One of the most popular cultural phenomena of the last few years is a trilogy of books called The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. It is a dystopia, which is the opposite of a utopia; it is a terrible vision of America in the future. In high school, we read dystopias like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984. Now this new dystopia called The Hunger Games portrays an America where a rebellion against the ruling elite is punished with annual games in which young representatives from the twelve districts are placed in an arena and must kill each other until only one victor is left.
The leaders, the ruling elite, who live in a metropolis called the Capitol, use human sacrifice, the sacrifice of young people, to make a savage point:
“Your children are symbolic of all of you
We, the rulers, own this country the way that we own the arena
We are in control.
We control your fate
You have no hope
You sacrifice your children to us, your masters
All of the districts must share in the sacrifice of your young people
This is the debt you owe your country.”
And no one complains; no one rebels
The parents cry when their children are taken off to participate, but no one raises a finger in protest.
As the books go on, it will be the young protagonists who will rebel against their fate, who will say:
“Enough! We will no longer be sacrificed because of something our parents and grandparents did.”
That’s The Hunger Games, a vision of an America that uses its children to pay its debts.
That’s The Hunger Games, a vision of an America where the leadership uses the children as sacrifices.
Now let me turn to Judaism and our rituals on Yom Kippur, when we use physical hunger to remind us about who we are. For us, hunger is not a game; it is a very serious method to make us think about our lives.
On Yom Kippur morning, when we would normally be eating lunch, just as we’re really feeling our hunger, we recite the Avodah service. The Avodah service has three dramatic moments when the rabbi and cantor lie prostrate before the Ark.
This re-enacts the three sacrifices that the High Priest offered on the altar in ancient centuries when the Temple stood in Jerusalem.
Why three times?
One sacrifice is for the High Priest himself, who says, in effect, “I owe this to G-d for me, for my life.”
A second sacrifice is for his family: “I owe this to pay G-d back for the blessings of my family, my clan, my fellow-priests.”
And a third sacrifice is for the people; the High Priest says, “This is what I owe G-d for my beloved country.”
So the High Priest, our leader, paid his debts to G-d by offering sacrifices for himself, for his family, and for his nation.
The High Priest, as the leader of the country, took the lead in saying:
“This is what we all have to do
We have to pay our country’s debts.”
Now let’s think about our country, the United States of America.
Do you know how this country began?
America started with debtors. If you were in debt in Europe in the 1600 and 1700’s, you went to prison. In London, debtors’ prisons were filled. But there was the New World, and James Oglethorpe, a Member of Parliament, had an idea: What about just shipping the miserable debtors across the ocean? In 1732, he founded a place called Georgia, a colony intended as a refuge for debtors released from English prisons. Two out of every three Europeans who came to the American colonies were debtors because the colonies were a good place to go to run away from your debts. Some colonies were, basically, debtors’ asylums.
It felt like all Americans were debtors to England. The attitude grew that the British had swindled Americans out of their money and their independence and this became part of the patriot cause. Declaring independence was a way of canceling those debts. The American Revolution, some historians have argued, was itself a form of debt relief. The American Revolution wiped out all our debts.
We are the descendants of people who found a way to get rid of their debts.
And now here we are in 2012
We have amassed 16 trillion dollars in debt
How did this happen and what does it mean about us?
First, how did this happen? It began a decade ago with a choice, not a crisis. It was January 2001. It was what Joseph in the Bible would call the years of plenty. The country’s budget was balanced and there was clear sailing ahead. The forecast was for ever-larger annual surpluses indefinitely. The outlook was so rosy that voices of caution were swept aside in the rush to take advantage of the apparent bounty. Our leaders chose to cut taxes, raise spending and, for the first time in U.S. history, wage two wars completely with borrowed funds. We fought wars while refusing to pay for them, effectively passing the cost of financing the wars to the next generation. For this and many other reasons, a nest egg of more than $2 trillion turned into 16 trillion in debt.
Think about your life or the lives of people you know. This is exactly how all of us get into debt way over our heads. When things are good, we imagine clear sailing forever and we buy and spend like there is no tomorrow. But there is a tomorrow, and tomorrow often looks very different from today.
Even those of us who are not observant always say that we believe in Jewish values. So here are two Jewish values: live within your means and confront difficult truths.
The question is what to do from here. Bold long-term solutions to our fiscal problems are dead-on-arrival in Washington because our elected leaders do not dare ask the nation to sacrifice for fear that they will lose the next election. Our leaders, both the President and the Congress, owed everything to the people who elected them, and they did not pay that debt. If you read the details of the failure to make a deal on the debt ceiling, you see that there was a failure of leadership on all sides. Those we elect to lead must lead. And leading means compromise. A President must not take “no” for an answer. There are a lot of people in the Capital who simply will not compromise. And the worst one of all is a Jewish congressman from Virginia; at least his last name is not “Rabbi.”
Instead, our leaders would rather lay hardships on those too young to vote than ask today’s voters to sacrifice.
What does this mean about us?
That like the parents in The Hunger Games, we are content to pass on our decisions and our mistakes to our children and let them be sacrificed.
Unlike the High Priest, who understood his debts for himself, his family and his country, it means a failure of leadership.
How would you feel as a person if you amassed debts and your children and grandchildren would have to work to pay them off?
Where are the adults who care about their children?
Do you remember Alfred P. Doolittle?
We have adopted Alfred P. Doolittle’s credo:
A man was made to ‘elp support his children,
Which is the right and proper thing to do.
A man was made to ‘elp support his children,
With a little bit o’ luck,
With a little bit o’ luck,
They’ll go out and start supportin’ you!
America is now Alfred P. Doolittle and we do little to change this
My father said to me: “You will go into adulthood without debt from college or graduate school.
But the deal is that your kids must go into adulthood the same way. By bringing you into the world, I owe you a life where you will amass your own debts, not pay for mine. Now you have to do the same for your kids.”
That’s the way I was raised
You have kids, you owe them and they owe their kids.
That’s the debt you pay for being part of humanity and part of your role in perpetuating humanity.
I cannot handle an America that saddles its kids with debt.
It is wrong to sacrifice our children.
Our religion, from the very beginning, didn’t want human sacrifices.
The story of the first Hebrew, Abraham, as we read on the Second Day of Rosh Hashanah, reminds us of G-d’s command: “Don’t sacrifice your children.”
And Jewish people don’t want to send our children into the arena of death unless we are absolutely sure that there is a reason worthy of the ultimate sacrifice of human life.
Not a geopolitical reason
Not an economic reason
We will only sacrifice human life to save human life or to fight for human freedom.
The big phrase these days is shared sacrifices.
But do you know how we share our sacrifices?
We ask our kids to be sacrificed for us.
I thought we wanted to leave them a good legacy,
Not a legacy of debt
Abraham was willing to sacrifice his child but G-d said “No!”
We send our kids to war
And we pass the debt onto them.
I’ve seen this movie!
It’s the Hunger Games! Send them to war and make them pay for it!
It’s not a dystopia; it’s now!
We owe so many debts.
We owe a debt to Americans who serve or served in the military service and I worry that we do not do right by them when they return home
We owe a debt to every Israeli who lives in our dreamland, our homeland, but who because of the hatred of others lives a life that is endangered on every side.
The High Priest offered his sacrifices and paid his debts for his people, and then he paid for his family.
But he also paid his own debts.
So here’s my question to you, on this most sacred night when we think about Kol Nidre, all our obligations and promises:
Who do you owe?
Stop and think about your life.
Who has done for you?
Who has given you what you needed?
Have you paid them back?
Or do you owe and simply ignore your obligations, figuring that someone will do what needs to be done?
If there is anyone in this world we owe, it’s our parents. I know that not all parents are perfect. But the huge majority sacrificed for us and we owe them.
And yet, so many of us do not pay our debts and we do not share in the sacrifice and the responsibility and the burden. Over and over, I see families where one adult child takes care of an aged parent and the others are just too busy. The greatest comfort to me during a recent time of sadness in my family was that my siblings and I were in everything together. When I see families who should be in grief grabbing at each other’s throats and fighting over money and possessions, I want to scream: “Is it always about you? Is it always about what you want?”
I want to talk about one more debt that you owe, and it’s to yourself. What do you do for you? The High Priest paid for his country and his family but also for himself.
I am speaking now not to the selfish people but to the selfless people, those of you who are so worried about others that you never think about yourself.
You run yourself ragged for everyone else and you never do anything for yourself. This is a mistake. You owe yourself a lot.
Let’s think about the phrase self-fulfillment.
We all believe in self-fulfillment.
You are Jewish. Your self is Jewish.
This is part of your identity.
But are you fulfilled as a Jewish person?
Have you explored that identity?
People love to tell me their Jewish biographies, what religious education they had, Bar and Bat Mitzvah stories, Rabbi stories, Hebrew school or Cheder stories, High Holiday ticket stories. It’s usually a story about a grandparent who mumbled the Kiddush every Friday night, a mother who made the absolutely most famous chopped liver in all history.
But what are we, chopped liver, that we should not be creating our own memories, our own legacies?
And this legacy is not created by who we say we are but by what we do.
Because no one is fooled, and our kids are not fooled, when we talk about being Jewish,
It is what we do.
Do we go to services?
Do we observe the holidays?
If you’re not going be just a chopped liver Jew, whose identity is just based on memories of other people doing Jewish things,
You have to grow
You have to do,
You have to explore tradition, knowledge, spirituality.
If you’re not just going to be a chopped liver Jew, then you must fulfill that Jewishness a whole lot better than you have so far
This is a debt you owe yourself
You may not be in touch with it, but inside of you, there is hunger
Hunger for more
To paraphrase an old Bob Dylan song:
‘There’s something happening here and you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Schwartz?’
There’s some hunger inside you
And you’re not sure what it is
But it’s not just a game; it is an aching need inside you
Judaism has the perspective to help you find what= you’re looking for
On Yom Kippur, the High Priest drew near to G-d so that we would all draw near to G-d in our shared sacrifice.
But today, we don’t want to share our sacrifice.
We want the other guy to sacrifice, not us.
But the High Priest had it right
We must make the right sacrifices for our country
We cannot leave debt as a legacy to our children
We must pay our own debts
To our people
To our families
And to ourselves
And if we do
And with a little bit of luck
We will no longer hunger for a meaningful life.