Part Two
A Sermon for Rosh HaShanah Day 5776
September 14, 2015

Rabbi Edward Paul Cohn
Congregation Temple Sinai
New Orleans, Louisiana
His name was Hillel the Elder. He lived about 21 centuries ago.  He was one of our wisest Jewish sages.  And perhaps the most timeless of Hillel’s teachings are his three penetrating questions:

First, “Eem ayn anee lee, me lee?
If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”

Second question, “U’chshe-anee L’atzmee, mah anee?
But, if I am only for myself, what am I?”

And just to leave us with a third enigmatic question, Hillel concludes:

V’eem lo ach-shav, a-mah-tye?
And if not now, when?

You see what he is doing? Hillel is daring us to select the individual and unique manner by which we will engage our world, and live our lives?

No one can deny that our Judaism holds both Particularism and universalism in a deeply spiritual tension.  Is it Hillel’s question #1 over question #2?

If I’m not for myself, who will be? –
Me and mine in first priority,

Or is it,

But if I am only for myself, what am I? –
yours and ours which deserves our utmost loyalty?

Let’s take a quick look at Abraham; after all he’s the perennial focus of our Torah reading for this New Year Day.  “What would Abraham do?” (It could become a best seller!) Well, which Abraham?  There was Abraham at Sodom and Gomorrah and there was the Abraham of this morning on Mt. Moriah.

In the first instance, Genesis 18, “If I am only for myself.” Abraham learns of God’s intention to destroy the people of Sodom and Gomorrah because of their sinful behavior.  Abraham was in the clear!  He had “no skin in the game,” as the expression goes.  And yet acting as a prophet, Abraham eloquently demands justice from God and pleads for God’s mercy upon those total strangers. “Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” God makes a deal – “if you can find a minyan – (10 righteous (decent) folks; I’ll save them.”

Four chapters later, it’s very different.  You heard it!  This time Abraham is called to make the supreme sacrifice, offering his only and beloved son in accordance with God’s command.  Of course it’s true that both the Talmud and the Midrash, offer consoling and creative interpretations of this story, but this is Biblical Hardball! We are left to conclude that Abraham will do the deed!  In his own way, don’t you think, Abraham believed that he was fulfilling his unique destiny?  If I am not for myself, who will be, he might have asked himself.

This job is mine to do – it is my journey to take!

Hillel’s questions remain compelling, in our 21st Century setting.  “If I am not for myself, who will be?”  We have a right to Jewish self-concern for our own well-being and all that that infers – the preservation of the Jewish covenant with God, the survival of Judaism and the Jewish People, faithfulness to our tradition, text study, Jewish identity, Zionism and the well being and flourishing of the Jewish State, and on we go!

But then there’s that second question and it is a nagging one:

U’chshe-anee L’atzmee, mah anee?
But if I am only for myself, what then, am I?

So second, Hillel calls for Universalism: all of us of every race and nation holding hands and singing “Kum Ba Yah,” and enjoying, what the old Union Prayer Book referred to as, “The Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man.”  “Have we not all one Father?” the Prophet Malachi asked.  Universalism as opposed to Particularism was once the very backbone of Reform Judaism. I believe it still is.

But, which side do you choose?  Which is right?  Which one ought to be emphasized over the other?

A couple of months ago in The New York Times, there was a brief editorial that dramatized how differently two people chose: “The Hero and the Nazi,” perhaps you read it?

The lives of two old men from the opposing sides in
World War II intersected last week in a vivid reminder
of how the horrendous events of the Holocaust are fading
inevitably into history.

Laudatory obituaries marked the death of Nicholas Winton,
a modest 106-year-old English pacifist who remained quiet
for a half-century about his efforts to help 669 children
escape the Nazi death machinery in Czechoslovakia.

In acid contrast, at one of the last of Germany’s war-crime trials, Oskar Gröning, a 94-year-old former SS soldier
working at Auschwitz, admitted his “moral guilt” as an
office functionary in the murder of 300,000 mostly
Hungarian Jews.

The editorial quoted Mr. Gröning’s insistence that he had been but a “small card” in the death machinery.  In short,

Eem ayn anee lee, me lee?
If I am not for myself, who will be?

The German court found Gröning guilty and sentenced him to four years in prison.

But of dear Nicholas Winton, the editorial goes on to say:

Mr. Winton took extra ordinary measures
to save innocent lives.
‘Why do people do different things?’
He said of his own choice to save lives:
‘Some people revel in taking risks,
And some go through life taking no risks at all.’

The editorial closes with the disclosure that . . .

There are now 6,000 descendants
of the 669 children for whom Mr. Nicholas Winton
chose to take a risk.

I want to ponder Hillel the Elder’s questions a little further today in the context of some of the crucial issues and unprecedented events, which we have faced this past year.  Once again, let’s look at them through Hillel’s eyes:  “If I am not for myself, who will be?” – Particularism, Jewish safety, our own protection from danger, and understandable self interest – at least most of the time.

The truth is, it’s not always safe being a Jew, nor is it easy, and this past year was certainly no exception.

“If I am not for myself, who will be?” Indeed we continue to wonder!

Just a year ago, Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations, Ron Prosor, delivered a spectacular message before the U.N. General Assembly.  In the course of it, the ambassador attempted to review the risky nature of Israeli dependence upon the goodwill of others.  Listen to just a paragraph of that address.

Israel is tired of hollow promises from European leaders. The Jewish people have a long memory.  We will             never ever forget that you failed us in the 1940’s. You failed us in 1973. And you are failing us again today.  . . . When it             comes to our security, we cannot and will not rely on others – Israel must be able to defend itself by itself.”

This year (and I’ll say it flat-out) I was entirely opposed to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s decision to address a joint session of the U.S. congress.  I felt his timing could not be worse and I more than suspected that it was based on the worst of self aggrandizing political ambition. And yet too, he had become a most willing pawn of partisan mischiefmakers to embarrass the President and to split American opinion, and divide Jewish Americans as well.

It was a wholly inappropriate chapter in American and Israeli diplomacy. I am proud that our Reform Jewish Movement has shown uncommon restraint and vision in the midst of a highly emotional and divisive lead up to the vote by Congress on the Iranian Deal. The URJ recognized that among our 900 congregations – lay and rabbinic leadership alike – there was no perceptible unity of opinion. Thus, our Movement has declared:

There is simply no clarity that would support taking a position “for” or “against” the Joint Comprehensive                 Plan of Action – The Deal with Iran.

It is true, we are a Progressive Jewish Movement, large and diverse, patriotic Americans and passionate Zionists both, and however the vote, it is crucial that there be no lasting rift between Israel and the United States, between America’s Jews and Israelis, or among us as Jewish Americans. However you or I came down on this Deal, it is crucial – pro or con – that we respect one another as pro-American and pro-Israel.


This past year 5775 was not a year without other gut-wrenching issues and challenges. We Jews have been faced with many occasions, tragic and deeply perplexing, when Hillel’s second question has come to the fore:

But if I am only for myself, what am I? Indeed!

As I have thought about the events in my home town of Baltimore and of the brutal murders of those nine Bible students in that Mother Immanuel church in Charleston, I couldn’t help but wonder if we are not still living out the scourge of which Abraham Lincoln spoke 150 years ago in his Second Inaugural Address – March, 1865.

We all remember his stirring words, “With malice toward none, with charity for all.”  But we forget the words that preceded them.  Lincoln was looking for some divine meaning in the Civil War which was then drawing to a close, and he posed the question: “Is this war God’s judgment for the sin of slavery?”

As a people, as a nation, we are still paying for that sin and its subsequent mutation into racism, segregation, Jim Crow, mass incarceration, and a massive disparity in economic opportunity.

Nevertheless, it is more than obvious to anyone who would dare open their eyes, that the sin of racism is alive and well in our nation.  And our prophetic calling as Jews, along with all people of good faith and fairness, ought to demand us to look it squarely in the eye and not look away.  If that means taking down Lee on the Circle, the General off his horse at NOMA, and Jefferson Davis and renaming his street, so be it! They have been there for 150 years and were placed by folks who wanted everyone to remember that “theirs” was the real south, and their cause still unhumbled, the noblest. Those monuments were erected to thumb the Southern nose at the federal government, defying an acceptance of racial equality – “today tomorrow and forever” – Their day is done! Put the statues in a museum where anyone can see them in their proper context.

Those statues have become in this 21st Century a painful cinder in the eyes of our Black brothers and sisters. We need to support a new message of human harmony – and do more than talk the talk.

In March we observed the 50th anniversary of that march to Selma.  Why does that image of Abraham Joshua Heschel marching beside Martin Luther King, Jr. continue to capture our imagination so many years later?

Could it be that in this image we see ourselves as we most want to be seen?  But the thing about legacy is that, you know what, it must be renewed and re-earned or we allow it to fade away.

To be a Jew has always been, and continues to remain, to identify with a history that moves from slavery to freedom, m’avdut l’cherut, from oppression to redemption.

V’eem lo ach-shav a-mah-tye?
And if not now, when?

In the last months, we have become nearly overwhelmed by the Plight of refugees and migrants attempting to cross from Africa and the Middle East into the European Union. Refugees drowning at sea, being preyed on by gangs, and that little Kurdish boy, dead on a Turkish beach – and thousands rounded up and put behind Hungarian razor wire fences – sound familiar?

We get all exercised over the callousness of European nations, but we seem to tolerate presidential candidates who describe Latin Americans seeking refuge here as rapists and murderers, and who describe children born to immigrants as “anchor babies.” Could it be, could it be do you think, that demagoguery is easier to see from afar than it is up close?

The shofar sounds today to remind us that righteousness cannot wait.

Don’t you think it’s time that we drop the pretense and admit that there is really no choice between one or the other of Hillel’s burning questions?  Rabbi Hillel has bequeathed us Jews not either / or, but both / and as the only way to live purposeful and worthy lives.

No Jew is complete while huddling secure in his or her own safety mindless of one’s neighbor’s wellbeing.

Did you know that our Jewish mystical tradition speaks of every Jew having his or her own letter in the Torah.  Just as one missing letter renders the Torah invalid and incomplete, one missing Jewish soul renders the people of Israel incomplete.

On this first day of our New Year, the Jewish People needs every one of us, men and women, old and young, gay and straight, intra-married, inter-married and not married – yes, the Jewish People needs every one of us, the Baskin-Robbins of the Jewish world – in order to be whole.

And so, I pray, may each one of us, find our rightful place within the Household of the People of Israel.  And may we do so proudly, effecting justice for all, showing compassion to every child on earth, and pursuing peace in this precious land, and in the land of Israel, and everywhere beyond.

With all my love,