Rosh Hashanah Morning Sermon 2017

Below is a transcript of the sermon given by Austin Zoot at Temple Oheb Shalom in Sandusky, Ohio on September 21st, 2017.

When the year 5776 began two years ago, I was living in Israel, beginning my rabbinical school journey. During that year, I was learning about the basics of our faith, the history of our people, and, most intensely, about life and society in Israel. One of the elements of the year that I found particularly intriguing was that my time in Israel overlapped with the American Primary Season. I was, in a way, getting to experience the American election from the perspective of an outsider. I was getting to see how the world saw us, and how our decisions as a nation had an impact on our allies.

By the time I got home to America in May, the primaries were essentially over. The year, in retrospect, could be fairly significantly defined as a year of polarization. Our nation had divided itself into camps. You had those who identified with Bernie, those who were Trump supporters, those who were With Hillary. What years ago had been impolite to discuss was now unavoidable. To ignore the politics of the world was to appear ignorant or disengaged.

Well, the year 5777 began almost exactly before the election of 2016. What came next was, in many ways, defined by an election in which one candidate received a significant victory in the electoral college, the other receiving a victory of the popular vote by a wide margin. The polarization from the year before was about to shape the coming year.

Thus started the year of reaction. It seemed, over the past 11 months, as if every day came with a new reaction to something going on around us. Donald Trump was sworn in as president, the next day saw the women’s march on Washington. News media outlets published pieces and the White House restricted access. Countless executive orders and bills were brought forward and the public ran to their keyboards to express their frustration and their indignation. Even when our enemy was nature, we reacted, rushing forward to offer donations of time, money, and shelter to those affected by the hurricanes of this past month.

Overwhelmingly, this year of reaction has been difficult to process. We have struggled with a lack of control amidst a world that continues to move in ways that we don’t see coming, surprising us and driving us to actions that, in some cases, we never thought we would have to take. I never thought I would have to explain why participating in climate change agreements were important, yet we did this past year. I never thought we would have to debate what “real news” is, because all of a sudden the foundations of truth have been uprooted by the spread of mislabeled opinion. I never thought that on Rosh Hashanah morning, I would have to be discussing the fact that yes, Naziism is wrong and that Jews would have to live in fear in this nation, one founded on equality and liberty and freedom, of those who seek to destroy us because of our faith that is different from theirs.

We are living in a time of change in the way our society functions. We have easier access to information than ever before, and it is, in some ways, growing difficult to hide from the inundation of data streaming in. With every update, we react. With every news blast, we react. We have gotten to the point where, in the time it takes us to process what has just happened, the world has already moved on, forcing us to grapple with the next dilemma, the next challenge, the next scandal.

The year 5777 has been exhausting, confusing, and difficult. Which is why, in 5778, as we begin anew today, we must turn this year into the year of action, rather than reaction. It is time that we change our focus away from the ever-changing cycle of reaction in favor of proactively making the world a better place.

We know, after all, what this feels like. When we have an experience thrust upon us, a difficult and trying day, we feel that frustration and exhaustion from the loss of control and the demand to catch up. But, when we know what we are about to set out to do, when we have our marching orders before we embark, we feel like we’re accomplishing something, like we’re making a difference. The ownership fuels us. The action inspires us.

What does that look like, though? It can start in the simplest of ways. In Cincinnati, like many communities, we have a high population of homeless and hungry people, asking for money on street corners. They stand on the highway off ramp and ask for handouts. It was in my fourth month in the city that I finally got frustrated with the constant feeling of inadequacy. I wasn’t able to clothe them or shelter them or help them in all the ways they needed. What could I do? How could I become part of the solution?

I finally decided that I would buy a box of granola bars that I would keep in my car. I can’t be giving money every time someone needs help, but I can help ease a little bit of hunger for today. Maybe it’s granola bars. Maybe it’s a few blankets or hand warmers as the days grow colder. We, as individuals, have the ability to look at those who need help around us and to reach out and make their lives easier. The assumption, of course, is that if I make this tiny little effort, than everyone else will join with me. In our tradition, Rabbi Tarfon teaches us that it isn’t our job to complete the task, but we aren’t free to ignore it either. We have a difference to make, and we each have to do our part to make it happen.

Now, not all help has to be financial, but sometimes a donation of money is the best way to help a specific cause that we’re passionate about. When you make your donation, though, don’t do it alone in your home. Tell people about it! Share it on social media. Organize games and activities around making donations to causes that speak to you. Maybe you make a bet on football. For every loss by the Browns, you donate to your favorite charity (and there will be many of them). Maybe you ask your friends to sponsor your daily walk; for every mile you traverse, your friends will donate to the cause of your choice. Find friends who will match your donations and partner in your work and all of a sudden, your giving grows beyond what you can afford, and your ability to make a change grows too. It may sound like bragging about the good you’re doing, but in reality, it may be an inspiration to someone else to do their own version of good.

A huge part about taking intentional action to make the world a better place is about wearing your values on your sleeve. So many of the problems we are facing today are as a result of the animosities and resentments people are holding in their heart. We are experiencing racism, sexism, bigotry, religious intolerance. While I am only able to control the way I think and feel, I am able to share that with other people. Letting someone know that you are there for them, that you care, that you respect them as an individual is a powerful thing, something that we all too often overlook. These outward expressions of support are subtle, but they could go a long way toward letting someone in your life know that they are not alone in their fight against oppression, and that they have a partner on their journey.

One of the inherent problems with my theory, of course, is that if everyone listens, not everyone will be taking action in the same direction. If I go out and do, and someone who opposes me goes out and does, then we are pushing against one another. But, in the words of Aaron Sorkin, “decisions are made by those who show up.” We need to be present, we need to stand up, and we need to go out and fight for the world we wish to create. When that happens, truth and righteousness have a way of rising to the top.

Proverbs teaches us that “a person who runs to do just, good, and kind deeds attains life, success, and honor.” But we are meant to go run to do that work. The days of sitting back and waiting for the world to change around us are over. We have spent a year reacting, allowing others to decide where we are going to put our attention and our energy. Now is the time that we must take ownership of the places and the things that we want to exert our influence, the ways that we want to make an impact.

Rabbi Hillel famously asked the question: “If not now, when?” 5778 is the year for us to take action. 5778 is the year for us to go out and busy ourselves with the repair of the world. 5778 is the year that we take control of our task. May we all work together to fight for a brighter future.

Shana Tova.

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September 14th: Queen of the Hill

I’ve never liked Jemele Hill very much. She likes to talk about basketball and football, while I’m much more of a baseball and hockey fan. She and her co-host, Michael Smith, have taken up the mantel of discussing race as a lens for sports, and it just hasn’t been done as well as I would have hoped. I don’t love the fact that, even though what they have to say is incredibly important, it should be a specialty show, not a sportscenter spot. What I would enjoy as a political or racial conversation on a different platform or in a different format just isn’t what I’m looking for in a sports conversation, and Hill and Smith don’t always know how to balance that as well as I might enjoy.

Jemele Hill tweeted on Monday that Donald Trump is a white-supremacist. She tweeted that he has surrounded himself with other white-supremacists. She accused him of pandering to racists and bigots, and that his leadership is unacceptable. Hill, who has made a reputation for herself as a champion of African American issues and race relations in American sports, did what she does every day and she spoke out, voicing her take on the leadership of this country.

Well, as we might expect, the White House didn’t handle this particularly well. They immediately called for her termination at ESPN, insisting that these claims were unfounded and false. Unfounded may not be the right word, though. It says a lot about a man who is willing to speak with more conviction and passion about a person who said mean things to him than he would about the racists, bigots, and white supremacists to whom he is being accused of pandering.

ESPN put out a statement, essentially stating that Jemele Hill acted alone and does not represent the thoughts and feelings of the company, and Hill posted another tweet stating her thoughts as her own and declaring her respect for her company and colleagues to be unconditional. ESPN accepted the apology, and all is right with the world, right?

Not exactly. You see, freedom of speech is the favorite soundbite for every conservative republican in the country, right up until that person says something that the conservatives don’t like. Hill’s comments are not an unfounded statement of nastiness, but rather a reaction to countless times that the President has failed to lead this country in a positive direction. But regardless of what she said or why she said it, we live in a country that allows anyone to say whatever they want within a certain limit, and Hill is certainly on the right side of that limit.

Heath Evans, a coworker of Hill’s and a former NFL player, took to Twitter himself to be the leader nobody else seems willing to be. In a video filmed in his car, Evans said that while his politics don’t align with Hill on this matter, he supports his peer entirely in her right to say whatever she feels, and that his party needs to be willing to hear things that may make them uncomfortable without demanding the person lose their jobs or be silenced.

Whether or not anyone agrees with Jemele Hill is not the point. The point is that, as a black American, her voice cannot be silenced without confirming all the things she’s expressing, and the White House has, once again, proved their inability to focus on real issues at the expense of ensuring that nobody makes fun of them or says anything they don’t like.

On another level, Hill has finally done what I’ve been hoping for all this time: she has finally found a way that she can talk about the issues that are so important, to speak out against the injustice in the world, in a way that fits her message more specifically. While I may not want my sports to be overly politicized every day, I am delighted to hear her voice amidst the politics that needs to look her right in the eyes and listen to what she has to say.

September 6th: True American Greatness

We were promised in 2016 that Donald Trump would “Make America Great Again.” At the time, plenty of people wanted to answer a few questions. During which period was the greatness Trump wanted to return to? What is it that makes America less than great right now? How do we do this exactly?

It is difficult to quantify something like greatness. Is America great because of our freedom here? Well, plenty of countries have freedom at varying levels. America is hardly alone in their pursuit of the personal freedoms for all citizens. Is America great because of opportunity for success? Well, not all Americans are particularly successful, and plenty of other countries educate their children better than we do, setting them up for the possibility of a brighter future. Is America great because military force? It seems like our military force might be on the cusp of starting a fight from which nobody will come away victorious. Mutually assured destruction is something that is just as scary now as it was three decades ago, and would cause more damage to American greatness than it brought.

No, what makes America great is our vision for a brighter future. Americans, from the very inception of this nation, have been willing to set forward a dream for what it looks like to create “a more perfect union.” America’s greatness resides in our willingness, as a nation, to not settle for simply going about our business, but our willingness to search out justice across the globe, and our willingness to build a society that demands greatness at every opportunity.

A normal country seeks to take care of its own people. A regular country is expected to be able to feed, educate, and employ its citizens at a rate that keeps society going. A great country is one that is able to do all that and more, to be able to take in those who wish to hope as fiercely as we do. A great country is one that allows its greatness to serve not only as an expectation for our own way of life, but as a model for how others should live. Greatness is in being something greater, something better.

When this country chooses to turn its back on the children who were brought here to create a better life, we lost any claim at being great. When this country claims that we can’t take care of our own citizens, let alone worry about others, we lose our aspirational excellence.

The isolationism that President Trump seeks will not make America great. Choosing to end DACA and close the borders of this country to foreign immigrants does nothing to create further greatness. For 240 years, this country looked upward to a brighter future, a willingness to create something of value for the world. With the deportation of dreamers, we would be telling the world that greatness is no longer American, that America can no longer afford to be great. And we can’t let that happen.

September 5th: What is a “Traditional Family” Anyway?

This weekend, I took the bait, and clicked on a link for a political personality test. It was a 70 question quiz that was going to show me how my political beliefs fit onto a spectrum of ideology. One of the questions stopped me in my tracks. I was asked whether or not I believe that “American children should be taught Traditional Family Values.” Each of the words was capitalized, making it a proper noun, as if Traditional Family Values was a singular concept understood across the country. After thinking about it, I was forced to say no, I don’t believe American children should be taught these values, and to struggle with what that means.

On one hand, who doesn’t believe in values for children? Teaching the benefits of family seems to be a no brainer, too. We want children to feel loved and supported, and those who nurture their children should be the source of guiding children to lives of morality and being good people.

When used as a proper noun, though, “Traditional Family Values” take on entirely new meaning. “Traditional Family Values” are almost always based on Christianity. They are anti-gay, anti-divorce, anti-single parent. There are too many people who are told that they are unacceptable because of failure to comply with what has become a canonized understanding of what a family must look like in order to be “Traditionally Valued.”

This may be an over analysis of an otherwise simple question. But, in putting the question out there, I was forced to think about the role of values in a traditional family setting, something that made a debate of something that should have been a no-brainer.

“Traditional Family Values” are condescending and judgmental. They find too many ways that too many people don’t fit into a particular box of what a family must entail. But, as we all learn as we experience the world, life is far more complicated. Families, even the most moral of them, are messy, are unique, and come with the need for understanding. There are plenty of single-parent households raising kind, resilient young people, while plenty of married, heterosexual couples are creating cruel and immoral children.

The emphasis of the conversation needs to focus on values rather than tradition. I believe we need to be teaching children how to lead ethical, thoughtful lives, and in order to truly do this, we need to be willing to be a little more non-traditional.

September 3rd: What Lakewood Wouldn’t Do, We Have To Do

Religion can be a way for the world to use a set of morals and ethics to right the wrongs that plague us as a society. Religion can also  be one of the dividing facts that forces us to confront our different identities and struggle between people. When religious institutions interact with the world around them, they have to do all the ycan to be the soldiers of peace and the workers who bring on the love and kindness that they preach within their walls.

This was the opportunity that Lakewood Church, in Houston, Texas, was given this past week. With the devastation and destruction caused by Hurricane Harvey, the church, ran by televangelist Joel Osteen, had the opportunity to provide the kind of support and compassion that we admire about houses of worship. Instead, they turned down the opportunity to do some good for the world, instead looking out for their selfish interests.

When the weather began to turn and things started to look back, Lakewood Church did nothing to help prepare for the storm, claiming later that the city never asked them to do so. When flooding was ruining the homes of many of their worshipers and community members, Lakewood claimed to be flooded, a fact that was, at least at some level, disproven. Only after a social media nightmare descended upon them did they finally open their doors to serve those who needed a place to stay warm, safe, and dry.

I’m sure there was some degree of flooding going on at the church, and that uncertainty makes decisions about the best course of action difficult. I’m sure that, on some level, the church sees their building as an essential part of the work that they do, and damage to it could cripple their ability to make an impact on the lives of their parishioners later on. Yet, when all is said and done, there was an opportunity for Lakewood Church to put into action their claims of charity and caring, and they failed.

I’ve seen the way that the church operates. This summer, on a visit to the world-famous church, I saw them collect hundreds of thousands of dollars, saw them preach about what it means to have God look after you, telling congregants that God wants them to be happy and successful. Now, in this time of struggle and challenge, the church should have been offering the hand up that they promised would arrive. God wasn’t going to swoop in and save these people, the church was. Yet they chose not to.

I am profoundly disappointed by a religious institution’s refusal to take action at a time when their people were struggling so mightily. I have no idea what it must be like to lead a congregation when property is being destroyed, livelihoods are being taken away, lives are being lost. Yet, I know it doesn’t look like this. Religion is the opportunity to give people hope in times like this. Religion teaches us that we are to take care of one another, to pool our resources and ensure that everyone has what they need. Religion would never allow the selfishness and pettiness of turning your back on a situation demanding attention.

I’m unwilling to say that Joel Osteen is cruel or evil. His church means an incredible amount to many people, and he has given many people a place to call their own. Today, though, is a day of sadness, knowing that there was an opportunity for a brave, strong act of faith, love, and compassion, and that those with the resources to fix it chose to allow things to run their course.

It is now up to us, as all Americans, to do what Lakewood Church wouldn’t. We have to figure out what the people of Houston need, and do everything we can to provide for them. For when people cry out to God for help, it is the part of God within each of us that must reach out and provide that aid. Let the piece of God within you help guide the way.

August 29th: The Only Way to See Mayweather Suffer is to Not Watch

I paid $20 on Saturday to stand in a bar for 3 hours before watching two adult men beat each other up. I went in the hopes of watching as a despicable person got himself knocked around, and instead I wound up helping to make him one of the three richest athletes of all time.

Watching the Mayweather-McGregor fight, I was horrified by what was going on in the room around me. While I was trying to rationalize my watching by rooting against Mayweather, the majority of those around me had no problem cheering on a man known for his womanizing and domestic abuse. The sins of the man appeared to be forgiven in exchange for a little bit of violent entertainment.

The fight also brought out the worst in people. In a Buffalo Wild Wings in suburban Cincinnati, I saw people getting territorial and greedy, people getting offensive and pushy. A fight was about to break out in the bar just as Mayweather landed his final punch. To see humanity devolve like that was both sad and disgusting.

When the fight was over and I was walking to my car, I saw men and women celebrating Mayweather’s victory. They were cheering and gloating and partying. I wanted to ask them “How do you celebrate the success of someone who abuses women? How do you support someone who has no regard for morality or caring? How do you root for that kind of villain?”

It was on my drive home that it occurred to me that even with my disdain for the fighter, his paycheck was coming from my $20 just as much as it was from theirs. Even when trying to watch him lose, I had inadvertently lent credibility and celebrity to someone who deserves neither.

The best way to punish Floyd Mayweather, as I’m learning, is not to pay to watch someone inflict pain upon him. The best way is to demand that everyone remember who and what he is, and to remember that no amount of comfortable entertainment is enough to make any of his crimes go away.

August 23rd: Football Can’t be Football Anymore

During a preseason football game last week, two of the game’s most exciting young players made a powerful statement. While teammate Khalil Mack kneeled for the national anthem, Raiders quarterback Derek Carr placed a hand on his shoulder, a symbolic gesture of support. This week, about a dozen Cleveland Browns kneeled in a prayer circle during the national anthem, while their peers, both black and white, stood near them, hands on shoulder and on their hearts.

A year ago, Colin Kaepernick took a stand by refusing to do so during the national anthem. He was hoping to demand a conversation about race relations in a country that feels so broken. Now, it has cost Kaepernick a job, but the NFL seems to be having the conversation he inspired despite the protests of many football fans.

What started as a single uncomfortable protest has clearly grown into an opportunity for dialogue in locker rooms across the country. Black players have taken (and been given) an opportunity to tell their peers about their experience, to share their stories and how they feel about the world around them. White players have begun to offer support and a willingness to see from someone else’s perspective, or, in many ways, to come to terms with their inability to truly understand.

We’ve reached a point of deeper nuance. It is no longer true to say that sitting makes you unpatriotic, that anything other than standing is hostile to your own country.

The country as a whole has something to learn from the evolution of this conversation. As the world has gotten more complicated, we have, for some reason, demanded a simplicity that is impossible to uphold. Everyone is either a Democrat or a Republican. Everyone is either a racist or a snowflake. Everything must be completely good or completely bad.

We have to learn a new willingness to embrace the nuance. This doesn’t mean compromising our values or accepting the abhorrent. Yet, a true understanding of our reality demands that we be willing to listen to one another. We need to be willing to reach out a hand and be supportive of those who are fighting for their rights and for their ideals, even when we can’t fully understand why.

When Colin Kaepernick began his protest, America was too uncomfortable to talk about our challenges. Too many wanted to pretend everything was ok, to hide our heads in the sand from the dissent and frustration different groups felt toward one another. Now, though, we have realized we cannot escape the friction between groups of people. We can’t let football just be football. If we are going to have to confront the polarization, we must begin with better understanding and a willingness to listen. The Cleveland Browns have accepted that we have something to work on, and have begun the process. The rest of America needs to follow suit.