Thursday, September 17, 2015

Rosh Hashanah Morning Sermon: The Art of Battling Giants

I know some of you are expecting a sermon on Iran. I do have many thoughts on this matter, some of which I have shared in multiple blogs. However, I will not be speaking on this matter today, rather, it will be part of my conversation with you about Israel on Yom Kippur morning. But I assure you, we will be talking about it.
Instead, I wanted to focus more on us today. I’ll start by stating that the 20th Century may have seen more technological advances than all of the other previous centuries combined. The first airplane was flown by the Wright Brothers on December 17, 1903 and a mere sixty-six years later, we put a man on the moon. The triode tube, transistor, and integrated circuit were invented and revolutionized computers. Stainless steel, plastics (as famously discussed in the movie The Graduate), polyethylene, Velcro and Teflon all found their way into common usage. And of course we would be remiss if we did not mention the slinky.
There are so many more inventions as well that have changed the way we live, the way we eat, the way we interact, and even the way we think.
But there is one invention that has profoundly changed the course of humanity, so much so, that it is still being debated to this very day. It was a simple concept envisioned by a woman by the name of Margaret Sanger. Sanger was one of the founders of Planned Parenthood, which recently fell back into the political discourse. However, that is a topic for another day. What Sanger and her partner in science Dr. Gregory Pincus created was something simple that effectively revolutionized the whole process of procreation. Today we know it by two words, “the pill.”
In his book, the Birth of the Pill, Jonathan Eig writes a fascinating and amazing tale of how Sanger and Pincus along with Katherine McCormick, a wealthy benefactor, and John Rock, a Catholic doctor who ruthlessly advocated for the drug that would be marketed by Searle as Enovid.
This invention has probably had as much if not greater impact on many of our lives as all of the aforementioned inventions. And it all came about because Sanger had the simple belief that women should have the right and the ability to control their own reproductive cycles.
Sanger is also credited with coining the term birth control. As Jonathan Eig writes the use of the term, “‘birth control instead of contraception, (was) a brilliant piece of marketing strategy. Sanger wanted to separate sex from reproduction, but there was more to her movement than that. At first, she considered referring to her cause as ‘voluntary parenthood’ ‘then we got a little nearer,’ she said, ‘when ‘family control’ and ‘race control’ and birth control’ were suggested. Finally it came to (her) out of the blue – ‘Birth Control!’
There was no sexual connotation involved, no declaration of independence, no threat. These were not fighting words. These were words, like her Quaker collar, designed to make people more comfortable. No one could object to ‘birth,’ of course. Without birth there could be no life. But for Sanger, the key word was ‘control.’ If women truly got to control when and how often they gave birth, if they got to control their own bodies, they would hold a kind of power never before imagined. Without control, women were destined to be wives and mothers and nothing more.”[1] Sadly, Sanger for a time, did ally herself with the eugenics movement. And even though by the 1950s, “Sanger seemed to recognize the problem of being so closely linked with the eugenicists, but it was too late. If she wasn’t quite married to them, she’d been in bed with them so long that there was no way to call it off.”[2]
That being said, Sanger’s quest, along with her collaborators, took an idea, and from it simply changed the world in ways that some are still arguing over and fighting over to this very day.
The idea that we have the power to change the world is actually an ancient one. In his book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, author Malcolm Gladwell, reexamines a story we think we know well: the story of David and Goliath.
            In the story “the Philistines set up camp along the southern ridge of the Elah. The Israelites pitched their tents on the other side, along the northern ridge, which left the two armies looking across the ravine at each other. Neither dared to move. To attack meant descending down the hill and then making a suicidal climb up the enemy’s ridge on the other side. Finally, the Philistines had enough. They sent their greatest warrior down into the valley to resolve the deadlock one on one.
He was a giant, six foot nine at least, wearing a bronze helmet and full body armor. He carried a javelin, a spear, and a sword. The giant faced the Israelites and shouted out ‘Choose you a man and let him come down to me! If he shall prevail in battle against me and strike me down, we shall be slaves to you. But if I prevail and strike him down, you will be slaves to us and serve us.’
In the Israelite camp, no one moved. Who could win against such a terrifying opponent? Then a shepherd boy who had come down from Bethlehem to bring food to his brothers stepped forward and volunteered. Saul objected: ‘You cannot go against this Philistine to do battle with him, for you are a lad and he is a man of war from his youth.’ But the shepherd was adamant …”[3]
The rest of the story we know well. “David puts one of his stones into the leather pouch of a sling, and he fires at Goliath’s exposed forehead. Goliath falls, stunned. David runs towards him, seizes the giant’s sword, and cuts off his head. ‘The Philistines saw that their mighty warrior was dead … and they fled.
The battle is won miraculously by an underdog who, by all expectations, should not have won at all. This is the way we have told one another the story over the many centuries since. It is how the phrase ‘David and Goliath’ has come to be embedded in our language – as a metaphor for improbable victory. And the problem with that version of the events is that almost everything about it is wrong.”[4]
For example, the sling “took an extraordinary amount of skill and practice. But in experienced hands, the sling was a devastating weapon.”[5] Also, “Goliath is heavy infantry. He thinks that he is going to be engaged in a duel with another heavy-infantryman, in the same manner … David, however, has no intention of honoring the rituals of single combat … he has speed and maneuverability … What could Goliath do? He was carrying over a hundred pounds of armor… (or as) the historian Robert Dohrenwend writes, ‘Goliath has a much chance against David as any Bronze age warrior with a sword would have against an [opponent] armed with a .45 automatic pistol.”[6]
To add further insult to injury, some experts even speculate that Goliath had a tumor on his pituitary gland causing his gigantic size. One of the side effects of this is vision problems. Goliath could not even see David until he was close up. Or as Gladwell argues, “What the Israelites saw, from high on the ridge, was an intimidating giant. In reality, the very thing that gave the giant his size was also the source of his greatest weakness. There is an important lesson in that for battles with all kinds of giants. The powerful and the strong are not always what they seem. David came running toward Goliath, powered by courage and faith.”[7] And by taking advantage of his skill set while acknowledging his enemy’s weaknesses, David conquered a giant.
How many perceived giants do we have in our lives? How many times have we told ourselves that we cannot win that the odds are too great or that we are too weak?
But if we are listening closely to the lessons of others and to our tradition as well, we are neither too weak nor are the odds to great. With single-minded determination, and with the power of community, each of us has the capacity to change the world for the better. This is our sacred duty, our sacred obligation as Jews.
One of the great Rabbinic minds of the twentieth century Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel teaches in his compendium Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, “The ultimate standards of living, according to Jewish teaching, are Kiddush HaShem and Hillul HaShem. The one means that everything within one’s power should be done to glorify the name of God before the world (Kiddush HaShem), the other (Hillul HaShem) that everything should be avoided to reflect dishonor upon the religion and thereby desecrate the name of God.”[8]
As Heschel goes on to explain, “Many of our people still think in terms of an age in which Judaism wrapped itself in spiritual isolation. In our days, however, for the majority of our people involvement has replaced isolation.
The emancipation has brought us to the very heart of the total society. It has not only given us rights, it has imposed obligations. It has expanded the scope of our responsibility and concern. Whether we like it or not, the words we utter and the actions in which we are engaged affect the life of the total community.”[9] Nowadays we are obligated to engage in Kiddush HaShem, the sanctification of God’s name, not just for ourselves, not just for our Jewish community, but for the whole world
So today, on this day of the sounding of the Shofar, we are hearing the call to once again re-engage with the world entire for the better. Thankfully our holy congregation has a myriad of in which we can work as individuals and as a community to overcome giants. In our case, these giants are social and societal ills like poverty and impoverishment. They are ever present realities like illness and death and loneliness and solitude just to name a few.
Rabbi Tarfon teaches us in the Mishnah, the first compendium of Jewish legal principles that, “It is not your part to finish the task, yet you are not free to desist from it.”[10] This means it is incumbent upon all of us to act, not just because we feel it in our consciences, but because it is demanded of us by our tradition.
Lest you feel overwhelmed by the giants, there are many ways we can act. For example, we can help to conquer giants through social action. Many of you are familiar with our fantastic Holy Casseroly event which is entering its third year and is chaired by the Shepherd Family. It is where we get together after religious school to bake casseroles to serve the less fortunate in Baltimore. It is a great one-time event where you can donate food as well as come and help make and bake the casseroles. It is also a lot of fun where a great time is had by all.
This year under the guidance of Debbie and Walter Jacobs we are planning to reinstitute our congregational Blood Drive. We are working closely with the American Red Cross to make this a cross-congregational event. If you’ve given in the past and are able and so inclined, please plan to give again. And if you haven’t given yet, plan on giving. For this is one of the greatest gifts of all anyone can give, the gift of life. I myself am planning on giving, and I hope to see you there.
Right now we are in the midst of our annual High Holy Day food drive which is coordinated in part by one of our bat mitzvah students, Linnie Ulick, for her mitzvah project. So much of what you give helps those in need. Speaking of which, rather than collecting tzedakah this year, our Poser Judaic Education Magnet will be collecting canned goods for a program called FANN or Feed a Needy Neighbor.  As always we have our quarterly Adopt a Highway program on Brooks Robinson Drive. Since the law was passed preventing large semis from parking there, the cleanup has gotten a whole lot easier. But it still helps to keep Baltimore County beautiful. We will be repeating our very successful Paint and Nosh program with proceeds helping our social action projects as it is being chaired by Suzette Kossof and Lisa Caplan. As always you can volunteer at the Ronald McDonald House, a project near and dear to my heart. Last year it was coordinated by the Kasof family, who has done a phenomenal job, and it will soon be taken over by the Dickler family. This fall, we as a congregation will also be participating in once again in Purple Stride, a non-strenuous walk to support research to combat Pancreatic Cancer. This effort is being coordinated by Cheryl Cannon, herself a survivor. There is our ongoing school supply drive, and we are planning a big social action event for the spring, stay tuned.
We can also battle giants through social activism. I am involved as your rabbi and as the president of the Baltimore Board of Rabbis in working with fellow clergy from all religions and denominations along with their congregations and partners to help work to solve some of the more pernicious problems in both Downtown Baltimore and Baltimore County. One problem in particular we will be looking at is the lack of affordable housing. I will be letting you know what you can do to help as we continue to develop further plans and ideas for congregational partnerships.
There are also movements afoot here in Baltimore concerning Jewish activism. For example, we are partnering with the The Baltimore Shabbat Project whose goal is to get Jews across the global community to celebrate Shabbat together. It will include events at the JCC, a challah bake at the Maryland State Fairgrounds, and a concert and celebration. There is also the First Shabbat initiative to encourage congregations and families to celebrate Shabbat on the first Friday of the month. More information will be forthcoming, but you can find some of it on your seats.
These are both local and global initiatives. There is one more way we can serve, and that is through our newly formed Caring Hands Committee. This committee was born out of tragic need when a young father died in our congregation, and we felt we did not serve the family as well as we could have. The idea was to collaborate between Brotherhood, Sisterhood, the Caring Committee, the Board, and the clergy and staff to find ways not only to reach out to families in their time of immediate need, but also to continue to follow up with them to make sure they know they are part of a community that cares.
The Caring Hands committee supports those who are ill and ailing. It reaches out to those celebrating a simcha. And perhaps most importantly it is a source of support to our families who are in mourning.
For example, you can speak to new members of the community like Lisa Devnue and Beth Bauer, who were in need of congregational services when they lost loved ones in their lives. Though they had just joined, our community embraced them and provided them with meaningful support during those difficult days in their lives. This is further exemplified by the way we rallied together than when our beloved Harry Zbar died. We were there for each other and for Harry’s family. So whether someone is new to our community or they have called this community home for years, by being a part of our Caring Hands Committee, you can help show everyone how much Har Sinai Congregation cares.
I know this list is a lot to process. Rather than try to do it all, just remember what Rabbi Tarfon said, “It is not your part to finish the task, yet you are not free to desist from it.”[11] When you see a flyer or hear an announcement about an upcoming program, just remind yourself, that you do have the ability to make a meaningful difference in this world.
Now lest you think, “who am I?” How can I as one person battle giants and prevail? I want to tell you one more story about battling giants. As many of you know, our Baltimore County Schools have a problem in that many of them lack air-conditioning. Throughout most of the year, this is not such a big deal. But towards to the end of May and into the beginning of September, temperatures on a hot summer day can reach over 100 degrees in the un-air-conditioned buildings thereby creating an unhealthy and dangerous environment for our students, teachers, and faculty.
One of our own members, and co-chairs of our Executive Professional Networking Group (or EPNG for short), Sherri Sibel Thomas took on this cause herself. Through her efforts, she helped to encourage Baltimore County Schools to close early last week on days where the temperatures exceeded tolerant levels. Sherri worked with Dallas Dance and educators and school and county officials, some of whom are in our very congregation, to work to solve this ongoing problem. Sherri battled a giant in the Baltimore County School District and won.
We started off our talk today with the story of Margaret Sanger, who, along with her partners, took a simple concept and radically changed the world. Just imagine what we could do, if we put our minds, our energy, and our talents to work to take on giants as well. It all begins with a single commitment. Every step towards the positive is a step closer towards the Holy.
In this time of Teshuvah this time of repentance, we also are reminded of what teshuvah really means. It means to “turn.” To turn back to ways of holiness. Holiness is not brought about by thought alone, nor is it brought about by prayer alone. Instead the best way to bring it about is through action.
So on this Rosh Hashanah, hear the call of the shofar, and turn your hearts towards battling giants with us. All we need to remember is the simple phrase from Rabbi Tarfon, “It is not your part to finish the task, yet you are not free to desist from it.”[12] If we all work together, who knows what giants we can overcome. We just need for each of you to do your part. For we can have an impact greater than ourselves, and through our deeds, the world will be a little better for it. What better way to start off the New Year than by battling these giants together. L’shana Tova!

[1] Eig, Jonathan, The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2014, pg. 46.
[2] Ibid. pg. 150
[3] Gladwell, Malcolm, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, New York, Little, Brown and Company, 2013, pgs. 4-5
[4] Ibid. pgs. 8-9
[5] Ibid. pg. 9
[6] Ibid. pgs. 10-12
[7] Ibid. pgs. 14-15
[8] Heschel, Susannah, ed., Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Essays Abraham Joshua Heschel, New York, Noonday Press, 1996, pg. 292.
[9] Ibid. pg. 298
[10] Pirkei Avot 2:16
[11] Pirkei Avot 2:16
[12] Pirkei Avot 2:16

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