"Who tells your story" (first day Rosh HaShanah 5777 / 2016)

(Note:  this is an unedited version of the sermon I delivered on the first day of Rosh HaShanah 2016 / 5777.  Links, references, footnotes, etc will be added later.  Many thanks to the USH Choir for learning to sing the song so beautifully at the start and end of the sermon!)

Let me tell you what I wish I’d known
When I was young and dreamed of glory
You have no control
Who lives who dies who tells your story
I know that we can win
I know that greatness lies in you
But remember from here on in
History has its eyes on you

You have just witnessed the most self-indulgent thing a rabbi could possibly do during a high holiday service.  Some of you recognized that our choir just sang a little snippet from the musical Hamilton - And I, of course, appropriated for myself the role of George Washington. (This, by the way, is where we can distinguish the people who are new to this synagogue from the ones who have been here before.  The people who are here for the first time are saying, “ I can’t believe the rabbi just referred to Hamilton in a sermon!”  And the people who have been here throughout the year are saying, “I can’t believe the rabbi just referred to Hamilton in a sermon -- again!’)

There are any number of themes on my mind as we approach this new year on the Jewish calendar - war and terrorism, refugees and migrants, race, the election.  And don’t worry, we will get to some of those over these high holidays, some even today.

But one of the significant cultural phenomena of this year clearly was the musical Hamilton - this unlikely musical about America’s first treasury secretary - that has earned Tony awards, Grammy awards, the Pulitzer prize, the National Archives achievement prize, even a MacArthur genius grant for its creator Lin-Manuel Miranda - and is on pace to become one of the most outstanding hits in the history of the American theater.

First Lady Michelle Obama declared it “the best piece of art in any form that I have ever seen in my life.”  There was even a minor news story last week about how Prime Minister Netanyahu took time out of his schedule on his brief trip to New York to see it about 10 days ago.  Clearly it is being described as something more significant, more transformative, than a theater experience usually aspires to be.

In case you are wondering:  No,  I haven’t seen it yet. I have other financial priorities right now --  like sending my children to college.  But I have, however, spent some time listening to the music and thinking about why Hamilton has become the cultural phenomenon it is.

I chose these words that we sang in part because they just seem tailor-made for Rosh HaShanah.
For example: The line “You have no control who lives, who dies’ - of course this echoes the somber theme of Unetaneh Tokef, probably the very heaviest part of the High Holiday liturgy, describing the metaphor of the Book of Life into which we are inscribed, reminding us that our fate does not lie entirely in our own hands, as we don’t know what will come to pass in the coming year - But through Teshuvah, Tefilah, and Tzedakah - repentance, prayer, and good deeds, we pray to have the opportunity to transform the harshness of our destiny.

And the line ‘I know that greatness lies in you’ - reflects the sentiment of Psalm 8 designated for Rosh HaShanah: ותחסרהו מעט מאלקים-  we are “little less than divine.” We remind ourselves that as human beings we are capable of remarkable things and have the power to transform the world for good - if we use that power in the right way.

And the line ‘history has its eyes on you’ - these are such appropriate words to welcome a new year, especially in an election year when the conseque
nces of the election could be quite momentous for the future.  History has its eyes on all of us. (Well maybe not New Jersey so much, but certainly History has its eyes on Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania.)

But actually the part of this excerpt I am most interested in is the line about telling stories -- the line that asserts, ‘You have no control who lives, who dies, who tells your story.’

The remarkable and unusual thing about Hamilton, as you may know, is that it is cast almost entirely with actors who are African-American and Latino, people who would not have been considered to be part of the story of the birth of the United States - Or rather, of course they were an important part of the story of the birth of the United States, but the founding fathers didn’t notice this.

So think about the impact of having a play with US presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison all being played by African-American men - when all these presidents were slaveholders, none of them regarded African-Americans as having equal rights or abilities -- and to have their story told through musical forms like jazz, r&b, hip-hop, and rap that are associated with the African-American experience.  What a remarkable act of reclaiming and transforming the stories of the past.  It is for this reason that one of the advertising lines of the show is ‘the story of America then, told by America now.’

I read one interview with  the actor Daveed Diggs, who until recently played Thomas Jefferson in the show.  (By the way - with a name like Daveed -- yes, he is Jewish as well as African-American.)  When he was asked how being in the show and playing Thomas Jefferson influenced his attitudes about American patriotism, he said that he never felt remotely patriotic before being in the show.  He never felt any particular connection with the stories of the founding fathers.  Why should he have thought of Washington, Jefferson, Madison, as HIS founding fathers?  Jefferson in particular seemed to see no contradiction between writing ‘all men are created equal’ and owning slaves.  Daveed Diggs said he saw the stories of the United States at its founding as stories that didn’t really include him.  And then he gets cast as Thomas Jefferson. But Thomas Jefferson as an African-American man, in a show that makes reference to Jefferson as a slaveholder, that presents Jefferson as a multi-faceted character reflecting both is his flaws and his achievements.  And now for the first time the actor can see himself in these stories. He feels a sense of connection with these stories and with these individuals - and - yes - now he would say that to some degree he feels patriotic.  And this seems to be central to the impact of Hamilton - in that people who see it feel like, to some degree, they are seeing the story of themselves - as Americans, as members of minority groups, or as both.

There is not a single Jewish character in Hamilton, and there are far more Jews in this room than any of the founding fathers ever met in their lives.  And yet there’s a profound Jewish equivalent to what we might call the ‘Hamilton phenomenon,’ the way a story is transformed when someone is newly invited into the telling of that story.  Jews, of course, love stories -- and we love to reinsert ourselves into stories that are thousands of years old.  And in so doing - not only is the story transformed. So are we. The best example of this phenomenon can be seen at an annual musical theater event well known to us - called the ‘Passover Seder.’  (Though you might not have realized that the seder is a musical theater event. Even better:  dinner theater!) A famous phrase found in the Mishnah, later adapted for the Passover Haggadah - reads:  Bechol dor vador chayav adam lir’ot et atzmo ke-ilu hu yatza mimitzrayim.  “In every generation, each person should see him or herself as if he/she personally came out of Egypt.”  This is the line that instructs us that when we attend a Passover seder, we need to tell the story in the first person.  We don’t say ‘our ancestors were freed from slavery in Egypt.’  We say ‘WE were freed’ - even though that is not literally true.   We’re playing a role.  To paraphrase the Hamilton tag line:  The Seder is the story of the Jewish people then, told by the Jewish people now.

And what does that mean in practical terms?  On the one hand, it’s absurd.   Here am I, 21st century Jew in New Jersey, play-acting about how I labored under Pharaoh, how I escaped into the desert.  I eat the foods from long ago, I recline in my chair, even though I am far more distant from the Israelite slaves than Daveed Diggs is from Thomas Jefferson.  The whole thing can even seem contrived.  These Jewish ancestors of mine: How much would they approve of my life?  Would they even recognize the Judaism I am practicing?  What would they think of my attitudes?  What if I told them that I didn’t literally believe that the world was actually created in six days,... - how would they react?  (Maybe similar to how Thomas Jefferson might react to finding out that he’s being played on Broadway by an African-American man….)

And how would these ancestors react to this Jewish community, where men and women are treated as essentially equal and having equal opportunities for roles of religious leadership?  And where gays and lesbians are regarded as deserving of dignity and respect, which to put it mildly is quite different from what is found in traditional Jewish texts?    My sense is, they wouldn’t necessarily be pleased.  And yet - I am still stepping into their role. And in fact, traditional Jewish texts DEMAND that I step into their role, and speak their words of dialogue - like it or not - because ‘you have no control who lives, who dies, who tells your story.’  And I am privileged to tell their story - because it conveys so many of the great truths that are underappreciated in our world today - like the sanctity of every moment; like how each person is created in God’s image; like how God yearns for all people to be free.  

There are some Jews today who may feel uncomfortable with the idea that we are telling the stories of our ancestors - that WE are the ones who are bringing forward the values of this ancient Jewish people - when we think of all the ways our lives are different from theirs, all the ways that we might feel like we don’t measure up.   And we may look at other segments of the Jewish community and say, ‘they are better representatives of the Jewish people than I.’  But my sense is that our Biblical ancestors wouldn’t recognize Western clothes, but they wouldn’t recognize black hats and black coats either.  They wouldn’t recognize our 21st century prayerbooks, but actually they wouldn’t recognize the early Jewish prayerbooks from the Middle Ages either.  There is NO ONE today who is practicing the kind of Judaism that our Biblical ancestors would really recognize.  The more one learns about Jewish history, the more one sees that there is so much about every dimension of Judaism that has changed so radically  - change has been the constant in Jewish history.   That may be surprising - but that’s what happens when you have an ideology of encouraging people to tell the stories of their ancestors in the first person, generation after generation.

In both Jewish history and general American history, one of the themes of our time is that we are inviting more and more people in to be part of the telling of our important stories.  

In the United States, people of Anglo-Saxon ancestry have gone from being the near-totality of the American citizenry to being just one slice of a rich and colorful mosaic - as the United States becomes ever more multi-ethnic and will soon become ‘majority-minority.’   My sense is that most of the Jewish community sees this development very positively, in line with the metaphor of light shining through a stained glass window that is made all the more beautiful by all the contrasts -- as we remember that the Torah points out over and over again that the glorious diversity of humanity is part of God’s plan.

Of course one much sadder way that different subgroups of American society are being invited to tell the story of America has to do with the long history of African-Americans alleging differential treatment by law enforcement.  And only now with increasing amounts of video evidence are such reports truly being incorporated into the story that the United States tells about itself.

Probably the biggest change in who tells our story is that for many centuries it was primarily men who were part of the story of American public leadership - as well as Jewish public leadership.  And increasingly women are fully welcomed into the group of those telling the American story and telling the Jewish story -- and of course of creating both the American and Jewish stories.

The American Jewish community has long been overwhelmingly Ashkenazic - and while it still is, there is a growing priority to ensure that the full breadth of the American Jewish community is invited to share in the telling of the American Jewish story - whether by validating the experience of Sefardic and Mizrahi Jews, by validating the experience of Jews by choice who might not fall into any of those categories of Jewish sub-ethnicity but so enrich the Jewish people, and by validating the experience of Jewish and non-Jewish parents who come together to raise Jewish children, playing such a crucial role in the transmission of Jewish heritage from generation to generation.

There’s a story in the Talmud about a rabbi known as Rabban Gamliel who was the leader of the Sanhedrin during the Roman occupation of the land of Israel.  He functioned as the religious and political leader of the Jewish people at that time,  and he had a kind of aristocratic tendency.   He had imposed strict standards on who could come into the house of study, thereby controlling who it was who got to pass down the Jewish story - and it was primarily rabbis from the upper classes as he was.  But after some uncomfortable incidents he was forced to take an early retirement.  One of the first things that his successor, Elazar ben Azariah, did was to fire the gatekeeper, and give permission to ALL the scholars to enter. And so we read ההוא יומא אתוספו כמה ספסלי;  That day they had to add additional benches to the house of study to accommodate the scholars who were newly welcomed in.  And it was a celebratory day that would go down in Jewish history as the day when people who had previously been marginalized - especially people at all socioeconomic levels - Got to be part of the process of telling the Jewish story.  It was such a celebratory day, in fact, that whenever the Talmud uses the words בו ביום -- ‘bo bayom,’ ‘On that very day’ -- it is considered to be a reference to the day when these additional scholars were welcomed in.  In the United States and in the Jewish community, we may now be an an exciting ‘bo bayom’ moment.

My sense is that very few of us here have American ancestry that was here since colonial times or even since the lifetime of Alexander Hamilton.  Most of us are descended from people who have been invited more recently to share in the telling of the American story.  So in our family histories, we know the experience of immigration. For some of us as individuals or as families, we know the experience of being refugees.  And so the Torah readings for Rosh haSHanah have a poignant resonance for many of us in that they revolve around the family of Abraham and Sarah, the first family of the Jewish people, - who were migrants.   They arrived from present-day Iraq to the land of Canaan, but then are forced to migrate from region to region.  They are at the mercies of powerful kings in Egypt and in Gerar.  Their nephew gets kidnapped and it’s a struggle to get him back.  And when Sarah dies Abraham has to pay an exorbitant rate for a burial plot for him because, as he says,  ‘ger ve-toshav anochi imachem’ - ‘I am regarded as a stranger and an alien in your midst.’

To put it mildly, no one is invited Abraham to be one of the tellers of the Canaanite story. He is an absolute outsider.  And In Abraham’s experience we see some echoes of the experience of migrants and refugees today - the largest number in world history. “65 million people who have fled their homelands due to persecution – harassment, threats, abduction, or torture, because of their race, religion, nationality, sexual orientation or political opinion.” (HIAS)   The Torah repeatedly commands "You shall not oppress a ger - a stranger, using the very word that Abraham used to describe himself -- and in the book of Exous (23:9), the torah continues: ואתם ידעתם את נפש הגר כי גרים הייתם. בארץ מצרים.  ‘For you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt. "

My friend and colleague Rabbi Shai Held has noted, following on the research of the biblical scholar Frank Spina: “[the Hebrew word] Ger may also derive from an [ancient] Akkadian word meaning ‘enemy.’ This is hardly surprising, since immigrants were often perceived as dangerously subversive threats. Although they ‘saw themselves as reacting to social difficulties…. officials and rulers often saw them as the cause of turmoil.’ ”  So it is nothing particularly new to take the complex challenges of a society and to blame them all on the most convenient scapegoat - the immigrant.  No wonder Abraham was harassed wherever he went and regarded as a threat rather than as the person who was migrating specifically because he was being threatened. Expanding who tells our human story requires giving a voice to those who have been displaced.

Clearly some immigrants are criminals. But the rates of crime among immigrants, even undocumented immigrants, are lower than those among the native-born American population.  And it’s also undoubtedly true that religiously motivated violence is a terrible problem in our world, in the Syrian region, and in the United States.  We think of the bombs just two weeks ago in Manhattan and Elizabeth, motivated by Islamist extremism.  It is only because we were extremely fortunate that they did not cause catastrophic damage and loss of life.  And yet: the overwhelming majority of those who are displaced are fleeing from just that kind of tragic reality.   And those who are admitted to the United States as refugees -- a tiny tiny handpicked percentage of those millions who are displaced -- go through the kind of rigorous process that makes it simply not an effective strategy for those seeking to do harm.  We have Mark Hetfield, CEO of HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, coming to us in just a couple of weeks, during Sukkot, to discuss this further with us.   The American refugee program has been yet another way that more people get welcomed into the community of people telling the American story.

Inviting others in to join us in telling our story requires trust, and courage, and a fine sense of empathy.  And Rosh HaShanah is not only about the Jewish story - but about each of our individual stories.  Of course we know this to be true about ourselves as well-  We have no control who tells our story.

The book of life as described in the Mahzor may be a metaphor.  But we know that the story of our lives that really matters is not the story we tell about ourselves, but the combination of our own story and the stories that others tell about us.   It’s like a 360 review - where all the different people in one’s life, friends, colleagues, parents, children, employees, employers, community members, clients, neighbors, and God - all collaborate with us together to tell a story about each one of us.   Each act of kindness we performed - or didn’t.  Each act of self-sacrifice - or each unrealized opportunity.  Each harsh word or kind word, each step toward others or away from others.   Our story is the aggregate of all the things we have done this year.  

And sometimes it’s the storytellers who are most likely to be overlooked whose story about us can be most powerful.  Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, recently retired as the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, wrote that he would often have guests over to his home for shabbat meals, including national leaders - and he and his wife would employ serving help in the kitchen. He said that in all his years in his position, among all the world leaders, British leaders, Jewish communal leaders, figures in the world of culture and business, there was exactly one person who requested to go into the kitchen to personally thank all the people who were working in the kitchen.  That one person  - certainly not the most illustrious person to have a Shabbos dinner with Rabbi Sacks -- was former British prime minister John Major.  Not that what he did is the be-all and end-all determinant of righteous behavior. But it made an impact on the kitchen staff, as it did on Rabbi Sacks, and became part of their story of him.   As our own stories are a combination of all the stories that are told about all the interactions that others have with us.

For this new year 5777: ask  yourself: who is it who tells your story?
Your story as an individual striving to live a life of generosity and justice.
Your story as part of the ever-more-diverse mosaic of American society.
Your story as part of the Jewish people transmitting a proud heritage through the generations.

Let me tell you what I wish I’d known
When I was young and dreamed of glory
You have no control
Who lives who dies who tells your story
I know that we can win
I know that greatness lies in you
But remember from here on in
History has its eyes on you


  1. Love it! Hamilton as the Midrash to the Torah of our founding fathers. Kol Hakavod!


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