Rabbi Michael White
Rabbi Michael White’s Remarks
At the Annual Meeting of Temple Sinai of Roslyn
One of this week’s Torah portions, Kiddoshim, is called the Holiness Code, and it begins Kiddoshim ti’hiyu, ki kadosh Ani Adonai Elohechem---You shall be holy for I Adonai your God am holy. Scholars have argued this selection from the Torah transitions biblical law from questions about basic human needs---where is the food, where will I sleep, how will I be protected from enemy invasions---to questions about moral obligations such as what constitutes ethical interactions between people, the requirement for tzedakah, honesty in our business conduct and in our family relations, integrity, concern for the world around us and basic human dignity, and the obligation to forgive.
But then, our portion hits us with some jarring commandments. Listen to this one: And do not profane your daughter by making her a prostitute, lest the land fall into prostitution and the land become full of depravity. Yes, the Torah advises us to refrain from selling our daughters into sexual slavery, but not because it might seem an abominably poor decision for her, but rather because: there goes the neighborhood. Now this commandment seems appalling. How are we to square the commandment to be holy with such a dismissive attitude toward rape victims and child sex trafficking?
I’ve thought about this. And here is one conclusion I’ve drawn. Laws are fashioned in their own context, often the result of many forces, some of them untoward.
Consider our recent visit by Captain Mark Kelly and Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. History will certainly judge us harshly for our failure to pass laws that would keep guns out of the hands of murderers, for congressional attempts to prohibit limitations on concealed carry laws and for encouraging the proliferation of semi-automatic weapons. Our grandchildren will study such public policy moves with the same astonishment that we greet the Torah’s laws about rape and prostitution. The Constitution, much like the Torah, speaks of our highest aspirations. But sometimes the darker angels win and we get bad, destructive laws, laws that objectively sound evil, and people are hurt; they even die.
I believe we are living in an era of evil laws, of our darker angels governing public policy. There are many examples. The executive orders regarding the undocumented is a significant one. I’m not talking about hardened criminals, drug dealers or gang bangers. No one wants to protect them. I’m talking about the local landscape dispatcher, the woman who cares for an elderly homebound neighbor, the supervisor at the local body shop who is a deacon in his church. The deli manager. The day care teacher who makes the kids’ lunches. Many of us attended the recent town hall meetings and heard their stories. Our leadership group continues to meet to discuss ways to assist and support our neighbors, specifically in the new immigrant community and our friends in the Muslim community.
They are terrified today, as they see executive orders signed that target them, immigration restrictions that imply that they are a threat to “real” Americans. Our friend Isma Choudhry of the Islamic Center told me that the teens are afraid to come to prayers, and her members are afraid to make contributions to the Mosque, afraid that the government will use such contributions to accuse them of abetting terror. I’m working with local community leaders to craft some language, asking our local leaders and political candidates to ensure that they will not assist Federal agents who go on hunting expeditions for no other reason than to terrify people and break apart families.
I don’t yet know what we will need from you, but knowing this community, I do know that we will be able to count on you. We all know and celebrate the courage of the righteous gentiles who protected our people during the Holocaust. Now it’s our turn to stand with our neighbors, and if necessary, to stand between them and abusive government overreach. And when the historical account of this dark era is written, and future generations will read about the government’s draconian measures, they will also read that the good people in the Jewish community responded to their Torah’s charge: You shall be holy.
Temple Sinai is able to respond to such community needs because we are strong. And we are strong because of you. Everyone here knows that all the mundane work of running this large, complex institution; the personnel decisions, the budgeting and funding decisions, the administration, maintaining the building, and on and on, occupies most of our energies and time as leaders. It is essential work, holy work, because it means that we can be the powerful, leading community institution we are known to be.
This amazing, vibrant, congregation is led by the most extraordinary leaders, and I want to thank all our leaders, from the bottom of my heart, for the vital and significant sacrifices you make for us all. To be president of Temple Sinai requires an extra measure of sacrifice. Our presidents are the face of this institution, and daily, often hourly, they are called upon to steer this busy ship, often in turbulent waters.
Jonathan Cheris’ commitment to us should inspire and humble us all. He has given so much to us, more than any of you know. His leadership was courageous, it shined with infectious enthusiasm, optimism for our congregation’s future, wisdom, foresight and, maybe most important, unadulterated kindness. Jonathan became president at a crossroads in our congregation’s life. As society transitions to new platforms for communication and institutional organization, as the next generation of young Jews comes with different expectations for their institutions of meaning, and different ways of engaging them, we have had to rethink how we organize and administer our growing program. It has not been easy, to say the least. But Jonathan stepped up; stood up; galvanized his amazing executive board and made the case. We are at the beginning of that journey. And history will record that Jonathan’s strong, prescient leadership was the consequential ingredient that propelled us on our way. And Rich Evans, who will soon assume the presidency, will be an outstanding president too. I love him, respect him, and can’t wait to join with him in sacred partnership.
I also want to thank all the clergy and professional staff who lead us each and every day, with passion, wisdom, infectious warmth and humor. Temple Sinai has the best professionals of any congregation in America, absolutely and without question. We will have an opportunity to fete Rabbi Gordon as he prepares to assume his own pulpit, and I know I speak for everyone here when I say how much we will miss him.
So, dear friends, all important institutions that aspire to live out important sacred values, and that call us to be good, decent and kind to each other, fall short. That’s the lesson of our Torah portion’s inconsistent teachings, and that’s the lesson of our country in these turbulent times. Our task is to accentuate the spread of goodness and decency, and to minimize the harm when we fail. Our task is to ensure that our great congregation has the tools and resources to fulfill those tasks. To be holy, as Adonai our God is holy.
Rabbi Michael White