Sermon: JFK – Fifty Years

“JFK – Fifty Years”
November 22, 2013
Temple B’nai Chaim
Rabbi David Lipper

It remains for me a moment burned in my mind.  I was a young boy in 1963 when on a sunny Friday in Dallas, a shot rang out that changed the world.  And yet, while young I have watched with interest, every film, documentary, and read every book on the subject of JFK’s assassination.  I remember discussions around our kitchen table when the Warren Commission report came out.   I watched with fascination as the Zapruder film came to light.   Most importantly I grew up as a adolescent in debate competitions repeating the words of my rabbi from a sermon he wrote on the day Kennedy was shot … Weep Americans Weep … he proclaimed.

Rabbi Robert Kahn spoke these words:

Weep Americans Weep
A life has ended.
A life has ended.
A wife has been widowed
A little girl and a little boy will never see their father again

He continued

Weep Americans Weep
For that bullet was aimed at you
At everything you stand for
It was aimed at Washington and Jefferson
At Jackson and Lincoln
At Wilson and Roosevelt
It was aimed to shoot holes in the Declaration of Independence, especially
     those wild words about life and liberty
It was aimed to shoot holes in the Constitution and the courts that interpret it
It was aimed at fools who believe in political parties and in elections
It was aimed at Republicans and Democrats
It was aimed at you and at me.

Finally he says:

Weep Americans Weep
For the climate which spawned this violence
For a world so filled with hatred
For those who lash out in words, in gestures and in violence

Weep American Weep

For those on the far right and the far left
So unable to convince others in the open marketplace of ideas
So unable to persuade by logic
So unable to win heart
    That they substitute for ballots, bullets

God have mercy on those who would build walls

Who jeer speakers to silence
Jostle and strike those with whom they disagree
Create a climate of fierce intolerance, ideological fanaticism
Where hate becomes a way of life.

All of us must share his concern

For the American dream.
A dream of humanity, free and unafraid.
A dream of people no longer hungry.
A dream of nations no longer at war.

To be any less concerned

To dream any lesser dreams
Would be to betray his life
And mock his death.
With shock at a life so meaninglessly snuffed out.
With dedication to his memory
With re-dedication to his hope

I hear these words and I still shake at their power.   And their poignancy.   Fifty years have passed.    And yet I fear that the world is no further along the path of peace than we were so many decades ago.   In many ways, I still find our world not too advanced from the world of Joseph and his brothers, filled with jealousy and hatred.  Brother casting brother into a pit of darkness.  

The assassination of President John Kennedy is one of those rare historic events: a moment that, even five decades later, feels at-once intensely personal and globally significant. People struggled to fathom the murder of a vibrant national leader, while mourning, often thousands of miles away, along with the young family he left behind.

Communities raised money for memorials. Trade groups sent flowers to the White House. Companies and organizations held moments of silence. Everywhere one looked, there were reminders of the slain president.   Others, expressing their grief in more private ways, wrote letters. Long, flowing tributes to Jackie. To John Jr. and to Caroline. To their own families and friends. Writing, it seemed, helped ease the pain.

“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country,” Kennedy urged Americans in his thick Boston accent at his inaugural address on January 20, 1961.    Cut down at the age of 46, Kennedy’s unfulfilled promise has become a symbol of the lost nobility of politics.

He was a president who enlisted the nation in lofty goals — like putting a man on the Moon — “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

And he declared that we “will be remembered not for our victories or defeats in battle or in politics, but for our contribution to the human spirit.”  President Obama recently said; “In his idealism, his sober, square-jawed idealism, we are reminded that the power to change this country is ours.”

This is a reflective time.   Whenever we meet an important milestone, where memories collide with the present, we often find ourselves reflecting on the dreams of our youth.   This message, Kennedy’s dream, must not become another unrequited moment in the human consciousness.   We have to be reminded at these moments that every individual matters, that democratic values matter, that kind and gentle discourse matters, that working together matters, that the future matters.    It’s the same message of Joseph and his brothers.   The future will not be found in jealousy and hatred, it can only be found in reconciliation and peace.  

In this sacred moment, on this historic day, let us turn to the values which bind us together and work together to secure a world free of hatred and violence … a world filled with understand and open discourse … a world of wholeness and peace.

I want to close with the concluding words of the speech that Kennedy never gave on that fateful day 50 years ago.   His life may have been tragically ended, but his message and voice still speaks volumes today.  

“We in this country, in this generation, are — by destiny rather than choice — the watchmen on the walls of world freedom. We ask, therefore, that we may be worthy of our power and responsibility, that we may exercise our strength with wisdom and restraint, and that we may achieve in our time and for all time the ancient vision of “peace on earth, good will toward men.” That must always be our goal, and the righteousness of our cause must always underlie our strength.”

Zichrono Baruch … May his memory be a blessing.