Defining Ourselves-Rosh Hashanah Day 2 2015

Why Weren’t You Zusia? adapted by Doug Lipman

Once, the great Hassidic leader, Zusia, came to his followers. His eyes were red with tears, and his face was pale with fear.

“Zusia, what’s the matter? You look frightened!”

“The other day, I had a vision. In it, I learned the question that the angels will one day ask me about my life.”

The followers were puzzled. “Zusia, you are pious. You are scholarly and humble. You have helped so many of us. What question about your life could be so terrifying that you would be frightened to answer it?”

Zusia turned his gaze to heaven. “I have learned that the angels will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you a Moses, leading your people out of slavery?'”

His followers persisted. “So, what will they ask you?”

“And I have learned,” Zusia sighed, “that the angels will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you a Joshua, leading your people into the promised land?'”

One of his followers approached Zusia and faced him squarely. Looking him in the eyes, the follower demanded, “But what will they ask you?”

“They will say to me, ‘Zusia, there was only one thing that no power of heaven or earth could have prevented you from becoming.’ They will say, ‘Zusia, why weren’t you Zusia?'” (Doug Lipman, The Storytelling Coach, pg. 31-32)



This story teaches us that we need to be true to ourselves and develop into the best people we have the potential of being. I want to suggest today, that this is not only applicable to individuals, but communities, such as our Des Moines Jewish Community.

Much of the Jewish community in our time has serious questions about how we are seen around the world. We are scared about Western Europe- including France and England- as we hear about mass Jewish immigration to Israel from these places. We are worried, of course, about how we are seen by Iran and much of the Middle East.

But I want to talk about us today. American Jews, and more specifically the Des Moines Jewish community. We here are concerned about a number of challenges, but this is also a time of opportunity for Jews in America. I spoke yesterday about how Israel and Jews in general are defined incorrectly by others, and how this fuels things like the BDS movement I discussed Sunday evening.

If the definition of us is wrong, we need to replace it. We can stop waiting for others to define us.

It is a time of opportunity in some ways. In America, there is kind of a better picture to be fleshed out. If we look at a recent Pew study, not the one that made much of the Jewish community say the sky is falling, but rather a 2014 study, we find that Jews are the most respected religious group in America. Furthermore, as described by Rabbi Bradley Artson, we are now considered a wisdom tradition, like Christianity, Buddhism, and even Greek philosophy. This may be relatively new, that we are not seen as just the progenitor of Christianity, but rather a respected source of wisdom. This change can be observed on Facebook by how many non-Jews are seeking wisdom from well-known rabbis. I also see it in my conversion class, in which I have had students who come looking for truth and knowledge.

These conditions create a context in which we have some choice on how we want to present ourselves. Who do we want to be? And for what as a community do we want to be known? As American Jews? As Des Moines Jews?

To make this effort though, I would like to suggest that we need to give up some things. One of those things is fear, particularly fear of standing out. A survival strategy of our community has been to sometimes to choose to be quiet, with the idea that if we do not draw too much attention, maybe we will be left alone. I am not sure that this strategy is as effective anymore in a world that is so interconnected. Also, I think we may deserve better than feeling the need to keep a low profile.

More specifically, we may need to become less uncomfortable with the concept of Jewish power. I think we get stuck in a double standard. As a stereotype, we are called too powerful. At the same time, when we have acquired some amount of power, we then start to worry that we are fulfilling the stereotype. The only thing we can do with such a double standard is to basically ignore it. We need to stop feeling uncomfortable with discussions about the strength of Israel. Basically, Israel lives in a tough neighborhood and needs to be able to defend itself.

We need to stop apologizing for our political power, expressed by organizations like AIPAC, regardless if we like the organization or not. To critics, I would say if you want as strong a lobby in DC, then build it and stop complaining about ours. The person who gets called on in class is the person that raises his or her hand.

Locally, we need to challenge any suggestion that we are the “other” in Des Moines. Yes, we are a religious minority. But this congregation has been here over 100 years, as much as part of fabric of Des Moines as anyone else. Members of this congregation have helped build Des Moines. Other generalizations, like the idea that we all do well in school, need to be addressed. There is no conspiracy here. Our culture emphasizes study and education, even secular education.

But, besides giving up some of our fear, we American Jews need to give up another tendency often demonstrated by our community: we need to stop living vicariously by trying to base our identity on life in other places, places that are actually not like where we really live. In earlier American Jewish history, we focused on “the old country.” But the Holocaust destroyed much of that world and we are getting too far away in time for people to connect to it. Later, our focus became Israel. Though support to Israel from American Jews is extremely important, we cannot obtain our identity from it. This tact is not working for younger people. They are just not feeling it. They are asking questions about what Zionism means. Furthermore, trying to draw one’s identity through supporting Israel does not work for everything. For example, when someone we love dies or when we enter discussions with our neighbors about religious beliefs, Zionism does not always help.

In addition, there are problems with only focusing on Jewish ethnicity without any mention of religion or history. Plain and simply, we are more than an ethnic group. And talking about bagels and New York delis is not going to cut the mustard. Or the cream cheese. Jewish food has become American food. And these discussions are not going to motivate anyone to want to jump on board for Jewish causes or to explore Jewish ideas. Ethnicity is not the route to our future.

If we release ourselves from these limits, we are in an even greater position to define ourselves. I am not going to say I have all the answers, just some ideas.

We need to keep doing what we do and not lose ourselves. We need to still be part of social action causes and making the world a better place. Tikkun Olam is part of our mission. In Love Your Neighbor and Yourself: A Jewish Approach to Modern Personal Ethics, Rabbi Elliot Dorff states, “Jews believe that the Messiah has not yet come, that the world is still broken and fragmented by war, disease, poverty, meanness, and the like. Only God can ultimately bring the Messiah…Nevertheless, we human beings are to help God in that task as God’s agents and partners in the ongoing repair of the world…” We cannot close ourselves up and only worry about ourselves. We can continue or go back to being leaders on such issues as individual rights, education, poverty, interfaith cooperation, good working conditions, and justice. As the Torah states, “Justice, Justice shall you pursue…” (Deut 16:20)

As Rabbi Artson says, we have the choice between a bunker Judaism or a more open, more loving, more expansive Judaism.

Also, we can continue to be leading advocates for the separation for Church and state. The religious right is redefining freedom of religion to be freedom for them to do whatever they want, instead of the protection of religious minorities.

We can also become bolder in talking about God or our religion with our neighbors. We can mention the general notion that faithfulness does not need to mean exclusive access to truth.

In addition, we can remind people that Jewish story is one greatest human stories ever told. We would benefit from a return to study of Jewish history. Without people knowing history, we cannot expect them to demonstrate a love of Israel or Jewish identity. Over the years, we have overpolitcized Jewish identity- we are more than a lobbying group. We need to keep politics in its place so it does not consume everything. This will open space for Jewish identity, a deeper understanding of from where we came, who we are, and who we want to be.

Lastly, we need to take ourselves a bit more seriously. We Jews pride ourselves on our humor. Members of the tribe have been very creative. We are masters of self-deprecation. But is it ever too much? Ruth Wisse, in her book No Joke: Making Jewish Humor, shows that the benefits of Jewish humor are reaped from the paradoxes of Jewish life, so that Jewish humor at its best carries the scars of the convulsions that brought it into being. But it can be too much. She suggests that we may make jokes about ourselves to defend against the hostility directed at us. However, at times, these jokes start to sound like the objectionable things that we are afraid are said about us. She explains, “Just as inoculations can make you ill if they are too powerful, self-deprecation that is too clever, too constant, too ‘deep,’ may highlight the deformity it is trying to overcome.”

In her book, Weiss tried to highlight warnings against Jewish humor that issue from the best of its practitioners. Some, like Sholem Aleichim and Roth, have pointed out its injurious potential when used to excess. What we do not know about ourselves is not funny anymore. Not only that, but our tradition is not just a source of humor.

Of course, this self-definition needs to involve pride- but it has to be without arrogance. We may have a huge number Nobel Prize winners, but we also birthed Madoff.

We, American Jews, are living in an interesting time. On one hand, we are very concerned about our brothers and sisters around the world, and an uptick in anti-Semitism in this country. At the same time, we also have a strong opportunity to define who we are and how we will be seen by our neighbors. To do this effectively, we may need to move away from some of our past tendencies and habits. But in the process, we can help renew our commitment to our people’s holy mission. If we do, we will not have the doubts of Zusia, the sage I mentioned earlier, if we will be asked why the Des Moines Jewish community was not the true Des Moines Jewish Community, not the best community we could have been.

Speaker: Rabbi Edelman-Blank

Rabbi Steven Edelman-Blank has been the rabbi of Tifereth Israel Synagogue since 2009. He received his Ordination from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, California. Previously, Rabbi Edelman-Blank graduated Magna Cum Laude from Harvard University with a Bachelor of Arts in Social Studies. His eclectic experience includes interning at Burbank Temple Emanu El in Burbank, California, directing youth programs at Congregation Beth El in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, assisting with research in the field of psychology at Boston University, serving in AmeriCorps and an array of community service. His passions lie in community development and making Torah meaningful in our daily lives.