We Can't Be Half Safe
A Rosh Hashanah Sermon
"Ha-yom harat olam -- This day, the world was created." This is the character our prayers ascribe to Rosh Hashanah. The Midrash, containing the rabbinic comments of our sages, takes this affirmation literally, that on this day the world came into being. Philosophers and religious teachers further find in this phrase an indication for the need for personal regeneration. They see in this day an opportunity for the individual, as well as for the group, to recapture the ideals and principles of the ages: "Maa'leh ani aleichem k'ilu nivreitem briah chadashah -- I consider you as having been created anew." If we achieve this process of regeneration, a new world can be created.
At this juncture of human affairs, this phrase takes on a new, extraordinary, potent and urgent meaning in a sense never envisioned by the rabbis. "Ha-yom harat olam -- This day, a world is created." For better or for worse; whether fair or unfair, a new world is now being born. WE are the witnesses of the chevlei leidah -- the pangs of birth -- as humanity seethes and writhes in the travail of delivery. The ebb and the flow of interracial and international strife often threatens to engulf us; but we find them to be the necessary adjustments for the new world order that is to come.
Race riots -- not only in the South, but in Harlem, Brooklyn, Rochester, and Jersey City -- serve to bring the problem closer to home. We become directly involved.
We find ourselves bewildered and confused; we are beset with conflicting emotions of hopefulness and distress; we envisage great opportunities and equally great peril.
As we climb the narrow mountain passes, the abyss is always below us: A misstep, and we are doomed. Yet, the goal of achievement draws us on, and we cannot resist reaching for the top. "Esa einai el he-harim; mei-ayin yavo ezri? -- I lift up mine eyes unto the mountains; I ask, 'From whence shall come my help?'" In a frail craft, we are tossed upon a turbulent sea. How shall we trim our sails? In which direction shall we turn our rudder? Where is the shore and what will be the end of it all? The answer of the Psalmist to his question is "Mei-et Hashem -- From God." It is appropriate on this Rosh Ha-Shanah for us to turn to our religious teachings for an indication of where we are to go, the direction we are to take.
We should not expect a detailed blueprint from Judaism, or from religion in general, on how to deal with the problems arising out of the cold war or out of race tensions. However, we can find guidance in Judaism as the fountainhead of our ideals, and as possessing a weltanschauung -- a world outlook.
Even if we cannot expect a blueprint of action, let us not minimize its message. Rosh Hashanah does have something to say to us, people of the 20th century, as we seek personal regeneration on this Rosh Hashanah and look forward to the creation of a new world. I submit that we can find basic principles in the teachings of our tradition that are relevant to our problems.
First, religion establishes the dignity and worth of every human being. In creating man, the Torah tells us that he was created of the dust of the earth, but "Vayivra Elokim et ha-adam b'tzalmo -- God created man in His own image." Adam is the universal term, and encompasses all of mankind. Every human being is touched by the Hand of the Divine: There should be no distinction on account of race, color or creed. Every human being is precious, and every human is the goal of creation.
Judaism condemns oppression as sinful against whoever it may be directed. It teaches the right of every person to self-fulfillment: Every one is entitled to an "even break." Equal opportunity and equality before the law are basic principles in translating the moral teachings of the Torah into everyday life. Whether it is the Jew of Russia, the Negro of America, or the people in some backward country in the jungle of Africa, being the creation of God, they should enjoy the dignity and worth of human beings and should not be pushed around.
This brings us to the second principle in our tradition: the unity of mankind. I believe we have come to recognize that the world cannot be half slave and half free, half safe and half unsafe, half prosperous and half hungry. Isolationism for nations and individuals died with the conquest of distance. Even the moon is within our reach. Walls need no longer be breached to reach those behind them, and the most distant places come within the range of annihilating missiles. There is no known defense against them other than the fear of God and the welcome good will of men. We are all in the same boat: We either sail together or sink. Those who would have it otherwise are either trying to blind themselves or are attempting to mislead those who would put their trust in them.
Third, Judaism teaches that there is no absolute sovereignty of a group, state, or nation. Every organized unit is responsible for the deeds it commits as much as are individuals. In our prayers we say, "Ve'al ha-medinot bo ye'amar -- As for the countries, it is determined" -- which shall go to war and which shall enjoy peace. "V'chol b'ruei olam omdim l'fanecha ba-din -- All creation stands in judgment before Thee."
Crimes of states are subject to review, either by the World Court at the Hague or by representatives of their peers assembled at the United Nations. No individual can claim immunity for crimes committed in the name of a sovereign state, for no one and nothing can stand above the law. This has now been established as a principle in international violations. Former Nazis have been denied immunity when they argued for it at the Nuremberg trials or, at those trials that have taken place since then, that they were acting for the state and were not free agents.
These, then, are the commitments of religion, and particularly of Judaism: the dignity of man, the unity of mankind, and the responsibility of individuals and nations. We cannot be unaware of the difficulties in their attainment.
We encounter the narrow-minded nationalists who are concerned with individual state sovereignty. We encounter men of ill will who remain imperviously blind to the responsibility of the group for the welfare of the individual. We encounter the shortsighted who give expression to a nostalgia for the past and a desire to maintain the status quo. Their motives may be economic, or may be political, but the end is the same: They seek to impede the progress of transition to a new world.
The travail of birth, once started, cannot be held up indefinitely without serious danger. The travail may be long, and the suffering much, but we can move toward it. It is to this task that we are being called on this Rosh Hashanah, when a new world is born. We pray for the establishment of the "malchut shamayim -- kingdom of heaven." We hope for the day when "v'ya-asu kulam agudah achat -- all peoples will form one community to do Thy will." We can't expect to attain the Kingdom of God and the ideal world with a single blow. We are summoned to be the "midwives" at its birth, and to assist in the establishment of the new order: to join hands with all men of good will, if not to achieve the Kingdom of God, then at least to lay the foundations for a more just and happy world.