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Erev Rosh Hashanah 5780 September 29, 2019

Are Our Names on the List?

In March of 2018, in the wake of the “Stoneman Douglas” High School mass shooting, a Notre Dame professor took his four kids to a March for Our Lives demonstration.  At the rally, a list of names of those who had been killed in Parkland or had lost their lives to gun violence in the South Bend area was read.  That night, the professor’s 6-year-old couldn’t get to sleep.  She asked: “Daddy, is my name on that list?”  “What list, sweetheart?” her father asked.  “The list of children to be shot,” was the reply. (David Lincicum, Professor of Theology, Notre Dame, 2019.)

Not long ago, a world in which children in the United States of America would lie awake at night with a thought like this on their minds was unimaginable.  A world in which one might be risking one’s life to go to the cinema or shop at a Walmart or attend a street festival was inconceivable.   And yes, the idea that children might fear going to school or walking in the welcoming doors of their synagogue because of the possibility of being killed there, as we heard from a few parents of our own community during this past year, was unthinkable.   But, today, this tragic reality haunts us all.  Of course, we try to console our children and ourselves that we are safe and that this will not happen where we live, but we keep wondering:  Are our children’s names on the list?  Are ours?

Of course, the idea of a list of those destined to live and those slated for death is not a new idea.  In fact, it is a very ancient religious concept that plays a key role in this High Holy Day season upon which we have just embarked.  There is the image of the Sefer Chayim, that Book of Life metaphor that we encounter only at this time of year, in which God is portrayed as keeping just such a list.  It was referenced a few times already this evening in extra words that are added to our prayers only during these Ten Days of Repentance.  For example, the words Zochreinu l’chayim, Remember us for life, are added to the Avot/Imahot prayer and B’sefer Chayim..nikateiv, Write us in the Book of Life, are added to the Shalom Rav prayer.

It can be sobering or even frightening to think of the Sefer Chayim in which some are marked down for another year of life and others are not. But,  originally, the Book of Life was intended as an image of hope and comfort  for Jewish communities that constantly faced trials and tribulations.  The very existence of such an image, inserted repeatedly into our prayers on our holiest days of the year, is actually a clue that those who created the Machzor for the Days of Awe did not feel safe in their communities.  Because of this, they hung on to the belief that their loyalty to the covenant and God’s intervention due to their steadfastness could save them from a fate that they sensed was at hand.

Whatever we think of this theology, (and I realize many of you have difficulty with it, as I do) as the New Year 5780 settles upon us, we find ourselves admitting that the image of God selecting names for life or death seems eerily relevant to a society bathed in the blood of mass shootings and other gun violence.  Given this reality, how do we go forward with optimism in welcoming a brand new year, as our tradition bids us do on this eve of Rosh Hashanah?  If the metaphor of the Book of Life is not working as a balm for us, where can we find alternate sources of comfort and hope? 

Let us consider a path forward that has three parts:  We first must recall that our strength as a people has always been our ability to move on from being targeted and traumatized.  Secondly, we find support in partnership with others.  Third, we reach out in acts of kindness to others more vulnerable than ourselves.

The first part of the path forward after fear-provoking events is really a journey of memory. It can be summed up in a Hasidic proverb: “Forgetfulness leads to exile. Memory to redemption.”  (Witness by A. Berger, p. 21)  I came across this quotation in a book about Elie Wiesel, the famous Holocasut survivor.  The book is about his life as a college professor at Boston University.  The quotation,  ‘Forgetfulness leads to exile. Memory to redemption,” is used by Wiesel to start a conversation in class about what we do with the experience of trauma.  Wiesel elucidates the quotation with a Hasidic tale:

Once an astrologer-king saw in the stars that anyone who would eat of the coming harvest would go mad.  He called in his viceroy and friend to ask for advice.  “Sire,” replied the counselor, “you and I shall eat only last year’s harvest, which is untainted.  And so we shall remain sane.”

But the king replied: “I do not accept your proposal.  How can we separate ourselves from our people?  To remain the only sane people among a nation of madmen—they will think that we are the ones who are mad.  Instead, you and I shall eat of the tainted grain, and shall enter into madness with our people.”

The king thought for a moment, then said: “We must, however, at least recognize our malady.  Therefore, you and I shall mark each other’s foreheads with a sign.  And every time we look at one another, we shall remember that we are mad.”

As Wiesel elicits student interpretations about this enigmatic and troubling story, he skillfully steers the conversation in a certain direction about forgetfulness and memory:  When we experience troubling times, says Wiesel, we must take comfort in knowing that this is not the first time such a thing has happened.  In fact,  it is the memory of madnesses past that may enable us to get through the present crisis.  As Jews, we recognize that emerging from times of trauma is part and parcel of our story and a significant piece of the prescription of how we’ve survived.  Putting a mark on the forehead can serve a metaphor for the value of acknowledging the truth of traumas past while moving forward.  “To invoke the past,” says Wiesel, “is a shield for the future.”  (p. 21)

Wiesel’s message resonated with many in the class.  A student from Zimbabwe came to his office privately and shared that she could relate to this tale because of what she experienced in her homeland, where the leaders, including Robert Mugabe, who recently died, shielded themselves from their people’s problems, and, in the process, created a more serious crisis. The student suggested that those leaders’ actions were the equivalent of refusing to eat the tainted grain in the Hasidic tale.   Wiesel encouraged this young woman to share her story with others as often as she could.  He told her: “We must turn our suffering into a bridge so that others may suffer less.”  (p. 20)

Let’s take that bridge ourselves to examine how we might gain solace and the conviction to make the coming year a hopeful year during these troubling times.  To do so, like the student in the class, we ought to heed Wiesel’s advice about telling our stories and linking ourselves to others.

When we think of the disquiet that has come upon many of us in the past year over issues of safety and security, the question of who gets into the Book of Life becomes a very personal and alarming one.  The defining moment for many in the Jewish community last year was the mass shooting at Tree of Life congregation in Pittsburgh.  There have undoubtedly been other acts of gun violence and mass murder that have unnerved us as well, but this one hit home in a particularly horrifying way.  It was proof that violent antisemitism is alive and well in the United States, after we may have thought that kind of thing was not possible in America. This was an act of a home grown American white supremacist who targeted Jews for being Jews. Furthermore, it happened in a synagogue, where people were simply praying, just as we are now.

And yet as much as these facts may make us uneasy, something positive and comforting has arisen from this tragedy as well.  Countless examples of partnership and solidarity with other groups and individuals, from whom we may have been estranged, or perhaps separated in a more benign way, have grown since Pittsburgh.  We were surprised to find out on the Shabbat after Tree of Life, not just here but at every synagogue in the country, that our neighbors really care about us.  They showed up in droves for Shabbat services and called and emailed their words of grief and support.   Instead of we Jews going elsewhere to show solidarity for other communities that were the victims of a hate-motivated tragedy, we now were the ones being supported.

Religious leaders in Kenosha have developed a tradition of interfaith vigils and a tolling of the bells ritual for victims of such acts over the past few years, since the Orlando nightclub shooting.  Tragically, these ceremonies  have become common observances.  And, in the weeks and months following Tree of Life, we also came to realize that we Jews are just one of many groups “on the list.”  The bell tolled for Jews in October and then for Muslims in New Zealand in March and for Christians in Sri Lanka after an Easter Sunday church bombing in April.  After our neighbors showed up at Beth Hillel in October, they also took perhaps an even greater leap into the unknown and showed up for worship at the local mosque a few months later, as did many of our own members.  If we did not know it before, we now know that we have interfaith partners who support us and who need our support. We are building bridges, and walking on them with others in acts of solidarity makes all of us more resilient and stronger.

But, as crucial as these acts of solidarity are, there is much more to releasing ourselves from fear than merely showing up or coming together to say “never again.”  Such acts will not succeed in enabling us to step out of our fear and the single minded focus on self-preservation.    The last segment of our path toward hope in the coming year is one strewn with acts of g’milut chasadim, deeds of kindness toward others.  It is these kinds of actions that will ultimately help us to clamber out of the hole of fear in which we find ourselves after trauma strikes.

Rabbi Elyse Frishman brings it back to our Holy Day theme:  She points out that at the end of the Unetaneh Tokef prayer, which we will hear for the first time tomorrow in our High Holy Day prayers, the question of who is “on the list” and by what method each will meet his/her fate, is followed by a prescription for the kinds of acts that can mitigate the harshness of whatever fate awaits:  “Teshuvah utefilah utzedakah ma’avirin et ro’ah hag’zerah.”  Teshuvah, repentance, Tefilah, prayer, and Tzedakah,acts of righteous giving, says Frishman, are all acts that come from a place of “humility rather than insecurity…   True humility leads to doing for others.  And doing for others releases us from the mortal fear of fearing for ourselves.”  Frishman suggests that serving others enables us to put our life into a larger context, which gives us hope. (Evoking Fear, Prescribing Hope, p. 194-5 in Who By Fire, Who By Water)

Sue Kliebold, mother of Columbine killer, Dylan Kliebold, said that the steps that helped her most and still do, --even now, 20 years later after the realization that her beloved son killed and maimed so many of his classmates-- are acts of reaching out and helping others.  She found that many people reviled her and blamed her for what her son had done, and the only way she could push against that perception was to do things to help others.  She became a leader in an organization that helps parents of children who committed suicide and finds her solace and her strength to go on by helping them.   Surely if Sue Kliebold can find release from her personal tragedy and fear, we can find ways to beat back our insecurities and find hope again by helping others in our own way.

Of course, memory, solidarity and acts of kindness do not completely insulate us from insecurity and fear.   A vague and nagging sense that our names could be on the list of “foreboding dread,” in the words of that Notre Dame professor with the 6 year-old daughter, may remain with us during these Days of Awe.  We will continue to be prudent and cautious about how we protect ourselves in our houses of worship and where ever Jews gather.  Indeed, there is no sure way into the Sefer Chayim, the Book of Life, and there never has been.  But, perhaps, now more than ever, we see, as the Hasidic master once said, that while life is a very narrow and sometimes very scary bridge, we need not be overcome by fear.   Knowing that we have emerged from such traumas before, that we have partners to work with and work to do to help others who are vulnerable, we can walk forward bravely into this new year

Rosh Hashanah Morning 5780 September 30, 2019

A Giant Leap to Awe and Sacred Stewardship

You have to be of a certain age to remember the summer of 1969.  It was the Summer of Love and the summer of the Manson murders.  It was the summer of Woodstock and the summer of the Stonewall Riots.  But more than any of that, for most of us, no matter what age we were or how dramatic and memorable other events were, it was the moon landing on July 20,1969 that made the most indelible imprint on our souls.  2019 was the 50th anniversary of that incredible event, and, through retrospectives and documentaries, even those who were born decades later got a taste of some of the excitement of that time this past summer.

I was a teenager that night in1969, as our family sat mesmerized around a fuzzy picture of the astronauts walking in their space suits on the dusty, gray surface of the moon. For the second time in my life, I saw CBS anchor Walter Cronkite take off his glasses and mist up a bit; the first time being after he announced the death of President Kennedy by assassination, 6 years before.  Then, at a friend’s house, we went out on her front lawn and laid down in the grass and looked up at the moon for a while. I recall the wonder of that moment as my friend and I marveled:  There are people up there!  Today, it is hard to conceive of anything that could possibly match the universal sense of wonder and awe that the moon landing evoked in human beings across the globe--even in angst-ridden and self-absorbed teenagers-- as we contemplated the cosmos and our place in it that July, 50 years ago.

Today is also a day for contemplating the cosmos and our place in it. According to tradition, Rosh Hashanah is the birthday of the world.  Of course, we know, scientifically speaking, that the world is eons older than our traditional Jewish reckoning of time.    However, take note:  It is not day one—God’s creation of light and darkness--which is memorialized on this day by Jewish tradition.  Rather, it is the anniversary of the creation of human beings --on the 6th day-- which we heard chanted from the Torah scroll a few moments ago.  According to a midrash, the world began to be created on the 25th day of the month of Elul and culminated on the first of Tishrei with the creation of humanity.   From a spiritual point of view, Rosh Hashanah is the day we humans came on the scene and began to relate to the rest of Creation. 

What spiritual message should we extract from Rosh Hashanah’s identity as the birthday of the world?  On this anniversary of Creation, in this year of the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, perhaps we can reawaken our sense of awe in and connection to the cosmos AND rekindle our sense of responsibility as the beings who were given the task of caring for it.

It is a common ailment of contemporary society that many of us are distanced from the natural world or have lost our sense of awe about its wonders.   As I watched the retrospectives on the moon landing this summer, I was transported back to a time where I felt overcome with amazement at the vastness of the universe and the human place in it.  Today, we are seldom moved by the universe or even by the scientific discoveries that enable humanity to understand the cosmos in ever more intricate detail.  In our daily pursuits, most of us isolate ourselves from the kind of close contact with the natural world that might enable us to feel something akin to awe.  Increasingly, we are focused on inside spaces and worlds, real and imaginary,  that we see only through the screens that glow on our desks and in our hands. It has been noted that even “(S)pace does not inspire us now”  as it did in the 1960s.  And “marvels” are “just images on the screen.”  (Rabbi Lawrence Troster in Rosh Hashanah Readings, p. 302)

Yes, some of us consciously choose to seek out and be awed by nature:  We go hiking or camping or to take a great trip to see the wonders of the natural world, such as glaciers and geysers, canyons and countrysides, animals in the wild and eclipses in the heavens.  But the truth is that, in today’s world, it requires a concentrated effort and a great deal of preparation to spend time in nature, and when we do, few of us succeed in doing so for very long.

One need not go far to experience awe in the natural world.  And even when we intend to do so, sometimes we miss what is right in front of us.  I find myself guilty of this on a regular basis.  I ride my bike in the morning, and I have a regular route that I mapped out in order to be in close proximity to Lake Michigan.  I want to take note of its color and composition and its daily mood:  Will it be calm and placid or active and aggressive that day?  And then it happens:  Every once in a while, I find myself on the way home, after biking along the lake for a good half mile and I realize, I missed it altogether.  I was consumed by some problem or plan and managed to not even notice the Lake. Of course, my brain must have registered a visual image of the lake; but I did not experience it in my soul.  When I do, I feel joy and elation.  The great protestant theologian Rudolph Otto called this feeling the experience of the “numinous,”  a spiritual and emotional connection to God and the Universe.

And what about scientific discoveries and technological innovations-- the awe found in human beings mastering their universe as implied in the first chapter of Genesis?   Advances are happening at such a rapid pace and changing our lives so dramatically all the time, that we sometimes become inured to them.  A new smart-phone or tablet with amazing new capabilities is invented, and we are briefly interested, maybe we even invest in one, and then it soon becomes passe.  An outbreak of disease sends a nation into a panic, and within months it is eradicated.  We are relieved and then forget about it. Innovations in space and ocean exploration, in biomedical advances and more are reported every day, and, unless it affects us personally, it is relegated to something interesting we heard on the news cycle. The great theologian, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote:  

As civilization advances, the sense of wonder declines. Such decline is an alarming symptom of our state of mind. Mankind will not perish for want of information; but only for want of appreciation. 

Heschel called this appreciation  “Radical amazement.” . 

Joe Bauman is an astro-photographer. In his work photographing the night sky, he has discovered that the best way to be awed by the universe is to go stargazing when there is a new moon.  Bauman says that on those nights, when the stars are clearest, “There is an overwhelming, visceral sense of how little we are, how little we know, how grand and mysterious the universe is.” (Awe of the Universe, Nov 25, 2017)  This day of Rosh Hashanah, which not only marks the anniversary of Creation, but also coincides with the New Moon, allows us an opportunity to regain our sense of wonder in the world, the human quest to master it, and, in so doing, to find “radical amazement.” 

Perhaps one way to recapture awe in the cosmos is to make it a point each month on Rosh Chodesh, when our Jewish calendar reminds us that there is a New Moon, to go out and experience the night sky . “Galaxies, p. 332 MT)  Or might we reconnect with Heschel’s sense of radical amazement by sing Shabbat for this purpose?  Could we make a promise to ourselves that every single Shabbat, no matter what season it is, we will take time to experience nature in all its beauty and power?  To take time for a walk by the lake or in a nearby nature preserve. And not take our phones with us!  Even to sit in our own yards, to take Shabbat off from the labor that goes into beautifying our outdoor spaces, and to just sit and enjoy them instead? 

If  we are able to recapture a sense of awe of the Universe, our texts teach us that we must not stop there.  We are to also rekindle our sense of responsibility as the beings who were given the task of caring for it.  Too often, we use our dominion over nature to our own benefit while not being mindful to guard its resources.  According to a midrash, we humans were placed upon earth as its protectors:

"When God created Adam, God led him around all of the trees in the Garden of Eden. God told him, 'See how beautiful and praiseworthy are all of my works. Everything I have created has been created for your sake. Think of this and do not corrupt the world; for if you corrupt it, there will be no one to set it right after you.'" (Midrash Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13)

This midrash was prescient.  Our ancient forebears saw already in their time that humans, in our dominion over the earth, would begin to ruin it.  You do not have to be an expert on climate change to accept that this is coming to pass.  We are all well aware that the polar ice cap is melting and that forest land and species of animals are disappearing, that severe weather is increasing and lake levels rising in an alarming way. The journal Current Biology reports that a tenth of the earth’s wilderness has been destroyed in just the past 25 years.  According to Dr. James Watson, lead author of the University of Queensland Wildlife Conservation Society, “we probably have one to two decades to turn this around.” 

This is where that midrash speaks to us again.  Yes, in Genesis, God gave humans dominance over the rest of creation.  But the dominance was meant to include caring stewardship of the planet, not cavalierly using or abusing its vast resources for our own benefit.  A monumental effort must be brought to bear in order to bring awareness and a sense of urgency to the human race about how we are destroying the earth and failing to take steps to reverse the problem. 

Of course, young people are the ones that will be most affected if we do not act,  and it is gratifying to witness them leading the way.  The face of this story today is Greta Thunberg of Sweden. In August of 2018, 15 year old Greta skipped school to do a one-person sit-in on the climate crisis at Sweden’s Parliament. She learned about climate change in school and was shocked that adults did not seem to be taking it seriously.  Her parents tried to talk her out of the strike.  Peers ignored her requests to join her.  Only one year later, just last week, her effort had evolved into an international movement with climate strikes, mainly led by youth, in 150 countries and Greta addressing the United Nations.  Greta and her peers have internalized the message of the midrash: “Do not corrupt the world; for if you corrupt it, there will be no one to set it right after you.”  Now we must all pay attention and follow their lead.

Today is the anniversary of the creation of the world--of Day 6,when humans, the pinnacle of creation, came on the scene.  Our ancestors, who first imagined how the universe came into being and put into writing a story about how God created the world in 6 days could not possibly have imagined that humans would, through sheer creativity and ingenuity, walk on the moon and reach out to the planets and the stars that they said God created on the 4th day.  But they did imagine that humans could easily destroy what God brought into being, if they were not mindful of the crucial role they were meant to play in protecting Creation.

Therefore, on this first day of the New Year, we would be wise to sit for a moment with Rabbi Heschel’s “radical amazement.” Today is a day for looking up into the heavens and taking a giant leap to awe and appreciation of our Universe.  And it is also a day to accept that we are the only ones who can bring about the healing and regeneration of our planet to keep it vibrant for future generations. We cannot be satisfied with lamenting that what God intended will soon be gone.   And so as we leave this time of prayer and go forth immediately to the lake for Tashlich today, let us not only toss away our sins, but take a few moments, also, to breathe in the joy that is the awe and wonder of our planet, and then accept our sacred responsibility to be its stewards.

Kol Nidre 5780 October 8, 2019

That is Not All You Are: Forgiving Ourselves; Forgiving Others.  

In his book Just Mercy, attorney Bryan Stevenson describes his work trying to gain exoneration for the wrongly convicted and to win reduced sentences or release for prisoners with mental illness or deficiencies or convicted as minors.  Through his visits to clients in prison, Stevenson built long-term relationships with many of these individuals, some of whom had committed terrible crimes. In so doing, he learned that even those who had committed heinous acts were not monsters.  They were just people who had made tragic choices or acted on their worst impulses, even though they had better ones. At the end of his book, Stevenson concludes: “Each one of us is more than the worst thing we’ve done.”  (Just Mercy, p. ?)

On this eve of Kol Nidre, we begin a period of intense examination of our shortcomings.  We confess, we ask forgiveness, we lament, and we pray that we will experience mercy from God and a second chance.  It can feel like the whole focus of the day is to beat ourselves up and zero in on how bad we are and how low we’ve sunk.  But, in truth, this is not the goal of Yom Kippur. Rather, Yom Kippur is an opportunity to repent for our sins and return to God, to become whole with the promise of atonement, because, in God’s eyes, each of us is “more than the worst thing we’ve done.”  

We recite repeatedly in the Yom Kippur service the words from Exodus 34: Adonai, Adonai, “El rahum v’hanun,” “gracious and compassionate God,” “erech apayim,” “you are endlessly patient,”  “v’rav hesed ve’emet,” “loving and true,” ….”noseh avon vafeshah v’chata’ah v’nakeh,” ‘Forgiving evil, defiance, and wrongdoing, and granting pardon.” And yet, in spite of this promise of God’s generosity toward us, sometimes we still hold on to the idea that our faults define us and mark us for life. Furthermore, at times we fail to allow others to rise above their faults and misdeeds. Out of hurt feelings and hardness of heart, we sometimes hold back the forgiveness others seek.   Therefore, Yom Kippur must be not only about asking for forgiveness, but also about emulating the Divine model of offering second chances and, in that spirit, forgiving ourselves and others as well.

Forgiving ourselves can be very challenging, especially at this time of year.  At other points of the year, we may transgress and then--for better or for worse-- move on, but at this season we are assigned a very specific task of taking an accounting of our souls, a cheshbon hanefesh, making amends for wrongdoing and confessing our faults all day long on Yom Kippur.  Perhaps we are now bringing to mind some paths we took in the past year that we wish we had not taken; remarks we wish we had not made; times we blamed others for our misdeeds or bulldozed over others in seeking to fulfill our own goals. We may chastise ourselves, saying we should have done it differently.  And it is important to be aware of and to try to correct our faults. But we also need to recognize that we all have imperfections, and we simply would not be who we are if not for our mistakes and the lessons learned from them. It is one thing to confess our sins, but we commit a further sin if we let our failures completely define who we are.

An illustraton: It happened at a synagogue in an affluent suburb on a weekday afternoon, just as Hebrew School was letting out.   This was back in the 1970s, so there was a pay phone in the school wing, and one of the kids was making a call. Failing to reach his mother, the boy hung up the phone in a fit of anger.  The rabbi happened to be standing there and asked the youngster what was wrong. He told the rabbi: “My mother isn’t here to pick me up!” The rabbi responded: “Danny, you only live 3 blocks away.  Why don’t you walk home?” The boy countered, in defiance: “Because I’m selfish.” Without skipping a beat, the rabbi replied: “Perhaps, but that is not all that you are.” (As told by Rabbi David Stern, about his father Rabbi Jack Stern)

What an amazingly generous and compassionate teaching the rabbi gave to that boy.  He threw the boy a life preserver to pull himself out of his pettiness and impatience and gave him a chance to learn a lesson from his anger and lack of self-control-- a lesson that had the potential to make him a better person. 

This Yom Kippur, can we throw a lifeline of this sort-- to ourselves?  There are some beautiful passages included in the “Vidui” or “Confession” section in our Mishkan Hanefesh machzor that may enable us to do this.  For example, in a few moments, we will read “For Acts of Healing and Repair” (p. 93) where we are encouraged to verbalize kind deeds, acts of honoring others and seeking justice that we have accomplished in the past year.  And tomorrow we will read “Hakarat Hatov,” “Recognizing the Good.” (p. 313) in which we acknowledge traits like self-control, integrity, honesty and compassion.  It is comforting that these passages are included in the Vidui section of the service, traditionally strictly reserved for confessing sins. For many of us, the act of “confessing goodness,” if you will, is a new and welcome concept for Yom Kippur.  Our machzor throws us a lifeline to prevent us from excessive self-flagellation, enabling us to recognize that there is much goodness in us as well.

If we can see the value in acknowledging goodness in ourselves, it is important to be able to give that same gift to others in our lives.  The rabbi in the story provided such a gift to a self-absorbed adolescent in the hope that he might turn in a direction of positive self-awareness.  But it is a heavier lift to do so when someone has treated us badly.

A story snatched from the headlines might help us in this regard. 

Last spring a group of us from Beth Hillel attended a Union for Reform Judaism gathering in Washington, DC.  The convention is for social justice advocates, and we heard from political leaders and activists of various sorts.  Imagine our surprise when we got the schedule of events, to note that the Rev. Al Sharpton was one of the highlighted speakers.  Some of you may not know his name or maybe you only know him as a talking head on MSNBC. In addition to being an outspoken activist for the African American community,  Sharpton has a history with the Jewish community, and it isn’t pretty.  

Sharpton was blamed for stoking a horrible period of antisemitism in Brooklyn, New York back in 1991 when an African American child was accidentally killed by a limousine in the entourage of the Chabad Rebbe, Manachem Schneerson.  There were riots following this tragedy, which resulted in a revenge killing of a Chasidic rabbinical student visiting from Australia. Sharpton was one of the lead spokespersons for the black community, and many of his remarks revealed deeply held anti-Semitic views.   Many Jews have never forgiven Sharpton for this.

As we were sitting in the convention hall, watching our Religious Action Center executive director, Rabbi Jonah Pesner, introduce Sharpton and speak of him so warmly as a partner in justice work and listening to Sharpton speak and publicly apologize, albeit in a somewhat oblique way, for his past misdeeds,  I started googling Sharpton to try to understand what had transpired to bring about this obvious change in relationship. And what I found instead was an editorial in that day’s paper slamming the URJ for inviting Sharpton to this event, basically saying “Shame on you, Reform Jews: How could you welcome an antisemite into your midst?”

I later learned that Sharpton had apologized privately to Jewish leaders and  that we were now witnessing his first public apology, almost 30 years later. Sharpton has said, among other things, "Our language and tone sometimes exacerbated tensions and played to the extremists.  He called it “incendiary rhetoric." Since Sharpton was also accused of inciting the firebombing of a Jewish owned clothing store in Harlem in 1995, calling his words “incendiary” was no metaphor. Sharpton had also said: "I have grown. I would still have stood up for Gavin Cato (the child who was run over), but I would have also included in my utterances that there was no justification or excuse for violence or for the death of Yankel Rosenbaum." (The Rev. Al Sharpton, In Six True-False Statements, NPR, January 19, 2013)   And speaking to us at the convention, Sharpton also said:  “I could have done more to heal rather than harm.” He shared that Coretta Scott King had rebuked him for his actions at the time, and he acknowledged that he should have listened to her.  (Consultation on Conscience, May, 2019)

Should we Jews forgive Sharpton?  Obviously, key leaders in the Reform Movement have.  But, some think it’s too little, too late, and that his apologies have been too tepid.   Should we hang on to the old grudge and never let it go? Does Sharpton ever get a second chance with American Jews?

The Sharpton story is a forgiveness example played out on a public stage.  But it can serve as a model for precisely the kinds of questions we should be asking ourselves as we begin our Yom Kippur fast and launch into these remaining hours of seeking atonement.   We have been examining our own misdeeds, and we are asking now: Will God forgive us? We are working to repair relationships and wondering: Will we be forgiven by those in our world whom we have wronged-- and can we forgive ourselves?  These are key questions. But part of our task must also be to consider being the ones who offer forgiveness -- to those who want to reconcile and set things right again.  

How do we determine if someone deserves to be forgiven?  What words are the right words to merit another chance? If someone is brave enough and humble enough to apologize is that good enough to move forward with the relationship, even if the words are somewhat disappointing? Is a kind gesture of appeasement enough, even if words are not spoken?  A rabbinic teaching speaks of God's willingness and ability to forgive in this way:  “The Holy One said, open for me the gate of repentance as minutely as the eye of a needle, and I will open for you gates wide enough for carriages and wagons to enter through them.”  (Midrash on the Song of Songs V, 2:2) Of course, one must take into account the nature and seriousness of the offense before fully restoring a relationship that was harmful.  But, in most cases we ought to ask: Can our generosity toward one who is repentant even begin to approach the expansiveness of God’s generosity?

As the hours of Yom Kippur wear on, let us take to heart the Hakarat Hatov passages of our mahzor and remember that there is much goodness to be found within us and others, even where mean spirited deeds and disregard for feelings have hurt us.  When we or those in our lives mess up in small or big ways, we are required to tease out the better impulses and affirm that “that’s not all that we are nor all that they are.” When we look for the good and the positive potential in ourselves and in others, more often than not, we find it.  And in so doing, we just might save ourselves and those around us from being defined by our worst traits and our lowest moments. We have the power to bring much blessing to our lives and those of others by heeding this message. May such blessing abound as we start fresh in this New Year.



Yom Kippur Morning 5780 October 9, 2019

Ashamnu: Racial Injustice and Our Responsibility 

When I was a child, my family affiliated with a Reform congregation in Madison, WI.  It was the era of Classical Reform. In those days, there was no prayer choreography in Reform worship. No bowing or bending or going up on tiptoes, no turning to the door to welcome Shabbat and certainly no pounding on chests in admission of guilt during the Ashamnu prayer!  In fact, it is only in the last several years here at Beth Hillel that the breast-beating custom has appeared in our community. It has become a favorite and very soul-stirring part of the Yom Kippur experience for me. But this summer it became even more powerful.   

In August, I joined with a group of Reform rabbis on a trip to Alabama to confront the reality of racial injustice in America.  During one of our study sessions, one of my colleagues shared that he thinks of the beating on the chest during Ashamnu as knocking on our hearts to get them open.  Someone else added: The Ashamnu ritual is designed to create a tear in the heart, which never completely heals. Indeed, what remains after your heart is torn open is a scar-- and a question:  What do I do with the continuing pain that results from that scar?  

The tear that was opened in my heart on this challenging journey to Montgomery and Selma was the feeling of deep, personal guilt over the ongoing scourge of racism in America.  And the nagging question that remains after that rending of my heart is: What do I do with the pain? I have concluded that the only thing I can do is to take responsibility for the role that I play, as a white person, in perpetuating racism in America and to hope that, through education and example, others night take up this challenge as well.

We visited Alabama exactly on the 400th anniversary of slavery in America, staying in the capital city of Montgomery, which had been the epicenter of the slave trade in the south.  Just a block from where we slept and ate in a luxury hotel, slaves were once deposited from steamboats on the banks of the Alabama river. Wearing chains, they were then herded up the street a few blocks past the current site of the hotel to be sold on the auction block.  Today, the room where that slave auction took place is the first room of a museum that chronicles our nation’s shameful history of slavery and its ongoing reverberations. The city of Montgomery did not bring its citizens to the river bank on that ignoble anniversary, but our visit there marked it in my soul forever. 

One of the central readings of this day of Yom Kippur is the Haftarah reading from Jonah that we will hear this afternoon.  You will recall that Jonah was called by God to prophesy to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, in order to publicly berate the people of that nation for their sins.  You know the story: Jonah says, ”No way, God! Not me; not my problem! I’m outta here.” Jonah gets on a ship at the port of Jaffa thinking he can escape God’s demand, but finds that to be impossible.  After a storm at sea, three days inside the belly of a giant fish, and being upchucked onto dry land, God again speaks to Jonah: “Kum, lech el Ninveh,” “Get up, go to Nineveh and proclaim what I tell you.”  (Jonah 3:1)  Now Jonah does so.  And, amazingly, the King of Nineveh accepts his own guilt and that of his people. They repent and are saved from destruction.

This ancient Jewish tale can provide penetrating insights about the collective sins of our nation concerning racism, but it also points to each of us personally.  Jonah was chosen by God to call out a community’s sin and injustice not because he was special, but because he was “everyman;” he was all of us. The continuing existence of interpersonal, institutional, structural, and internalized racism in America can only be eradicated, in the words of the Book of Jonah, when “...every person turn(s) back from his/her evil way and from the violence that is in their hands.” (3:8)  It is not someone else or some institution we had no role in creating that allows racism to run rampant in this nation.  All of us, individually, are responsible.  

I know that this is a very challenging statement.  Like Jonah, we want to run away. We We want to deny culpability for the truth that, decades after the civil rights movement and the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts of the 1960s,  people of color are still overwhelmingly relegated to substandard housing, to schools with fewer resources, and are denied access to voting in America. Racial subjugation did not end with slavery, nor with the fall of the Jim Crow South.  No, there is no state sanctioned slavery and no legal segregation today, but we cannot deny that our society is, in many ways, as segregated now as it was in 1965. And what’s worse is that we all accept the reality of separate and not equal neighborhoods and schools, a reality that stares us in the face right here in this part of Kenosha whenever we come to Temple.  What have any of us done to right this wrong? 

Today’s enslavement is the over-incarceration of  Americans of color compared to the white population, a reality explained best by MIchelle Alexander in her book The New Jim Crow.    No, we have not personally incarcerated anyone or shown brutality in the name of white supremacy, but we have allowed it to happen --over and over-- by perpetuating, often in unconscious ways, the assumption that a person of color we don’t know may have bad motives or even criminal intent when s/he enters a store, walks in an affluent neighborhood, or drives anywhere s/he is perceived to “not belong.”  

Attorney Bryan Stevenson, who founded the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, the non-profit that seeks to eradicate the racial inequity of the American justice system case by case, was the victim of this perception himself.  One night about midnight, after a long day of work and a visit to a death row inmate hours away, Stevenson was trying to unwind, sitting in front of his own house, by himself in his own car, listening to some favorite music on the radio with the windows closed.  The police were called by neighbors who thought his behavior suspicious. When he very politely explained that this was his car and his house and he could show the police by putting his key in the lock, the officer became agitated and made him get out of the car, put his hands on the car, and frisked him.  The incident was finally deemed a misunderstanding. But this is something that we can all agree would not happen to us in front of our homes. And it was not a situation unique to Bryan Stevenson. Just ask any person of color, and s/he will be able to share multiple stories like this from his/he own life.  Not being treated with suspicion when we are going about our daily lives is part of the privilege of being white in America. 

I am sure that most of us in this room believe with all sincerity we do not hold negative perceptions of others because of the color of their skin.  In fact, we will point to friends, neighbors, teammates, and co-workers who are people of color. We will defend ourselves by citing times were able to hire a person of color or when we spoke up when someone else made a racist comment.  And that is all for the good. But, deep down, we still carry biases. The first step in eradicating racial injustice is to own racism within ourselves.

In fact, not just white people, but every person holds biases of which s/he is unaware.  This is called implicit bias. Some in this room have had the opportunity to attend “Implicit Bias Training” that has been offered in our area recently.  As sensitive and enlightened as I like to believe I am on race relations and racial justice issues, I acknowledge that I need to take that training and I plan to do so next time there is an opportunity.  There are other opportunities to educate and sensitize ourselves to racism that are offered on a regular basis through Kenosha’s series of “Courageous Conversations,” given by the Coalition for Dismantling Racism.  The next one is November 21st`, and we will post it in the Beth Hillel weekly eNews, as we always do. In addition, there is an intensive training that is going to be available to all of us in just a couple of weeks. This will be an anti-Racism workshop put on by the ELCA Lutheran Church here in Kenosha.  Information is out in the hallway and will appear in the Temple’s Enews tomorrow, or you can contact me for details. I intend to participate. Finally, through a wonderful gift to the temple, Beth Hillel is offering an opportunity to our teens to go on a similar trip that the rabbis went on in the South this spring.  I hope some will take advantage.

So, if we are able to accept that most of us have white privilege, how can we move forward?  One evening on our rabbinic journey of racial injustice, we were addressed by a panel of African American clergy.  Two of the pastors’ messages have stayed with me: First: “Our redemption as African Americans is tied up with yours as Jews.”  And second: “Use your white privilege for the benefit of humanity.” The second step toward eradicating racial injustice, then, is to take responsibility and act, and perhaps we Jews, given our history of being treated as other and relegated to the fringes of society and having been killed for who we are,  have a special role in that regard. 

One of the key sites in Montgomery is the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, sometimes also called the lyching memorial   One does not go to “see” the memorial; one walks through it. The memorial contains over 800 iron pillars, each representing a county in the United States where one or many lynchings took place, spanning over a hundred years. As you walk the memorial, the pillars are mounted at first at ground level, but eventually they are mounted higher and higher until they start to rise above your head and you feel vulnerable beneath them.  You can no longer even see the inscription of the names of those lynched in the counties represented on those pillars hanging over your head.  

Being inside the memorial was a painful and sobering experience.  But for me, the most important part of the memorial was the park you had to walk through to exit.  In that grassy space, the exact same 800+ pillars that were hanging inside, were now lying on the ground.  The sign in front of them said that the duplicate pillars were there for representatives of the counties named to come and pick up and take home with them; to erect within the very counties where the lynchings happened. 

These duplicate monuments and the request to display them publicly where lynchings took place became for me a metaphor for taking responsibility to work to eradicate racism.  Until each and every white person of privilege and each local, state, and national government entity chooses to mark its complicity in the crime of the subjugation of people of color in our country, there will be no justice.   

On this Yom Kippur as we pound our chests and recite Ashamnu, perhaps we can think of this ritual as a way to open our hearts to the reality of racial injustice in this country and to act to change that reality.   It is human nature to want to run away like Jonah and imagine that racial injustice not our responsibility. But like Jonah, ultimately we cannot escape. In Alabama, I made a made a commitment to myself to use the privilege I have to do more than I have been doing up to now.  I invite you to join with me in this endeavor.

If we truly hear the words of the Book of Jonah this afternoon, we may be able to admit that we are all Jonah, just regular folks trying to escape a hard truth:  The truth that we are all culpable for accepting and perpetuating the racially broken system in which we live. Like the King of Nineveh, who, seeing what was rotten in his nation, took the steps necessary bring himself and his people to account, we now must do the same.  We must show up, listen, and join in the struggle to eradicate the injustice of racial inequality in our midst. As the Torah teaches, “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof,” “Justice, justice shall you pursue.”  (Deut 16:20)

Sat, July 4 2020 12 Tammuz 5780