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.


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.

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.

July 20th: Broadening Our Horizons to Deepen Our Understandings

When was the last time you read an article written by someone with a different skin color than your own? When was the last time you read a blog post offered by someone of a different sexual orientation? Have you ever read a sermon by someone who practices another faith?

We, as a society, have grown awfully comfortable living within the echo chamber of our own identity. We don’t know how to think from anyone else’s perspective outside of our own. It’s because we’re out of practice. The thoughts and perspectives of others feel dangerous because if they are right, it somehow means maybe I’m wrong.

On top of it all, we’ve so thoroughly pigeon-holed individuals that identity seems to be all we can talk about. Black writers examine race, women challenge gender issues, gays argue for the rights of marriage equality. Of course, it isn’t everyone, but we come to associate someone’s identity with their preferred topic of discussion. Somehow we have revoked credentials for meaningful discussion on too many issues begging for attention.

I want to know what a gay man thinks about the economy. I want to know what a woman thinks about steroid use in baseball. I want to discuss the enduring legacy of the West Wing with a Muslim, to hear how he thinks differently or similarly to myself.

Truth be told, I want to have these conversations not only despite their identities but because of them. Who we are influences how we think, and teaches us a great deal about what is and is not important. It’s time we embraced the idea that we aren’t always going to get along or agree, and to widen our horizons.

The written word has the incredible ability to allow one person to gain momentary access to the thoughts and feelings of another person sharing this earth. With our modern technology, it is only getting easier to collect and consume it all. What a gift we’re wasting if we only ever read things that come from “people like me.”

It’s going to be a little bit messy. Reading can lead to frustration and discomfort and unease, even to anger. But that’s the cost of sharing a world full of people who aren’t always going to see things my way.

I’m taking up the challenge. I want to learn more, to listen to new ideas and to be inspired by others to think differently. I want to engage in powerful discussions without the need to “win.” I want to participate in a great debate worthy of the innovation and freedom we enjoy. I hope you’ll join me.

May 25th: Balancing Our Mentality With Our Budget

In a satirical column in USA Today, I learned that Kentucky is the state that most depends on Federal assistance to run their operations. I also knew, based on this election and every one that came before it, that Kentucky tends to be one of the most Republican-friendly states on voting day.

This comes as a bit of a shock. How is it that a state that depends so much on the help from the national government can so regularly support the political party that wants a small central power, with the real strength being given to the states? If that was the case, Kentucky would be dooming itself by biting the hand that feeds it, in favor of being left to its own (rather poor) devices.

This kind of political dissonance is baffling to me, and begs to question: what is it that Republican voters like about their Republican candidates that they would be willing to sacrifice themselves in that way? We know there are pet projects that the Republican party supports that are hot-button issues in places like Kentucky: guns, abortion, same-sex marriage, and others. But, on the larger scale, these are small issues when confronted by the fact that, if all goes according to the Republicans’ plan, states like Kentucky will be left out to dry.

It makes very little sense that a state so dependent on the national government for support would be willing to so consistently vote for the party that seeks to make government “small enough to drown in the bathtub.” And it should be for even greater concern when we consider what would happen if the people of Kentucky actually got what they have been asking for.

May 24th: A Pain We Must Endure

I was listening to NPR today, and heard a report discussing the aftermath of the terror attack in Manchester. While comparing the incident to other examples of mass destruction in recent European history, the reporter mentioned that he was noticing less devastating grief, and more resigned sadness, as if the people of England have become desensitized to the terrible things of the world.

In that one instant, my heart broke. In discussing the death of dozens of young people at a concert, we are no longer shocked, horrified, or surprised. These kinds of incidents have become part of what it means to be a citizen of the world, as if terror is something that is natural and normal. Simply put, it isn’t, and we need to be reminded of that.

It is actually an incredibly human thing to desensitize ourselves to the horrors of the world. We wouldn’t be able to live with ourselves if we fell into devastation every time something bad happens in the world. Over time, we come to terms with the kind of things that we know are part of life. It’s why we ask “was he old?” when told of someone’s. Does it matter that he was old? Does that make it hurt less to a loved one? In a way, yes. We have programmed ourselves that the death of the old should be less sad than the death of a young person. It isn’t necessarily true; each individual gets to determine how they feel. But, in our subconscious, we insulate ourselves from losing ourselves in our grief.

Devastation and grief isn’t necessarily preferable. But the important thing we need to remind ourselves is that this isn’t how life is supposed to be. This isn’t normal, it isn’t natural, it isn’t something we need to learn to live with. A human being reached out and tore the life away from dozens of people, cutting their lives off entirely, and devastating the lives of countless others. Hate like that can never be made normal. Violence like that can never be allowed to become expected.

It is a terrible feeling to see the world falling apart and not know what to do about it. To get constant text messages and updates with acts of violence and not know how to help, how to make it better. But we need to live with that desperation, that passionate need for the world to be better than this. Because the other option is that the world continue as it is, and that simply isn’t acceptable. We have to be inspired to find a way to stop this hatred and this terror, and we aren’t going to be able to do that if we numb ourselves to the pain. The only way to make it hurt less is for us to figure out a way to happen less.