Rosh HaShannah Morning 5772
Last night I spoke about fear, and how to overcome our fears through faith. Today I want to share something really scary with you. As many of you already know, I did something this summer that my rabbinic friends and colleagues around the nation think is just crazy. At our annual golf tournament, I auctioned off complete and total control over the topic of one of my High Holy Day sermons. Who does such a thing?! I thought it would be fun, and it would guarantee that at least one member of the congregation would be interested in at least one sermon I offer over the holidays.
Well, after a short bidding period, your president, Howard Rosenhoch won the prize. This was a good thing because I had heard that another person (you know who you are) was determined to pick the New York Yankees as my theme. This would have been my worst nightmare, because sadly for many of you, I am not a Yankees fan. By contrast, Howard was taking the responsibility he won seriously, and even wrote about it in his president’s column. I told my colleagues it was all working out fine.
Then I get this e-mail from him. One simple little e-mail. ‘Rabbi,’ he writes, ‘I couldn’t come up with a topic, but as I was cleaning out my desk I found this article. Maybe you can do something with that. I’m sure there are lots of topics you can find there.’
Would you like to know what the article was about? Golf. That’s right, Howard Rosenhoch your president who could have picked anything in the world, sent me an article about golf. Do you know how much I know about golf? Nothing, nada, gornisht! I’ve only been on a driving range once and have never actually played a hole in my life. I’ve heard about Tiger Woods, of course, but I couldn’t tell you if he’s even still playing. What could I possibly do with a story about golf?
So I would like to acknowledge Howard, and to announce that had he not sent this article to me, today’s sermon would have been quite different.
So let me tell you about the article. It was about a man named Dan Kozack. You’ve probably never heard of him. He is not a pro golfer, but like so many, he loves the game. He was visiting his uncle in Toronto one time (who it turns out was the author of the article) and the two of them went out to play their favorite game. The author described Dan’s old school grip and smooth and flowing stroke. He described how the ball would sail off the tee and curve in just the right way to land on the green, and how Dan took such pleasure from the pastime. Even, when Dan overshot, it didn’t seem to bother him, he just played through the hole – delighting in the sound of the ball plunking in the cup.
There really was nothing remarkable about the story or the game, except that Dan Kozack, in addition to loving golf, has Down’s Syndrome. He is a great athlete, and a special Olympian. He danced after a good shot, and joked with his uncle. He used far more words on the course than off, and taught his uncle on the green that day to see his humanity shining from within. There is no doubt about it: Dan Kozack was created b’tzelem Elohim – in the image of God. And the author of the article had never bothered to notice it before. To him, Dan had been defined by his differences, not his humanity, but after that game his uncle would never see him the same way again.
B’tzelem Elohim means that each of us has intrinsic worth. It means that like God, we can create. We can distinguish between right and wrong. We can have vision and we can bring that vision to life. B’tzelem Elohim is a cornerstone value of our tradition, and the frame that gives meaning and purpose to our lives.
Howard, you did well, and I am grateful for your choice.
How many of us are quick to judge, to make assumptions about the people we meet, and to keep those artificial images we create about them close during our interactions with them over time? We judge each other all the time. We judge people by their dress, by their looks, by their speech, by their work, by the color of their skin, by their sexual orientation, by where they live, or go to school or anything else that strikes our fancy.
It’s hard to see the Divine in a person we judge to be inferior to ourselves, or different enough to make us feel uncomfortable. And when we fail to find the Divine within each other, it says more about us than about the people we are judging. And make no mistake, that failure is not only toxic, but sometimes even deadly. In our own local community, Jamie Rodemeyer, a 14 year old boy at Williamsville North who had been bullied for years about his sexual orientation took his own life a week ago Saturday. The Amherst police are currently investigating three boys who took pains to harass him not only at school but also on-line. His suicide has sparked a national and even an international outcry – and it should. There can be no room for hate in our schools, in our neighborhoods, in our community. Nationally, almost 40% of all sixth graders have reported being bullied. The number drops to 20% by the time they are seniors, but 90% of gay and lesbian students report being bullied throughout middle school and high school. We should be particularly outraged, that in Amherst, which is supposedly one of the safest communities in the country, that such a thing would happen. This is our community, and we are better than this, and we need to take action to crack down on bullying, and it starts right here at home, and in our temple.
We need to make a habit of truly seeing the divine in each other. Jamey Rodemeyer was created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God – and because a group of kids refused to recognize that – he is dead.
When we don’t see the image of the divine in each other, we dehumanize each other. Even when it doesn’t lead to suicide, it is toxic. It is toxic to the person being judged, and toxic to the person doing the judging.
I know. I have been on both sides of that equation. I was that kid that everyone picked on. I don’t have any friends from elementary school, not because we have lost touch but because I never really had any – at least that I could keep. I was socially awkward and terrible at sports. In fourth grade, on the playground, a group of boys said to me that if I let them hit me, hard, that they would be my friends. So I let them. They hit me and made my nose bleed and laughed and called me ‘stupid’ and ran away. By the time I was in seventh grade I no longer tried to make friends – that was too much to ask for. Instead, my deepest wish was to be left alone.
My parents signed me up for Karate and baseball early on. In baseball, I was mostly useless, and would sit in right field and pick daisies. The Karate, however, started to give me more confidence, slowly and over time. I got better at gym class and one day at baseball practice, the coach accidentally hit a hard line drive out to right field. Usually, he wouldn’t hit many balls my way, and if he did they would be gentle ground balls because I rarely caught anything. Without really thinking, I held out my glove and pop! The ball landed in the sweet spot, and stayed there. I had caught a line drive! He couldn’t believe it, and I couldn’t either, so he hit another one, and another and another, and I caught them – all of them – running this way and that. Suddenly, my coach and my teammates were believing in me, and I began to believe in myself. From that day forward, I started to play baseball, and other sports too, and with my newfound confidence, began to make real friends.
I was still bullied, but it wasn’t as bad as before. Knowing that I had friends, and that I was competent as a human being gave me new courage. Eventually, I gained the strength to stand up to my bullies in the ninth grade, and they never bothered me again.
I share this with you to underscore what we already know: it takes a village. My parents showered me with devotion, love, and constant support, and I thank God for them. However, for me personally, it was the people outside of the home that were around me that had the most immediate impact. Without all of them seeing the potential within me and helping me to realize it, I don’t know that I would be standing here before you today.
This is what we, what every single one of us must do for each other, and especially for those who need us most.
We need to see the Divine in each other. We need it and we need to share it and we need to teach it to our children and to their children. There can be no room for hate in our hearts. And it needs to start here: in our homes and in our temple. Without love and acceptance our community is not holy. Without mutual understanding and respect our community dwells apart from God. With hate and disdain, we become smaller, and our souls gnaw away at themselves in a repeating downward cycle of self-diminishment.
But how do we learn to see the divine in others?
I’d like to share with you something that Rabbi Dr. Eugene Borowitz taught me. It is one of the most important lessons of my life. He may be the single most intelligent person I have ever met, and his ideas more than any other person’s, helped to shape Reform Judaism in the latter half of the twentieth century. He was a stern, demanding and seemingly judgmental teacher. Every time we failed to live up to his opinion of what characterized a minimal level of achievement (which happened at least once in every class session) he would sneer at us and deride us. I was terrified of him, and convinced that we were the sorriest group of students ever to have been inflicted upon him.
It turns out that I was wrong. Towards the end of our first semester, he shared an exercise that he practiced daily with us, and challenged us to do the same. Dr. Borowitz lived on Long Island at the time, and would take the train to the city and then the subway to school. Anyone who has ever ridden on the New York subway knows that you will see all kinds of people there. Every social class, every nationality, every age; blue collar workers and businessmen, mainstream folks and rebellious independents; and often the homeless and the mentally ill. So every day, Dr. Borowitz would ride the subway, and he would mentally point to every person in the car and say to himself: “B’tzelem Elohim – in the image of God.”
In a moment that will last my lifetime he taught us that seeing the divine is a process and that it will not happen by itself. We must pursue it, and through the practice of looking we begin to open ourselves to the possibilities which inevitably are just waiting for us to discover.
Talk about a revelation! He didn’t despise us, but quite the contrary. He saw greatness in us, and to help us reach it, he wouldn’t tolerate anything less than our very best. Once we passed his class, his demeanor changed to one of sweetness, even if we took additional classes with him – which I did.
I want to pass his challenge along to you. Let’s determine, all of us together, to look for the Divine in others. And I don’t just mean the people we already know and like. That’s too easy. I mean let’s find the divine in the people we know and don’t like or who we don’t know at all. Let’s find the divine in the people we judge. And let’s not just do it today but throughout the next ten days all the way until the end of Yom Kippur – and then beyond. Every day, as often as possible, when we encounter another person, let’s say to ourselves: “B’tzelem Elohim – in the image of God.” Try this and see what happens. See if you aren’t changed by the process. See if the glass doesn’t start to look more full than empty because of the good you see in others. See if your interactions don’t become healthier and more positive, and if your happiness doesn’t grow, because of the good you see in others. And see if the happiness and well-being of those around you doesn’t improve. See if they don’t walk a little taller, and with more of a spring in their step. See if they don’t return the sentiment back to you and to the people around them.
And let’s not just look for the Divine in others, let’s look for it in ourselves as well. There is a prayer, meant to be recited every morning that starts like this: “Elohai, nishama shenatat bi, tehora hi – My God, the soul you have given me, she is pure.” We are not bad people, but sometimes we miss the mark. We make mistakes, and sometimes terrible ones. Today and on Yom Kippur we are reminded that we are better than that. Our souls are pure – reflections of the Divine. We are holy vessels of God’s light. It is up to us to bring that light out – pure and bright.
This is a season of teshuvah of turning and sharpening our aim. When we see the divine in each other it is easier to recognize the hurt we have caused, and to make amends, and to change for the better. When we see the divine in our own selves, it is easier to recognize how we have wronged ourselves, and to forgive ourselves and to change for the better. And when we learn to see the divine in each other and in ourselves, then we will truly see that God is all around us and deep within us; and we can move forward confident with the knowledge that we are doing our part to make our community a loving house for all people.
 “There’s more to gold than pro tours,” by Lorne Rubenstein. The Toronto Globe & Mail, 18 August, 2005.
 “Jamey Rodemeyer Suicide: Police Consider Criminal Bullying Charges,” Susan Donaldson James, ABC News, 22 September, 2011.
 2009 National School Climate Survey, GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network).
Here is a downloadable version if you prefer to read this offline
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2015 Rabbi Gary Pokras