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Turning to the World on Yom Kippur

Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann, SAJ 2015/5776

Shana Tova. G’mar Hatima Tova.

Pope Francis, writes in his recent Encyclical Laudato Si about responsibility towards address climate change: “Our goal is not to amass information or to satisfy curiosity, but rather to become painfully aware, to dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it.”

Perhaps it is not so coincidental that Pope Francis is speaking to a Joint Session of Congress tomorrow,  because it seems to me that he has a profound understanding of the holiest day of the year.

Yom Kippur is a day of turning and introspection, a day of acknowledging our own mistakes and seeking forgiveness for our actions.

And tradition teaches that this day is not only about addressing the brokenness in our relationships with self or loved ones.  It is also about acknowledging and atoning for the many wrongs in our community and society and considering our part in righting those wrongs.

As you have likely learned, our vidui or confessional prayers are said in the plural rather than the singular.  We name sins of the whole community, even ones we may not have done ourselves. This is not incidental. Rabbi Caryn Broitman has taught about the Al Heyt prayer:  “On Yom Kippur we join together as a community to acknowledge the sins that we have committed. Not I, but we. The soul reckoning (heshbon hanefesh) that we do on Yom Kippur is communal.  We are implicated in the personal acts, good or bad, or any individual in our community.  Moreover, as part of a community we are all implicated in the acts, good or bad, that our community has done.”

Rabbi Broitman further says, “The communal issue is not shame or guilt—that is a personal affair.  The issue instead is responsibility….The prayers of Yom Kippur challenge us to take responsibility for acts of teshuvah/turning, real steps as individuals and as a community, to redress communal wrongs.”

Collective responsibility for our society as a theme of Yom Kippur is not only found in the pages of the prayerbook.  Our ancient rabbis chose readings from the torah and the prophets for Yom Kippur that speak to this idea. When we read from the torah tomorrow, we see The High Priest confessing his sins and sins of the whole community.

For the Haftarah, we read the powerful words of our prophet Isaiah, “Is this not the fast that I desire?…Is this not the fast that I desire the unlocking of the chains of wickedness, the loosening of exploitation, the freeing of all those oppressed, the breaking of the yoke?”  This fast is not for own sake alone or even for God, rather for the sake of moving us to address injustice.

And just in case we didn’t quite get the message, at mincha, we read the story of Jonah, the reluctant prophet who runs away from God’s command to warn a group of people to repent.  One of the text’s many messages is about living up to your responsibility to engage with the world. You can try to escape — you can go out of town to Tarshish, onto a boat, capsize and go overboard, and land in the belly of big fish—even then, you cannot hide from what it is that you need to do, from the work of turning towards the problems of the world.

The message of our ancestors is that Yom Kippur is a time to turn inwards and to turn outwards – and to dare to see ourselves complicit in the brokenness of our world and to find what we can do to make a difference.

For some of us, this message feels exciting and motivating.  You want me to take responsibility for the poverty, the violence, and the hardships of the world?  Where can I sign up?! When is the next action?

For others, this insistence on taking responsibilities for the problems of society may want us to take the first bus passes out of town, maybe to Tarshish with our friend Jonah.  

And for many of us, we probably fall somewhere in the middle.  We care about what’s going on in the world and its many injustices, but when we try to take in what’s happening, we can feel overwhelmed.  We might not know what to do– how are we supposed to know what is the right action to take? We wonder if in the face of complex challenges if our small part will make a difference.  

On Rosh HaShanah, I spoke about the Passover narrative and the pursuit of justice, about WHY we might work for a better world.  Tonight, I want to address the WHY NOTs– those things that get in our way, the barriers that prevent us from getting engaged and involved.  Bringing Jewish wisdom to bear, I hope we can see new possibilities for ourselves and our world.

Why not?  Because we think the problem cannot be solved.

The congregation I started and served for ten years was named Kol Tzedek: Voice of Justice, a name chosen by members to reflect a communal commitment to engaging with the world and pursuing tikkun olam, repair of the world.  One day, a potential member asked for a meeting.  We sat down to talk. He said, “Rabbi, though I like it a lot I am not sure I can join your congregation.”  I inquired why he felt this way, assuming that the members had not been sufficiently welcoming or he had not met any peers.

Instead he said to me that he could not join because the congregation was entirely too optimistic about the world.  I kept talking from the bimah about how a person shouldn’t despair but find hope even in the midst of the many problems in the world.  He could not support this program! And for this reason, opted to come occasionally but not join.

I do not share this story to berate this person—because I think that all of us can relate to his sentiments at one time or another in our lives.  In some ways, all we have to do is read the morning paper to think that the world is too far gone and the problem cannot be solved. Despair is a perfectly rational response to the realities of our world.

I find a great lesson in a story from the Talmud, which takes place soon after the second Temple was destroyed.  The temple’s destruction was one of the most devastating things that ever happened in the history of the Jewish people.  They were dispersed, this time with no hope of ever returning to their spiritual center. The community was devastated. They were physically and spiritually crushed and it seemed that all hope is lost.  In an expression of their despair, some became ascetics, abstaining from meat and wine. They no longer felt they could enjoy the comforts of the world in light of the tragedy they had been part of.

Rabbi Joshua engaged some of these men in a conversation, asking them: why do you not eat meat or wine?  They said to him: How could we eat meat that was once brought as an offering, now that our altar is destroyed?  How can we drink wine that used to be poured as a libation on that same altar, which is no more? Rabbi Joshua said back to them: If that is so, we should not eat bread either, because the meal offerings are no longer.  To that, they replied: We will manage with fruit. Rabbi Joshua prodded further, what about the offering of the first fruits which has ceased now that the temple is gone?  The men said: We will make do with water!

Rabbi Joshua said back to them: Yet, when the temple stood we had a ceremony for pouring the water, so how can you enjoy water?  When they heard this, they had no answer.  Rabbi Joshua said to them: My sons, come and listen.  Not to despair is impossible, because we have suffered tremendously.  But to despair too much is an impossible solution.  It is impossible because the community cannot suffer such a burden, the community cannot endure that sorrow.

“Not to despair is impossible.”  The story reminds us that despair and hopelessness is a natural reaction to the terrible things that go on around us.  And it validates that a normal response to the enormity of life’s greatest challenges is a desire to withdraw from the world.

Nevertheless, the story comes to teach: even if this is our inclination, it is not the right path.  Rabbi Joshua says: It is impossible not to despair but it is also impossible to despair too much.  Why?  For an individual, it might be just fine to sit at home and eat chocolates while the world around us is full of destruction and pain.  But we cannot survive as a community or as people if we spend our time despairing about our circumstances and withdrawing from the world.  Because if each of us despaired and withdrew, we would never move forward as a society.

I tend to be optimistic and hopeful by nature, but I can relate to the kind of despair expressed by that man who attended Kol Tzedek regarding one issue in particular- climate change.  In many ways, the science supports my despair – we are already seeing its affects on the most vulnerable populations; we may have past the point when we can eliminate the most devastating future impacts of the climate change.

At times I find myself immobilized because of my despair.  I avoid articles, educational programming, podcasts, news radio shows talking about climate change.  Even though I care so intensely, I tend to avert my eyes and disengage.

But exactly one year ago, in the busiest time of my calendar (between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur), I somehow got myself on a bus to NYC, with my daughter and with about 20 members of my congregation, to participate in The People’s Climate March.  I know there were many SAJers who were there as well, along with something like 350,000 others. What moved me most about this day was witnessing diversity of the attendees and tremendous numbers of people in the streets expressing their care for our planet and the people who live on it as well as finding special meaning in being part of a very robust Jewish contingent.  For me, the march was transformative because I recovered a sense of hopefulness. When I overwhelmed, which of course happens, I try to remember that experience and the wise words of Rabbi Joshua: Not to despair is impossible. But not to despair too much is also impossible.

Another Why not?  How am I supposed to know what is the right thing to do?

One aspect of the rabbinical profession that no one warned me about ahead of time is the constant requests to sign petitions –petitions for all kinds of issues and at varied moments.  I have one rabbinical colleague who refuses to sign any petitions, under any circumstance. I have probed her about this: “Not even the one about the environment? That seems pretty straightforward.” “Not even the one about fighting poverty?  I know you support an end to poverty!” Her response is always a version of this: “There is always another side. I don’t want to sign something in case I am missing seeing the other side or understanding the full complexity of the issue.”

When I speak to people about getting involved with causes and issues to help address some of the problems of society, I hear at times words similar to my colleague.  How can I know for sure what’s the right thing to do? What if I don’t have a full grasp of the problem? How do I take a side when every issue has multiple sides? How do I get involved with an organization or campaign if I don’t agree with all their tactics or statements?

The world of politics and organizing can feel black and white while we may seek out the grey, trying to understand and hold the nuance of a particular problem.

We need only look to our rabbinic ancestors to see that our tradition is one that encourages questioning and struggle alongside a passion for righteousness and justice.  The same people who argued and argued over the minutia of Jewish practice are the ones that promoted acts of loving-kindness, care for the stranger and the poor. This teaches me that a person need not abandon nuance and critical thinking in order to be involved with social action.  This is especially true in a world where facts, truth-seeking, and intellectual integrity are increasingly not valued.

Like our answers who taught and modeled: “These and these are the words of the living God,” we can promote that it is possible to hold two truths at one time and still work for solutions.  It is possible to be both anti-poverty and supportive of the business economy. It is possible be both anti-racism and supportive of police officers. Bringing nuance to a political climate is a challenge – but it is an important role that people who are both critical and passionate can play in the conversation.

And, even as we search for truth and complexity, we should remember to find ways to get involved, causes to champion.  Because waiting till we have all the answers or waiting till we find something we can unconditionally support is also a choice, in favor of the status quo.  As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel:  “To be human is to be involved, to act and react, to wonder and to respond…To live means to be at a crossroads.”

Why not?  Because we cannot make a difference.

In the face of the enormity of the problems we face as a society and as a world –hunger, poverty, lack of access to care and education; violence; discrimination– just to name a few– it is easy and understandable to think that our actions don’t matter in the grand scheme of things.   After all, how can we bear the weight of responsibility for our world when we are typically not necessarily the ones the political power or capital to make changes? Or when it feels that we do try to do our part but nothing changes?

I find great comfort in the stories of our people, both mythical and real, that remind me of the power of one person to make a difference.  One of my favorite stories about the power of our individual action comes from the midrash, commentary on the torah, regarding one individual who made the sea split.  According to legend, when Moses was praying and all the tribes were fighting, a man named Nachshon stepped into the waters. He walked in further and further, his legs covered, then his waist, then his shoulders.  According to one source, just as the waters came to his nose, the sea parted. Without his bravery, his risking his own life, without his taking a step, the sea might not have parted and our story may have ended there.  

How telling is it that our ancestors recast the story of a Divine miracle into a human-driven act of faith!  Our tradition is crystal clear: Human action has the potential to change the course of history with a single step.

In the face of the enormity of the problems in our society and in our world and the challenges in our own lives, it is easy to be like the Israelites and Moses, standing frozen at the sea, feeling how impossible it is to cross.  Yet, our tradition wisely instructs: take one step. Take another. Do something. Writer Anne Lamott recently spoke in this vein in a recent editorial about facing these difficult days: “Figure out one thing you can do every day to be part of the solution…  This is the only way miracles ever happen—left foot, right foot, left foot, breathe. Right foot, left foot, right foot, breathe… It is the truest of all things; the only way to… save the world.”

I take another lesson from the Nachshon story.  Nachshon’s actions were meaningful because the Israelite people followed him and Moses through the parted sea.  It is not only about our individual actions, but our collective ones as well. Working together as a community is when the real miracles can take place.

I experienced this first hand in Philadelphia through work with an interfaith social justice organization.  After a year and a half of organization and relationship building, we chose to focus our first campaign on access to good jobs for the most vulnerable of the city.  Because the Philadelphia airport was negotiating its lease with the city, we saw a window of opportunity to add terms to the lease that would raise the wages and rights of the workers.

In this process, we listened to the stories of the workers, including a wheelchair attendant, she was paid $7/hour, less than the minimum wage.  In her position, she would sometimes get tips but most often she would not and in those cases her bosses told her she needed to lie to prove she received more salary than she did.  She spoke about having to choose between medications and food and the dilemma of whether to come in to work when she was sick – after all, she was caring often for the sick and elderly and she didn’t want to spread germs.  On the other hand, she had no paid leave and couldn’t afford not to miss work.

Everyday people—members of churches, synagogues, and mosques – visited city council members and met with the mayor.  Sad to say, when the airport negotiations went through, the provision we asked for was not included.  We felt defeated.  But just one week later, the organization received a phone call from a city councilperson.  He was so moved by our work that he decided to initiate a ballot measure for the next election day to raise the minimum wage for ALL city subcontracted workers (airport and beyond) to $12/hour.

Now, we had to get back to work, this time to educate the public about the measure and inspire voter turnout.  Each house of worship committed to a certain number of phone calls to voters to call and houses to canvass. In the end, we reached out to 60,000 city citizens; 5,000 people who were identified as unlikely voters committed to vote in the election.  The election came and the measure passed by an overwhelming majority. There are between 10-15,000 people who will benefit from this change. For the 1,500 airport workers alone, it is estimated that $16 million dollars will into the hands of the most poor and vulnerable in the city.

This victory was only possible because of the individual actions of ordinary people, who worked within their community and with other communities of faith toward a common cause.  And because of their individual and collective actions, people’s lives were changed.

And, the most common and obvius Why not: Because I don’t have the time.

The barrier that gets in the way of our involvement with social action and social justice, most often, is the feeling or belief that we just don’t have time.  As a working mom, I relate to this concern very much. We live in a busy culture and time is a precious and limited commodity. Thinking about this dilemma always reminds me of the famous teaching of Rabbi Tarfon from Pirke Avot: “We are not obligated to complete the task, neither are we free from desisting from it.”  Each of us surely can find some time to engage on issues we care about and find some ways to contribute to the problems we acknowledge and confess for on Yom Kippur.

Every year, I like to choose a few very tangible things I can do in the coming months to express the sense of responsibility that grows out of this holiday and this experience of teshuvah.  This year, among my personal commitments is to learn about NYC politics and leaders enough (as someone new to the city) in time for the next election on November 3; to reach out to a few clergy of other faiths near to SAJ and learn about the issues that matter most to their members; and to learn more about and begin to involve myself with Manhattan Together, a community organizing group that SAJ is part of.

I want to challenge each of us to make a list of 2 or 3 or 4 concrete things, that can work within our current commitments and schedules, that we can do in the coming months and year to help us rise to the challenge of this day.

Soon, we will recite the Al Heyt and the Ashamnu.  Tomorrow, we will read from our torah and prophetic passages.  May these experiences and the power of this holy day help us turn inward and turn outward; awaken us to the problems we may not always want to face; and inspire us to discern what each of us can do to respond.

Gmar Hatima Tova!

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