Rosh Hashana sermon by Rabbi Fred Morgan

The Miracle and Meaning of Jewish Survival

Scientists made two remarkable discoveries this year.  The first was the Higgs Boson, which accounts for mass and gravitational attraction in the universe.  I discussed the Higgs Boson in a sermon at the time of the announcement.  Then, not long ago, astronomers made another discovery.  They found a planet in another solar system that is suitable to sustain life as we know it.  It is 2.4 times the size of earth, which means that a morning jog would probably be pretty difficult, but its relationship to its sun is such that its mean temperature is about 22 degrees C, very habitable.  The planet, dubbed Kepler 22b, is 600 light years from earth, so it would take a space shuttle a mere 22 million years to reach it.  I don’t know whether we’ll ever make the journey, but if we do you can bet there will be Jews there, and they’d be celebrating Rosh Hashana every year on 1st Tishrei, just as we’re doing today.

We Jews have lived almost everywhere that can support life, and we invariably put our story, the Jewish story, at the centre of the human drama.  We view history through a Jewish lens.  And so does the rest of humanity; or so it seems to us.  For better (think “Jewish Nobel Prize winners”) or for worse (think “anti-Semitism”, even in places where the Jewish population is miniscule), we Jews are apparently the barometer of human existence.

I find the reason for this in the Torah portion for Rosh Hashana, Akedat Yitzchak - “the binding of Isaac”.  Abraham is told to offer his beloved son, his “only son” Isaac on an altar to God.  This is called a “trial” (nisayon).  The two go off on a three days’ journey, and they arrive at Mount Moriah.  There they build the altar, and Isaac is bound and laid out on the wood.  Abraham raises the knife above his son.  Everything hangs on this moment.  We should take it very seriously.  If the knife falls, the covenant that God made with Abraham is at an end.  There is no future, no son to fulfil Abraham’s destiny as the “father of a multitude”; no one to be “a blessing for all nations,” as the Torah puts it.  All of human history hangs on a knife’s balance; should the knife strike, human experience will be changed radically, beyond recognition.

The moment of the Akedah matters not simply for us Jews, but for all humanity.  It may smack of chutzpah, but that’s how we Jews have viewed the Akedah from time immemorial until today.  By staying Abraham’s hand, the angel enables Isaac to live and bear sons; Abraham’s family eventually migrates to Egypt, where they give rise to the Jewish people; Moses leads the people out of Egyptian bondage to receive Torah on Mount Sinai; and humanity is set on the path towards freedom through the cultivation of morality, compassion and justice.  All this is, to use the Catholic writer Thomas Cahill’s felicitous expression, “the gift of the Jews”.

The Akedah also makes it clear why survival is so crucial to our people’s story.  Ever since Abraham, our challenge has been to survive, to brave the knife that would take our life.  We are a tiny people, an estimated 15 million out of a human population of 7 billion, approximately 0.2% of the population.  We are simultaneously one of the oldest and one of the youngest nations on earth: 3500 years old, and 64 years young.  We have dwelt on almost every territory on the earth’s surface, and we have been coerced or forced to leave nearly every one of them at some point or other, India and Australia being notable exceptions.   We have been the intended victims of genocide by tyrants of unspeakable cruelty, most recently during the Shoah (yet Hitler was by no means the only tyrant who has threatened our existence); but we have also inspired two of the world’s great religions and so touched the lives of billions of people over the past 20 centuries.  Roughly 800 years ago Maimonides argued that the impact of Judaism on the world through Christianity and Islam has been inestimable; Maimonides’ 14th century disciple, Menachem Hameiri, argued that these two religions deserve respect because they have universalised the teachings of justice that God covenanted with Abraham, the covenant that was threatened and then rescued at the Akedah.  We loom large in the imagination of the world, the object simultaneously of fascination and envy, admiration and hatred.  Yet we are the tiniest garin, the smallest seed in the garden of humanity.

I find it difficult to find the explanation for our survival in anything other than our role as God’s “covenant people.”  I can only believe that there is a divine plan and we are part of it; this is the meaning of the Akedah.   I can only believe that the often-heard phrase “the miracle of Jewish survival” is not a metaphor; that our survival truly is a “miracle”, that our gathering in this synagogue today is a miracle.  Of course, there are naturalistic and social-scientific explanations for our survival, as well.   We have used our wits and our creativity to survive.  Yet, relying on these explanations in order to understand what we’re doing here today is simply an attempt, in my view feeble at best, to reduce the miracle to something we can grasp intellectually.  When I look into my heart of hearts, I find it difficult to conceive of Jewish survival as anything other than a miracle.  I ask you to look into your heart and say it is otherwise.

When we speak of this or that individual surviving the horrors of Auschwitz, aren’t we describing a miracle?  Survivors themselves, if they are secular in outlook, use terms like luck, or chance, or coincidence; none of them gives a reasonable explanation for their survival, and rightly so.  A religious person, considering the same reality, calls it miracle.  When we reflect on the vitality of Jewish life in Australia, a community that would have been beyond the imagination even 75 years ago, aren’t we speaking of a miracle?  And when we consider the Jewish people as a whole finding our renewal in the State of Israel, isn’t it a miracle of which we speak, an event beyond our ability to comprehend?

And that means that every Jew is involved in the miracle; each one of us has his or her part to play in the story that began with the Akedah and continues even today.  We are all, from the wealthiest to the poorest, from the most involved to the most peripheral, from the Yerushalmis to the Melbournians, characters in the story of the covenant that God made with Abraham.

Yes, it is a miracle that, on this day of Rosh Hashana, Jews all over the world – and maybe even on Kepler 22b – gather together in synagogues to declare their allegiance to the covenant that God made with Abraham and then with the Jewish people at Sinai and again as the people stood on the borderline that divided them from the Land of Israel.  But the paradox in this miracle is that it requires human effort in order to make it happen.  The covenant means that we are partners with God, and as partners we have an active role to play in making Jewish survival happen.  That we are here today, and not somewhere else, shows that we are willing to take on this role.

Two decades after the Shoah, the German-Canadian philosopher Emil Fackenheim declared that the Jewish people had been given at Auschwitz a “614th mitzvah”, to be fruitful and multiply so that Hitler would not succeed in winning a posthumous victory.  He paired Jewish survival down to its most basic feature: having Jewish progeny.  The irony in Fackenheim’s claim is that “be fruitful and multiply” is the very first mitzvah in the Torah.  As his critics argued, there is nothing new here.  But what his critics missed is that in the face of Auschwitz there were many among the Jewish people who no longer saw the value of having Jewish children or grandchildren.  There were many who implicitly asked the question, What is the point of Jewish survival?  If the consequence that follows Jewish survival is Jewish persecution, why survive as a people?

Fackenheim himself later answered this question in the most dramatic way.  At the age of 68 he made aliyah and settled in Jerusalem.  His response to the Shoah showed that survival on its own is of little value, that there must be meaning in our survival; there must be a purpose to our tenacity as a people.  The purpose of Jewish survival, he argued, is to ensure the safety and security of the Jewish people for evermore.  And the way to provide the Jewish people with a refuge, a place of safety, is to build a strong, independent State of Israel.  One might go so far as to say he believed that Israel is the only cause that justifies a Jew putting his or her life on the line, and he felt that this amounts to making aliyah.  In other words, for Fackenheim, the miracle of Jewish survival in our age relies on our active participation in creating a place of security for the Jewish people in the land of Israel.  Many Jews, even those who continue to dwell in the Diaspora, agree with this argument.  They make Israel the focus of the covenant and believe that the State of Israel puts the seal on Jewish survival.

I have a different view.  I love Israel.  Sue and I visit, support (both financially and spiritually), and defend Israel no less than others; we have a daughter who has made aliyah, and so to that degree put her life on the line.  But I do not see Israel as being the focus of my “partnership with God” in promoting Jewish survival.  For me, the essence of Jewish survival is a demand placed on each of us to prevent the kind of bloodshed that threatened us at the very beginning of our story – at the Akedah.  We are called upon to be the angel that stayed Abraham’s hand.   This means acting on behalf of others when they are threatened with violence and despair, even as the angel interceded when Isaac was threatened.

Who the “Other” is, is of no account.  The “Other” may be an asylum seeker from Iraq or the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as was the case in the original series of the SBS television program “Go Back to Where You Came From”.  The “Other” may be the victim of domestic abuse; the Progressive rabbis in Victoria recently learned about this kind of threat at a seminar run under the auspices of the Jewish Taskforce Against Family Violence.   The “Other” may be an Israeli Arab whose house is bulldozed because they failed to receive planning permission to build from the local council, while their Jewish neighbour who also built without permission is given permission retroactively; there are several instances of this iniquitous application of the law which have been brought to the Israeli courts by the Progressive Movement’s Israel Religious Action Centre (IRAC).  The “Other” may be an eight year old school girl from a mainstream Orthodox household in the town of Bet Shemesh who is called a slut and spit upon by ultra-Orthodox men as she walks to school.  The “Other” may be someone from the Gay community who feels driven to attempt suicide rather than face the taunts of their peers at school, a situation being addressed by Keshet, a group set up this year in Melbourne to promote understanding of Gays and Lesbians, especially among teachers in Jewish schools.

Similarly, who the perpetrator of violence may be is of no account.  The perpetrator may be Muslim, as in the violent demonstrations surrounding the film “Innocence of Muslims”, which took place in places ranging from Egypt to Libya to the Yemen to Sydney; though there is a place for peaceful demonstrations in the democratic process, violence is never an acceptable way to address a grievance in a democratic state.  The perpetrator may similarly be Jewish or Christian, or a member of the Labour Party or the Coalition or the Greens.  The perpetrator may be Palestinian or Israeli or Australian.  The use of power to control, intimidate, harm or crush others is contrary to the covenant that God made with the Jewish people; it is unjust.  That is why I speak out from this bimah on behalf of refugees, on behalf of abused children and battered women, on behalf of Palestinians and Israeli Arabs when their land or homes are taken by force.  That is why I engage in interfaith activities, some of which leave me feeling vulnerable and wary; yet the alternative, remaining silent or, worse, going on the attack (verbally or physically) is unacceptable to me.

In my view, our survival as a people is divinely ordained and therefore inescapable.  It lays on me a great responsibility to take on a Prophetic voice, to speak out for the voiceless and to defend the fatherless, the widow, the needy and the stranger.  The meaning behind our survival as a people is to stay the hand of Abraham, to stop the knife taking the life of Isaac, to live out the mitzvot of justice, compassion and generosity.  Any other response to Torah simply won’t do.  Even for those inhabitants of Kepler 22b.

May the new year 5773 bring to all of us Jewish survivors a deepened sense of our destiny.  May our prayers over the Days of Awe inspire us to live every day as though it is Rosh Hashana, aware of the miracle of Jewish survival and what it means for the Jewish people and for humanity.

Rabbi Fred Morgan is senior rabbi at Temple Beth Israel, Melbourne, Victoria.

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