Tennessee: The Volunteer State
September 27, 2011
Rabbi Freedman's Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon
As many of you know, this summer I
got married. Laurel and I decided to
take a road-trip to and from our wedding in Texas.
While leaving Asheville,
NC and heading into the birthplace of Rabbi Bill Kuhn, I saw a large welcome
sign. On that sign it read, “Tennessee: The Volunteer
State.” I usually do not place much
stock in state mottos. I come from the Bay State
and now live in the Keystone state, neither of which names deeply resonates
with me, however, for some reason I was struck by Tennessee: The Volunteer State. I assume it is because, as a synagogue
community, we have been thinking a lot about what it means to be a part of
congregation in recent months.
Being a child of the 21st century, I immediately reached for
my iPhone to look up the root of this interesting state motto. According to the official web site of the
state, Tennessee first earned its nickname as
the volunteer state during the War of 1812 due to the
large numbers of Tennesseans who volunteered to serve in battle against Great Britain.
Although the men never faced battle, General Andrew Jackson brought
the soldiers home at his own expense. Later, Jackson
led 2,000 Tennessee volunteer soldiers
in a successful battle against the British in 1815 at the Battle of New
Orleans. Following such success, as many as 30,000 Tennesseans again
volunteered in the Mexican War. Most of
you are probably familiar with the legend (popularized by Disney), of the
fateful day when Davy Crocket, born on a mountaintop in Tennessee, who killed a
grizzly bear when he was only three, drew a line in the sand to see who would
come fight with him at the Alamo.
I apologize in advance to all of you from the great state of
but I do not like your state motto. I
think it is actually incorrect. The Volunteer State.
What does it mean to be a volunteer?
In general terms, volunteering is the practice of people working on
behalf of others or a particular cause without payment for their time and
services. Volunteering is generally considered an altruistic activity,
intended to promote good or improve human quality of life, but people also
volunteer for their own skill development, to meet others, to make contacts for
possible employment, to have fun, and a variety of other reasons that could be
In my opinion, what is missing from the word ‘volunteer’ is
a sense of obligation and weight. The
word volunteer lacks the sense of responsibility we have for those that we view
as family. One can not volunteer to be a
son or daughter but we all know that a familial relationship contains certain
inescapable commitments. 30,000
Tennesseans didn’t risk their lives fighting in the Mexican-American war
because they wanted a warm fuzzy feeling inside. They fought because, as Wilfred Brimley once
said, “it’s the right thing to do.” They
fought because they felt an obligation to protect their family and friends from
harms way. They fought because they
could not have possibly imagined doing anything else other than fight.
This concept of sacred obligation is rooted in our
tradition. In Judaism, we have an
important concept called tzedakah.
When asked what this Hebrew word means, most people would say that tzedakah
means charity. I do not think this
is actually a very good definition.
Charity comes from the Latin word caritas which originally
meant preciousness, dearness, high price. From this, in Christian theology, caritas
became the standard Latin translation for the Greek word agapç,
meaning an unlimited loving-kindness to all others, such as the love of
God. This is much different from the
Jewish concept of tzedakah. The
word tzedakah comes from the Hebrew root, tzedek, which means
righteousness or justice.
Tzedakah is an obligation and not a voluntary
act. Tzedakah, although perhaps spurred
on by our love for our neighbors and strangers in our midst, is rooted in
justice and obligation. As Jews, we
engage in tzedakah because it is the right things to do. And so it is the same with our relationship
to our synagogue. As Jews, we do not
volunteer to be part of a task force or volunteer to come to services or
volunteer to visit the sick and elderly of our congregation because it makes us
feel good or because it’s a nice gesture.
We are obligated to engage in these righteous acts because we are a family. We come to Friday night services because we
could not imagine beginning our weekend without them.
What is the one aspect of Judaism that separates it from
other religions? All religions contain
theologies that espouse making the world a better place and loving your
neighbor. They all contain their own
unique rituals and traditions. All religions have special foods, dances,
language, etc… But what makes Judaism
truly unique is our focus on this life.
What is the Jewish view of the afterlife? Ask two Jews and you get three answers. So why does Judaism have such a varied, vague
definition of the afterlife – because our focus should be on this world. While for other religions, the goal of life
is to live justly in order to achieve some
ultimate reward, be it heaven or reincarnation, for Judaism, we engage in acts
of loving kindness in this world because it’s the right thing to do.
This concept of sacred obligation also inspires our own
congregation. We no longer have an
annual program guide; we have an ‘Invitation to Engage.’ We no longer have a volunteer choir; we have
a congregational choir. At Rodeph
Shalom, we do not have volunteers; we have family members. This may seem like semantics but language
matters. Language is one of the key
defining characteristics of who we are as human beings. It is what separates us from animals. One of the first tasks that God assigned Adam
in the Garden of Eden was to name each and every animal. As we continue to grow as a visionary
congregation, we will continue to use language that reflects that vision –
language of family and obligation as opposed to volunteering.
Many of you will remember, back in March when Rabbi Larry
Hoffman joined us for a weekend of congregational visioning. During his time with us, Rabbi Hoffman spoke
at Friday evening services about the changing nature of congregational
life. Specifically, he spoke about the
idea of civic obligation. 60 years ago,
if you were Jewish, you would have belonged to a synagogue. Why?
Because you really like the religious school? Because you had a lot of friends in the Men’s
Club? Because you loved the sound of the
cantors voice? Because you longed for
the rabbi’s sermons?
According to Hoffman, all of these may have been perks to
belonging to a synagogue, but Jews belonged to synagogues because that was what
you did. There was a greater sense of
civic obligation in the bygone era that ended with the revolutions of the
60’s. And not just in the Jewish world;
across religions and into the secular world, people belonged to communities
because it was the right thing to do.
Today, we no longer live in a world ruled by civic
obligation. Some may pine for the days
when this obligation was as mandatory as paying your taxes or brushing your
teeth. However, I believe that this new
age where civic obligation no longer applies allows us to have a more
meaningful relationship with God, Judaism and our community.
Rabbi Irving Greenberg, a well known post-Holocaust Jewish
theologian, wrote an article a number of years back entitled “Voluntary
Covenant.” In his article, Greenberg
refers to three main epochs in Jewish history.
The first, the Biblical Period, was marked by an unbalanced relationship
between God and the Israelite people, with God as senior partner holding more
power than the Israelites. We see this
relationship reflected in the covenantal language of Deuteronomy – if the
Israelite people obey God, they will be prosperous but if they disobey they
will face harsh consequences.
The second epoch, according to Greenberg, is the Rabbinic
Period where the covenantal relationship between God and Israel changes
significantly. In this new brit
or covenant, the Rabbis have become the senior partner, with God no longer
capable of revelation. Decisions are now placed in the hands of mankind. A prime example of this relationship can
found in such texts like the ‘Oven of Akhnai.’
This famous Talmudic story begins with a debate between Rabbi Eliezer
and the Sages as to whether this certain type of oven is kosher or not. Rabbi Eliezer is so sure that the halachah
(or Jewish law) agrees with him that he calls forth numerous miracles including
a flying carob tree, a backwards running river and ultimately the voice of God
to prove that he is correct. The Sages do
not except Rabbi Eliezer’s supernatural proofs and retort, quoting parashat
Nitzavim, saying, “The Torah is not in Heaven.”
According to the Sages, the age of prophecy is over and it is up to
human beings to make decisions for themselves.
Greenberg’s final time period is the current post-Holocaust
world. The old idea of covenant was
shattered once and for all at Auschwitz. Greenberg
quotes Elie Wiesel, “When God gave us a mission; that was all
right. But God failed to tell us that it was a suicide mission.” There
can be no question of reward and punishment or Divine providence any
longer. There can be no sense of shared loyalty and mutual love or
responsibility between God and Israel.
God sent us on a “suicide mission,” thus permanently revising the terms of the
With his theology that the covenantal relationship formed at
Mt. Sinai is no longer valid, does Greenberg
then choose to abandon Judaism? On the
contrary, Greenberg suggests that any relationship we now have with Judaism,
God and our congregation is that much more powerful because it is based on a
voluntary covenant. We are no longer
held to the covenant made for us so long ago at Mt. Sinai when in parashat
Nitzavim God said, “I am making this covenant, with its oath, not only with you
who are standing here with us today in the presence of the LORD our God but
also with those who are not here today,” the future generations.
I love everything about Greenberg’s theology except for the
name of it – Voluntary Covenant – and what that implies. For the same reasons that I find the Volunteer State to be a name lacking in a sense of
obligation, sacredness and familial connection, the voluntary nature of
Greenberg’s theology could be improved.
What Greenberg touches on in his entire article is a sense of
partnership. In each of his three epochs
he speaks about a changing partnership between God and Israel; a sacred
partnership that begins with God as the senior partner, then moving to a
relationship where the Jewish people run the show and finally coming to a point
in our time where we are equal partners with God in this world.
An image from our tradition that does speak to the
juxtaposition of the voluntary and obligatory nature of our relationships is
the nazirite. Numbers, chapter 6,
presents the laws of the nazirite, an individual who has, by means of a
vow, taken on a special sacred status.
For the period of the vow, the nazirite may not have contact with any
dead body, or consume any wine, or cut his/her hair.
Many have observed that these restrictions are similar to
those of the kohanim, the priests. But, in fact, the nazirite’s
restrictions are even greater than the priest’s. A priest is permitted contact with the dead
of his immediate family. Priests are prohibited
from drinking intoxicants only while “on duty” and priests were not allowed to
shave their heads but were required to trim their hair.
Often we think of the biblical period as a time in which God
dealt out sanctity and special status on a rather arbitrary basis. The Israelites were chosen from among all
peoples; they had no choice. The priests
inherited their priesthood; they had no option.
Even the prophets felt compelled to speak in God’s name.
But in the nazirite, we have a model of sacred status - with
increased responsibility - entered into voluntarily, by any man or woman
willing to accept the terms of the challenge.
Such voluntarism in accepting responsibility for kidushah,
holiness, is a valuable model for our age, when all coercive elements have
faded from our Judaism and our participation and commitment are strictly a
matter of choice.
Now, I am not advocating for us all to shave our heads and
abstain from grape products, but I am saying that we can learn quite a bit from
the model of the nazirite. We can all
take our own unique vow this year that will elevate us to a more sacred
My friend Rev. Linda Noonan, a UCC pastors, always says,
“Never place a period where God has placed a comma.” This witty aphorism is meant to convey the
idea that God still has more to say to us than just that which was written in
the Bible. So too, in Reform Judaism, we believe in a continual process
of revelation. Revelation was not a
onetime event at Mt.
Sinai but is an act that
we engage in every time we come to services, every time we occupy ourselves
with the study of Torah, every time we light Shabbat candles or say the Kiddush
on Friday night. Every time we choose to
be Jewish, we are re-experiencing revelation.
As Reform Jews, we are modern day nazirites. When we choose to connect with God, each
other and Judaism, we are entering into a sacred vow.
This New Year let us all become nazirites. Let us engage with our community on new
levels and have profound connections with our Rodeph Shalom family. Let us all be present for each other,
ourselves and God because we want to, because we need to and because it is the
right thing to do.
There is only one law about how a synagogue needs to be
built. It can have any kind of seating,
any kind of ark, a balcony or not. But
it says in the Talmud that a synagogue must have windows. Why, ask the rabbis? In order that what we do in here should be
reflected in what we do out there.
Everything I have talked about tonight relating to sacred partnerships,
obligation and family is not just true of our relationship with God, Judaism
and this community; it should inform our relationship with all others, the
entire world and our fair city of Philadelphia.
Last Sunday, POWER which stands for Philadelphians Organized
to Witness, Empower and Rebuild held its founding convention. Over 2,000 congregants from over 40
congregations across the city came together along with the Mayor, city
councilmen, and business leaders to advocate for change in our city. This interfaith community organizing group,
of which Rodeph Shalom is a founding member, is entirely volunteer run. But just like those 30,000 Tennesseans who
fought with Davy Crocket, those involved with POWER are much more than
volunteers, they are modern day nazirites.
They’ve spent time meeting with elected officials and policy analysts,
having face-to-face conversation with those in our community mired in poverty
because of an obligation that they feel to help their neighbors. So, this New Year let us all make a sacred
vow, let us all become nazirites - not just in our own community but for our
The great state of Tennessee
has their Volunteers. But perhaps a
better word, to fully describe the obligation, holiness and justice rooted in
volunteerism, could be the nazirite. I
am not sure if this would have the same ring for the football team – the
Tennessee Nazirites, but it does capture the true meaning inherent in Tennessee’s rich history
of doing what was right.
Whether it is through community organizing, coming to Friday
night services or having meaningful conversations, let us all become modern day
nazirites this year. Let us choose to
take upon ourselves the sacred obligation of being partners with God, our city
and our synagogue family.