In case you missed the memo, I am from Cleveland, Ohio. While many of you think of it as the “mistake on the lake” or the place where rivers burn, and take great delight in questioning my dedication to the Browns, I think of it differently. Those of us from Cleveland have great perseverance, faith and profound hope. We hale from a place where people never give up. Even this year with the championship Cavs and the surging Indians, we pray for a 500 season for the Browns. We Clevelanders understand that LeBron James is a great basketball player but that does not make him a hero. What makes him a hero is using large portions of his wealth to elevate and give hope to others. This man, who never went to college, committing $41 million dollars to send Northeast Ohio children to college make him a hero. His ability to inspire hope in others qualifies him to be admired. While his talent to place a ball in a hoop, or prevent someone else from doing so, is at times wondrous, it is by no means heroic.
Likewise, the Reform Rabbi Leo Baeck was not a hero because of his extensive Judaic knowledge. He was a hero because of how he used that knowledge. Born in Germany in 1873, Leo Baeck became not only the leading Reform Rabbi in Germany but the recognized head of the German Jewish community. Even the Nazi’s recognized his status and his greatness. It was not until 1943 that he was sent to die in Theresienstadt. There he became the official and spiritual head of the Jews, protecting as many as he could from death and offering comfort to those he could not. He not only survived the death sentence of the camp but more than a few survivors credit his regular lectures with giving them the strength, hope and faith to walk out of Theresienstadt and move forward to create new and productive lives. His risking all to inspire others to live elevates him to the echelon of heroes.
But his time in Theresienstadt was but a natural extension of his heroism. In 1936, Leo Baeck stood up to challenge the Nazi regime’s treatment not just of Jews but of all Germans. He wrote:
Above all the other tasks of the state are its human and social responsibilities. The common ground which supports us and our fellow man is the basis of our responsibility toward him [sic]. Living together involves an ethical bond which gives to all human groups the true meaning of both their individual and common lives. Only on this basis is the state granted ethical existence before God.
For the true State is the State of Tzedakah… that civits dei, in which everybody, no matter who was his father, can and is to have his place. Whoever lives in the land is to live with the others and they with him.
… thus is created the ideal and true conception of society in which every human being is an ethical entity and every individual is regarded as a member of a human community.
Baeck’s words challenged the nearly all powerful Nazi Government to transmute itself from an entity of pure evil into one that understood “every human being is an ethical entity and every individual is regarded as a member of a human community.” Baeck’s ability to challenge an evil regime in the midst of trying to dehumanize its minorities to find its human soul and understand its obligation to care for each of its citizens, whether Gentile, Jew, Roma, black, or LGBT, with no hope of succeeding, is true heroism.
To be honest, I do not know where LeBron James learned his values including the importance of helping lift up those who need a hand. But Leo Baeck’s values? Those came from our mutual ancient tradition, including this morning’s and this afternoon’s Torah portions. This morning we will read in N’tzavim: “You are standing this day ALL of you before the Eternal your God: the heads of your tribes, your elders your officers, EVERY person in Israel. Your infants, your wives and the stranger among you, from the hewer of wood to the water drawer.” And from this afternoon’s portion Kedoshim: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
These passages would have also contributed to the formation of Baeck’s values:
He that oppresses the poor blasphemes his maker, but he that is gracious to the poor honors God.
Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5
Therefore only one person was created to teach you that whosoever kills a single soul the Bible considers to have killed a complete world. And whosoever sustains and saves a single soul, it is as if that person sustained a whole world.
Pirke Avot 2:5
Hillel said, “Do not separate yourself from the community.”
Our Rabbis taught, “Give sustenance to the poor of the non-Jews along with the poor of Israel. Visit the sick of the non-Jews along with the sick of Israel. Bury the dead of the non-Jews along with the dead of Israel. [Do all these things] because of the ways of peace.”
Jerusalem Talmud Demai 4:1/ Gittin 61a
In a city where non-Jews and Jews live, the tzedakah collectors collect from Jews and non-Jews and support Jewish and non-Jewish poor; we visit Jewish and non-Jewish sick and bury Jewish and non-Jewish dead, and comfort Jewish and non-Jewish mourners, and return lost goods of non-Jews and Jews, to promote the ways of peace.
Midrash Tehillim 82:3
Defend the poor and the orphan; do justice to the afflicted and needy.
Rabbi Shlomo of Karlin (18th Century)
If you want to raise a person from mud and filth, do not think it is enough to keep standing on top and reaching a helping hand down to the person. You must go all the way down yourself, down into mud and filth. Then take hold of the person with strong hands and pull the person and yourself out into the light.
So I ask, do you know where your values come from? Whether we own a business or not, all of us participate in commerce. When we sell or buy, do you think about our Jewish values that teach us to use honest weights and measures? Or do you not steal just because the government says not to?
I know the answer when it comes to most corporations. They follow the governmental law to avoid penalties. But what about a Newman’s Own that contributes all its profits to help kids? Or a Costco that refuses to open on Thanksgiving so its workers can celebrate with their families? They do not just follow the law, they follow their deeply ingrained values to do more than required.
But what about you? Do you think about and apply the values, ethics, and commandments that we read today in our Torah portions, Haftarot and the machzor - the prayer book itself when you walk out the doors of the synagogue? Or do the words stay in the scroll when we return it to the ark or in the machzor when you put it back on the table or cart?
Being Jewish is not coming here on these holy days. Being Jewish is how we live each day. Being Jewish is understanding that our drive to help others comes from our commandment to not stand idle while others bleed. Being Jewish is filling the synagogue with food for the Food Pantry and Food Bank because we are not farmers and do not have our own fields to leave to the poor, the widow, the orphan and the stranger to glean. Being Jewish is emulating Leo Baeck and standing up for those who are threatened. Being Jewish is emulating LeBron James by making sure everyone has the opportunity for an appropriate education. LeBron has his reasons, we Jews do it because of the high value we place on education.
This year, are you going to take the words of the Torah, the Haftarot and the machzor and leave them sitting here in this building or are you going to carry them with you and consciously apply them to your life each and every day?