“We Must Love One Another Or Die”
On September 11, 1863, the Jews of New York gathered to observe Yom Kippur in their synagogues, a day, like in our time, devoted to fasting and humble reflection. But that was not the only communal fast day observed that year by the Jewish community. Only four months earlier, on April 30, the Jews of New York observed a national day of fasting that had been proclaimed by President Abraham Lincoln.
1863 was a difficult year for Lincoln and the North. The war was not going well, Lincoln was repeatedly replacing his commanding generals and Robert E. Lee of the South, was thrashing the Union army. Indeed, on April 30, 1863, the day that Lincoln set aside for national fasting – the battle of Chancellorsville began which would end up being the single greatest Confederate victory of the war. Growing anger against the draft would lead to an outbreak of violent rioting in New York that summer.
It was against these mounting Union losses and growing anger and despair, that President Lincoln, on March 30 issued the following declaration –
“I do, designate and set apart Thursday, the 30th day of April, 1863, as a day of national humility, fasting and prayer. And I do hereby request all the People to abstain, on that day, from their ordinary secular pursuits, and to unite, at their several places of public worship and their respective homes, in keeping the day holy to the Lord, let us then rest humbly in the hope that the united cry of the Nation will be heard on high, and answered with blessings, no less than the pardon of our national sins, and the restoration of our now divided and suffering Country, to its former happy condition of unity and peace.”
According to the historian, Gary Zola, the Jewish community of New York attended many of the city’s 27 synagogues that fast day – and many Rabbis preached sermons. One of those sermons was given by Rabbi Samuel Isaacs of Shaaray Tefilla in Manhattan. Rabbi Isaacs began by asking his congregation, “Why is it that the President of the United States has requested the nation to fast and to search their souls and to ask forgiveness for sins?” Because he said, “We as a nation had, in a quest for material and economic gain, abandoned the very principles upon which America was founded – openness and freedom, access to education, respect for the intellect – commitment to the rights of individuals.” Rabbi Isaacs called for a return to those principles and ended his sermon – “Let us in humility, implore God to have mercy upon this country, so that once again united, we may avoid those errors which have nearly destroyed our fondest hopes and injured the bright prospects looming up in the future – may we all be influenced by the sad picture that we behold, and plead with our Heavenly Father to restore our country to its former splendor.” And in the time honored manner of Rabbis to this day, he ended with these words “and let us say Amen”.
On that very same day, another Rabbi, Sabato Morais, preached a sermon at Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia, in which he chose, as his text, the very passage from the Book of Isaiah we will read next week on Yom Kippur.
“Is this the fast I desire?
A Day to Bow Your Head?
This is the fast I desire
To Break the bonds of injustice
To let the oppressed go free
To share your bread with the hungry”
Rabbi Morais goes on to say, “How dare we, with hands polluted with bribes, with minds engrossed in the pursuit of ill gotten gain – with hearts of stone that sacrifice the interests of humanity in order to attain power – how dare we even fast today and dare turn to the God of justice and righteousness.”
The Jewish scholar Marc Saperstein, who has studied sermons given in times of crisis, has said that it was common in the 19th century for leaders to declare days of national fasting and repentance. The idea of national penitence was widely accepted amongst both Christians and Jews – that individuals don’t just sin – but nations often do – and when nations sin, they too must examine their souls and join in repentance.
So American Jews, along with their Christian neighbors filled their synagogues and churches on a spring day in 1863 to fast and to pray for a country that was experiencing division and crisis. I have the privilege of standing on the pulpit of the finest congregation I know. I want to speak words of comfort and counsel, but I hear the words of my colleague from 153 years ago, Rabbi Samuel Isaacs, who challenges me with his words that describe, “The sad picture of a nation divided”. I hear the words of my long gone colleague Rabbi Sabato Morais, who said to his community, “How dare we even fast and pray if we ignore the ills of our nation. In his words “A nation filled with hearts of stone that sacrifice the interests of humanity to pursue power.” The scholar Marc Saperstein has said that someone giving a sermon during a time of crisis is confronted with three choices – to ignore the crisis out of fear of giving offense to a segment of the congregation – to say what he knows the community wants to hear in order to garner easy praise – or to challenge complacency. Rabbi Saperstein states that in a time of crisis, the choice of subject of a sermon takes on in his words “A terrible urgency”.
Unlike in 1863, we are not engaged in a bloody Civil War, and we are not massing armies on the field. But we are a nation divided. Poll after poll has shown that people on differing sides of political or ethnic divides quite literally see our country and its challenges in exactly opposite terms. Whether the issue is politics or the climate, or the role of the police, or violence in the cities, or rights for Gay and Lesbian Americans, or the treatment of black Americans, or immigrants, or the ability of women to make their own reproductive choices, there seems to be shrinking commonality on which we can agree and divisiveness seems to be worsening.
New York Times columnist Frank Bruni has written that we live in a country of sharpening divisions, pronounced tribalism, corrosive polarization, and in some cases it is flaring into violence and threat. It is indeed a time of terrible urgency, and so I invite you to consider with me today our national divisions and how we her, might begin to repair it. Now, the Torah reading we chanted today, is known in the tradition, as the Akeyda – the binding. La-akod means to bind with rope or a cord. Why is it called “The binding of Isaac”? and not “The near sacrifice of Isaac” or the “Journey of Isaac” or “Silence of the Rams”? Because as one of my teachers in Jerusalem this summer, Professor Danny Matt said, the moment of binding is the point – it’s not just that Abraham binds Isaac, he binds himself; binds himself to his absolute convictions; binds himself to his belief that he alone is right and is hearing the one correct message. That the call to slay his son, to shed his blood, was not subject to discussion or question or dialogue. Professor Matt says, the story of the Akeyda – the binding is not only about Abraham and Isaac, it’s about us – it’s about how we constrict ourselves. The danger of binding ourselves to one belief that leaves no room for discussion with others – no room for doubt. Isaac turns to his father and says “Father, ayeh ha se le-olah, where is the lamb for the burnt offering”? And Abraham, constricted and bound by his absolute belief that this must be what God wants, simply answers, “God will provide” – and a verse later, Abraham holds the killing knife over his son’s throat.
We have become a nation made up of people and political parties constricted and bound by ropes and chains of our own fashioning. We have replace a sense of shared humanity with tribalism, and loyalty to the tribe has won over loyalty to one another – and so we hear the same refrains – Muslims are disloyal, and mosques must be shuttered; immigrants are a constant threat; women’s bodies need to be controlled for their own good; all Conservatives are bigot, Gays and Lesbians threaten family values; women take jobs from men; America is a Christian nation; African Americans are violent; all police are racists; the poor simply won’t try to better themselves.
America in 2016 is experiencing its own Akeyda, its own binding; and we are binding ourselves, constricting ourselves at the worst possible time. As our roads and bridges are crumbling; as gun violence takes countless lives; as poverty increases and the life expectancy of certain groups is actually decreasing; as the gap between rich and poor widens; as the divide among racial lines becomes searingly and violently painful; as cities and towns face genuine challenges due to climate change; as we face real threats from new diseases like Zika; and live in an increasingly troubled world; and face genuine threat at home; we cannot come together to solve these ills because division stalks the land.
Martin Buber taught that there is a significant difference between dialogue and ideologue. We have become a nation of ideologues who disdain the notion of dialogue. Professor Matt points out that the dangers of being bound, the dangers of constriction are serious – Isaac, he says, never recovers from that moment – he lives his life, according to Danny Matt forever damaged. As does Abraham who never sees his son again.
If in the 19th century Americans accepted the notion that nations could sin was well as individuals, perhaps that notion should be revived in our time. And we Jews are uniquely positioned to model for America what it means to transgress, what it means to sin and what it means to repent as a nation – to repair.
We are experiencing the Aseret Yamei Teshuva, the ten days of repentance, when we are expected to search our souls, examine our misdeeds, change our ways, and yes, forgive and reconcile – even with those with whom we have been in conflict – and above seek to do better.
So my challenge to all of us today, is to take the lessons of this 3200 year-old Jewish holiday that brings us here today; the lessons of sincere soul searching, self examination – healthy doubt – honest reflection and admission of guilt. The lessons of the willingness to change – the willingness to reconcile with others. The lessons of the willingness to make peace – even with those with whom you disagree – but not only that – the lessons of compassion and caring, tolerance and love; the lessons of understanding and acceptance. Rosh Hashana, we are told, marks the day of the creation of Adam and Eve. You learn here in this room today, that this is the birthday of humanity – to remind us that we are all God’s children; all create in God’s image. Black and white and brown, male and female, gay and straight, rich and poor. Judaism teaches that today is the birthday of humanity. Take those lessons and bring them outside those big wooden doors; don’t leave them here. Don’t leave them when you place the prayerbook back in the pew – we need those lessons in here, we surely do – but we are in desperate need for them out there.
America is in desperate need of a Day of Atonement, of a Day of Repentance. America is in need of Rosh Hashanah – a day to remind us of our common humanity. Some of us here are uniquely positioned to effect change. Some of us here are involved at the highest levels of politics and business and law and culture. There are those in this room who are agents of change and influence. I ask you to take the values that are expressed in here, and bring them to your world – don’t leave them here. But you don’t need to be at the highest levels of business, politics, law or culture to effect change. All of us can do it. Bring the values of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the values of repentance and reflection, and change and compassion into your every day interactions, your place of work, bring those values when you encounter those with whom you disagree – especially those with whom you disagree. Everyone here has the ability to teach America what self-reflection and change can do.
Alexander Solzheinitzen said “The line separating good and evil passes not through countries, nor between social classes, certainly not between political parties – but right through every human heart. After immersing ourselves in ten days of reflection and penitence, we are uniquely positioned to reach out to the hearts of those around us. Don’t abandon the teachings of change and penitence in this room. The poet, W.H. Auden, wrote a poem he entitled, “September 1, 1939”, that day was the day that Hitler invaded Poland and World War 2 began.
I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.
Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of LOVE and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.
WE MUST LOVE ONE ANOTHER OR DIE
WE MUST LOVE ONE ANOTHER OR DIE.