What is your Battle Cry?

by Rabbi Jon Hanish
Rosh Hashanah 5771/2010

Lila was five years old. She sat on my shoulders as we marched down Wilshire Boulevard. Jews, Christians, Muslims, agnostics and atheists surrounded us. We all shared one common belief – one common battle cry — the tragedy in Darfur must stop. So, for two hours that fall evening we walked from one church to another sounding out our battle cry.

We were orderly.
We were peaceful.

But we had a singular unified purpose and our position was clear. What mattered — we were making a statement. A specific statement. A statement that we were trying to share with others… and my child was part of the process. Through peaceful demonstration, I demonstrated to her that this issue was important, that this issue was something in which I believed. I demonstrated to her that when I believe in something, I take action.

There are many issues that keep me up at night. Often, I wonder if I am making a mistake by not discussing them with my friends, my congregants, with my family, with anyone and everyone on a more frequent basis. Typically I become distracted by the things that I “need” to do – Emails, meetings, pizza for tonight’s program, and whatever was keeping me up at night fades from my mind.

Complacency. That’s the word that comes to mind. Whatever happened to the sense of urgency and personal responsibility of the 60’s? Is life just too comfortable for most of us? If we asked our children, our best friend or our spouse, what we stand for, what would they say? Do we stand for something more than an easy life, a nice home and a 60” flat screen? Today, are we defined more by our possessions than our positions?

In 168 b.c.e., Greek soldiers demanded that all Jews bow down to the local magistrate. Many Jews, most Jews of that period, didn’t care. “Bow down? Why not? It’s a lot easier than standing up and fighting. Our lives are good, why rock the boat? I like the Greek lifestyle!”

But one man, one father, refused.

He stood on a street as a brigade of Greek soldiers carried the magistrate past him. Like a wave, the people lining the street bowed down. His sons and his community were part of this crowd. How could he bow down to anyone if he truly believed in Adonai? What would that teach others about him?

A Greek soldier yelled out, “Bow down old man.” The old man pulled his sword and slew the soldier. He turned to his sons and to his community and declared, “Whoever is for God, follow me.” Mattathias, the father of Judah the Maccabee, stood in front of his family, in front of his community, in front of his enemies and stated his beliefs. His children followed him into the hills where he began a fight that would lead to the recapture of the Temple. History doesn’t tell us how many camels he owned or whether his possessions included an x-box. What we know is what he said and what he did. We know what he stood for. His position against the Greeks defined him.

How many of us are like Mattathias? What is your battle cry?

The Magna Carta, written in 1215, stated, “A Free man is to be free.” “A free man is to be free.” How do we use our freedom? Shouldn’t we attempt to change the world so that everyone can live in freedom?

Apartheid in South Africa was not brought down by guns or violence. It was brought down by candles. You see, people began placing candles on their windowsills. These candles represented freedom from apartheid. These candles were their statement to their community. Candles, one by one, joined in the protest. It scared the government so they outlawed placing lit candles in windowsills calling it a “politically subversive act.” In South Africa, at that time, you could be arrested for lighting a candle or for carrying a gun. The irony was obvious to the children of Soweto who would joke, “Our government is afraid of lit candles.” 1

People expressing their opinions in a very public way brought racial segregation to its knees. If you had a candle in your window you were against apartheid. There was no question where you stood. By sharing your belief, you strengthened the resolve of those around you. You gave courage to others so that they could voice their opinions.

Every Saturday we read from the book of Neviim, prophets. The prophets, they shared God’s word with the people. The prophets warned the people about the wickedness of their ways and the ways of their rulers. Their words were not easy to hear so people ignored them.

The prophet Isaiah preached for the rights of the poor. He felt that Israel’s abundance was controlled by the rich and powerful. He told all who would hear, “Princes are scoundrels, judges are corrupt. They do not defend the fatherless, and the widow’s case does not come to them. The people are being crushed by the elders and princes, while the mansions of the wealthy contain the spoils of the poor. And in spite of all this, the idiot is called noble, and the miser is said to be honorable.” 2 Let’s just say, Isaiah did not temper his words. If you listened to him speak, you knew were he stood on many issues.

What if we each thought of ourselves as prophets? Don’t we believe that holiness, a piece of God, resides in each one of us? That piece of God, holiness, whatever name you wish to give it, let it guide you on issues of belief and ethics. Then, like the prophets of old, speak out. Speak out from the heart. Speak out from the soul. Speak out from your inner-prophet. We all have something holy inside of us that needs to be expressed… so let’s express it.

As Jews we have lived by the doctrine that whatever country in which we find ourselves we need to follow the laws and regulations of that land. That is one of the many reasons why we have survived as a people. But what happens when we disagree with the law of the land? What happens when we see injustices around us? What happens when we look only at our personal comforts and not at the discomforts of the world? Are we not our brother’s keeper?

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel met Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963. King encouraged Heschel’s involvement in the Civil Rights movement, Heschel encouraged King to take a public stance against the war in Vietnam. When the Conservative rabbis of America gathered in 1968 to celebrate Heschel’s sixtieth birthday, the keynote speaker they invited was King. When King was assassinated, Heschel was the rabbi Mrs. King invited to speak at his funeral.

Two days prior to the third Selma march, King invited Heschel to join him. In an unpublished memoir he wrote upon returning from Selma, Heschel described the extreme hostility he encountered from whites in Alabama that week from the moment he arrived at the airport, and the kindness he was shown by Dr. King’s assistants, particularly Rev. Andrew Young, who hovered over him during the march with great concern.

For Heschel, the march had spiritual significance. He wrote, “For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.”

Have you prayed with your feet recently?

As clergy, we “occasionally” express a position or two. Since becoming a rabbi at Kehillat Israel, I’ve been known to support the fight against Proposition 8, the struggles of the Women of the Wall, a national healthcare program and Israel’s right to defend herself. Let me say, my positions have not always been popular ones.

It doesn’t matter.

What matters is that I state my position so that we can explore a situation together. If we are not able to share our thoughts with one another, then how will society find ways to solve its most difficult issues?

I know some of you are thinking – “Is he advocating talking politics? Doesn’t he know that talking politics is social suicide?”

Well, yes, I am.

I want you talking about whether a national healthcare plan will work. I want you to talk about prop eight. I want you to talk about Israel. I want you to talk about whatever local, national and international issues interest them, about what keeps them up at night. I don’t care what side of the position you find yourself. If we all shared opinions, we might just learn something from the other side. Politics have become so polarized that we have forgotten how to talk, how to listen and how to compromise.

There are some issues we all agree on. Yes, occasionally that happens. When we find those issues, we should take a stand as a congregation. We shouldn’t let the Christian right be the sole voice of religion in politics. And our board has taken positions on important issues over the last two years, specifically on Proposition 8 and Women of the Wall. Let’s not be scared of doing the same in the future. You should be able to say, “My congregation stands for….. fill in the blank….”

What’s your opinion? How do you want that “fill in the blank” to read?

Rip Van Winkle has a few drinks, plays some nine-pin with the ghosts of Henry Hudson’s crew and falls soundly asleep. He sleeps for twenty years. When he awakes, the Revolutionary War has come and gone. It was not part of his life. Before his long slumber, he is known for his laziness. After his sleep, his now grown daughter takes him in and he returns to his old ways. His world has changed yet he hasn’t.

Would his world be any different if he had remained awake those 20 years? I doubt it. The point of the story – anyone can sleep through 20 years, miss tremendous societal changes and remain the exact same person. Life can pass you by if you’re not careful. Don’t let the world change as you sit on the sidelines not participating. Having no opinions, having no effect on the world is like being asleep for 20 years.

It’s Rosh Hashanah. It’s the time of year when we’re supposed to awake and to take a look at ourselves. We’re supposed to spend the next ten days reflecting on what we did wrong last year and how we can improve this year.

I’ll be more patient with my children.
I’ll tell my wife I love her more frequently.
I won’t second-guess people’s motivations.
I’ll avoid the PCH between 5 – 7 pm.

All fine.

But what I really need to do is guide my children and my community toward beliefs and ideas that I hold dear in my heart. As the mishnah teaches, “It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task, but neither are you free to absolve yourself from it.” (Avot 2:15-16) If we teach our children properly, they will continue the work that we begin today.

Have we all become too lazy to speak from our hearts about things we view as universal truths? Have we all become too scared to ask questions about what is right and what is wrong? Have we all developed a case of political laryngitis? Are we just too complacent?

Didn’t Mattathias stand before the Greeks, defying their orders and commands?
Didn’t Isaiah speak for those in need?
Didn’t Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel march with Martin Luther King Jr. in Alabama to protest discrimination?
Didn’t the people of South Africa defy the government by placing lit candles in their windows?
We must follow the lead of Isaiah, Mattathias, Heschel and the people of South Africa.

I want everyone to think of an issue that excites you. Proposition 8. Healthcare. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Obama’s presidency. Anything. Take a moment and pick an issue. I don’t care where you stand. Just pick one.

Now, later today, after services, go home and tell your children, your spouse, your partner, your friends, whoever you spend the afternoon with, tell them you have an opinion and want to share it with them. Let them know what you feel strongly about. Enter into conversation so that people understand you beyond your role as a family member, a professional and a friend.

I want you to shout out your battle cry! Shout out what you believe in — What you stand for – what defines you as human being. Then, enter into dialogue and learn from those who disagree with you.

L’dor vador. From generation to generation. We have the ability to pass to the next generation something more than our bank accounts and our possessions. How do you want to be remembered? What passion do you want to share with the younger generation? What passion do you want to give them that they will hopefully pass down to following generations? Teach your children what is important to you. Don’t hide your concerns from them. No matter our age, we are role models for the next generation. We need to teach our children our positions, our ethics and our religion.

This is my blessing for you — May you share with those who love you, your battle cries!

Shanah Tovah.

1. http://www.wcr.ab.ca/columns/rolheiser/2004/rolheiser120604.shtml
2. The Prophets by Abraham J. Heschel page 98.