Michael S. Friedman | September 27, 2009
Helen Suzman died on January 1 of this year. She was a member of South Africa’s parliament for 36 years. As an English-speaking Jewish woman in an institution dominated by Protestant Afrikaner men, she was the very definition of ‘outsider.’
Nonetheless, for 13 years, throughout the 1960s and into the 70s, Ms. Suzman was the only Member of Parliament to openly challenge the ruling apartheid government. At one point she led a parliamentary inquiry of a particular minister.
She was in the midst of questioning the minister when he interrupted her by saying, “Madam, you put these questions just to embarrass South Africa.”
She replied, “It is not my questions that embarrass South Africa; it is your answers.”
Why did Helen Suzman ask those tough questions? Because she knew that her society was at that very moment being judged, both by humanity and by God.
During these Days of Awe our deeds are inscribed in the great Book of Life. This is a metaphor that I take seriously: I believe that our deeds are recorded and judged, both by God and by history.
Maimonides once asked, “How do we determine who is a righteous person?” His answer: “Each person has virtues and sins. A righteous person is one whose merits outweigh his demerits.”
He then asked, “How do we determine a righteous society?” The same way: by measuring its virtues against its sins.
If a society can be judged, then so too can a generation. So tonight, I ask: If our own generation were to be judged, where would we come out on the scale? Now, I am not condemning our entire generation as sinful; far from it. We have much to be proud of. We are not Sodom. But have we built Zion? Certainly not yet.
When I use the term “our generation,” I refer not only to those who are within a particular age group such as the Baby Boomers or Gen X or Gen Y. Rather, I am referring to our entire society – all of us alive today. And as I see it, there are two ways in which we will be judged both by God and by one another.
The first way we will be judged is by what we have created or what we have left behind in this world when we are gone.
This is best illustrated by a New Yorker cartoon that was on exhibit this spring at the Morgan Library on Madison Avenue. It depicts archaeologists in the midst of the remains of an ancient city. The ruins are enormous and are clearly meant to convey that this was once a very proud civilization. One of the archaeologists turns to the other and says, “And then at the height of their power they seem to have succumbed to a mysterious people known as the bottom-line types.”
That punch line really hit home. Now, bottom-line types are not evil. But a focus that remains solely on the bottom line has the potential to bring down a great civilization. The past year has been a traumatic period for all of us, without a doubt.
Certainties that we took as the bedrock of our existence have been called into question. We find ourselves considering the previously unthinkable: Will my job still exist next year? Is my retirement secure? Can I still afford to live where I do? Will I have health coverage for myself and my family?
Nonetheless, let it not be said that we were the generation of the bottom-line. One day not too long from now, our children and grandchildren will write the history of our era. They will want to know how we used the challenges posed to us in this particular time to reshape our lives and our society. And I wonder - will we be embarrassed by our answers?
I fear that when we look back we may see that when the going got tough, we simply took cover. If you’ve spent the last year waiting for the worst to be over just so you can go back to the way you lived in 2007 then you’ve missed the point. Yes, surely our generation will be judged.
Our tradition makes it clear that entire generations are judged quite often. We are familiar with the generation of scoundrels who lived in Noah’s time. On their account the entire world was destroyed by flood. You may recall the tale of the twelve men sent to scout the Land of Israel.
When they returned, ten of them reported, “The cities are heavily fortified, the people who live there are giants, and we seemed like grasshoppers compared to them. There’s no way we’ll ever conquer it.”
Only two of them said, “We’re better than that. We can do this.”
Unfortunately, we failed when we were seduced by the voices of the ten pessimistic scouts. An entire generation was condemned for believing that they were grasshoppers. It was for this transgression that we were sentenced to forty more years of wandering.
God makes it clear: only a generation who sees itself as worthy of entering the land gets the pleasure of inhabiting it. Are we grasshoppers? Or will we choose to be giants, boldly seizing the opportunities that present themselves even during this time?
The second way we will be judged is on whether we did we or did we not rise to the challenge of the opportunities that lie before us.
Just a few years ago, Tom Brokaw wrote about the Americans who lived through the twin crises of the Great Depression and the Second World War. He dubbed them “The Greatest Generation.”
They earned this title not only because they met these epic challenges head-on, but because they used those challenges to reshape the society in which we live. The Greatest Generation is judged favorably, and we are proud to have some of you with us here today. Contemporary America is a product of the institutions the Greatest Generation created and the values they instilled during the thirties, forties and fifties.
Today we, who are the inheritors and beneficiaries of everything they gave us, confront problems that are similar but nowhere near as great. We face another economic crisis and another war – though neither is by any means of the same magnitude at this point. Yet I see a potential parallel with that Greatest Generation. Greatness is seeing challenges presented as opportunities during a time of crisis.
I want to tell you a story about a man who had a very different conception of the bottom line. My grandfather was part of that Greatest Generation, though he certainly did not solve the problems of his day single-handedly. My grandfather was a struggling New York City attorney during the depression. By the time World War II began he was too old to enlist. But throughout his life he had a strong commitment to social justice, and somehow, as his grandson, I always knew that.
At some point in his later years – he was probably in his 90s and I was in rabbinical school by then – the 1963 civil rights march on Washington came up in a conversation the two of us were having. My grandfather’s voice dropped. He said, softly, “I was there.”
I never knew that. My grandfather was too humble to brag that he had been a participant in one of the most important events in all of American history. He was there to hear Martin Luther King declare, “I have a dream.” In 1963, participating in a civil rights demonstration – in our nation’s capital no less – was an act of courage and vision.
My grandfather’s generation is judged favorably in part because he simply walked down a street on a particular day. When it counted, he was there. He responded to crisis by taking part in one of the great movements of his generation and thereby changing the fundamental nature of his society. And his grandson is proud. But his grandson also wonders how we will measure up. We can be the next of the greatest generations. The opportunities are right in front of us.
Let our bottom line be the quality of the society in which we live. For example, right now we have the opportunity to determine whether we will provide healthcare for everyone in our society, and if so, how. At one point in the history of our nation, you bore no responsibility for how I fared after my working days were over. But the last great economic crisis prompted us to rethink that.
Now we agree that every American is entitled to a certain minimal standard of living in retirement. We call that social security – a name which implies that the safety of our society depends on this basic mutual responsibility between neighbors.
Our generation is now asked to consider whether we are responsible for the health care of others. And this time it’s not about a man sitting on the sidewalk of Lexington Avenue asking for change, or a child whose parents cannot afford to treat her illness. Fortunately, those members of our community are entitled to health care.
No, this time it’s about those sitting here in our sanctuary tonight. There is a very real possibility that the person sitting next to you is without health insurance of any kind. Or that the person in front of you is worried that she may not be able to afford her premiums if they continue to go up. Or that the person behind you will fall sick and his provider will deny him treatment for one reason or another. The current system is incomplete, expensive and frustrating. We cannot deny that it is broken.
Now, we all know that the challenges involved in reforming the system are numerous and complex. We need to offer coverage to all citizens. We need to reduce the cost of care. We need to maintain the availability of top-notch treatments. But in the midst of the debate, we also must ask ourselves: Are we grasshoppers? Will we let ourselves be swayed by misinformation and gross fabrications? Will we cede the debate to those who aim to scare us into inaction? Are we simply afraid of change?
In his deathbed letter Ted Kennedy called health care reform, “That great unfinished business of our society.” Like the archaeologists in our cartoon he knew that “[this issue] concerns more than material things. What we face,” he wrote, “is above all a moral issue; at stake are not just the details of policy, but fundamental principles of social justice and the character of our country.”
I have no doubt that the character of our generation will be judged by what happens in the coming days and weeks. Let us take action now so that when our grandchildren ask, as they surely will, we too will be able to tell them, when my generation had an opportunity, “I was there.”
I hope that if archaeologists excavate New York City eons from now they will dig up the archives of Central Synagogue. Because there they will find the story of our congregants who today are using principles of community organizing to reshape our city.
During last year’s listening campaign we heard real stories of concern from members of our congregation. They were worried about their quality of life. Manhattan was simply becoming too expensive for the middle class. When a group of Central Synagogue congregants came together to address this concern, they quickly agreed that a strong public education system was the key to keeping a broad, vibrant middle class in Manhattan.
This group dubbed itself the New York City Action Group. They identified overcrowding as a significant actionable issue affecting public school education on the Upper East Side. They focused on a particular district whose elementary school had been closed years ago for safety concerns but had never been replaced. This situation had led to ever-increasing overcrowding at all Upper East Side elementary schools, and the problem was only getting worse.
Over the course of nine months, this dedicated group of congregants met with lawmakers, educators, and parents. They forged relationships with key decision-makers in the Department of Education and presented them with real solutions by identifying a number of potential school locations. They pursued the process through to the end.
Today I am pleased to let all of you know that on September 9th, PS 151 re-opened to once again serve the children and families living between 86th and 96th streets, between Lexington and First Avenues. The existence of this school is a direct result of our congregants’ passion, energy, and hard work.
The fifteen individuals who currently compose the New York City Action Group represent every demographic within our congregation: they are young professionals and they are retirees, married and single, parents and those without children, the wealthy and those of more modest means. What they share is a commitment to making sure that all members of our community can thrive here in Manhattan.
And by participating in Manhattan Together, our borough’s interfaith community organizing group, we all have been reminded that Manhattan is not just what goes on between 14th and 96th streets. No, the real Manhattan is a place of stunning cultural and economic diversity from one end of our island to the other. Members of our New York City Action Group have sat around the table with leaders from churches in Washington Heights and the Lower East Side.
They have bonded with communities of Spanish-speaking immigrants. Together we aim to create a Manhattan governed not solely by the bottom line but by a vision of justice. This group has helped Central Synagogue fulfill its historic mission of joining with other religious communities in making this city a better place. I can assure you, we would all be proud to be judged by what this group has accomplished. And we invite you to join us.
So we have done some of what needs to be done. But we have more to do. “We are not required to complete the work, but neither are we free to absent ourselves from it.”
I want coming generations look back and say, “Wow, that generation really took advantage of an opportunity to remake themselves and their world.” When I look at all that has occurred in our own community in the past year, I fear that too many of us are treating this period as a temporary holding pattern, and that we are simply waiting to return to the way we lived when times were easier.
But at the same time, I see that in some ways we have used this time to reaffirm our core values, whether as individuals, as a synagogue community, or as a nation. Let ours be the generation that provides health care for all and ensures quality of life for all Manhattan’s citizens.
But let’s go even further: let ours be the generation to revise our professional ethical standards in the many fields that have been touched by malfeasance this year. Let ours be the generation that curbs the rash of gun violence plaguing our nation. Let ours be the generation who takes the simple actions in our homes and in our businesses that lead to the creation of a sustainable, green society.
In the end Ted Kennedy and Helen Suzman knew that we will be judged not on what we as a society can acquire. I can assure you that one day, all those things will be of use only to archaeologists.
We will be judged not on whether we merely survived, or whether we were “happy,” but on whether we made the most of the opportunities in front of us, both for our own sake and the sake of the generations ahead.
We will be judged on what our true bottom line is. We will be judged on whether we were grasshoppers or giants. We will be judged on where we directed our footsteps.
Let us act now so that we are judged favorably, both on these Days of Awe, and in the generations to come. Let us be inscribed for greatness in the book of history and in the Book of Life.
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