A Referendum on the American Dream: Rabbi Berkowitz’s Yom Kippur Morning Sermon 5777

“Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

This poem, written by Jewish poet Emma Lazarus, is engraved on the base of the Statue of Liberty. These were the first words that many of our ancestors saw upon arriving in New York Harbor. They might not have been able to read them, but the message came across loud and clear in the Statue of Liberty’s outstretched arm. Its torch lit the way to what, for many of them, was considered a “Goldene Medene,” a new Promised Land.

Fleeing persecution and poverty, our ancestors set their sights on a land that promised freedom and opportunity. Once the harrowing journey was over, they would have the chance to build better lives for themselves and their children.

My grandmother didn’t come through Ellis Island. Seeking to enter the United States in the early 1920s, my great-grandparents entered New York by way of Canada, to establish British citizenship and circumvent quotas on immigrants from Eastern Europe. My great-grandmother, previously one of Warsaw’s elite, scrubbed floors, while my great-grandfather candled eggs, until they had enough money to open a grocery store in Harlem. They enrolled their three children in the New York public schools and cheder, and saw to it that all of them went to college. Their hard work ensured that their children and grandchildren would have access to a good education, gainful and meaningful employment, and a level of material comfort that they could not even imagine for themselves.

Many of us have stories like these, great “American Dream” narratives of coming here with nothing, working hard to make something of ourselves, and giving a better life to the next generation. These would be great “lift ourselves up by our bootstraps” narratives, except for one thing. We did not pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. In some shape or form, every one of us had help getting to where we are today.

There was private assistance: the relatives who sent money and set us up with our first jobs. There was also a vast network of Jewish and secular benevolent societies that provided education, medical care, free loans, and legal aid to people who were new to this country. State and local governments stepped in to assist and protect new Americans: providing funding for benevolent societies, free public education for the children of immigrants, and regulation of threats to public health and safety posed by tenements and sweatshops.

Public and private assistance to new Americans wasn’t perfect, but it was widespread, in both the Jewish and public spheres. This is because welcoming the stranger is deeply rooted in both the Jewish narrative and the American narrative. We, the Jewish people, are a nation of exiles. And we, the American people, are a nation of immigrants.

Jews have been immigrating to, and settling in, America since a group of Sephardic Jews arrived in New Amsterdam in 1654. While there were not yet quotas keeping us from entering the Americas, Jews and other religious minorities faced discrimination and intolerance in early American settlements, and even after the founders declared that, “all men were created equal.”

The question of what role Jews would play in this nascent country came to the foreground in 1790, when George Washington himself visited the Hebrew Congregations of Newport, Rhode Island. In a letter to the congregation, Washington stated that tolerance of diversity was not an indulgence, but a basic human right, and that the country he served as president would give “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”

For a people who had been repeatedly pushed down into the status of second-class citizen—or denied citizenship altogether—America felt akin to Canaan, the biblical Promised Land. For the first time in millennia, it felt like we might be able to stop our perpetual wandering.

But even the Promised Land isn’t promised unconditionally, as we read in this morning’s portion, Nitzavim:

“And later generations will ask—the children who succeed you, and foreigners who come from distant lands and see the plagues and diseases that the Eternal has inflicted upon that land…just like the upheaval of Sodom and Gomorroh… all nations will ask, ‘Why did the Eternal do thus to the land?’ … They will be told, ‘Because they forsook the covenant that the Eternal … made with them when God freed them from the land of Egypt….So the Eternal … uprooted them from their soil in anger, fury, and great wrath, and cast them into another land” (Deut. 29:21-27).

This passage was likely written by a people already in exile, trying to understand their displacement from the land given by God to their ancestors. The Promised Land wasn’t something we thought we could lose. Suddenly, we found ourselves strangers in a strange land, wondering how we got there.

It shouldn’t have been such a mystery to us. The narratives of the Torah are rife with stories of punishment, destruction and exile. Adam and Eve lost their place in the Garden of Eden for disobeying God’s command. Noah and his family watched as the rest of the world’s corrupt inhabitants drowned in a flood. The architects of Babel were scattered into 70 nations for attempting to storm the gates of heaven. And the people of Sodom and Gomorroh disappeared beneath a maelstrom of fire and brimstone.

Why is it that the people of Sodom were targeted for destruction? The plain text attributes Sodom’s fate to the perversion of its inhabitants, who attempt an assault on two strangers staying in the home of Abraham’s nephew, Lot. But the rabbis suggest that the people of Sodom didn’t come after the strangers because of their depravity, but because of their unwillingness to share what they had.

One might think this kind of miserliness comes from a place of scarcity. But the rabbis tell us that Sodom was a place of great wealth. Neither human beings walking below, nor birds flying above, could see through the dense foliage of the fruit-bearing trees. Gold flakes clung to the roots of their vegetables. The people of Sodom didn’t become stingy because they had too little, but because they had too much!

Rather than feel blessed by their abundance, the people of Sodom began to fear that foreigners would take what was rightfully theirs, saying: “We live in peace and plenty…What need have we to look after wayfarers, who come to us only to deprive us? Come, let us see to it that the duty of entertaining foot travelers be forgotten in our land!”

So the people of Sodom developed an elaborate anti-wayfarer campaign. They charged people four zuzim to cross the bridge into their town, and eight zuzim if they tried to evade the toll by wading through a river. If a wayfarer was too tall or too short for his bed, they would cut him or stretch him to fit. If he begged in the street, people would give him coins, but instruct the local shopkeepers not to sell him food. When the stranger inevitably died, the people would retrieve their money from his pockets.

The animosity of the people of Sodom was not reserved for the stranger. They also stole from each other, were violent towards one another, and refused to feed the hungry amongst themselves, even to the point of torturing those who took pity on the stranger.

The rabbis explain that God’s punishment of Sodom is a response to the outcry of Lot’s daughter, who had been secretly sustaining an impoverished person. When the townspeople discover her transgression, they burn her alive, and she cries out: “God of the universe … exact justice and judgment in my behalf from the Sodomites” (Book of Legends 36:30-32).

The price of their selfishness and greed was exile and destruction. Not because of the isolated actions of its individuals, but because, according to Rabbi Eliezar, “wickedness became public policy endorsed and approved by the authorities” (Pirke De Rabbi Eliezar 25).

We might hear this and think, “What does it have to do with us? We would never do anything like that in our country!” But only two years ago, a 90-year-old WWII veteran named Arnold Abbot was arrested multiple times for violating a local ordinance against feeding the homeless in public spaces in Florida. This may sound like just another irregular news item. But policy-making and political rhetoric against those in need is not. Those seeking public assistance are treated as a nuisance and a drain on our society, rather than the responsibility of a nation built by the tired, poor, and the tempest-tost.

It is not a coincidence that our country’s entrance bears the verse, “I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” In Emma Lazarus’s day, welcoming the stranger to this land of opportunity was a major point of American pride. But just over a century later, when the plenty in our land has only increased, we speak of replacing our golden doors with high walls, in the interest of preventing, and forcibly removing, those who seek to make a home here.

While it is impossible to speak of the American Dream without mentioning our immigrant past, it is not only immigrants and refugees who suffer from our scarcity mentality. Citizens of this nation also fall victim to the rhetoric of “us versus them.” Those of us in positions of privilege and power have become so concerned with protecting what we have, that we allow others to be oppressed in the name of our own security and comfort.

We support policies that deny workers fair wages and the most basic assistance in caring for themselves and their families, so that we can have cheap labor, cheap goods, and a lower bottom line. This doesn’t just impact the people at the bottom. Skilled workers and educated professionals too find themselves struggling to make ends meet, in a society that provides little help in the way of childcare, loan forgiveness, and pay equity.

We support a criminal justice system that disproportionately punishes poor people and people of color, so that we can feel safe, or even, in our worst moments, so that corporations might profit from the business of incarceration.

We balance our budgets on the backs of our public education and health care systems, as well as by cutting funds to other agencies that assist those living in poverty. Then we blame the poor for somehow not being gritty enough to pull themselves up, like we did.

We are so concerned with voter fraud, something that only happens only a few hundred times per election, that we would allow laws to pass that deny voting rights to tens of millions of American citizens, mostly the poor, the elderly, and people of color.

Many of us are so disgusted by our political system right now that we are tempted to throw up our hands and not participate at all. But it is not enough for us to hope that the rest of the country makes a good decision, or to resign ourselves to whatever the outcome of this election may be. Apathy is not an option for us, as Jews or as Americans, because every election is a referendum on the American Dream.

american-dream-word-cloud
This sermon as a word cloud.
Every election is an opportunity for us to decide who we want to be as a nation. Do we want to perpetuate the “bootstraps” myth of rugged individualism, or do we want to acknowledge that even the most tenacious and persistent of us would not be where we are today had we not received help from our community and our country? We have survived centuries of discrimination and persecution in this country and all over the world. Will we stand idly by as our country continues to push down its weaker citizens: its immigrants, its people of color, and even its women? Do we want to be a nation that tightens its borders and starves out the wayfarer, or do we want to be a nation that cares deeply for its own citizens, and welcomes the stranger, as we have been welcomed and cared for?

This election comes down to this: do we want to be Canaan, a land of promise and plenty, or do we want to be Sodom, a land of fear and self-preservation?

This question is very real to us as we begin this new year. We have just learned that Church World Service has been approved to open a Voluntary Agency for the resettlement of refugees in Dutchess County. Vassar Temple is working with local religious institutions, universities, and non-profits to support individual refugee families who will be resettled in our area.

Our community will be called upon to provide assistance in many different ways. I know that we will welcome these families to our community with open arms, and with generous support, because that is who we are as a community.

But what will we do for the 65 million others who are persecuted in, and displaced from, their home countries, as we once were? The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the very agency that helped many of us settle in this country, has shifted its focus to helping immigrants from outside of the Jewish community. They are calling upon us to support their work of helping refugees settle here and abroad. They are also asking us to urge our government leaders to increase the number of refugees we are accepting into this country. That number is now only 10,000, a small fraction, even of the 1% of refugees who are eligible for resettlement in the first place, and who have passed through our rigorous screening process.

This is what we can do for those who are strangers in a strange land. But what will we do for those citizens of our country who do not yet know the freedom and equality upon which the United States was founded? Our first step is to ensure that all of us can participate in the election this November. The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism has launched a campaign to increase voter participation and voter protection in this election, because ensuring that all people have the right to vote is the first step in ensuring that so many of our other rights will be protected.

I encourage you visit their websites, to learn what you can do to increase access to the American Dream, by welcoming more people into this great country, and by empowering those who are already here to make decisions about our nation’s future.

The RAC has named their campaign after this morning’s Torah portion, Nitzavim, which means, “you stand together.” At the start of this Torah portion, we hear who is standing on the banks of the Jordan, preparing to enter the Promised Land: “You stand this day, all of you, before the Eternal your God—your tribal heads, your elders, and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your women, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to waterdrawer—to enter into the covenant of the Eternal your God” (Deut. 29:9-11).

Even in the patriarchal, particularistic religion of ancient Israel, Moses goes out of his way to mention groups that we might expect to be left on the margins. The speech is addressed, not only to the elders, the officials, and the men, but also to the women and the children, the day laborers, and the strangers in our midst.

God reminds us: “I make this covenant…not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day…and those who are not with us here this day” (Deut. 29: 14). “Those who are not with us today,” includes those of us who are sitting here this morning.

Every year at Passover, we remind ourselves that, in every generation, we are obligated to regard ourselves as if we, personally, went forth from Egypt. Even as we sit reclining at our dining room tables, we are commanded to remember the pain of slavery as a personal trauma, so that we will never lose our empathy for the downtrodden and the oppressed. The same can be said of our much more recent experience as new immigrants in this country.

We as Jews aren’t a people who believe that one can start from birth at zero. Even as we enjoy our comfortable lives, we carry with us the history—no, the memory—of previous generations: who wandered, who struggled, who knew persecution and discrimination, and who relied on public and private assistance to survive and to flourish in this country.

When we stood on the banks of the Jordan, we entered into a covenant that demanded that we help the poor, the vulnerable, and the stranger. Centuries later, when we passed through the “Golden Door” into this great country, we also entered into a sacred covenant, to take every opportunity that was granted to us, and to make sure that others would have the same opportunities that we once did.

As we open the door to a new year, may we honor these covenants. May we be ever-vigilant to protect the rights of the homeless, the poor, the stranger and the tempest-tost. May we remember that we are a nation whose founders swore to give “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” And may we work diligently to fulfill that vision of a Promised Land inscribed on our nation’s entrance, “I lift my lamp beside the Golden Door.”  And let us say, Amen.

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1 Comment

  1. ibritter

     /  October 15, 2016

    Read, and then re-read this inspired and powerful semon. It starts with the prohetic words of Emma Lazarus, which is perfect. It ties in the historic statement of man I personally believe to be guided by the devine on a devine mission, George Washington. The appeal and the appeal of this remarkable sermon is profoundly powerful. This sermon is a fine example of why one must “get themselves a Rabbi.” This sermon is testament to the blessings of a Temple. Rabbi raises the Torah high, as I believe she raises America to its highest calling, as a “new promised land” of freedom and a home for those seeking hope. As a good sermon should, Rabbi challenges us to better human beings and to help heal the world. G-d bless Rabbi Berkowitz and Vassar Temple for this extraordinary Yom Kippur sermon.

    Reply

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