Yom Kippur Sermon (Yizkor) 5774: Owning OUR Story

Rabbi Eric Yanoff

Shanah tovah.

I want to start with a story that may make you think I’m a bit of a nerd… But then again, as the teens have told me, I’m pretty cool for a rabbi. (I’ve said before it’s one of the reasons I became a rabbi – because the bar for “cool” is SO LOW for a rabbi that you can almost trip over it…) But this story – well, these are the things a nerdy-but-cool-for-a-rabbi-guy like me – what I spend time thinking about:

A couple of months ago, I was driving down Hagys Ford Road…. I had a community rabbis’ meeting at, er, another communal institution on that road… (What!? Some of my closest friends go to Welsh Valley Middle School!...) Anyway, I was on Hagys Ford, and I stopped for a moment. All of a sudden – I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of it before: I asked myself, Who was Hagy? Why is this HIS FORD – why was this the place that HE got to ford, or cross the streams around the Schuykill River?

And then, I couldn’t get off this line of thought: Mary Waters – SHE had a ford as well! And a woman, no less – must have been a big deal – later she got the Belmont Hills Pool and a school and a library… And Matson, and Young…. And while I’m at it, I have NO IDEA who Righter was – but I know he had a mill, and a ferry!

Now, by this time, I was interrupted in this extended reverie by the sound of a horn. Actually, several horns. Of the cars, behind me, not-so-patiently waiting to get to Har Zion – I mean, Welsh Valley Middle School…. So I went on my way – but I couldn’t get it out of my head: Who WERE these people? What were their stories? I mean, this got dangerous for me: I almost got in an accident trying to read the entire blue-and-yellow sign as I drove by – the sign telling me that Thomas Wynne was William Penn’s doctor. (Being Penn’s doctor got Wynne a whole “wood.” It also got him a Whole Foods….)

Who were these people – our predecessors on the Main Line? They must have stories, histories, legacies. Why don’t we know them? When we walk, or bike, or drive through these streets – why don’t we have a sense that we are cruising through history? Why aren’t we proud – or even knowledgeable about this? I’ll tell you, when I’m in Jerusalem, I’m even worse a traffic hazard: I know my way around, but I stop to read almost every street sign telling the name of the street, and then in small type, its historical significance: Rechov Mordechai HaYehudi -(miShevet Binyamin, manhig yehudi Paras u-Madai, biymei hmelech Achasueros) – Mordechai the Jew street – named for the biblical character from Purim, from the tribe of Benjamin, a Jewish leader in Persia and Medea [Me-DAY-ah], in the time of King Ahasueros)… or Rechov Ze’ev Jabotinsky –Sofer u-manhig tziyyoni mimiyasdi ha-gdud ha-Ivri “harishon liYehudah” (Zeev Jabotinsky Street, named for the author and Zionist leader, 1880-1940, among the founders of the World War I Jewish Legion “First Judaeans”). Or my favorite: Rechov 29 November, a street named in honor of the date of the UN Partition vote that created a modern State of Israel, a date when Jews around the world tuned into their radios, and then danced in the streets.

Now, there are times when I ask directions to a place, and instead of directions, I get history: “Okay, Rabbi, you take a right at the corner where there used to be a great cheeseburger joint – NOT that I ever went there, Rabbi, but before that it was a gas station…” – not exactly helpful as directions, and certainly not meaningful history. But, on the whole, we don’t know our community’s history. We don’t OWN our story, here. And yet, as Jews, the history of a place is a part of who we are. In 1947, standing before the United Nations Commission on Palestine, David Ben Gurion pointed out this essential difference; he proclaimed:

300 years ago, there came to the New World a boat, and its name was the Mayflower. The Mayflower’s landing on Plymouth Rock was one of the great historical events in the history of England and in the history of America. But I would like to ask any Englishman sitting here on the commission, what day did the Mayflower leave port? What date was it? I’d like to ask the Americans: Do they know what date the Mayflower left port in England? How many people were on the boat? Who were their leaders? What kind of food did they eat on the boat?
More than 3300 years ago, long before the Mayflower, our people left Egypt, and every Jew in the world, wherever he is, knows what day they left [Pesach – 14 of Hebrew month of Nissan]. And he knows what food they ate. And we still eat that food every anniversary. And we know who our leader was. And we sit down and tell the story to our children and grandchildren in order to guarantee that it will never be forgotten. And we say our two slogans: ‘Now we may be enslaved, but next year, we’ll be a free people.’ And ‘Next Year in Jerusalem.’
Ben Gurion continued:
. . . Now we are behind the Soviet Union and their prison. Now, we’re in Germany where Hitler is destroying us. Now we’re scattered throughout the world, but next year, we’ll be in Jerusalem. There’ll come a day that we’ll come home to Zion, to the Land of Israel. That is the nature of the Jewish people.

Back then, Ben Gurion was making the case for a Jewish State of Israel. Forty years before that, his predecessors had rejected a serious proposal by the international community to offer the Jews a homeland in Uganda – they rejected it, because Uganda was not the land of OUR story. Israel is. It took another half-century to realize the dream of return to Israel, but it was worth it. But make no mistake: IF UN were to vote today – for reasons of institutional anti-Semitism, for the sin [tap chest] of historical forgetfulness – the UN would not create an Israel today. But I want to talk about something even worse than all those reasons that we wouldn’t have an Israel. Part of the reason we would not have a Jewish state is because of our own, JEWISH ambivalence. 

Our own ambivalence is our Kryptonite. It is our worst vulnerability. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, 
the outgoing Chief Rabbi of Great Britain remarks, prophetically, “Ambivalence can never be the basis of an enduring identity. Sooner or later, children or grandchildren will resolve it by walking away.” Rabbi Sacks tells the story of a rabbi who went to the Former Soviet Union in the 1990s, to help Jews to reclaim their faith. A woman approached him and complained that now that Jews were allowed to live openly as Jews, she was hearing her neighbors mutter, “Zhid.” The rabbi replied to the completely assimilated Russian woman, “If you had not told me you were Jewish, I would never have known – but in all the time I’ve been here, in my black hat and beard, no one has shouted Zhid at me. Why is that?” The woman was quiet for a moment and then answered: “Because they know that if they shout Zhid at me, I will take it as an insult, but if they shout Zhid at you, you will take it as a compliment.” Her ambivalence brought on the antagonism she felt.

We have a story. As Ben Gurion declared, in large numbers, every Passover, we tell our story; it’s the most observed Jewish act of the year, even more than today, Yom Kippur. (On both days, we ask “when do we eat.”) But in today’s world, when there is no recent act of persecution that has evoked an international sense of shame or guilt to quiet anti-Semitism… when here in the U.S., there is not an imminent sense of a Jewish need for a protectorate state – it is not enough just to HAVE a story. We need to be PROUD of our story. We need to OWN our story.

I stop and read Jerusalem street signs because they tell our story – and because that story, in turn, informs where we are going as a people. I mean, it’s amazing: It’s the 65th anniversary of the birth of the State of Israel – for which Abraham and Moses, and Mordechai the Jew, and Ze’ev Jabotinsky and David Ben Gurion all prayed and worked throughout their lives! We should be proud to be part of that story! It’s ours!

Now, this is not to say that there are not other peoples who have other stories, that may conflict with ours – especially when it comes to Israel. But here, in the Jewish community, as a part of this synagogue, we have a right – and a responsibility – to give OUR story pre-eminence. As a synagogue, we are – and we should be – an ideologically-driven community. This means that we are not bound by the relativistic principle that “all viewpoints are equally valid.” We have a narrative. We have a history. We have a purpose and a vision for this world, and for our valid, enduring place in this world. And though it may feel uncomfortable, this means that there are some ideas that are OUTSIDE of this vision.

Now there are two categories of ideas that are outside of our narrative. The first category: Sometimes there is nothing morally wrong with another people’s view – it is just not our story. For these stories that are not ours, but are another beautiful, legitimate world view or religion or nation, Judaism demands that we stretch ourselves to embrace others, to learn from others, and to live alongside others. This is the path of pluralism and peace. In that interest, I am the first one to acknowledge that the Land of Israel is home to many stories, and many peoples, who deserve land and dignity – provided that their story is one of peace and co-existence, in a way that validates my story alongside their own. 

But some people hold an opposing view that is outside our ideology because they embrace violence and exalt death, oppression, and hatred. This is the second category of stories outside of ours – And for these ideas, which Judaism rejects because they are morally repugnant, violent, or harmful, Judaism demands that we remove them from our midst, first by inviting others to abandon such evil paths, but ultimately by a complete rejection of such hatred. This is the path of principle and leadership. For those who would do us harm, I am NOT a pluralist. Because to be accepting of their destructive narrative would make us complicit in the pain and death they seek to cause.

Pride in and fidelity to OUR particularistic narrative is nothing to apologize for. It is not primitive or tribalistic, nor is it small-minded, or parochial, or cloistered. On the contrary, the gifts of our narrative to the world at-large are many and self-evident. Boycott this narrative – and you have to boycott the fruit of some of the greatest minds, ideas, inventions, cures, and salvations in all of civilized human history. We Jews invented the weekend! We invented systems of caring for the poor and the disenfranchised! We liberated women in ways unprecedented, we have brought medicine and technology to new levels previously unimagined! We have won a lot of Nobel Prizes…

How proud are we of our story? I ask our high-school kids this all the time – and we all need to ask ourselves this: How well do we know our story as a People – and how far would we go to share and even defend our version of the narrative? How proud are we of the story that defines who we are?

Knowledge of our Jewish story: That is an educational question. But PRIDE in our Jewish story: That is a kishkes question – that cuts to the core of who we are, and how we see ourselves, our Jewish self-esteem. Pride in our Jewish story – that is what we need: To feel part of something big, and timeless, to OWN that story.

And we already know what it feels like to own a story. We do it already – maybe not with our Judaism as much, but with other elements of our identities. We do it with SPORTS! If you are a fan, then you are a fan of YOUR TEAM. We each have OUR TEAM. And we know the stories of OUR TEAM. I’ll give you an example of this: Where were you when the Phillies won the World Series in 2008?  I know where I was – because of the rain delay, it conflicted with my old Detroit synagogue’s annual fundraiser, honoring a local judge. And so, as a rabbi of that synagogue, I was sitting in the front row, getting text messages of the score, of each out bringing us (US!) closer to winning. It happened that at the exact moment they introduced the judge to accept his award, I got a dozen texts: “Phillies win! Phils win!” And from the front row, as everyone rose to give the honoree a standing ovation, everyone was wondering why I was jumping up and down and clapping: “Wow, he really likes the honoree,” they thought.

That is MY Phillies story – because they are MY team. They are OUR team. I don’t have stories of any other World Series wins since 2008 – not that I think that Yankees or Giants or Cardinals fans are bad – (well, maybe Yankees fans…) - but their championship stories are just not MY story. 

We each have OUR TEAM – even when they stink, they are our team. (And yes, there have been times when Judaism and Israel have not been on the winning side of an issue – though overall, I think that we’re a team worth rooting for.) But it is only proper – we talk about, and remember, and follow the ups and downs of OUR team.

And that’s what Judaism so desperately needs right now: We need to know about, and to be proud of our team. Because there was a time when we were not so proud: When silence, and a victimhood mentality made us sheepish, and hesitant to advocate for ourselves, to determine our fate as a people… when Jews balked before going to bat for Jews being persecuted around the world. And – thanks mostly to Israel, a modern miracle, our story, the Zionist hope, Hatikvah – we gained a strength and a voice. And it is not right to ask ourselves if we could – or should – survive without that strength, with huddled, fearful, secretive prayers of a Zion that might return instead of strong pride in who we are, a modern, democratic, tolerant Jewish State. We cannot go back; we cannot put that toothpaste back in that tube. As a young rabbi, born after 1967, I cannot imagine taking an Adath Israel group to Jerusalem and pointing in the distance, and saying, “There – all the way over there, that is where, for a brief miraculous time, it used to be possible to touch the stones of the Kotel, to walk in the ancient city of Jerusalem – but no longer…” I can’t imagine losing that.

I want our teenagers to feel like they have a team. I want them to stand up straighter when they see an Israeli Olympic gold medalist and hear “HaTikvah” on the medal podium. I want them to get a little googly when they see good-looking Israeli Defense Forces soldiers – the men and the women soldiers, not much older than they are. I want them to smile when they sing songs that they learned in Preschool, or at Camp, and I want them to know to put their arms around one another and sway when we light a havdalah candle and start singing “Yai de dai dai”… I want them to be proud that, just as defense and security technologies that make us safer here in the United States are being learned from Israeli industries that are responding to a tough neighborhood - that so too, diseases like cancer and diabetes that will certainly affect their loved ones are being fought with Israeli technology and medicine that heals Arabs and Jews alike in Israeli hospitals, and around the world.

Author Bruce Feiler, in his book The Secrets to Happy Families, shares psychologists’ research that shows, overwhelmingly, that “The more children know about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned.” “They know,” he writes, “that they belong to something bigger than themselves.” Feiler also wrote the book Walking the Bible – A Journey by Land Through the Five Books of Moses – so he recognizes the significance of OUR story, as well. But in his latest work he demonstrates that self-confidence comes from a strong sense of what he calls our “intergenerational self.” 

Judaism teaches us about our “intergenerational self.” It is what it means to be part of a people, whom we trace back through our ancestry, our stories, how we came over from another land, how we escaped persecution, what we ate, who our leaders were, who our grandparents and parents and other loved ones were. Because the core of having a team, of being proud of our story – is knowing and embracing our past, so that it can inform the way we live now, and how we build our future. It is the most important Jewish mitzvah: ZACHOR – We must remember. We remember those who came before us – not because we are stuck in our past, but because the road we have traveled over the generations of our intergenerational selves charts the path for the next steps that we must take.

When we come together, at this moment of communal memory, of Yizkor, we are saying: We have a story. We know the details of that story, going back four thousand years. We know the more recent past of that story – because it was lived and embodied by the loved ones whom we lovingly remember, whose examples we follow, whose inspiration and legacy we live out in our own lives. When we tell OUR story, our history, our shared memory – we are re-affirming: YES – we are part of a team, that has a long, storied history, with challenges, for sure, but known more for its glimpses of redemption and hope and our vision for a more perfect world. Our loved ones, whom we remember, are part of a Hall of Fame whose story – OUR story, stretches back to the earliest memories of recorded time.

May we be privileged to proudly, lovingly, see ourselves as part of this legacy, and to pass it on to  those who, some day, will tell our story as their own. Keyn yehi ratzon – So may it be God’s will. 

And let us say: AMEN.