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Our Call

09/30/2017 03:24:50 PM


Rabbi Jennifer Jaech

Delivered Rosh Hashanah Morning

It was a lovely Jerusalem afternoon in 2013. My husband David and I walked around the neighborhood where I lived when I was in rabbinical school.  I pointed out the balcony of my apartment, overlooking a shaded courtyard.  We walked by the makolet, the tiny corner store where I would send ten-year-old Isaac to buy milk and overpriced Cheerios.   We passed by the green-grocer, the bakery, the coffee-shop.

As we walked I felt sadness slowly descend like a chill autumn drizzle.

We came to the public elementary school in the neighborhood. I remembered standing on that sidewalk and watching Isaac on his first day of school, how he looked so small as he walked past the booth where a guard with an automatic rifle stood.  I remembered how Isaac disappeared through a cavernous doorway, and I remembered how I began to cry on that day. 

Jerusalem is used to tears.  No one noticed mine as I walked to my own classes that morning.  What had I done to my son, tearing him away from all that was familiar, sending him to a school where he had no friends and did not speak the language? For all its beauty, Jerusalem could be a tough and abrasive place. I would have preferred to stay at home in Croton.

But I did not have that option.  Becoming a Reform rabbi meant I had to study in Jerusalem for one year.  I could not turn back, especially as I remembered how, years before, I had had a perfect moment of clarity when I dared to ask myself if I could be a rabbi.  At that moment, suddenly and unexpectedly my entire being resonated with the answer:  yes, yes, this is what I am meant to be.  In that moment, years ago, I had no doubt. I had gotten the call.

It didn’t take long for the doubts to come.  What right did I have to be a leader of our people, a people I had not been born into?  More practically, how could I afford to stop working full-time and become a student? How could I live in Israel?

In the weeks following that moment of clarity, I talked to a couple of close friends about what happened.  They told me: “You had a calling,” as if that settled everything.  But getting a calling does not remove all obstacles, as my year in Jerusalem taught me. I remember:  my neck cramping as I hunched over my books, studying for hours, fearful that I was on the verge of failing; Agonizing as I tried to read letters written in Hebrew sent from Isaac’s school; Going to McDonalds (!) way too much, just to taste “American food.”

Every day I wondered if I could make it.  Then I would think of the call, that moment of rare and perfect clarity.   That memory gave me strength in moments of doubt and uncertainty.  

This past year, I’ve felt that same doubt and uncertainty.  I hold the title I felt called to have, and I am doing the work that I felt called to do.  Yet the events of the past weeks and months have shaken the ground beneath my feet. 

And then I had another moment of clarity.   I saw the images of white supremacists in Charlottesville, marching with torches, chanting “Jews will not replace us” and the Nazi slogan “Blood and Soil.”     I heard our president react to the deadly violence that erupted the next day by saying that “both sides were to blame,” a claim he has since repeated, and that “there are very fine people” among the white supremacist marchers.  I saw the tweet by David Duke that praised the president’s words.  And so I feel called to respond.

I am not the only one to hear this call.  For the first time in history, hundreds of Reform rabbis decided to deliver a collective message as we begin this new year.  Listen to our words resonate today as we hear the call of the shofar. 

This message is entitled “One Voice.”[1]    

The Talmud teaches, “If you see wrongdoing by a member of your household and you do not protest – you are held accountable.  And so it is in relation to the members of your city.  And so it is in relation to the world.”  As Jews, we are held accountable in ever-widening circles of responsibility to rebuke transgressors within our homes, in our country, in our world. One medieval commentator taught that we must voice hard truths even to those with great power, for “the whole people are punished for the sins of the king if they do not protest the king’s actions to him.”

Today I speak words of protest, joining my Reform rabbinic colleagues across the nation in fulfillment of our sacred obligation.  We will not be silent. We will, without hesitation, decry these blatant acts of hatred and the moral abdication of the President whose actions fuel division in our beloved country.  We draw from the deepest wisdom of our prophetic tradition to deliver a stern warning against complacency and an impassioned call for action.  We call on you to rise up and say in thousands of ways, every day, as proud Jews and proud Americans: “You cannot dehumanize, degrade and stigmatize whole categories of people in this nation. Every Jew, every Muslim, every gay, transgender, disabled, black, brown, white, woman, man and child is beloved of God and precious in the Holy One’s sight.  We the people, all the people, are created b’tzelem elohim, in the image of the Divine.  All the people are worthy of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”    

           Rosh Hashanah is Yom Teru’ah, the Day of sounding the Shofar, whose piercing tones sound an alarm and compel us to respond with a resounding call for justice.


The shofar calls:  T’kiah. [shofar blast tkiah]

T’kiah is the Sound of Certainty:

As rabbis we are, from sea to shining sea, speaking to our congregations across America to declare in unison: acts of hatred, intimidation and divisiveness will not be tolerated in these United States. We stand upon the shoulders of the sages, poets and rabbis in every generation who fought for freedom. We speak in memory of every Jew and in memory of all people who tragically and senselessly lost their lives at the hands of evil oppressors. We call on our political leaders, progressives and conservatives alike, to rigorously uphold the values brilliantly articulated in the founding documents of our country, the “immortal declaration” that all [men] people are created equal.  We call on every elected leader to responsibly represent our country’s history and advance its noble visions of tolerance. On this first day of the New Year WE are “Proclaiming liberty throughout all the land" [Lev 25:10].  

The shofar calls: Shevarim. [3 shofar blasts]

Shevarim is the Sound of Brokenness:

             Something crumbled inside us when we watched the televised images of Charlottesville’s beautiful streets filled with hate-spewing marchers.  We must not accept or become inured to some warped version of “normal,” of racist and anti-Semitic acts and rallies popping in and out of breaking news cycles.  We cannot become numb to the brokenness.  Let our pain fuel our vows to respond – with peaceful protests, and with public calls for healing, by building alliances and by speaking in unison with other minorities and faith communities. Neither silence nor complacency nor waiting anxiously and fearfully for the next wounding event are options. Not for us. Elie Wiesel, of blessed memory, possessed a rare understanding of unfathomable brokenness. His memorable words sound a warning to us today, “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere.”  

The shofar calls: Teruah [9 short blasts]

Teruah is the Sound of Urgency:

The events of these simmering weeks are a wake-up call to our Jewish community. Racism is wrong whether it swells into explicit anti-Semitism or not.  The Talmud teaches that God created us all from the first Adam so that no human being could ever say, “my lineage is greater than yours.” But just in case we thought the white supremacists were after someone else, or that the Confederate flag has nothing to do with modern day Nazi sympathizers, or that we were somehow safe in the fact that most – but certainly not all -- Jews in America are white, those fiery torches illuminated another truth, one we learn and forget, only to learn again this day: if one minority group’s rights are threatened, we are all threatened.  As Martin Luther King taught us, “We are all tied together in a single garment of destiny,” whether we are the least powerful or the most powerful person in our world. 

The Shofar calls: Tkiah Gdolah:

Tkiah Gdolah represents the Endless Pursuit of Justice:

Tzedek tzedek tirdof the Torah admonishes: “Justice, justice you shall pursue, so that you may live and inherit the land which I, God, give to you.” Our sacred text reminds us that for a community truly to inherit its place in the world, thoughtful leaders at every level must be dedicated to equality and to unity. Every community relies on passionate and engaged citizens; it relies on you to be insistent advocates for tolerance and enduring kindness between the diverse peoples of our nation. To pursue justice is to create a society that protects and enlivens every citizen. Let us be relentless, tireless builders of that society in our communities and in our country.

On this day that we hear the shofar, we are all called.  But a call without an answer fades into emptiness.  It means nothing.

It will not be easy for those who answer the call.  Jerusalem taught me that a call does not erase doubts or dry the tears we shed.  Nor will we all respond to the call in the same way.  Some among us are activists; others model civility, support organizations that work for justice, and teach our children right from wrong.  Every one of these responses means something.  Each is important in its own way.

In the moments of doubt and anxiety we will face, remember that our call, the call for each and every one of us, is clear.   As Jews, we have no choice but to respond.  Knowing that will bring us strength.  In this New Year, may we resolve to respond to our call with courage and with love.   

[1]Elka Abrahamson conceived this idea; Judy Shanks “largely” authored it with help from dozens, and David Stern supplied texts

Sun, September 22 2019 22 Elul 5779