, or aggressiveness. There is enough anger and acrimony in the world. I’ll work my side of the street, you work yours, and God will judge. Doesn’t God want us to be pursuers of peace, not trouble?
Forgiveness is very much in fashion today, yet our tradition sets limits even on this. We are a dialectical, paradoxical people who believe that God dwells in the balance between justice and mercy. Too much of either risks the world’s survival. The one who forgives without being asked, who forgives everyone unconditionally, is our contemporary hero. Yet if we forgive without also calling someone into account for their injustice, we are not heroes. If we forgive to show how enlightened we are, we are playing a game of moral superiority.
Wouldn’t it be great if there were a big book that tells us when to act and when to refrain. Wouldn’t it be nice not to have so much doubt and uncertainty? But we are not flying blind. We have Torah and its laws to instruct us, and we have still, small voice within, if you have faith in your cosmic hearing, as your guide.
As Ecclesiastes teaches, there is a time for everything, a time to forgive, and a time to set the boundary. Ignoring a wrong doesn’t make it go away. If we do not act when we see or experience injustice, the transgressor will most likely continue to harm others.
Martin Niemoller, the German pastor who resisted the Nazis, said it best: “First they came for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Communist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up, because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time there was no one left to speak up for me.”
Imagine how different world history might be if Neville Chamberlain, instead of giving Hitler Czechoslovakia and calling it an act of peace, had drawn the line by refusing. It’s a tragedy that he didn’t do like Moses, who didn’t negotiate with Pharaoh but demanded his people’s freedom.
During the Holocaust there were four kinds of people: victims, perpetrators, bystanders, and rescuers. While most of the world did nothing in its fear and indifference, there were a precious few who demonstrated Olympian altruism and holy non-conformity by risking their lives to save a despised people. Although most of the rescuers are no longer alive, their heroism continues to teach us the meaning of moral courage.
Alex Roslan was a Polish rescuer who lived in Warsaw with his wife and two children. Most of his customers were Jews. Overnight they and his business disappeared behind the walls of the Warsaw ghetto. Despite it being a capital crime, he snuck into the ghetto to see for himself what was happening. The sight of a starving child moved him to reach for a few breadcrumbs in his pocket. Someone stopped his hand, saying, “Let the child be. He will die by nightfall in peace.”
Alex came home and said to his wife, “We must do something!” She said, “What can we do? Thousands are dying every day.” He replied, “We can save one.” The Roslans hid two children for four years, Jacob and David Gilat, who grew up to be Israeli scientists. The Roslans couldn’t tell anyone what they were doing. Not only would they not have been seen as heroes, they would have been denounced for disobedience and stupidity. Although their sanctifying deeds were documented soon after the war, it took nearly fifty years for the world to acknowledge their heroic contribution to the honor of humanity.
This is the season in which we celebrate the miraculous ability to choose what kind of person we want to be. We cannot say that we can’t be like the rescuers. They tell us that everyone should have done what they did. Their lives tell us that being a bystander isn’t enough. Have you ever been the only person to publicly raise a difficult question and no one supports you? Yet afterwards, one by one, people may come up to you privately and say you’re right. How often do any of us stop a bully or defend the weak? It is so easy, so rational to say, “There are two sides to everything,” or “What can one person do?” or “I didn’t know.”
To give urgency to these awe-filled days of self-judgment, I invite you to imagine what people will say at your funeral. Live your life with that in mind. When I looked at the faces of the rescuers, I saw the peace of mind and heart I wanted at the end of my life. They knew that once in their lives, they were called to do the right thing and they answered. Maybe I won’t be a hero, but I pray for the strength to try.
Rosh Hashanah, the birthday of the world, is the day in which we become briot hadashot, new born souls, by turning within and facing ourselves honestly. This is the first step to becoming a hero. Like Father Abraham, no one is a hero all the time. There are times when even God is silent in the face of injustice. We forgive God, others, and ourselves for being bystanders. We remember that we have been given another day, another year, so that we can do better, and we won’t give up. “The worst of all possible sins is to forget one’s royal descent.” Like God, we’ll keep showing up with faith that one day we’ll all get it right and the world will be fair and loving.
On Kol Nidre I’ll tell you about the heroes and acts of heroism that have inspired me in the last year. I invite you to make your own list. It will sharpen your eyes to see goodness, increase your forgiveness by seeing more than other peopleÕs faults, and awaken the hero within. Don’t forget to look at your own lives when you make the list.