Rosh Hashanah (Day 1) Sermon by Rabbi Bass

On August 13, I was standing in the airport in Lisbon. We were coming back from a truly wonderful trip in Israel and Portugal.

In Lisbon, I visited the site of the massacre of 1506.  In 1497, The King of Portugal, D. Manuel I, forced the conversion of Jews in Portugal, pressured by Spain. On Easter Day, 1506, many people were gathered at the Convent of Saint Dominic, praying for the end of the drought and plague that ravaged Portugal. The priest noticed that the face of a statue was radiant, and proclaimed that all gathered were witnessing a miracle, since the statue’s face was lit, seemingly from within. Soon, he claimed, the plague and drought would end. Two New Christians, who were Jews who had been forcibly converted, followed the trail of the light, and quite dismissively, pointed out to the priest that it was coming from a crack in the window. The priest, unhappy that his claim was being challenged, incited a mob against the two, claiming they were heretics. The crowd carried the men out, where they were beaten to death. At this point, the crowd was excited, and carried out the bloodiest pogrom that Lisbon ever saw. Removing entire Jewish families from their homes, the mob killed almost 2000 people by beating them to death, or burning them at the stake. The Royal Guard arrived and stopped the madness, later punishing many people including the priest who had incited the mob.

In the middle of the Rossio, a bustling neighborhood that once was the home of thousands of Jews, stands a monument. It is a monument of tolerance, commemorating the massacre of 1506. This monument was installed on April 22, 2008. The monument is a Jewish star, fashioned out of marble and metal, and it is inscribed with the words: ”In memory of the thousands of Jews victims of intolerance and religious fanaticism assassinated on this square during the massacre initiated on the 19th of April 1506.” This monument is a part of a reparations movement in Portugal, that is coupled with the offering of citizenship to Jews that can prove their family lived in Portugal in the 16th century. The Portuguese have realized how much they lost by expelling the Jews, and are now trying to bring back a Jewish presence.

On August 13, 2017, I was at the Lisbon airport waiting to come home, when I looked at the TV and saw a scary mob scene: Nazi flags, and people in fatigues fully armed in front of a synagogue. I watched the scene in disbelief as the words Charlottesville, VA, appeared on the screen. I looked online and found out what had happened the day before. The news and the images hit me very hard. I was seeing a clear manifestation of explosive evil. At that moment, the echoes of what happened in Lisbon in 1506 amplified my reaction to what was happening very close to my home that day.

We are here, gathered, a month later. What happened in Charlottesville shook the foundation of our beliefs and certainties in this country, with its old and familiar undertones, yet also with new and disquieting ones. Charlottesville, a town that houses a university, a place that Thomas Jefferson helped to establish, a city where Jews have been living since the 1870s, whose mayor is Jewish, whose past mayor is Sikh, was the stage of this major racist, anti-Jewish demonstration. It was frightening for all of us to see the incredibly bold display of hatred. There were many, quite chilling chants uttered by the Nazis and White Supremacists. For us, some are difficult to hear: “The Jews will not replace us.” “Blood and Soil,” the Nazi refrain. We know well that racism is evil, that anti-Semitism is evil, and that white supremacy is completely against the values of our community and nation. Let me remind you the outward purpose of this rally: it was to protest the removal of a monument to a Confederate General, Robert E. Lee.

Monuments are important. In our tradition, we are commanded to create a lasting monument for our deceased family members. In the Torah, there are many mentions of monuments, matzevot. For example, when Jacob wakes up from his dream in Beth El he sets the stones on which he was sleeping as a Matzevah, as a monument to the experience he had. There are many examples of monuments that are set up to remember events in the lives of the Israelites. Yet, there are also warnings about monuments. In the Book of Exodus, chapter 23 verse 24 we read:

“You shall not bow down to their gods and you shall not worship them, and you shall not do as they do, but you shall utterly tear them down and you shall completely destroy their monuments.”

In the Book of Exodus, the Israelites are taught to not worship any other God than the Eternal. If there are statues, monuments to these false deities in the path of the Israelites, monuments that are a source of confusion, misunderstanding and idolatry, that will lead people astray, they are commanded to destroy them.

According to the Torah, monuments can help us remember an important moment in our lives as a nation, and monuments can also guide us on the wrong path. There are monuments that should stay, and monuments that must be removed. As we read in the book of Kohelet, Ecclesiastes, for everything there is a season: a time to break down and a time build, et lifrotz ve’eit livnot. In our country, we are in a time to re-think our monuments, their placement, and their purpose. Historian Carl Becker writes: ”History is what the present chooses to remember about the past.” A culture demonstrates its values by what it chooses to remember and what it chooses to forget, and by how it remembers its choices. We must be attuned to when the monuments were created, and what was the reason for their creation. The monument in Lisbon is important and touching. Yet it was created in 2008, 502 years after the massacre. It was created when the financial crisis made Portugal one of the least desirable European countries when it came to investments and development. Having the monument was a strategic plan to bring more investments and resources, as well as tourism to Portugal. The statute in Charlottesville was erected in 1924, 57 years after the end of the Civil War. The process of granting civil rights to former slaves was in full force. The South was still reeling from the Civil war, in economic turmoil, in fear, and dealing with so much loss. What was the purpose of erecting a monument that commemorated a Confederate General, with the Confederacy’s history of slavery? I disagree with those who say that this was an expression of memory and history. To me, this statue is a monument to forgetting. Forgetting the taskmaster’s whip, the disemboweled people on trees, slaves’ blood, scars on children’s backs.

Maybe these monuments are to be destroyed, maybe they are to be collected somewhere and preserved as a memorial of a dark past. What is clear is that the monument in Charlottesville, like many other monuments in the South, betray feelings and attitudes that are still very raw in our country. The statues present a series of difficulties, because they are emblematic of the sentiments that fueled their creation: racism, fear, and hatred.

In the Talmud, in Mas. Berachoth 32a, there is a discussion about the Golden Calf episode. God and Moshe are talking after the Israelites had sinned by building a golden calf, a monument to a Caananite deity, and worshiping it. God cannot contain God’s rage at this demonstration of unfaithfulness. God says to Moshe, “Now, let Me be, that My anger may blaze forth against them and that I may destroy them.” Moshe said to himself: If God is telling me to leave God alone, it must be because this matter is dependent on me – Davar zeh Talui bi. I can intervene here. Immediately, Moshe sprung to his feet and was strengthened in prayer, asking God to have mercy on the people of Israel and to forgive them for their transgression. Moshe realizes he has a power, one of reasoning and persuasion. He understands, based on God’s comment, that it is up to him to change the course of events. There is something he can do when dealing with God’s anger. He understands that the strength to act must come from within.

In the Yamim Norayim, the Days of Awe, we are supposed to do Heshbon Hanefesh, moral stock-taking. On these days, we participate in the process of deep introspection, figuring out what are our personal matzevot, the monuments that we have inside. We figure out what our personal power is, and when we can say, like Moshe: “This matter is dependent on me – Davar zeh Talui bi.”  This year, we must look inside ourselves and decide which monuments have to stay and which monuments have to go, and which monuments should be removed but kept somewhere else as a reminder of a dark past. Do I hold fast to grudges, grievances, and forget personal screw-ups, and forget the kindnesses of people that I now take for granted? Today, we must explore all our internal monuments, with a sharp eye, without shame.  We do this so that our personal transformation can fuel social transformation. With the internal strength that we gain from truly examining the inner and inter-personal monuments, we ask: What are our internal monuments to love, to peace, and to diversity? What are our internal monuments to racism, bias and privilege?  Racism in our communities doesn’t involve hoods, torches and flags, like the ones seen in Charlottesville. Holding on to grudges, putting down people, and fueling feuds makes our hearts fertile ground for fear, hate, and racism. Can I dig deeper and dismantle what is not helpful to the betterment of my society?  How can I contribute to a moral reset in an American society that has become hospitable to hate? It is not only in our public lives that we choose what to remember and what to forget. In our personal relationships, at this time of the year, we also must be careful of what we choose to remember and what we choose to forget. Davar ze talui bi – This matter is dependent on me.

There are many structures we need to build into our system to make sure that we are a force of good in our society. We erect the important matzevot, the much-needed good monuments and structures, when we let our empathy, our internal power, our compassion speak louder than any other voice inside of us.  We must hit our moral reset button, and counter hate at all times, starting at our kitchen tables, in the way that we raise the moral issues with our families. We can counter hate, racism, and prejudice in our schools, in our personal relationships, and in our day to day interactions by raising the issues when they come up, and being open to understanding where issues are coming from and what we need to change in our attitudes. With the power of these personal structures we can build communities that make sure our nation lives up to its ideals.

Fixing our communities with the renewed energy that emanates from our individual moral stock-taking will not alleviate the fears that the scenes in Charlottesville bring up. The revulsion we feel when seeing the symbols of white supremacy waved in Charlottesville stems from our historical experiences, from persecution in the Greek and Roman times, the Inquisition, the Holocaust, and many other experiences that have shaped our Jewish community. In Charlottesville, the threat of violence, the symbols held high, and the chants disturbed the whole Jewish community. How can we counteract the effects of anti-Semitism in our lives? What are the monuments that can help our community stay strong and grow in the face of this evil?

To me, the best response to anti-Semitism is to lead a proud and vibrant Jewish life. The more we are involved in Jewish life, the better we are at counteracting hate and anti-Semitism. It is through Jewish education, and the formation of a strong Jewish identity that we will be able to tear down the monuments to racism and intolerance. Have a Shabbat dinner with your family and friends, since this is an excellent opportunity for everyone to feel connected, from children to adults. Come to services and strengthen your spiritual life. Join us for fun holidays. Sukkot is coming up, and we will have a potluck dinner in the sukkah. Simchat Torah is coming up, and we have a great time dancing with the Torah to the beautiful music of a klezmer band. Come to Saturday morning or Friday night services, discuss Pirkei Avot or the Torah reading. Come to an adult education session, and strengthen your actions by understanding your deeds in this world through a Jewish lens. Support the programs of our preschool and our Religious School. Join us as we participate in Social Action programs, as we create community. A Judaism of justice and choice, a Judaism that is knowledgeable, proud, and vibrant, is the best antidote to hatred. When we know who we are, when we have a deep understanding of the richness of our tradition, we have the certainty to counteract the negativity of anti-Semitism.

May we build, in this coming year, a monument to the strength and beauty of Judaism, in our homes, in our workplaces, in our lives.


1) With much gratitude, this sermon is based on a teaching by Rabbi David Stern.

2) The translation of matzevoteihem in the Book of Exodus 23:24 is usually “their pillars” but they serve the same purpose as monuments, therefore I used this translation for emphasis.

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