(Delivered on Chol HaMoed Sukkot 2022/5783)
This time period is called Zman Simchatenu - the time of our happiness, but what makes us joyful? For me, it was listening to a live performance of the song Yerushalayim by the Miami Boys Choir which has been trending over the last month. Millions of people have been listening to the recording of these boys, now men, belting out the line from Psalms, wearing shiny silver satin shirts with hot pink ties:
יְרוּשָׁלַ͏ִם הָרִים סָבִיב לָהּ וַיי סָבִיב לְעַמּוֹ מֵעַתָּה וְעַד־עוֹלָם׃
Jerusalem, hills enfold it,
and the LORD enfolds His people
now and forever (Psalm 125:2)
The comments from mostly non-Jews are overwhelmingly positive, and that brought me joy. The words stuck with me during Sukkoth because they are its essence:
Jerusalem is surrounded by hills which protects the city from invaders, so too does God protect us now and forever.
Oh how I wish this were literally true. During this week of rare Jewish love, we’ve seen that acts of anti-Semitism have outweighed the positivity of the Miami Boy Choir. When I turned on my phone after Yom Tov, I saw a text from one of our families whose daughter goes to Olympic Heights High School - it was a picture with a swastika and a threat against Jews and Black people. Then, right-wing talk show host Tucker Carlson ‘bravely’ let Kanye West, a famous rapper with millions of fans, speak his mind about Jews - admiring us for our financial engineering, accusing Jared Kushner’s work with Israel on the Abraham Accords to be about making money, and threatening to go ‘defcon 3’ on Jews during an anti-Semitic Tweet storm. In Omaha, Nebraska, a Jewish comedian received ‘Free Palestine’ chants even though he didn’t bring up Israel. And, in Washington DC, Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace protested outside of the Israeli Embassy, oh, I’m sorry, I read that wrong, they protested on the second night of Sukkoth at the George Washington University Hillel, when young Jewish college students were celebrating our holiday of joy.
Nothing like hearing chants of “There is only one solution: intifada revolution” to bring joy to your hearts.
Everything I reported has happened just this week, during Chol HaMoed Sukkot.
I have to confess: I really hate giving anti-Semitism sermons. I think Rabbi Jonathan Sacks best articulated why I don’t like speaking about anti-Semitism from the pulpit: “Antisemitism is not about Jews. It is about anti-Semites. It is about people who cannot accept responsibility for their own failures and have instead to blame someone else.”
I really shouldn’t be preaching about anti-Semitism to you, but rather to the non-Jewish population, but, alas, I have enough trouble getting Jews to listen to my sermons, let alone non-Jews.
What I can do though, is talk about how we respond to anti-Semitism, and the lessons we can learn from the holiday of Sukkoth. On Sukkoth, the first guests we welcome into the Sukkah are Abraham and Sarah. We call Abraham the first Jew, but he’s really the first Hebrew or Ivri. But what is an Ivri?
The Rabbis of the Midrash understand that this description refers to the fact that he was “mai’ever ha’nahar” – from the other side of the Jordan River. He was a foreigner and he spoke “ivri,” the language of those who live east of the Jordan River. But, there’s another from Rabbi Yehudah that I found even more compelling and timely. He explained that the whole world was “mai’ever echad v’hu mei’ever echad.” The whole world was on one side and Avraham was on another side. It is a metaphor for how he acted in the world: Avraham had the courage to be different than everyone else.
Sukkot is also a holiday that is counter-cultural, like Avraham. I don’t know if you thought about this, but wouldn’t Sukkot have been so much better had it happened right after Yom Kippur this year - the weather was gorgeous! Even better, what if we held Sukkot during the winter in Florida?!?
The Mishnah Berurah, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, a Polish rabbi and Posek who passed away in 1933, gives an interesting commentary on why Sukkot is during the beginning of the rainy season. He notes that this is a terrible time of the year to have Sukkot if our only goal is to eat outside. In Poland, it would be much better to have Sukkot in the spring or the summer, when everyone else is outdoors. But, he notes, we observe this holiday in the seventh month of the year because this is when people go inside of their homes. When everyone goes inside, we go outside. It shows our devotion to God’s mitzvoth, and our pride in ourselves.
In a recent sermon, Rabbi Angela Buchdal, the Senior rabbi of Central Synagogue in New York City, asked the following questions:
“What does it mean to be a public Jew right now? What does it mean to post a Magen David, a Jewish star, on Instagram, show up to a Hillel event, march in an Israel parade? Since when did our kids have to hesitate before showing up to a Shabbat dinner? Weighing what their mere presence might project about who they stand with or what they stand for? A 2021 Brandeis Center survey of Jewish students on campuses found 50% of students said they hide their Jewish identity. Half our kids are hiding. A student gave color to these numbers saying: “When I meet new people and they ask me what I’m involved in on campus, I always hesitate to admit that I am involved in Hillel and the Jewish community, afraid of how they may react….Many people view us as the oppressors, echoing the classic antisemitic trope that Jews are responsible for everything wrong with the world.”
Many Jewish organizations have responded to this increasing reality by offering seminars and pamphlets with talking points and debate tactics to arm our kids for battle on behalf of unapologetic Jewish identity and Zionism.These are admirable efforts to balance the imbalance we see too often on campuses and in social media. But as a rabbi, I want to offer another strategy: instead of preparing our kids to armor up, we should embolden them to double down on Jewish pride–the kind of inner spiritual fortitude that comes from Jewish self-dignity and confidence. Now when I talk about “Jewish pride” here, it's not a “Jews-are-just-smarter” kind of hubris, or a misunderstanding of “Chosenness.” That pride can be dangerous. Instead, I’m speaking of the pride described in Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Fathers, which offers this directive 2:1: “The best path for people to choose is the one that is a pride to those who pursue it.”In other words, true pride comes when you know your values and live them. This kind of pride is moral ambition. Here the sages use an unusual Hebrew word for pride, tiferet.
Put another way: There is arrogant pride–which is about who you say you are. And there is authentic pride – which comes from what you do. So tiferet must be rooted in a sure-handed grasp – of what Judaism stands for and what Judaism expects of us.”
Although we think of Rosh Hashanah as being Abraham’s holiday, I think we can also make the case that Sukkot is also his holiday. On Sukkot, we challenge ourselves by welcoming guests into our home, just as Abraham and Sarah did during an equally inconvenient time (remember the adult circumcision and that it was really hot that day?).
Sukkot is more than just remembering what it was like to be in the Wilderness and protected by God, but also about what it means to be journey in the wilderness of the world, with the uncertainty that comes along with it. There are times when we are tested, when we can do the easy thing so we don’t stick out, or when we can do the difficult thing, when we have to be on the other side of the world. There are times when we have to live in exile, an exile we choose because of our Jewish pride.
Rather than talk about the latest celebrity and media personality that spout anti-Semitic remarks in coded language, I want to share the story of Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, the Rabbi of the Choral Synagogue in Moscow and the city’s Chief Rabbi. Rabbi Goldschmidt wrote an opinion editorial in the New York Times titled, My First Yom Kippur in Exile.
In the op-ed he published in the New York Times, Rabbi Goldschmidt tells the story of what happened after the invasion of Ukraine. In his words, “everything changed. The government began to shift to semi-totalitarianism; the surviving independent media was shut down; protesters were arrested. Soon, I received reports of religious community leaders — priests, imams, rabbis — being pressured to express their support for the military. One day, a government source informed the synagogue that we would be expected to support the war — or else.
It was then that my wife and I decided to leave the country. This will be our first Yom Kippur in true exile from the place we called our home for three decades.”
He spoke about inheriting the spirit of one of his predecessors, Rabbi Shmarya Yehuda Leib Medalia, who gave a sermon from the pulpit of the Choral synagogue in Moscow in 1933. He spoke in coded language because he knew he was being listened to. In his sermon, he spoke about the Jewish legacy of coming to synagogue and being Jewish, even when it is outlawed, as it was during the Soviet era. Rabbi Medalia was later arrested and shot by the secret police. This year, he was in exile, in Jerusalem. He wrote:
“It is strange to feel in exile in Jerusalem, in the Jewish ancestral land — but home is strange like that. Over the centuries, rabbis used to sign their names on documents, not as a “rabbi of” a certain city, but rather “as a temporary dweller” of that city. The role of a religious leader is not only to be a pastoral guide, not only to answer questions and lead services and give sermons, the beautiful and glorious moments that fill one with meaning, a sense of purpose and awe. Those are, so to speak, the easy parts of the rabbinate. The hardest task of religious leadership is to take moral stances in difficult times, no matter the cost.”
It’s not just the job of religious leaders to stand up against anti-Semitism, especially when they appear in the places where we feel at home, like in our political parties, our favorite media personalities, and musicians. It’s not easy to be on one side all alone, like Abraham or Rabbi Goldschmidt. Sukkot teaches us that as long as we still build Sukkot, we have a place in the world. As Jews, our legacy is to stand up for what is right, even if it's unpopular and inconvenient. We wear our identities on our sleeves for all to see, and when we do it, the world respects us even more.
One of the now famous Miami Boys Choir men was asked if they made their music to appeal to the greater world ten years ago. He said, “We didn’t do anything that wasn’t genuinely Miami Boys Choir. It just spoke to us that being genuine is the most powerful weapon to change the world.”
I think you can swap out MBC with the word Jew - our pride, our Tifferet, can be our most powerful weapon that can change the world.