Shanah Tovah! What an honor it is to be here as your new rabbi. I am so grateful for this opportunity and look forward to greeting the New Year with you. Offering a sermon this morning from this bima is very daunting. For one thing, I still need to introduce myself to you. In addition, I am frankly intimidated by the history of preaching here. But I am also inspired! We all have our strengths to bring, after all. Many years ago I attended the groundbreaking for the Skirball Jewish Cultural Center in Los Angeles. The featured speaker was the head of the J. Paul Getty Museum, soon to be the neighbor of the Skirball. The director admitted that the Getty felt a twinge of insecurity to be located near an institution of 4,000 years of history. Then again, declared the director, “We have Getty’s money, so we’re not too concerned.” I don’t have Getty’s money or four thousand years of heritage in my personal portfolio. But I do have a passion to share with you. It’s a passion about my own story and what it means for me and I hope for you. The Torah portion this morning was a story about our ancient family. Today I would also like to share with you my family story. It’s an important one I think. I will make a complicated tale brief: My mother was born in 1926 in a small town near Berlin, Germany. She had four older brothers and one older sister. In the 1930s her eldest brother, Leonard Ohringer, graduated medical school but as a Jew could find no residency in Germany. He was able to find one in the States. The three younger brothers also left Germany. My mother, Reggie, and her sister and parents stayed behind. In October 1938 my mom was called to the principal’s office and told she was being taken to jail. She met her parents and sister there. Soon after they found themselves dumped unceremoniously over the Polish border, literally in No Man’s Land.
My mother with her family eventually found their way to France. In May of 1939 they took a ship, the Flandre, to Cuba. They were not allowed off the ship. My mother’s brother, Leonard, visited on the ship but could not take his parents and sisters off the ship. The ship then went to Miami Beach, where it was challenged by the U. S. Coast Guard to go away. The Jewish passengers on the German ship, the St. Louis, were living through the same story at the same time. My mother’s ship returned to France. The Nazis invaded. My mother and her family were told to report to the police station and register for High Holy Day tickets. The French prefect of police warned my mother’s father to leave immediately. The family – taking a great risk – snuck into Vichy France. My mother was searched at gunpoint but the family cash in her money belt was not discovered. Because of my uncle Leonard and the Jewish and non-Jewish medical community in which he worked, my mom, her sister and parents received visas to come to the U.S. This was in November 1941. They went to Lisbon to meet the Pan Am Yankee Clipper flying boat. The man at the Pam Am office said there were no seats available. My mom’s dad asked Reggie for the family cash. He then shook the Pan Am man’s hand and the seats became available. It was only at my mom’s funeral that I learned the other side of the story. The man who took a bribe had the four seats all along. That was because the community where my Uncle Leonard lived and worked – which if you have not guessed was Chicago – did something extraordinary. They reached out to a local Chicago boy made good, William Paley of CBS, who in turn wrote a letter to the founder and CEO of Pan Am, Juan Trippe, personally asking for those four seats for my mom and her family. And that is the only reason why they survived. One more thing: I am named Edwin because of a non-Jewish Chicago physician, Edwin Hirsh, who played a key role in the story. Last year at the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam I saw an estimate of the chances of a Jew leaving Europe in late 1941. You’d be more likely to win a series of lottery tickets. So it’s fair to say that the City of Chicago in general and the good folks at Michael Reese Hospital in particular are pretty important to me. It is not just about me of course. We are all here with a debt to pay. Just to be born is to win the lottery. Think about it. Most eggs are not fertilized. The fact we are here is an overwhelming miracle. We all begin life with a huge debt. The question isn’t will we pay it back. The question is: are we even aware of the debt? I have a friend whose father never said the words “Thank you,” but always used the phrase, “Much obliged,” instead. I haven’t heard that expression in a long time. And yet maybe that phrase expresses what gratitude really ought to be. Because “to be obliged” means that someone has done us a favor and therefore we are indebted to return the favor – to do something in return. As we consider our blessings and think about the many things that have come our way, we surely must conclude that we are indeed “much obliged.” Much has been given to us; therefore we have a tremendous obligation. Having said that, we are not poor debtors, enslaved to the company store for what we owe and can never pay back. As human beings we are privy to a great store of wealth. I do not speak of material riches but moral grandeur. Such nobility is not exclusive to religious people, and certainly not only to Jews. It is an open treasure if we take seriously our role in the world as caring people who know they are responsible for the world. The French call it, “Noblesse Oblige.” An old friend used to say that we are all up Aristocrats. Here’s the secret: we are all nobility here. We all are expected to rise to the occasion. We should never forget that all of us are sons and daughters of God, and therefore we are indeed royalty. We are aristocrats. We are blessed.
As the Bible declares, all human beings are “a little lower than the angels.” We all know we don’t always behave that way. Nonetheless, that is our heritage, or as we say in Hebrew and Yiddish: our yichus. In short: to be human is to be noble. And to be noble is to be obligated. Having said that, let’s not confuse being obligated with being obligated always to act. Sometimes the correct thing, as difficult as it is, is NOT to act. We all know that sometimes the classy thing is not to make a remark. We have all acted impetuously out of good motives and then regretted our action. We know that, sometimes, without a clear cut plan, acting makes things only worse. This is not only true on a personal level. It is also important to understand on a national stage. To be a citizen of the United States of America is an amazing thing. No one can argue that we are also blessed to live in this great country. And yet, do we actually realize how lucky we are to live in the United States of America? While we are here in this sacred house this morning, more than 2000 people in the world will die. Not because of cancer. Not because of heart disease, but because they do not have enough food to stay alive. Compare that to the bounty of our own land. Each year the people of our nation give more food to those who are in need than all the rest of the world combined. We live in a land of plenty. We have been given much and therefore we are “much obliged.” We should be proud of our generosity. But being a supremely blessed super power is not only about giving to the world. It is also about acting wisely in the world, and our beloved United States has not always been so wise. For instance, while I never will forgive Franklin Delano Roosevelt for sending out the Coast Guard to prevent my mother from coming ashore in Miami Beach, I know that he had many tough decisions to make. (A recent book, FDR and the Jews, argues he was sick in bed the week the Coast Guard was sent but I don’t think that lets him off the hook.) I also know that much of the problems that FDR and our country faced in World War II were caused by the grossly irresponsible acts of his cousin, Theodore Roosevelt decades before. As reported in the recent book, Imperial Cruise by James Bradley, the gunboat diplomacy – you know, “speak softly and carry a big stick” – emboldened the Japanese. Then there are the draconian measures that Woodrow Wilson and the Versailles conference imposed on Germany after WWI. Put these acts together and you have created much of the factors that led to WWII. I am not suggesting we don’t put 99% of the blame on Japan and Germany. But let’s face it: noblesse oblige, manifest destiny, or whatever we want to call it, does not guarantee acting appropriately. Winston Churchill once said that the American people always do the right thing, after exhausting every other possibility. He knew a lot about us. Which leads us to our present situation with Syria. I support and admire our president but I cannot help but think our country has been placed in the kind of situation usually associated with parents of teenagers. We threaten to ground them. They misbehave. And now they are grounded. But what about the school band trip they were supposed to go on? Which has been prepaid? Has that been considered? And is there actually a lesson to be learned? Or just the credibility of the parent’s warning. In other words, the punishment is clear, but is there a plan? Speaking as an American, as someone who despises Syria and its use of chemical weapons, and as a lover of the State of Israel, I am not sure noblesse oblige in this case means we are obligated to do something. Morally it is clear we cannot stand by when chemical weapons are used. Or when innocent men, women and children are brutally murdered. But what is the moral response in this case? So we bomb Syria’s ability to make more chemical weapons. And now we are at war with Syria? What happens next? What is the plan? We learn in Zen the phrase: Don’t just do something, stand there! In other words, have a plan before you act. What is then the plan? Syria is a terrible place. But standing in the Golan Heights three months ago, looking at the village of Kuenetra, which has been in Syrian hands since 1973 and was the site of a rebel offensive in late spring, I could not help but hope that the Syrian Army was in control. There’s the old story of the funeral where the deceased was so bad that nothing good could be said about him. The rabbi pleaded with the congregation to find something good to say. Finally, one person got up and said, “Well, his brother was worse!” The Syrian army is terrible. Are the rebels any better? Again I ask: What’s the plan? There are many reasons for the U.S. to intervene in Syria, including the 100,000 casualties, the 2 million refugees, the repeated use of chemical weapons by a dictator who is a puppet of Iran. Morally we have the obligation to intervene. But to do so without a clear plan about what happens next can only make matters worse. Worse for us. Worse for Syria. Worse for Israel. I support AIPAC and David Harris of the American Jewish Committee so I am troubled that my reading of the situation is different than theirs. But I just don’t see the logic in firing missiles. America should be a moral beacon but acting without a plan is not so moral, as we have discovered in the Middle East, time and again.
The bottom line is that being obligated to care does not always translate in being obligated to act. And until a constructive and responsible plan for bombing Syria is unveiled, I cannot see justification. Tell me the plan and then we can discuss it. But first there has to be a plan. That Mini Cooper outside, the one advertising a future part at Temple? It reminds me of the Beatles’ Song “Drive My Car.” The song is about an absurdity. When the guy signs up to drive the girl’s car she says, “I got no car and it’s breaking my heart, but I got a driver and that’s a start.” I like this song because I admire the girl. She has no car but she has a driver and she also has a plan. Maybe we should be more like Israel, a country that talks little and does much in secret. All I know is this, as a parent, once you are acting to avoid the “credibility gap” you are no longer acting. You are reacting. And, after Iraq, elusive weapons of mass destruction, and “mission” accomplished, that is a shaky foundation for an act of war. President Obama is not President George W. Bush. But he is living in a post President George W. Bush world. And so I must repeat: noblesse oblige is not the same thing as carte blanche. Same language, different words. In the meantime, and far closer to home, we can remember that, besides the nobility of being human, and the responsibility of being Americans, we are also blessed in this congregation for having the yichus of our Jewish heritage. Consider Temple Sholom of Chicago. We have so much. We have an amazing building and air conditioning and beautiful windows. We have classrooms. We have musicians and clergy and people with talent, and willing worshippers. God has given us much, and therefore we are “much obliged.” So how do we give back as a congregation? We share our good fortune with others. We feed the hungry, we visit the sick, and we take a stand for social justice. We nurture ourselves but we also know that, to be a sacred community, we have to stand for something and not just stand on the corner of Stratford and North Lake Shore Drive. And why do we do so? Because we have been blessed. And we should never forget it. In the Bible, we are called a mamlekhet cohanim, a kingdom of priests. We are all royalty; and we are all called to serve.
Back in the days before the Civil War, some visitors from the North were watching a company of slaves in New Orleans shuffling wearily along the dock. But one of them, in striking contrast with the others, had his head erect. And with an unbroken spirit strode among the others with the dignified bearing of a conqueror. Someone asked, “Who is he? Is he the straw boss or the owner of the slaves?” “No,” came the answer. “That fellow can’t get it out of his head that he is the son of a King!” And so he was. He had been caught and dragged into slavery as a small child. He had already been taught, however, that he was no ordinary person. He was the son of a king. And now, after half a lifetime of hardship and abuse which had broken the spirit of others, he was still the son of a king! My friends, our problem is not that we think too much of ourselves but that we grow up thinking too little. If we knew who we really were, we would not waste our time. We would not care so much about the little things. We would not degrade ourselves with vulgarity. We are children of royalty. We are aristocrats! And so I say, let’s share our blessings with others in the year ahead. As I do so I will think of the good people of Chicago who helped my family beat incredible odds and settle in this fine place. I will think of the righteous Christian police prefect in France who helped my family. I will think of Juan Trippe of Pan Am Airways who found four seats for my family. I will also pray that all lands – including Syria, Egypt and our beloved Israel, will know peace and justice. Finally, I hope that Temple Sholom, moving forward, will continue to stand for making our lives holy and our world a better place. Ultimately that is how we are to be judged. We start life with a debt to pay. We earn it back with lives of goodness, with righteous deeds. We are so fortunate to be alive. But our life is a not a gift but a loan. Our payment is a life of dedication to others. For whether we admit it or not, we are all aristocrats. And to those given much, much is always expected. To consider ourselves righteous, noble, and selected, is not out of snobbery. We are an aristocracy of equals. It is not a smug confirmation that we are the best people in the world and that whatever we do will be better than what anyone else does. It is a call to virtue and effort, love and compassion, sharing and helping. It is a call that mirrors the vocation of Abraham and Moses. It’s the call reflected in The Declaration of Independence and the Emancipation Proclamation. It is the very voice of the shofar that we heard this morning, summoning us to our higher selves, reminding us that the world needs us. “When the shofar sounds shall not the people tremble?” asks the prophet. We should tremble. For we have many debts to pay and much responsibility on our shoulders. I pray for us all. As our tradition reminds us: Ashreinu mah tov chelkenu! How great is our heritage! How noble our calling. How urgent our task. How sacred our obligation.
Rabbi Edwin Goldberg serves as the senior rabbi of Temple Sholom of Chicago, is the coordinating editor of the forthcoming CCAR Machzor, and is the author of five books including, Saying No and Letting Go: Jewish Wisdom on Making Room for What Matters Most and Love Tales from the Talmud.