Greatness

Yom Kippur 5775
Temple Beth El of Boca Raton
By Rabbi Jessica Brockman

Just down a little bit south of where the Miami Heat play is Miami’s Bay Front Park. This park was the site of a 1933 assassination attempt on Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the very year he became president. Having just returned from a cruise, Roosevelt was scheduled to make remarks in Miami when shots pierced the air. While missing FDR, the bullets hit the visiting mayor of Chicago, Anton Cermak, who would die a few days later from his wounds. At the time, FDR’s Secret Service implored him to get away from the scene but he did no such thing, instead staying and tending to the wounded Chicago mayor. What emerged strongly and clearly from these events was a foreshadowing of Roosevelt’s bravery and calm ability to react under pressure.

This incident recounted in Aaron David Miller’s new book The End Of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President speaks to Roosevelt’s “… calm and coolness in the face of an assassination attempt [that] buoyed the nation and sent a powerful message that the American people had chosen the right man with the right temperament to deal with a crisis. “ (p. 26) In 1933, little did we know what crises were still to come.

When Roosevelt did die of natural causes 12 years later, the sadness lay in a nation that felt like there would be no leadership with FDR’s passing. There was an indispensible nature about FDR that Miller feels hasn’t been seen since. What does “greatness” look like in the eyes of Miller? It is what he calls the three C’s of presidential greatness – Crisis, character and capacity. Greatness according to Miller is epitomized by presidents that have these three things. Crisis – president who overcame what he calls a “nation-wrenching challenge”. Character - being a unique and singular leader…trusted eloquent and resolute in public and in private (p241).” And Capacity – “the know-how and ability to choose the right advisors, manage Congress, the party and the press and… all while creating a basis for transformative change [for the nation]. (p35) In Miller’s view three men have achieved this greatness in the presidency - one in each century – George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Greatness, in his opinion, is elusive for most other presidents, and may not be seen again in a world where wars don’t end and Americans don’t idealize their leaders like they once did. All this creates a gap between what we had and what we can no longer have that makes the idea of greatness in American political leadership elusive he argues.

What greatness looks like in the halls of the White House is unattainable by most and fulfilled by only a few. In the Jewish landscape, that capacity for greatness does not lie with a select few, but with every individual. Greatness is not limited here. On Yom Kippur, the Torah portion we read looks at greatness through a Jewish lens and it is for us all.

As we just read , “This commandment that I command you this day, it is not too hard for you, neither is it far away, It is not in the heaven that you should say, “Who should go up for us to heaven and bring it to us and make us hear it that we may do it? Neither is it beyond the sea that you should say, Who shall go across the sea for us and bring it to us, make us hear it that we may do it. The word is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart that you may do it.” (Deuteronomy 30:12-14)

That grand message so simply articulates that this tradition is not meant to be inaccessible. It says the exact opposite. It is for everyone to have. This Torah, this land, this people, only comes alive when we engage with it. And the sign of that engagement that is what is different about greatness in Judaism that makes it accessible to all. It a fourth C I add to Miller’s list. – That fourth C – covenant.

The C that defines greatness in Judaism is covenant. That promise made between Gd and the Jewish people that is the promise that G-d, Torah and Israel will be the foundation of Jewish life and living. And those elements must be a part of the life of a Jew – as the portion says in our mouths and in our hearts. As a Jew you can’t pretend that you’re not part of the covenant. That covenant, that promise of your unique and special role as part of the Jewish people empowers you. And a covenant makes claims on you that you will be expected to live a Jewish life guided by this covenant. Expectations that you will engage and be part of this tradition via its holidays, calendars, and teaching and yes even its crises. And viewing that engagement with them as a precious gift of Gd’s love. Greatness here lies in the covenant G-d has made with each and every one of us, from Sinai until now. And the very ability to comprehend , articulate, participate and engage with that covenant lies within each of us. It is the everything of Judaism and it is ours, if only we would have it. There is an expectation, a hope, a potential for greatness if we would accept that and act upon it. The manual for doing that lies in this day’s Torah portion.

In the midrash expanding on this portion Moses goes on to help the children of Israel better understand that when Gd says, ‘It is not in the heaven’ –that means no part of it has remained in heaven.” What the midrash on this Torah portion is saying is that this tradition is all yours. It is not far away or distant or elitist or unknowable. And it is not alone Moses’. It is yours to engage with. It is the covenant you are a part of. This tradition is not Moses’s to carry on alone. The Midrash tells us that directly from his mouth.

In Judaism greatness lies not only in nation-wrenching times as it does for presidents but in nation building. Jewish identity, though tied to the land of Israel, is just as strongly dependent on the diaspora – us the far flung Jews and not merely in crisis but at all times. Greatness in Judaism means EVERY Jew understanding that they are essential and acting that way. There is no bar that is set this day’s Torah portion tells us. It is what is in your heart and your mouth that lets you determine your greatness to the Jewish people.

My late teacher in Israel Rabbi David Hartman talks of how we need to understand this fourth C, this covenant we have as a “living covenant”. What that means is that each and every Jew should “not be afraid to assume responsibility for the ongoing drama of human history.” (David Hartman, A Living Covenant, p 3) With an investment in the individual lies that seed that creates the drive that makes us who we are and who we have the potential to be.

The presidential greatness that Aaron David Miller writes about is what he calls a “compelling marriage of man, moment and mission.” (p 107) In Judaism that potential lies in every man or woman in moments that embrace the right mission. The inherited truth and instruction that come with being a people tied to Torah means that there is an ongoing conversation that lets us respond to crisis, develop our character and continually enhance our capacity as the great presidents but we do it under the shade of our fourth C – covenant. The challenge lies in American Jewry understanding that. Because the world has changed and the need for us to embrace that greatness is far more pressing than we may realize. And I worry we are neglecting that reality. I worry we are shirking that responsibility.

In this day and age when crises seem remote and distant from our daily lives as American Jews, we forget that there is a larger people that depends on us and so we lose that drive as well.

Modern Israeli thinker Gidi Grinstein notes that one of the greatest challenges to 21st century Judaism is that the centers of Jewish life have utterly changed. Europe, where Jewish life was based for so long has been replaced by Israel and the United States as the two most vibrant centers of Jewish life and living. Period. But because the American Jewish community has not fully comprehended this elevated importance we have, this makes us vulnerable.

We have freedom and security and success and comfort. And we are relaxed. Grinstein notes the relaxed nature of the American Jewish community that comes out of this amazing reality can also be limiting. We are truly unaware of the impact and role we can and should have and must have in building the Jewish future. The impact of WWII and the Holocaust utterly elevates the importance of what WE do and how we act and who we are. We may be marking the 75th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II but the impact of that seismic and terrible holocaust is tied up with our lives today and the centrality American Judaism has in a post-Holocaust world. The anti-semitic tenor of events in Europe this past summer only further accentuates that the soil of Europe is not where the Jewish future will take root. It is here. What we do here matters greatly. Perhaps more than ever before. The question is will you meet the challenge of the moment. The question is are we equipped to accept and deal with that? Are we even aware that expectation of us exists. Or how near to us is the potential is to attain that greatness.

So whether you like it or not. Whether you care or not. Whether you accept it or not, you, I, all of us who are North American Jews have an essential role in what the Jewish future looks like. We are valuable and the future of the Jewish people lays in our hands and the hands of our children. It is a call that in the year 2014 does not come from crisis as it may have once upon a time but ironically in our freedom that cry is falling on deaf ear.

While the greatness of the American President lies in their ability to as leader respond to the large scale crisis like that of a Civil War or a World War II, the Jewish world views each individual Jew as the purveyor of greatness, with the ability to, in partnership with G-d to provide comfort, strength and leadership. It is not a once every century greatness but an every person every day greatness the Jewish people hopes for.

Do not worry that you cannot attain greatness in Judaism for you already have. I will tell you that greatness lies here. I witnessed this firsthand this summer when I was in Israel during the war. As I watched Hamas rockets explode over my head as they were intercepted by Iron Dome missiles, strangely for me, I was not afraid. As I have to come understand, there are two reasons I wasn’t afraid. One reason was that as someone who had been to Israel many times and knew the country and its history and its strength well, I knew I was not going to be put in harm’s way. But here is the other reason. The greatness of this community. The prayers and calls and emails and texts I got from here as people were engaged with what was going on over there created a bridge of strength. The actions of every individual mattered to me personally and to the Jewish people as a whole. When you look in the booklet for Yizkor on Yom Kippur afternoon you will see a list of the Israel soldiers that died in that war this summer in Israel. You reading those names and praying for their families, that is the greatness our Judaism asks of us. It is what is in our hearts and our minds and our mouths that forges our connection with Gd, Torah and Israel that is greatness. Nothing more. Nothing less.

If we would understand that these two things are not mutually exclusive – that we can have hopes for a bright future while engaging with our powerful past , that is tied up with Gd Torah and Israel, we will not be offending our American sensibilities.

When those shots rang out in Miami eight decades ago Roosevelt in his actions and reaction showed the world his mettle, a calm bravery that would prove indispensible as World War II unfolded. There were many problems with Roosevelt, his lateness in entering the war and only after under attack, his avoidance in bombing the rail lines to the concentration camps and other short comings of him and his cabinet. And yet FDR created what Miller called a “new and impossible standard for what many Americans thought they needed, wanted and expected from their president. “ (p. 106)

We are so blessed that our Torah portion reminds us there is no new and impossible standard – it is ancient and eternal and moving and deep – It is in our mouths and our lips and hearts, if we would only take the call of this day and use it to go forward. To go forward in greatness. Each and every one of us. Go forward and answer that call. Shana tova and an easy fast.