The following sermon was delivered by URJ President Rabbi Eric Yoffie on Saturday, February 14th to the attendees of the 2009 NFTY Convention.
Let me begin by asking you a few questions:
- How many of you are carrying a cell phone?
- How many of you live in a house with 2 or more computers?
- How many of you had dinner with your parents 2 times or more last week?
- How many of you have been to Israel?
- How many of you have a parent who is not Jewish?
- How many of you have been to a Jewish camp?
- How many of you are, or have been, a youth group officer?
- How many of you have experienced anti-Semitism in the last year?
- How many of you have thought about becoming a rabbi or cantor?
I have asked you these questions because I would like to get to know you a little better. My children are now in their 20s and I don’t have a lot of regular contact with teenagers any more.
Still, I must tell you that when I meet with NFTY kids or camp kids, I like what I see. From what I can tell, you are a pretty good group. Many adults may not want to admit it, but I believe that you are smarter and quicker than we were when we were young. For example, my generation watched TV—a lot of TV. And this made a lot of us into passive couch potatoes. But you are the net generation, and because the net is interactive, it stimulates and improves the brain in a way that TV never did for us.
And not only that. Most of you are really proud of being Jewish; most of you care about justice and about Israel; most of you are drawn to the power of intellect and the challenge of a mission greater than yourselves. In my experience, if someone gives you a real goal, and asks you real questions, you dive in with enthusiasm.
But here’s the thing: I’m not really that happy with your parents. Yes, they love you and care about you. And yes, times are tough, and they are worried about your economic future, just as they are worried about their own. Still, it seems to me that they expect too much of you and maybe they expect all the wrong things.
For example, they send you to “good” high schools with fine facilities. But the question is: what exactly are these schools “good” at?
They have lots of AP courses and plenty of college-hungry kids. And you and your sleep-deprived classmates are expected to devote your days to endless homework and lab reports. And not only that: you race from one skill-enhancing program to the next, taking SAT prep courses to improve your scores and doing a million extra-curricular things to improve your resumes. Perhaps you do this because you want to, but perhaps you do it because your college-obsessed parents expect it. Either way, it seems to me that too many of you are stressed out, super-driven, and hyper competitive. You never have enough time. What kind of way is this to live when you are 16 years old?
Don’t get me wrong. Of course your parents should set high goals and expect you to work hard. But as a rabbi, I don’t worry that much about your economic futures. Some of you will be rich; some of you will be less so. But all of you have proved that you can jump through the necessary hoops to survive, and, for most of you, to thrive.
What I do worry about is whether the adult generation is pushing you too hard and sending the message that you must excel at everything.
I worry that we are not helping you, amidst all this busyness, to nourish your souls and to learn those things that are spiritually relevant to your lives.
And I worry that some vital things are being missed.
For example, I worry that you are so busy and so stressed that you don’t even have time for relationships anymore. That you prefer a hook-up culture because it is much easier to have a friend with benefits than to develop a real relationship that is loving and caring. There’s nothing wrong with friends, of course. Cellphones, facebook, and text messages give us access to hundreds of friends—and that’s great.
But Judaism teaches that every single one of you is unique, a child of God, and entitled to respect. And sexual contact, in the right circumstances, is a good thing that is related to holiness and not just physical pleasure. It is far easier, I think, to develop and strengthen these values in a caring relationship than it is in a casual friendship.
So my hope is that your parents will stop pushing you to grow up too fast. In fact, I don’t want you to grow up at all. I am against growing up. Because teenagers have strong attachments and strong feelings about things, and too many adults do not. Because teenagers have a deep intellectual curiosity, and too many adults do not. So, in these ways at least, please, just remain a kid.
And now the good news.
I believe that most of you are here because you realize that something is missing and you see youth group and camp as a place to find it. I believe that you are looking for community and that you see NFTY and the synagogue as a way to bring meaning to your lives. I believe that NFTY, for most of us, most of the time, is a place where we play by different rules—a place where we can sit around and talk about life, where we are there for other people and they are there for us, where we speak the language of community and peoplehood. In other words, where everything is not “me, me, me,” but we speak the language of “we” as well as “I.”
And this too: I believe that NFTY and youth group are places where we are proud to be Jewish; where there are kids, rabbis, and advisors who love you and care about you and share your story; where we learn to be Jewish and do Jewish; and where we learn to stretch our Jewish muscles and grow in Jewish wisdom.
And if your youth group is not this kind of a place, then you need to change it. You need make it this kind of a place. Because that is what Judaism is about and what NFTY is about.
I would like to say a few about the State of Israel.
We live at an extraordinary moment in the history of the Jewish people. After 2000 years, we have once again established a sovereign Jewish nation in the Land of Israel. That nation is a cause for thanksgiving and rejoicing. We are blessed to be living at this moment. We are blessed that we can, if we choose, do what Moses could not do: visit the Land of Israel and walk on the soil of the Jewish state.
In recent months, we have read a lot about Israel and seen a lot of videos on the news. What we have seen, however, almost never tells the real story.
And that is sad because the story is a simple one. In 2001, Hamas began firing rockets at southern Israel from Gaza. Every one of these 7500 rockets was aimed at civilians, and the firing of every single one constitutes a war crime. Fortunately, they didn’t kill large numbers of people, not because Hamas wasn’t trying, but because the rockets were too crude to be effective.
But what these rockets did do was traumatize Israeli children, terrorize the population, drive people from the cities, and bring normal life to a halt.
Every playground in Sderot, the most frequent target, has a bomb shelter. For eight years, the children of Sderot lived under constant fire. And for eight years, Israelis struggled with the question of whether they should respond militarily to Hamas. Most of her leaders argued that they should avoid this if possible because Hamas makes a point of operating out of civilian areas so that, if attacked, high civilian casualties would be inevitable.
And for eight years, Israel worked feverishly to bring this situation to the attention of the world. But the world was silent, and diplomats clucked their tongues, saying how the violence was so unfortunate, but knowing that nothing would be done and Jewish children would continue to live in dread. And for 8 years, the Israeli citizens in the south hated their own government almost as much as they hate Hamas, because in their eyes, their government had abandoned them.
So when people saw the stories on TV, and asked me why Israel was doing what they were doing, I would respond: Because Israel cannot be expected to protect other children at the cost of abandoning its own.
And I would ask them: How many rockets would have to land in San Diego or Detroit before the American government would respond? How long would you submit your children to the terror of rocket fire, how long would you permit them to be traumatized by rockets landing in your neighbor’s backyard, before you would demand action from your government? These last questions are not serious, of course, because we all know that a single missile landing in a backyard in Washington or Baltimore or San Diego or Detroit would call forth a massive response from our government. Because we all know that there is not a single American or Canadian parent who would tolerate for a week what Israeli parents have tolerated year after year after year.
Eventually, as we know, Israel did respond and, as expected, civilians died, and then these deaths were used to ratchet up the violence and the hate.
One final point: let us not think for a moment, God forbid, that we can be indifferent to the death of innocents. The life of every child is precious. The death of any child, Israeli or Arab, Muslim or Jew, is an unspeakable tragedy that rends the heart.
And so what do we say about all the innocents who died in Gaza? We say that it was terrible beyond words. We express our sorrow and our deep regret.
Do not misunderstand me: Overwhelmingly, Israelis believe this was a just war and that it had to fought. And I believe this as well.
But let us remember: There is no contradiction between praying for the safety of Israel’s soldiers, for the welfare of civilians on both sides, and for leaders in the region to have the wisdom to know when the bombs must give way to talk. Even if Hamas will not mourn our children, we will insist on mourning theirs.
One final point: Yes, Hamas is a radical force, intent not on peace but on death. But this does not mean, God forbid, that the more than 1 billion Muslims in the world are radicals or extremists. Opposing the terror of Hamas does not require defaming Islam, or returning malice for malice.
Yes, there are those who hate Israel and sanction mass murder in the name of God, and they will forever be our enemies. But we know that the answer to this hatred can only come from the minds and souls of people of faith. It can only come from moderate Muslims, from tolerant Jews, from humble Christians. And while religious dialogue may not be possible everywhere, it is possible here in North America. That is why hundreds of Reform congregations are now engaged in reaching out to their Muslim neighbors, and that is why NFTY too is working on Jewish-Muslim dialogue. And when we Reform Jews do this, we are seeing Reform Judaism at its best.
In this week’s Torah portion, the children of Israel receive their first system of government. And it doesn’t come from God. It comes from a human being who isn’t even Jewish. His name is Yitro, the father-in-law of Moses. The point, the rabbis told us, is to remind us that there is much wisdom in the world that comes from other cultures and other civilizations and other religious traditions. If Jews begin to believe that all truth resides with Jews, we are lost.
Does this mean that we are all pretty much the same? No, not at all. There are walls that exist between Judaism and Islam and between Judaism and Christianity, and there is a reason for these walls. We all need our own values, and rituals, and traditions. In fact, without walls and categories to separate us, we have no identity or integrity—we are simply a mass of jelly and incoherence. If we have no commitments of our own, we are left adrift without an anchor for our most deeply held beliefs.
But at the same time, there is something special about Reform Judaism: we understand that our walls should never be so high that we forget the people and the problems and the beliefs that exist on the other side.
Reform Jews need walls just as much as everybody else, but we never ignore or demonize those on the outside. We know that we must constantly pull ourselves up to look over that wall and extend our hand, and in so doing give expression to our common humanity. We will not declare war, even in our hearts, on another people or another religion. And we are never afraid of connecting with Muslims, or with Catholics, or with Evangelicals, or with anyone else. Because our Judaism, Reform Judaism, encourages us to think, and to test our convictions against the logic and the passion of others.
Let me tell you a secret that’s not much of a secret. There are a lot of Jews who just don’t like Muslims very much. But now let me tell you another secret: these are Jews who have just stopped thinking. But I believe that you are much more intelligent than they are—which is why you started the dialogue in the first place. You are looking for wisdom. You want to make good moral decisions. And you refuse to be duped into simplistic beliefs.
What do I leave you with on this Shabbat?
We need you to be serious Jews, and that means becoming a partisan and a partner, because Judaism is not a spectator sport.
We need you to be nice to your parents. Because in matters of parents and children, a certain cosmic justice operates. That means that someone who does not relate with respect to his parents will receive the same attitude in return from her own kids in the next generation.
We need you to believe that you can make a difference to the Jews and to the world, and that you can choose to be good or bad.
Don’t tell me that you had a hard childhood. Everyone had a hard childhood; that is no excuse.
We need you to give God a chance. Let me tell you something: I am a person who believes in God. The God that I believe in expects me to be a better person, to not do to my friends what is bad in my eyes. The God that I believe in is embarrassed when somebody else claims that only he knows God’s will. The God that I believe in isn’t concerned very much with what how thin I am, what I look like, or what I wear. And by the way, I believe that faith in God and Jewish tradition turns us into better people.
And lastly, we need you take Judaism seriously, but to make your own decisions. If you don’t like what I believe, that’s fine. Take your time, study some Torah, examine your ideas, choose what is appropriate for you, don’t feel that the views of others obligate you. You are all smart, and sensible, and eager for understanding. And I have every confidence that you will arrive at the right conclusions and that you will make Reform Judaism proud.
Have a great convention. Shabbat Shalom.
FOR MORE>> Visit www.urj.org/yoffie for more about Rabbi Yoffie.