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“MAKING THE GRADE” Part Four “STICKS AND STONES”.pdf Powered By Docstoc
        Part Four

A Sermon for Atonement Day 5771
      September 18, 2010

   Rabbi Edward Paul Cohn
   Congregation Temple Sinai
    New Orleans, Louisiana
       My dear friends and gentle hearts,

       The Talmud relates a wonderful story of how, when Moses

ascended to heaven to receive the Torah, the angels protested to


            “Do not give the sacred Torah to these mortals!

            They’re incapable of observing it.

            Leave the Torah here with us.”

       And God turned to Moses asking, “Well, Can you rebut their

argument?” And as his response, Moses asked the angels:

            “The Torah teaches, ‘You shall not covert

            your neighbor’s wife.’ Does that apply to you

            here in Heaven?”

      “No,” the angels replied. Moses continued, “The Torah says,

‘You shall not steal.’ Does that apply to you here in heaven?”

      “No,” the angels replied. By showing the angels that the laws

of the Torah cannot apply to them, Moses succeeded in bringing the

Torah down to earth. The message of this Talmudic tale is that we

were given the laws of the Torah precisely because we have the

impulses and the urges that the Torah seeks to manage. In short, my

dear friends, you and I were given the Torah because we are not

angels! And, that is why we are here on this Yom Kippur Day,

isn’t it?

      Our theme for these High Holy Days, “MAKING THE

GRADE,” brings us to yet another school house testing of our

humanity. We have already considered “The Entrance Exam,”

“Calling The Roll,” and last night on Kol Nidre, “The Conference

Night,” but now we come to “Sticks and Stones.”

     You and I are well aware that the playground can be an

emotionally hurtful place, as can the hallway outside the classroom

or the gym locker room, and, of course, the cafeteria. I would be

willing to bet that there is not a person here today who cannot

summon a hurtful incident or memory from across the many years, a

betrayal or embarrassment when you were stunned by a word from

one supposed friend and trusted as your B.F.F. And then there was

also the sudden and unexplained exclusion from that special group

which once included you among its “coolest” members. Some

indignities and tortures of youth only grow more savage as we read

press reports and numerous stories of how bullying has gone high-

tech availing itself of the latest version of IPOD texting.

     I almost never read People Magazine, but my attention was

drawn last spring to a cover story relating the tragic case of a 15

year old named Phoebe Prince who, because of the fierce bullying

by her classmates in a Massachusetts school, died by her own


      In a front page story just last June, The New York Times

reported how shocking cyber-bullying of middle school students,

who receive threatening and sexually explicit online text messages

over weekend hours, leave school authorities with few disciplinary

options and parents outraged by the adolescent viciousness from

which their children are suffering.

      I read recently that Louisiana has now joined the state of New

York and 42 other states of the Union to adopt anti-bullying iron

clad anti-bullying laws to protect their children from the simplistic

notion that “kids will be kids.” Bullying is leading to too many

tragic suicides.

      Now, we want to know, how has it come to this? Where does

this latest savagery of child upon child originate? And, here is a

likely answer! Chris Hedges, a former New York Times reporter,

suggests in a column which he wrote for the Chicago Sun Times,

that this bullying may be but a symptom of the larger sickness of

our “Reality TV” culture. Mr. Hedges writes:

           “The moral nihilism of our culture licenses a dark

           voyeurism into other people’s humiliation, pain,

           weakness, and betrayal....Life, these (reality television)

           shows teach, is a brutal world of unadulterated

           competition....(And) Those who win are the best. Those

           who loose deserve to be erased. Those who fail, those

           who are ugly or poor, are belittled and mocked. Human

           beings are used, betrayed, and discarded in a commodity


           “We can do anything, even belittle and destroy those

           around us, including our friends, to make money, to be

           happy, and to become famous.”

     Now if that does not explain this bullying phenomenon, I just

don’t know what does. We will see, with a closer look, that the

bullying of a child, or national fascination with the reality show

culture, clearly reflects a virus common to human nature which

transmutes itself into much more lethal strains, but which, from the

outset when it first presents itself, is able to be subdued. Am I being

vague? Let me give you an example.

     A well respected author and psychiatrist, a man by the name

of Dr. Emanuel Tanay, with his impressive distinctions, awards, and

academic credentials, also happens to be a Holocaust survivor. In a

broadly circulated statement on the internet just last June, Dr. Tanay

relayed this story.

           (There was) a man, whose family was of German

           aristocracy prior to World War II, who owned a number

           of large industries and estates. When asked how many

           German people were true Nazis, the answer he gave can

             guide our attitude toward fanaticism. “Very few people

             were true Nazis,” he said, “but many enjoyed the return

             of German pride, and many more were too busy to care...

             Then, before we knew it, they owned us, and we had lost

             control, and the end of the world had come....”

     The great 19th Century rabbi and teacher, Samson Raphael

Hirsch, offers us Judaism’s anti-toxin to this human virus by

insisting that it makes all of the difference how we view our


             “To see in your fellow man (or woman) something else

             than merely your rival for the acquisition of the good

             things of the earth, not to look upon his good as an

             encroachment on yours, to let your neighbor have the

             spot of earth on which God has set him – as He has set

             you on yours – and even to let him prosper on it;....”

     This virus of “I’m better than you” superiority in all of its

poisonous varieties, so often finds a welcoming and natural host

within the ranks of the religious believers.

      Perhaps you’ve heard about Rabbi Yehuda Levin’s

Rabbinical Alliance of America? It is an ultra-Orthodox Jewish

group which has announced:

           “Decent Bible-believing family people have been

           increasingly outraged by the cravenness of many

           politicians in their dash to turn timeless values on their

           heads, by advancing homosexual adoption, domestic

           partnerships, civil unions, ‘marriage’ and ‘Heather has

           two mommies,’...”

           And in language, honest to God I’m not exaggerating,

calling for the best analysis from Dr. Freud, our anti-gay Rabbi

Levin despairs:

           “...the next slice of the salami was the koshering of

           homosexual activity and the homosexual culture

           throughout the U.S. military. This constitutes ‘a

           rebellion against G-d’ and demoralizes both military and

           civilian society....and would ‘expedite our hurdling

           towards Sodom and Gomorah’....”

     Brad Hirschfield might well have followed in Rabbi Levin’s

footsteps. Hirschfield is the author of a fabulous new book titled,

You Don’t Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right: Finding

Faith Without Fanaticism. Brad was raised an Orthodox Jew on

Chicago’s North Side. Sure of his faith and purpose in life,

Hirschfield moved to Hebron on the West Bank. Packing a Bible in

one hand and a 9mm pistol, he joined a group of fellow settlers one

day chasing down some assailants who had attacked their friends.

     Hirschfield and his buddies opened fire. The other fellows

pointed their guns into a school and actually killed two innocent

Palestinian children. The shock of that murder of innocent children

changed Brad Hirschfield’s life.

     Writing with passion, he makes a compelling case in his book

for challenging religious certainty gone awry. Hirschfield has come

to understand that the more strongly we embrace a religious

commitment, the more open we must become to appreciating the

devotion of those who differ.

     Hirschfield believes now, what you and I believe, and what we

teach and practice and preach here at Temple Sinai: Isaiah’s vision

of God – A God too loving not to declare that God’s House shall

be called a House of Prayer for all People. And I believe that

applies to St. Patrick’s at Rockefeller Center, Temple Emanu-El on

65th Street, and the proposed Mosque two blocks from Ground Zero.

     I think they are terribly misguided for wanting to build that

Muslim Center there, and could win huge PR Victory by changing

their site out of respect and regard for the feelings of their fellow

Americans. But they have a legal right, a fact undeniable by the

Constitution. Too bad the ADL didn’t support them!

     In a NY Times Magazine interview they asked Deepak Chapra

what his religion was. He answered.

            I say, “God gave humans the truth, and the Devil came

           and said ‘Let’s organize it, we’ll call it religion!”

     School kids probably still call out:

           “Stick and Stones will break my bones,

           but names will never hurt me.”

     I just do not believe it! Life, my dear ones, is a giant

playground, and bullies must be faced down and shown for the

cowards, and sometimes, for the criminals, they really are.

     Despite the angels’ demands, Moses succeeded in bringing the

Torah down to earth because we need it more than the angels.

Whatever our age or stage in life...

         elementary school kids on a playground;

         those who taunt a child who sleeps with a blankee or

           wets the bed;

         or as preteens and teenagers plagued by those who hate

           or envy difference;

         or by homophobic gangs, by bullying and by hateful

           cyber texts – we must put a stop to it – and, at whatever

           our age, summon the courage to stand beside the one

           who is being belittled and picked on.

     As adults struggling to deal with ethical challenges of

immigration policy, racial equity, religious fanaticism or the pursuit

of same sex equality – let us behave as Jews of conscience, putting

our firsthand experience of persecution, and our methods for

fighting it, in the service of others who are now suffering.

     On this sacred Sabbath of Sabbaths, let us strip away all

illusions, as Dr. Howard Thurman, the esteemed Chaplain of Boston

University, taught his students for generations:

           “A person speaks to his time with his life.

           It is all that (one) has, all that (one) is given...,

           and therefore all that one can give.”

           “You say the little efforts that I make

           Will do no good.

           They never will prevail

           To tip the hovering scale where

           Justice keeps in balance.

           I do not think I ever thought they would,

           But I am prejudiced beyond debate

           In favor of my right

           To choose which side shall feel

           The stubborn ounces of my weight.”

     This, this is the sacred day when we Jews speak of choices:

Choose life and the blessing! “Which side shall feel the stubborn

ounces of (our) weight? We do not live to win: to own the island, to

be the best dancer, to walk the runway or to cook the world’s best

cupcake. We do not live to finish in first; we live to claim our

humanity, to persevere and to endure. And dear friends, nothing

more, but surely nothing less than that, will suffice to MAKE THE




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