(Rosh Hashanah 5779, Day 1)
To listen to the audio of this sermon, click here.
I often talk about my father, in particular lately of his legacy of being a mensch. But his greatest gift to me might have been the Hammerman sense of humor. With his 40th yahrzeit is coming up in a few months, I thought I’d attempt to tell what might have been his favorite joke. I’ve never told it before. And it’s about me. So I’ll tell it as if he were telling it.
One day, we got a frantic call from Josh’s kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Hamburger, to come in for a meeting. We come in and she says, “Cantor and Mrs. Hammerman, we have a problem. Every time when we pledge allegiance to the flag, I instruct the children to put their hands over their heart, and little Joshua puts his hand here (on my rear end). I don’t know what to do.”
So we went home and asked him why and he said, “Well, whenever those sisterhood ladies come up to me, they give me little pinch there and say, “Bless his little heart.”
- It never happened.
- That little joke might be seen as problematic on a number of levels today. It’s possible that if I had done that during the pledge today, Mrs. Hamburger would have had me arrested, or I could have had the sisterhood ladies arrested.
- But what remains true, then and now, is that we ache to recapture the precious innocence of childhood.
“Once upon a time, there was a boy. He lived in a village that no longer exists, in a house that no longer exists, on the edge of a field that no longer exists, where everything was discovered, and everything was possible. A stick could be a sword, a pebble could be a diamond, a tree, a castle. Once upon a time, there was a boy who lived in a house across the field, from a girl who no longer exists. They made up a thousand games. She was queen and he was king. In the autumn light her hair shone like a crown. They collected the world in small handfuls, and when the sky grew dark, they parted with leaves in their hair.”
This passage is from Nicole Krauss’s, “This History of Love.”
There’s been a lot of victims over this very difficult year, many of them children. But the greatest victim may have been childhood itself.
We tried everything to save it. Disney brought back “Winnie the Pooh.” Here at Beth El, we enhanced our young families program. On Purim, I dressed up as Professor Dumbledore.
But we were swimming upstream, against a forbidding tide. The world seemed to be conspiring to destroy childhood. Toys ‘R Us closed its doors this year, following in the footsteps of FAO Schwarz three years ago. That’s our world today – even the world of toys has found its way onto the danger list.
Today there are 2.2 billion children in the world. Nearly two billion of these live in developing countries, the clear majority in desperate need of healthcare, water, food and education. “Save the Children” estimates that 1.2 billion children face at least one of the three greatest threats, poverty, conflict or discrimination against girls. More than 153 million children live in countries characterized by all three of those. But here even in the richest country in the world, childhood is under siege.
That should matter to us.
A midrash asks: “Why do young children commence the study of Torah with the Book of Leviticus, and not with the Book of Genesis? Surely it is because young children are pure, and the korbanot (offerings) are pure; so let the pure come and engage in the study of the pure.”
“Therefore, when the children study,“ God says, “I consider it as if they are bringing Me the offerings of old. Though the Temple was destroyed, and offerings are not brought there anymore, were it not for the children learning about the sacrificial laws, the world would not stand.”
If not for the innocence of children, the rabbis are telling us, civilization would be unsustainable.
So let’s talk about Ishmael, one of the main subjects of today’s Torah reading. The other is Isaac. Two kids. Isaac is the key to the future of the Jewish people.
But what of Ishmael? He’s a prop, really. Just a plot device to show us how much Abraham and Sarah wanted a kid, so much that Sarah offered Abraham her handmaid Hagar so he could have a kid with her – the world’s first Handmaid’s Tale. But Sarah had second thoughts, so Hagar was sent away when she was pregnant, then she came back and Ishmael was born, and then, once he grew to adolescence, Ishmael and Hagar were sent away again. But at the moment of their greatest despair, God saved them.
Now in the version of the story found in the Quran, Ishmael is actually the favored child. But in our Torah, with the plot clearly centered around Sarah and Isaac, the question is, why are Hagar and Ishmael treated with such sympathy by God?
And not just God. The Torah itself makes it impossible for us NOT to feel more sympathy for Hagar and Ishmael than for Sarah and Isaac. For one thing, Hagar shows emotion as Ishmael is suffering, calling out, “Let me not look upon the death of the child.”
וַתֵּשֶׁב מִנֶּגֶד, וַתִּשָּׂא אֶת-קֹלָהּ וַתֵּבְךְּ.
“And she sat over against him, and lifted up her voice, and wept.”
Compare that with tomorrow’s selection, the Binding of Isaac. No crying here. The Akeda reads like an AP report just come over the wire, narrated by Sargent Joe Friday. No emotions – nothing evocative. No tears. Just the facts, Ma’am.
And then, responding to Hagar’s cries, וַיִּשְׁמַע אֱלֹהִים, אֶת-קוֹל הַנַּעַר — “God hears the voice of the boy.”
So we have two stories, back to back – one is deeply emotive, and the other not in the least. The Torah is taking us by the hand as if to say, “Yes, Isaac is ultimately favored, but here, have sympathy for the other one, for Ishmael.
God hears the boy’s cry. And indeed, the name Ishmael means “God will hear.”
God hears the cry of the outsider, the wanderer, the loner, the Other, the child. God understands that without setting this example that children’s innocence must be defended, nothing else will matter. Civilization will be unsustainable.
In “Moby Dick,” Ishmael’s a minor character, no one cares much about him – we barely hear his name again in the entire book. But he is the narrator, and his survival is key. Had Ishmael died, and he survived miraculously, the whole story would have been left untold. And the Torah seems to be saying that had the biblical Ishmael been allowed to die in that desert, the rest of the story would have been rendered meaningless.
For what is the purpose of this enterprise called humanity, if no one hears the cry of a child?
And we have learned this year, that if we can we can give the child a small fighter’s chance, that child will fight.
And live. And bear witness to the sins of their parents, while simultaneously bearing the weight of their hopes. And as we have seen this year, children are up to this task – because they are so incredibly resilient.
So how do we save childhood? By hearing the cry of every Ishmael out there – not just our own, not just those of our tribe. All of them.
I’ve done a lot of traveling recently. To Israel, as well as parts of Asia. These trips gave me a renewed appreciation for the rich cultural diversity of our world, yet ultimately how similar we all are. I put together a photo montage of children from around the world and have shared it with you (click for online album). You cannot look into the faces of those children without feeling a heightened sense of responsibility – as well as hope for the future.
What did I see in these places? I saw love of neighbor – and a deep respect for ancestors. I saw a desire for peace and for bread on the table. But most of all, I saw resilience.
I was stunned by the spirit of the Vietnamese. We cruised up the Mekong Delta, in a very unswift boat, where I could imagine the horrors of a generation ago. But the defoliated forests have now grown back and the people there love Americans. The grandchildren of the War have moved on – even as Agent Orange still afflicts many of them. Saigon – most still call it Saigon – and Hanoi look like any western city, with every American fast food chain imaginable – McDonald’s, Burger King, and of course, KFC, which makes sense, since Colonel Sanders is a dead ringer for Ho Chi Minh.
In my hotel, the bathtub was an American Standard. I knew for sure that this was not “your father’s Vietnam” when I was sitting in the lounge in the Saigon Intercontinental Hotel and the guy at the piano began playing “Sounds of Silence.”
I braced myself for a medley of American songs from the Vietnam era, half expecting the next one to be “Teach the Children” by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.
“And you, of tender years,
Can’t know the fears that your elders grew by.”
The kids in Vietnam have no idea about their elder’s fears. No longer are they running naked, screaming from the burning effects of Napalm on their clothing, like that nine year old girl photographed in June of 1972. They are playing in the parks and riding carefree on the handlebars of their parents’ motorcycles. Their parents and grandparents have somehow restored and safeguarded their innocence.
Even that 9 year old Napalm victim, her pain immortalized in that Pulitzer Prize winning photo, one of most searing images of the 20th century – has managed to overcome it. Kim Phúc endured seventeen surgeries and wasn’t able to move properly for a decade. For a while she was used as a propaganda tool by the Vietnamese government. But eventually, she married and gained political asylum in Canada during a refueling stop in Gander, Newfoundland, of all places. She had come from FAR away. In 1997 she established the first Kim Phúc Foundation in the U.S., with the aim of providing medical and psychological assistance to child victims of war.
She told NPR in 2008, “Forgiveness made me free from hatred. I still have many scars on my body and severe pain most days but my heart is cleansed. Napalm is very powerful, but faith, forgiveness, and love are much more powerful. We would not have war at all if everyone could learn how to live with true love, hope, and forgiveness. If that little girl in the picture can do it, ask yourself: Can you?”
She may call herself Kim Phúc , but I call her Ishmael.
As our trip continued, we flew over what used to be called the DMZ, but this time in a passenger jet, not a B52, and when we landed, I just looked around and said, “I’m in Hanoi!” Back in the day, only Jane Fonda came here. Jane Fonda and John McCain (of blessed memory). So we asked our guide to make an unscheduled stop at the so-called Hanoi Hilton, the prison where McCain withstood his five and a half years of captivity and torture, which robbed him of his youth, though never his resolve. We also saw the spot by the lake where he was captured, and I came away with a deepened appreciation for this true American hero, the heroism of every soldier –the unspeakable and avoidable tragedy of that war – and the visionary inspiration of McCain and John Kerry for paving the road to peace with Vietnam in the 1990s. And so now Vietnam has Starbucks and American Standard bathroom fixtures, no Toys ‘R Us but a Lego store – and who exactly won this war?
And now, fifty years after the infamous Tet Offensive, we Jews are entering the year, tav shin ayin, tet. The letter Tet equals nine in Hebrew. Tet is the first letter of the word “Tov.” Good – and the letter has become synonymous with that word. During the war, the Tet Offensive was devastating for both sides. But now, in this year of the transformed Tet, when we look at Vietnam, we can say “Tov! “Good.” Childhood has been restored here.
In Cambodia, we visited a school in Phnom Penh called the PSE Center, which was set up by French citizens back at the time of the city’s liberation from the Khmer Rouge. Around two million people were murdered during the genocide of the Killing Fields; nearly half the population of the country, by some estimates. No one emerged unscarred. Many children were brainwashed and conscripted. Others were killed. After Pol Pot left, multitudes of children were orphaned and destitute, eating out of piles of garbage. So this school was created out of those ruins.
And now, a generation later, it serves thousands of at-risk kids from all over the country, street children, school dropouts, abused or orphaned kids. While it’s been four decades since the Killing Fields, the parents of these children still face massive post-traumatic stress, along with physical injuries – not to mention that many are still being killed by unexploded mines – a third of the victims children. The nightmare will not go away. Yet somehow, the children are pulling through. Somehow in this beautiful but godforsaken land, the children smile and the children play.
And in the middle of that school, a sign quotes the 1924 Geneva Declaration of the Rights of the Child, one of the most lasting legacies of the League of Nations. Yes, it tells us, children have rights: To have food when hungry and to be nursed when sick; to have shelter and relief in times of stress, to be taught a trade, to be able to grow both materially and spiritually and to live without exploitation. That’s all in there. As the declaration states, “Humanity is obligated to give every child the best that it has.” And in this little corner of Phnom Penh, that’s happening.
Yes, as the Midrash tells us, it is the innocence of children that sustains the world. And children are resilient, the world over.
Call them Ishmael.
And we must hear their cry.
A dozen boys and their football coach in Thailand were trapped in a labyrinth of submerged caverns and crevices. They were exploring the caves when a sudden storm flooded the entire area, and they were entombed for nine days before being discovered. With precision training and expert divers, the rescue was meticulously planned.
The boys were hungry. They were dehydrated. It had been two weeks. But they were in good spirits when they were found, demonstrating remarkable resilience.
We were in Thailand on the day when the boys were rescued. There was great joy – but more relief than celebration. No ticker tape parades or trips to Disneyland. What did these boys do to celebrate their survival? How about nine days in a Buddhist monastery, a tradition in Thailand for those who experience adversity. This step was intended to be a “spiritual cleansing” for the group, and to fulfill a promise to remember the diver who had died.
One of the boy’s grandfathers told the BBC. “It’s like they died but now have been reborn.”
Just like the Midrash: So let the pure come and engage in the study of the pure.
In purifying themselves, those boys purified us. The Thais were amazed that the world cared so much about the plight of their kids. We cared because instinctively we knew that this was a crucial crossroads for civilization. Childhood innocence itself was trapped in that cave. If we could care about these kids, maybe other Ishmaels would also be heard. We had to save those kids. And when they were saved, we all felt cleansed.
Despite the contributions of the rescuers, the boys themselves were the real heroes of this story. And here as well, it is the children themselves who are saving childhood – and giving us hope.
Call them Ishmael.
By all measures, the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland Florida should have spent Valentine’s Day at parties or at the mall – but instead they either spent it sheltered in place – or at the morgue. But in the seven months since that mass shooting that took seventeen precious lives, the Parkland students have cried out and organized, lobbied relentlessly, and spoken truth to power in a manner that has changed everything about the issue of gun violence. Just five weeks after the shooting, there were 800 “March for our Lives” events that brought out an estimated 800,000 marchers, including a large crowd right here in Stamford, led by Alyssa Goldberg, one of our own TBE high school students. Our neighbor Paul Simon showed up to play “Sounds of Silence.” Much better than the guy at the piano bar in Siagon. But the teens organized the whole thing.
Call them Ishmael!
Those kids in Thailand saved us with their purity of faith, those teens in Parkland with their purity of action. Some cynics labeled the Parkland kids snowflakes, as if to say that they were overly sensitive and coddled. But snowflakes have a strange habit of turning into snowballs, rolling down the highway. If those amazing kids are snowflakes, then God grant us an avalanche of them.
You know, we adults can’t even imagine what it’s like to be a child these days. Think about the horrific revelations that have come out regarding the Catholic church. A thousand children in Pennsylvania; so many crimes, so many cover ups. In the Jewish community as well, new cases have been uncovered. In Chennai India this year, a group of eighteen men took turns raping an 11-year-old girl. And it was covered up!
And we were struck dumb at the news two weeks ago of nine year old, Jamel Myers, who came out to his classmates in Denver, and then was bullied into submission until he took his own life. The kids at school told this little child to kill himself, and he did.
“Call me Ishmael,” they all cry.
I saw the film “Eighth Grade” – and I’m someone who spends a lot of time around 8th graders. And I was stunned by a lot of it – perhaps most of all by the banality of school shooter drills.
But those Parkland kids hopped on the bus and just said, “We’re going to do something about it.” And they have. Their toughness astounds me. It comforts me.
And it is a summons to all of us.
Every day, on average, seven children and teens die from gun violence (according to the Brady Campaign).
What have we done to stop that bloodshed?
Teen suicide is soaring; up over 70 percent for the ten-year period ending in 2016, says the CDC. The more kids rely on social media over face-to-face contact, the more isolated they feel.
What have we done to hear the cries of Ishmael?
Kids live in a world of bullying and domestic abuse, and their world is getting more inhospitable all the time. They are hearing adult role models speak in increasingly uncivil terms and that filters back to the schoolyard. Their world is spinning out of control.
All our kids are crying out, “Call me Ishmael!”
This summer, Americans have been obsessed with the late Fred Rogers. We need a little more Mister Rogers in our neighborhood. Rogers said, “Knowing that we can be loved exactly as we are gives us all the best opportunity for growing into the healthiest of people.”
Rogers was a Presbyterian minister who believed that all people are created in the image of God, proclaiming that all children deserved to be loved unconditionally. Some criticized his approach, claiming that it’s bad for kids to be showered with too much unearned love, because they come to feel entitled, and to expect life to reward them for just showing up, you know, with so-called “participation trophies.” And then these kids become the soft underbelly of society, unprepared for this brutish, uncaring world.
I’m not worried about a trophy. They say ninety percent of life is just showing up, so I’m not worried about rewarding participation. Come to services on Shabbat and I’ll give you a trophy! I’m not worried about a trophy.
I’m worried about atrophy.
Atrophy of the heart.
Atrophy of principle.
Atrophy of compassion.
Atrophy of truth.
Atrophy of love.
Atrophy of our ability to be outraged.
Atrophy of our ability to hear the cry of Ishmael.
That cry from the wilderness, that cry of Ishmael, is also the cry of the canary – the canary in the coal mine – that cave in Thailand was that dark place and those boys were the canaries.
From Thailand to Parkland, we hear the words of Jeremiah 31:20, which are echoed in the prayers of the Rosh Hashanah Musaf service:
הֲבֵן יַקִּיר לִי אֶפְרַיִם, אִם יֶלֶד שַׁעֲשֻׁעִים
“Is not Ephraim My dear son, My precious child, whom I remember fondly …? So, My heart reaches out to him, and I always feel compassion for him, declares Adonai.”
Our children deserve love – and they deserve to be left a better world than we found it. Not a world of not a world of cynicism, corruption and brutality. Not a world of prejudice, anti-Semitism racism and hate. Not a world of blood and soil.
If we let down our children – there will be no one else left to let down.
And one more thing:
We cannot allow ourselves to be a country where authorities rip children from the arms of their parents. God heard Ishmael’s cry, because he was the Other. And we hear the cry of those who have risked life and limb for the faint hope of asylum in an America that is failing to live up to her promise. The Huddled Masses still yearn to breathe free. The Zero Tolerance policy at the border is a stain on all that it means to be an American.
They thought no one would notice.
They thought no one would care.
But we heard the cry of Ishmael.
And it is not just at the border, but in cities and towns across this land where people who have contributed to their communities for decades are being picked up like yesterday’s garbage and taken from their children.
I think of Armando Rojas, the beloved custodian of our sister congregation Bet Torah in Mt. Kisco, just up the road. Armando worked there for 20 of his 30 years in this country before being detained by ICE a few months ago. Despite the congregation’s advocacy efforts on his behalf, Armando was deported to Mexico without a chance to gather his belongings or even say goodbye to his wife and young children. He was left at the border with no money, cell phone, or ID.
It’s happened right here in Stamford. Several months ago, I stood vigil with other community leaders in front of a house where authorities were threatening to come and deport a woman who has lived in this country since 1992. Miriam Martinez, originally from Guatemala, is married with two children, Alison and Brianna. Brianna has Juvenile Diabetes and is entering 8th grade. Miriam was about to be deported, leaving Brianna in a life-threatening situation. Thanks to a community that came to her aid, a judge granted her a stay. That assistance was coordinated in large part by Catalina Horak, Executive Director of Building 1 Community – who is here today. And so are Miriam and Brianna and Alison.
Miriam’s next court appearance is next week, and I pray that her stay will be extended indefinitely. But Miriam, if you need me down at your house to protect you, I will be there at a moment’s notice – even on Yom Kippur.
All over the world, children are constantly being separated from their parents. Not just here. In lots of places, and it’s been happening for a long time. But now? Here? In 2018? Thirty-seven hundred children were taken from their parents at the border. Systematically. Callously. Underhandedly.
And we are responsible. The shame is on us.
What civilized nation does this?
What nation that values the well-being of a child does this?
What kind of America IS this?
And what kind of Jews are we if we stand for this?
Call them Ishmael!
This year I looked at the world through the eyes of children. I saw a different story, a story of hope and resilience and innocence reclaimed. I saw it in their faces.
It is those kids who give me hope, the kids in Cambodia and Vietnam and Israel and India, and those teens from Thailand to Parkland, and right here. Ishmael, the child, the Other, the outcast, is hearing our cry – and Ishmael is taking action. Ishmael is leading the way. Ishmael is saving us.
The League of Nations’ Declaration of the Rights of the Child did not die with the League of Nations. The United Nations adopted it in 1948, then again in 1959 and in 1989, the Convention on the Rights of the Child was approved. One of the signers of the original 1924 document was none other than Janusz Korczac, the Fred Rogers of his time, the great advocate for the care of children, who put his ideas into practice in the Warsaw Ghetto, choosing to accompany his orphans to a death that he could have escaped.
Korczak wrote, “Children are not the people of tomorrow, but are people of today. They have a right to be taken seriously, and to be treated with tenderness and respect. They should be allowed to grow into whoever they were meant to be. ‘The unknown person’ inside of them is our hope for the future.”
And so, I am hopeful. We’ve tried our best to destroy childhood – but those kids have reclaimed it on their own. We Napalmed a little girl in Vietnam and she has forgiven us. We could not save Janusz Korczak’s orphans but Miriam Martinez’s children are safe at least for now.
We’ve saved them from the caves and we’ve saved them from the cages.
We’ve let so many children down, but God hears the child’s cry.
And God will answer that cry again in just a couple of months – because in November, FAO Schwarz will be reopening its doors in Manhattan.
May the Schwarz be with us!
Welcome to our world of toys!
They’re calling it, “the Return to Wonder.” And not a moment too soon. I’m ready to jump on that huge piano, like Tom Hanks in “Big.” Fire up the imagination, turn those pebbles into diamonds and those trees into castles. The House at Pooh Corner is open for business again!
And the parched boy takes a huge gulp of God-given water and rises from his rocky bed of despair; he looks around the world and proclaims proudly to his weeping mother Hagar and for all to hear:
“I am Ishmael!
And I am loved.”