Rosh Hashanah: Our Glass House

After my two and a half years of living in Macon, Georgia, I simply have one lingering question: How do people find time to actually eat in between running into every single person they know? Honestly, this is a serious problem, folks. Before people here even glance at a menu, they're already knee–deep in a conversation with an old classmate: 

"Oh my Lord Darcy, look who it is! Well, hello there! How are you? It feels like forever since I saw you and the boys. Tucker, Keaton, Blair, Collins, Hunter, Payton, and Bradford? 
**It continues like this for a while, just without my horrible accent. 

And by the time these fictional Maconites – with proper names fit for an English Cricket team – finally sit down with their meal, inevitably, someone else will stop by. Like a newlywed couple making rounds at their reception. I'm convinced people here don't consume food at restaurants; they merely talk and run into more people. Even I, having lived here for just over two years, will inevitably run into someone in my Leadership Macon class – at least once a week. It’s also probable that even if I don't recognize someone at first, someone may recognize me. 

The circle here is small. They hear all. They see all. And say just about everything. As Mallika Nawal writes, “Living in a small town is like living in a glass house!” People here don’t just see a side of you, they see “all of you.” It’s all on display. And if you need a reminder that “the world is watching” just take up a look up at our glass dome. A Masonic symbol representing God’s omnipresence, but also a good reminder that it’s not only God whose paying close attention. 

In all seriousness – in a very real, enlightening way – living here has made me keenly aware of my interactions with others. Mindful of the manner in which I speak about my network of personal acquaintances. My city. Because, as a smart friend reminded me recently: We're never representing just ourselves in the world. We represent the various social circles we work and play in. We're full–time ambassadors for our families. Delegates for our communities. We're frontman for the neighborhoods we live in. Points of contact for the clubs and associations we belong to and serve. And whether we like it or not – choose it or not – we’re spokesman for our heritage and nationality. There is no turning this social phenomenon on or off. It just is. We live in a world of identity politics, generalizations, and the worst culprit of all – bad logic. I'm not advocating or vindicating these human behaviors, but I am aware they exist.

What is our mission in this world?,” the wise child might ask. According to Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv, the notion of responsibility to Others is the answer. “Or as he puts it, “bearing the burden of the other.” And while you may be thinking that this is in some ways a positive trait: an idea registered as “caring for others.”. It is. However, in Judaism it’s more than that. Ellie Wiesel says that “words are links not only between words but also between human beings.” When I bear the burden of the other, I bear the burden of your words. Your speech. Your voice. What you do and say, I too share this burden. Whether I like it or not. Whether I chose it or not. That is the fundamental hardship of Judaism and the the weight of Jewish responsibility. That is why the wicked child asks, “‘What is this service of yours?’ ‘To you,’ and not to him…” Further, this burden is shared not only across space, but also time. 

Teacher Alan Morinis points out, the root of the word responsibility, achrayut  is achar, which mean ‘Other.’ While others might say it is acher, after.’ When we establish the notion of responsibility in the ream of the concept ‘after’ – we are drawn toward recognizing that every single thought, word, or deed has its “after” – it’s antecedent and its consequence, connecting up a great chain of cause and effect that spreads over time.” [1] And people, I would add. Others.

The big idea here folks is not overly dramatic or earth–shattering, but it is fundamental for how we go about repairing the world and High Holiday introspection alike. It’s about memory and responsibility; about how Judaism encourages us to think more broadly about the world; how judaism teaches us to think about us. Not the individual, the royal us. 

When we teach children about Judaism, we speak to them in the voice of memory – we teach them to harness the power of the collective. Unlike the memory I spoke about last night, this kind of memory is more-so a byproduct of humility. The ability to think beyond ourselves. The ability to internalize the notion that we Jews are connected in a meaningful way. As Martin Buber writes:  

“We Jews are a community based on memory. A common memory has kept us together...This does not mean that we based our life on any one particular past, even on the loftiest of pasts; it simply means that one generation passed onto the next a memory which gained in scope...” [4] 

You might ask how we became unified people in the first place? Well, “The Jews became a people by act of the sinaitic revelation” says Carl Mayer. In Deuteronomy, Moses summons all Israel and says to them: 

You stand this day, all of you...I make this covenant...not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day...and with those who are not with us here this day.
— Deuteronomy 29:9–14

What the Rabbis understand this to mean is that “Moses makes a covenant not only those present at that moment in time, [but also the] unborn generations of the Jews…[They too] are included in this oath.” [6] “Not with you alone” comments Ibn Ezra, but rather, with you, and with those who shall come after you: your children, and your children’s children.” [7] Our Sages explain:

“It appears that what Moses wanted with this new covenant was to make the Israelites responsible for one another. [That] each Jew has to see to it that his fellow Jew does not stumble...Moses [adds] the word[s], "all of you," to make plain that the mutual responsibility with which he charged each member of the people applied to one and all. We have been taught...that anyone who is in a position to protest a [wrongdoing] being committed by a fellow Jew, and who does not exercise his power of protest will be considered as an accessory. Some people's authority extends to their entire city whereas others may have authority to do this only within the walls of their own houses.” [8] 

In our lifetimes, we have seen corruption and scandals committed by our fellow Jews. We have seen the damage they have done. In the wake of Bernie Madoff, masterminded behind a multi–billion–dollar Ponzi scheme, Hillel’s, JCC’s, retirees, universities and charities felt the brunt of this scandal. Mark Madoff, son of Bernard L. Madoff, never asked to be included in the dealings of his father. Despite his efforts to distance himself from his father’s actions – [even] publicly repudiating his father after the revelations – he still became entangled in his consequences. Choosing ultimately to take his own life. 

Most recently, the Wexner Foundation, among the most prominent private Jewish charities in the world, was catapulted into the narrative of convicted sex–offender Jeffrey Epstein. In 1990, Leslie Wexner and Epstein even helped fund the construction of a new building for the Harvard Hillel. In 2017... the foundation gave $3.6 million in charity, much...of it to Jewish educational causes... The foundation is best known [for awarding] scholarships to 20 promising graduate students in Jewish fields, including rabbinical school, cantorial school, [and] Jewish educational school.” I can count at least 8 colleges I know who are Wexner Fellows. 

“This was, frankly, a tremendous shock...” Wexner wrote in his recent message... “I am embarrassed that, like so many others, I was deceived by Mr. Epstein. I know now that my trust in him was grossly misplaced and I deeply regret having ever crossed his path.”

“What do you do when you’ve taken in dirty money but already spent it?” one alumna told The New York Jewish Week. “It’s not clear that you can do more than commit to doing anything but doing better research in the future.” [9] 

From the outside, peering into our glass house – our Jewish community – the details, unfortunately, aren’t always relevant. As my parents would often say to me: What factually happened doesn’t always matter. It's what it looked. What it sounded like. What it appeared to be. that’s the stuff that floats to the top. Those are the stories that make the front page. Those are the stories that people chat about in grocery lines and at restaurants. 

If Jewish identity is admittedly tied to this notion of commitment towards one another – that we empower and strengthen one another – we must face its flip side: That when one of us falls, we all fall together. Achrayut. Responsibility. As I said before, we're never representing just ourselves in the world. Rather we as Jews bear both the burden of the 'other,' along with the outcome. The great chain of cause and effect that spreads over time. We stay accountable. Rav Joseph Soloveitchik writes: 

“The Jew who believes in Knesset Israel is the Jew who lives with Knesset Israel where she may be and is prepared to die for her, who hurts with her pain and rejoices in her joy, who fights her wars, suffers in her defeats, and celebrates her victories. The Jew who believes in Knesset Israel is the Jew who joins himself as an indestructible link not only to the Jewish people of this generation but to Knesset Israel of all generations…” [10] 

Listen folks. I don't have a kitschy t–shirt that reads: "I'm a rabbi! Ask me a cringe–worthy question about my religion!" Like Tevya, I often say to myself: [Yes God,] We are Your chosen people. But, once in a while, can't You choose someone else?” Because no Jew I know has ever chosen to be the spokesperson for all of Judaism. Personally, I don’t suggest it. But trust me it’s there in the fine print. As a Yeshiva Rabbi once said to me: “You didn’t choose to be a Jew? Well we must have made a mistake. You should have spoken up earlier before we circumcised you.” 

Let us now praise the Sovereign of the universe, and proclaim the greatness of the Creator who has set us apart from the other families of the earth, giving us a destiny unique among the nations.
— Siddur Ashkenaz, Weekday, Shacharit, Concluding Prayers, Alenu 1 

Because ultimately, whether there's a kippah on my head or not – it doesn't sanction me to act as if I wasn't wearing one. Those interactions I have as the only rabbi or Jew someone has ever met – as short as 30 seconds or 30 minutes – have extensive, detrimental shockwaves. In both space and time. Our interactions with people matter. Immensely. We're always going to be walking billboard ads for Judaism. We’re unique. Our destiny is unique; and that's the hardest pill to swallow. 

Like I said. It’s in the details. It’s there. And when we stop identifying merely as individuals – pretending to exist inside of a bubble of distinction and personal freedom – only then we can begin to see the bigger picture. Only then do we realize that when we interface with others, it's not merely our own personal gains that are on the line. What you say matters. To me! It affects me. It affects Knesset Israel of every generation.  So the next time you run into Tucker, Keaton, Blair, Collins, Hunter, Payton, and Bradford. Remind yourself that you speak for more than just yourself. 

The Jews are like photographs displayed in a shop window 
All of them together in different heights, living and dead, 
Grooms and brides and Bar Mitzvah boys with babies. 
And there are pictures restored from old yellowing photographs. 
And sometimes people come and break the window 
And burn the pictures. And then they begin 
To photo anew and develop anew 
And display them again aching and smiling. 

Rembrandt painted them wearing Turkish Turbans with beautiful burnished gold. 
Chagall painted them hovering in the air, 
And I paint them like my father and my mother. 
The Jews are an eternal forest preserve 
Where the trees stand dense, and even the dead 
Cannot lie down. They stand upright, leaning on the living, 
And you cannot tell them apart...

A Jewish man remembers the sukkah in his grandfather’s home. 
And the sukkah remembers for him 
The wandering in the desert that remembers 
The grace of youth and the Tablets of the Ten Commandments 
And the gold of the Golden Calf and the thirst and the hunger
That remembers Egypt...

The Jews are not a historical people 
And not even an archeological people, the Jews 
Are a geological people with rifts 
And collapses and strata and fiery lava. 
Their history must be measured 
On a different scale...

Some time ago, I met a beautiful woman 
Whose grandfather performed my circumcision 
Long before she was born. I told her, 
You don’t know me and I don’t know you 
But we are the Jewish people, 
Your dead grandfather and I the circumcised and you the beautiful granddaughter 
With golden hair: we are the Jewish people…

[1] “Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar,” by Alan Morinis, p. 189
[2] “Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar,” by Alan Morinis, p. 198  
**When we think of responsibility in this way, it begins to “stand for and reflect a central thrust of spiritual growth. From an elevated vantage point, we can see and take in both the larger sweep of time and the living presence of others.” We begin to include in our calculations the consequences our personal decisions have on others.
[3] Tanna De Bei Eliyahu Rabbah, Chapter 11
**“The people of Israel are similar to a ship. If there is a hole in the lower hold, one does not say, ‘Only the lower hold has a hole in it.’ Rather they must immediately recognize that the ship is liable to sink and that they must repair the hole down below.” [3]
“Israel and the World: Essays in a Time of Crisis” by Martin Buber, p. 146
[5] Deuteronomy 29:9–14
[6] Tur HaAroch, Deuteronomy 29:14:1 
[7] Ibn Ezra on Deuteronomy 29:13:1 
[8] Or HaChaim on Deuteronomy 29:9:2–3
[9] The relationship between Jeffrey Epstein and Jewish philanthropist Leslie Wexner, explained” by Ben Sales; Jewish Telegraphic Agency 
[10]  "Al Ha–T'shuva" by Rav Joseph Soloveitchik, p. 98
[11] Siddur Ashkenaz, Weekday, Shacharit, Concluding Prayers, Alenu 1 
[12] “The Jews” by Yehuda Amichai 

Aaron Sataloff