Parshat Haazinu Sermon Saturday Morning Shabbat Shuva 2011

  1. Shabbat Shalom

  1. I try to keep my Shabbat sermons to just one topic. After all, I have 52 Shabbatot a year to cover most of what is going on in the world. It is enough to focus on one topic a week. But this week, partly because it is Shabbat Shuva, the Shabbat of repentance, and partly because of a discussion I was a part of, I have two related topics I would like to cover.

  1. A week ago Friday, I had the privilege, and it was a privilege, to be part of a Rabbinic delegation meeting with Vice President Biden when he was in Boca Raton for a fundraiser. He talked to us about the Obama administration and Israel and we had a chance to ask him some questions. He said something in reply to a question that has troubled me all week. The Vice President made a statement that, in his opinion, convicted spy Johnathan Pollard had committed an act of treason and should never be freed from prison. He added that he would never be in favor of letting him go because of the nature of his crime against his country. Only if something as big as Arab/Jewish peace were on the line would he even consider a pardon for Pollard.

  1. He left no room for reply so we went on to other topics but I was unhappy with his statement. I can think of a half dozen reasons that Pollard has served enough time in jail for his crime. I fully understand the nature of Pollard’s crime and why he was given such a hard sentence. Johnathan Pollard endangered not only national security, but he revealed the names of others and placed their lives in jeopardy as well. I have no quarrel with the trial and the sentencing. I just feel that after all these years, what is the point of keeping him in jail?

  1. It seems to me that the only reason left is the anger that those in government still have for him. And that anger serves our country no further purpose. There can be no national security issue that could be endangered since he has been in prison over 25 years. It is time to let the anger go and allow Pollard his teshuva. The government could still revoke his citizenship. They could still deport him; they could declare that he is not welcome in this country anymore. But keeping him in prison is just a waste of time and money. It hurt me to see the Vice President still angry over what was done so long ago, and still so vindictive. There has to be a better way to punish this man than to leave him to rot in jail. Other spies long ago were pardoned. Even if Pollard did twice the damage they did, there is no further purpose to keeping him in prison. I disagree with the Vice President. Let Johnathan Pollard go.

  1. I also think that there is a larger issue here than just an American spy and the punishment for his treason. There is a great deal of anger these days in this country. People are either right or wrong, on my side or on the OTHER side, perfectly good or completely evil. This is a way of looking at the world that is very easy, very common and very wrong.

  1. How did we get to this situation? First of all, we are now living in world that never forgets. There was a time when people no longer remembered things that people did wrong. It could take three to five years, but eventually we no longer cared what was in someone’s past. We felt that what he or she was doing now was more important than what they had done years before, during the time they were novices in their professions. There was a time we agreed that criminals who had served their time deserved a second chance at life; that politicians, who had lost their office over a scandal, were entitled to reform their lives and move on. Even if a businessman had a bankruptcy in his past, he could still start over and make something of himself. Today, who we are and what we have done seems to have eternal life on the internet. Even the foolish things that teenagers do and say can haunt them ten, twenty even thirty years into the future. So if anyone asks, yes, things were easier in the past when we were all young. There was no “permanent record” that could someday come back and bite us. Today there is such a record and everyone in the world has access to it.

  1. We are also living in a world that never forgives. It might not be so bad that our deeds are inscribed forever if we could still count on forgiveness. In the movie “Sweet Charity” one of the last lines spoken is “I can change the way I dress and I can change the way I talk but don’t ask me to change my past because that cannot be changed.” Today, our unchangeable past is more indelible then ever. Candidates during debates, bring up decisions made by their opponents that are 20 years old. These decisions are held up as if this is what a candidate might do today. Employers look at the internet presence of prospective employees and see if there are any reasons in the past why they might not want this person to work for them, even if that incident was long ago resolved. Any blemish on our record is never forgotten and never forgiven. It is a terrible way to have to go through life, having always to be perfect.

  1. Some of the greatest inventors and innovators in this country’s history have long records of failure. Abraham Lincoln, if he ran today, would be unelectable with his long record of failure. Thomas Edison was a genius but his failures far exceeded his successes. The famous writer JK Rowlings once had to live out of her car and in a homeless shelter because she could not take care of her family. The greatest thinkers in our country are those who are not afraid to take a chance. In the book, “Start Up Nation”, Israel’s economic miracle is said to be based on a culture where failure is not considered a fault, as long as we learn from our failures. A failure gives us important information we can use to work for even greater success.

  1. The essence of this season in Judaism is that everyone is entitled to a chance to start over. These Days of Awe are designed with the idea that God does not hold us accountable for every sin. Only God is perfect. The rest of us are all flawed. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner has written that we are all put in this life with some blessings and some disabilities. The main point of life and the main point of this season of the year is to be grateful for what we have and to work hard to turn our disabilities into blessings.

  1. Football legend Mercury Morris was arrested and convicted of cocaine use and dealing drugs. He was sentenced to prison and by the time he got out, there was no longer a possibility of playing football anymore. But Mercury Morris was no longer interested in football. He was interested in programs that would keep young people out of trouble and away from drugs. He became a well respected advocate for teaching teens about the dangers of drug use and counseled them on how to beat their addictions. Eventually he won a pardon from the Governor of Florida so that he could get the certification he needed to establish a program of his own. He literally worked his way back to acceptance because he learned from his mistake and showed that he could be better.

  1. I am not saying that every criminal should have the benefit of “forgive and forget”. This should be reserved for those who admit their errors and work their way back into honest society. I do believe, however, that everyone deserves the chance to start over. I am also not implying that we should make it easy, but we do have an obligation to treat others as we would want to be treated if we were in the same situation. If we want God to forgive us as the New Year begins, we must be prepared to forgive others. No matter how angry they may make us, we must forgive even if we can’t forget. There but for the grace of God go I.

  1. I believe that Vice President Biden is entitled to his opinion of Johnathan Pollard. He has every right to be appalled and angry. But the Vice President should be forgiving anyway. Pollard should have a chance to get on with his life and perhaps show some repentance for what he has done. I doubt that anyone will accept him as a conquering hero. That is the way it is with spies; the country you commit treason against, never accepts you back and the one you gave the secrets to, they also feel you can’t be trusted. Once we damage our reputation, it remains very hard to rebuild it.

  1. On this Shabbat Shuva, we understand that we are not like Pollard; there is still hope that we can return to a happy, healthy and prosperous life. But we will need to make the changes necessary for that to happen. Nobody will do it for us. We have to seek out those who we have offended and get forgiveness from them and from ourselves. I would not set up the Vice President as a role model in this area. We need to let go of our anger and find our way back to trust in those we have betrayed. We can work to free Johnathan Pollard from the Federal Penitentiary, but from the prison he created for himself with his treason, he will have to liberate himself. Keeping Pollard in jail and keeping ourselves imprisoned in our guilt will not help us grow and change for the better. Now is the time for us to make our apologies. We need to find the freedom that comes with repentance and return.

May God help us return to our family, our friends and our faith at this important time of the year as we say … Amen and Shabbat Shalom

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