Shabbat January 20th, 2017
As Shabbat arrives this evening our nation will have entered a new era. No matter where one sits on the political and social spectrum I do believe today is a day when we see the strength of our nation. The peaceful transfer of power is one of the hallmarks of our great nation and is worthy of appreciation and respect. And while I hope the spirit of national unity extends beyond today, at least for today we have been able to see those with vastly differing perspectives standing together and celebrating our country’s democracy. We will see that democracy in action tomorrow as well, as hundreds of thousands of Americans make their voices heard as they call for respect for all people regardless of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation and socio-economic standing.
Etched on the cornerstone of our middle building are words from the prophet Isaiah: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all people.” These are not mere words for us but reflect the diversity that has, historically, been a cornerstone of our synagogue community and will continue to serve as one of our guiding principals. At a time of such division in our nation, it is more important than ever that we remember that our synagogue’s strength comes, in part, from an embracing of diversity – diversity of observance, diversity of perspective, diversity of political affiliation.
Now, perhaps more than at any time I can recall, it is important that we, as a community, continue to model this for the larger community AND, when necessary, act on it as citizens of this great nation.
I was struck last night and today by the continued reference to making our nation great. And I started thinking about what “greatness” looks like from a Jewish perspective. One perspective comes from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain. Rabbi Sacks puts it quite succinctly, writing, “Greatness is humility… Hence the Torah’s insistence on humility, not as a mere nicety [of leadership], a good thing to have, but as essential to the role.” Quoting Maimonides, he writes,
[A leader] should be gracious and merciful to the small and the great, involving himself in their good and welfare. He should protect the honor of even the humblest of men. When he speaks to the people as a community, he should speak gently, as it says, ‘Listen my brothers and my people…,’ and similarly, ‘If today you will be a servant to these people…’ He should always conduct himself with great humility.
As we enter into a new era of our national life it is important that we remember that greatness is as much about humility as it is strength, as much about equality as it is economic power, as much about inclusion as it is patriotism.
My colleague Rabbi Michael Knopf wrote a beautiful prayer for this Shabbat. In part it states,
You created the first man and woman in Your image, according to Your likeness, and made it so that all of us descended from a single parentage.
Through our origins You have taught us that we are all their children, and Yours. Not one of us can say, ‘My father was greater than your father,’ or ‘My mother was greater than your mother’ (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5). We are grateful to You, God, for creating humanity.
Help us remember that our diversity is a sign of Your greatness, for humanity has blossomed into extraordinary diversity even though we share a common origin.
Help us remember not to let our diversity obscure the basic truth that we all equally bear Your image.
Help us remember that we are all of us, regardless of the shade of our skin or the country of our origin, regardless of whether we were born in privilege or in bondage, regardless of the anatomy with which we were born or the language we speak, regardless of our gender identity or our sexual orientation, brothers and sisters.
Help us remember that, as brothers and sisters, Your love extends fully and equally to all, and no individual or group can lay claim to a disproportionate share of Your love.
Help us remember that, as brothers and sisters, our destinies are intertwined, and that we are all responsible for each other. We are all our brothers and sisters keepers.
To this, as this Shabbat approaches, I say, Amen v’Amen.
Rabbi Daniel Cohen