The Covenant

A Rosh Hashanah Sermon
by Rabbi Benjamin H. Englander
September 1954

The section of the Torah that we read on Rosh Hashanah tells of a covenant Abraham made with the reigning sovereign, Avimelech. In it, the king's captain spoke unto Abraham, saying: "God is with thee and all that thou doest. Now, therefore, swear unto me here by God that thou will not deal falsely with me, nor with my son, nor with my son's son, but according to the kindness that I have done unto thee, thou shallst do unto me and unto the land wherein thou sojournest." Vayichretu shneihem brit -- and they made a covenant together.

A similar covenant was entered into by the first Jews who landed on these shores. A small group of Jews arrived in Niew Amsterdam, now the great metropolis of New York City, in September of 1654. After protracted negotiations with Governor Stuyvesant, and the intervention from the home government in Holland, the shipload of Jews -- 23 souls -- were permitted to land. They promised the Governor that they "would not deal falsely, but according to the kindness that had been shown unto them, they would do unto the inhabitants and unto the land wherein they were permitted to sojourn."

Slowly, these early settlers found roots. They won the right to build a synagogue, to purchase a cemetery, and finally, after years of struggle, they were granted the rights of citizenship.

From these humble beginnings, the American Jewish community prospered. It grew, developed, and increased to approximately six million souls. Wave upon wave of uprooted, persecuted people sought new homes in a new land. They found shelter from the Inquisition, the auto-DA-Fe, persecution, pogrom, the concentration camp, and the crematorium.

Great institutions of learning were established A multitude of organizations and a limitless number of movements enrich the Jewish community today. It has become a veritable colossus of strength.

The inspired Emma Lazarus, witnessing the early waves of immigration, wrote the immortal words now engraved upon the base of the Statue of Liberty in the Harbor of New York:

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free
The wretched refuse of your teeming shores --
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me!
I lift my lamp beside the golden door."

The American Jewish community has contributed largely -- directly and indirectly -- to the American way of life.

The early years were spent getting established. The immigrants arrived poor and miserable, and they became involved in the effort to create a livelihood for themselves, and to become economically self-sustaining. Many of them were peddlers, others worked in sweatshops. Nothing was too hard or too lowly for them to do. They paid the price. They became frustrated. Many had neither time nor patience for the spiritual and the poetic in life, and as a result became divorced from religion.

Those who remained true to the teachings of their fathers recognized only the old, the narrow Judaism as it had developed and was practiced in the ghettos of Europe. Thus, for many years, a process of disintegration and assimilation operated. Only the fresh waves of immigration served to bolster up the Jewish spirit in America, but as soon as replenishment from Europe ceased, Jewish life seemed to disintegrate at a rapid rate.

Only within recent years did the second and third generation find the time and the inclination to give thought to an American approach to Judaism; to refashion old traditions, and even to create new ones. At this new parting of the ways, when Jews in America celebrate the Tercentenary, we should take stock and evaluate the present status of the American Jew. What are the stark facts? Does the future hold out hope for us in this country? Can there be a strong American Judaism or will we succumb in the end?

There are those who look upon galut anywhere outside the borders of the State of Israel as a punishment and a sin. The more pious take literally the words of our prayers, "Umipnei chataeinu galinu me'artzenu. Because of our sins, we have been driven from our land," and apply it directly to our generation. Because of our sins we are kept from our land. Ben Gurion, former Prime Minister of the State of Israel, castigates all who would not migrate to the State of Israel, and condemns them to extinction and oblivion.

There are others who conscientiously believe that the Jew has a mission to perform, namely, to bring enlightenment to the world as, indeed, we have. When that is done, he must give up his individuality and permit himself to be incorporated and assimilated within the people with whom he resides. Reform Judaism expounded this point of view at one time, and it reached the apex of expression in our day with the American Council for Judaism and their opposition to the State of Israel.

There are those of us, however, who look upon America as an opportunity. We firmly believe that, for many generations to come, Jews will reside in America. To us, the advice of the prophet Jeremiah, given to the Jews of Babylonia, is pertinent today: "B'nu batim vasheivu, v'nitu ganot, v'ichlu et pirian." Build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat their produce; marry, and rear families; get wives for your sons, and husbands for your daughters. Do your best for the country, for I have sent you. Pray to the Lord for its welfare, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

If we would use this opportunity, if we would not be assimilated, but would, instead, perpetuate ourselves, then b'nu batim -- build houses -- build homes that are Jewish in character and content, nitu ganot -- plant vineyards, replenish the old vintage with the new -- created on these shores with a local flavor and character.

Those of us who believe in the survival of American Jewry see a purpose in our being here: "Ki l'michyah sh'lochani Elokim lifneichem. For sustenance did God send me before you," Joseph cries out to his brethren in Egypt. "Do not reproach yourselves for having sold me into captivity. It was God's doing in order that I may bring life to many." It was not our doing, but God's, that we found ourselves on these shores. American Israel time and time again rose to the relief of their stricken brethren everywhere, and as a mighty giant fought in the defense of the State of Israel when it was aborning just a very few years ago.

We have built, we will continue to build. This tercentenary is a rededication: Livnot u'lhibanot. To build, and by that very act of building, build ourselves; by building ourselves, we contribute to the further development of the American civilization and way of life.

"V'hitbarchu b'zaracha kol goyei ha'aretz. And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed."


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