The prophet Isaiah is on my mind and in my heart more and more. His voice rings in Yom Kippur’s Haftarah with messages I fear we’ve forgotten. With messages I believe we must begin to remember, even if they hurt our hearts. Especially because they hurt our hearts so deeply.
Isaiah’s words call out to us through the years:
“Thus says God: I dwell on high, in holiness, yet also with those with low in spirit, reviving their hearts. … The House of Israel seeks Me, like a nation that does what is right, saying ‘Why, when we’ve fasted did You, God, not see? Why, when we starved our bodies, did You pay no heed?'”[Is, Isaiah 57:15, 58:1-3]
God’s answer through the prophet?
“Why?! …Your fasting today is not enough to make your voices heard on high! Is this the kind of fast I wish for? A day of starving your bodies, bowing your heads, wearing sackcloth? Do you call that a fast?! This is the kind of fast I wish for: unlock the fetters of wickedness and untie the cords of the yoke. Let the oppressed go free and break every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home. When you see the naked, clothe them! DO NOT IGNORE YOUR OWN FLESH!”[Isaiah 58:3-7]
Before we dare relegate Isaiah and his ancient words to the dustbin of history (though the inclination to forget what is right before us is understandable), let us say out loud what is true in our own community:
1 in 3 children in our county faces the threat of hunger.
– 22 assaults and domestic violence incidents and 2 shooting deaths occurred during the last few weeks here in Berkeley.[berkeleyside.com]
To our great distress, his doesn’t make us any different from any other place.
– Roughly 24,180 people have died from guns in the United States since the Newtown shootings.
1 in 5 children in the United States live in households that struggle to put food on the table.
And, of course, it’s so much worse than that. These last weeks we’ve watched our country struggle not to ignore the flesh of our sisters and brothers in Syria. Their very flesh. Their flesh is our flesh, and we should be writhing in pain, not out of sympathy, but because their flesh is our flesh. The difference between us and them is a terrible misperception.
I know, I know. It’s too much. Too heavy. Too much to bear.
But I’m begging you: Please don’t close your eyes.
Yom Kippur demands your open eyes. Today is not the birthday of the world. Today’s job is a lot harder. Today we look at our post-creation world, and it can be hard to keep our eyes open. Even harder to keep our hearts open. It’s going to hurt. So that’s how we’ll start: by not pretending it doesn’t hurt to actually see the world the way it is.
And looking won’t be enough. You can cry your eyes out, and nothing will change. The way we’ll stay strong long enough to do something about it is by remembering the words of the ancient sage Ben Hei Hei, who taught us “Lefum Tzara Agra, according to the pain is the reward.”[Pirkei Avot 5:21] If that is the case, then there is an immense reward waiting for the whole world somewhere in the future. May it be so.
You might think these problems push Isaiah’s dreams of Justice into heaven, too distant to reach. But I say to us all tonight that they are not in the heavens. They are so very near to each of us. So very close. The solution is in our mouths, in our hearts, if only we could remember it, restore it, so that Isaiah’s vision wouldn’t be so far away any more.
A few weeks ago, I drove into San Francisco for an AIPAC High Holiday Rabbinic sermon seminar. We spoke about our obligation to strengthen our homeland, Israel. We discussed the Jewish obligation to respond to threats both existential and physical to our People’s welfare. We spoke with profound and painful urgency of ongoing Jewish vulnerability in today’s complicated world.
In between statements of very-real Jewish fear, we ate danish and drank Peet’s coffee. We communicated with colleagues and friends around the country via satellite, beaming our meetings to and from Washington, D.C., where we have access to our country’s political leadership. Some more than others, everyone around the table had enough money. And all of us were white.
I had to leave the city early, as I was scheduled to work back in Berkeley with some board members of American Jewish World Service, another meeting shared by well-off white Jews. And while our conversation was going to be about Jews doing righteousness in the world, a theme I will return to in a moment, I want to share something that happened in the space between those scheduled encounters:
I was driving toward the Bay Bridge, and looked to my left. I saw a man pushing a shopping cart full of pekelach, small bundles. He was wandering, wearing rags, clearly homeless. And I had to pull over because suddenly I was crying. I stared through my tears at this man, because I was suddenly shocked into the realization that, between me and him, he was “the Jew.”
And so tonight, my dear friends, tonight I am asking each of us individually and all of us as a community to begin to remember what it is to be a Jew in the world.
A story, told in the name of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel:
Once there was a schoolboy who like many of us, would wake up in the morning and forget where he put his things the night before. So, one night, before going to sleep, he devised a solution to his problem. Before he got into bed, he took a piece of paper and a pencil and he wrote himself a note: “My eyeglasses are on the table next to the bed. My pants are on the chair next to the table. My shirt is draped over my pants. My shoes are on the floor under the bed. My socks are in my shoes. And, I am in the bed.” He placed the list on his bed-stand and he went to sleep. The next morning when he awoke, he took his list from his bed-stand and to his astonishment he found everything on the list. But, when he came to the last item – “and, I am in the bed,” he looked at the empty bed and asked himself, “So, if I am not in the bed, then where am I?”
My friends, we have lots of lists of where our things are, because many in this room are blessed to have lots of things. We are like, as Paul Simon put it:
One and one-half wandering Jews / Free to wander wherever they choose / Are travelling together… / On the last leg of the journey / They started a long time ago / The arc of a love affair…
We are just so very blessed. Feel the concern pulsing in this room right now. Know that we live in extraordinary times. We are Jews, free to be Jews. We are citizens whose voices matter in a constitutional democracy. The chair of the Democratic National Committee is a Jewish woman and the United States House majority leader is a Jewish man. Our Jewish ancestors yearned to be a free people in their own land, and today we have one.
Our list of miracles and accomplishments could go on and on, and I know we do not take them for granted. At least, not most of the time. Perhaps we’ve had it too good for too long to remember how things were, WHO Jews have been within history. We forget. That’s completely understandable. It’s not intentional forgetting.
And that’s why we list chata’im shebishgaga, unintentional sins, in our prayers for Yom Kippur. We’ve become, through the journey we started so long ago, wandering Jews, now free to wander wherever we choose. We did not intend to forget to be Jews in the world, but we have largely forgotten.
Danish, coffee, freedom, and a homeland can do that.
But it is time to do Teshuvah, to Return to who we really are. We’re not in bed. We’re not dreaming. We’re in the real world, and as our teacher Rabbi Alan Lew put it so perfectly: yes, this is real, and we are completely unprepared. But we stand a chance if we open our eyes and wonder where we are and where we might be. And if we succeed, we might even fulfill the prophecy at the end of Paul Simon’s song:
One and one-half wandering Jews / Return to their natural coasts / To resume old acquaintances / Step out occasionally / And speculate who had been damaged the most / Easy time will determine if these consolations / Will be their reward / The arc of a love affair / Waiting to be restored
The arc of our love affair, a love that calls us as Jews in the world, is waiting to be restored. Our Jewish communities value davening and learning and Jewish continuity, caring for each other when we are ill, when we die; we embody a beautiful radical welcome. We are queer, we are straight, we are old, young, and in between. We are Jewish and not. We have members who have survived abuse. We have members who have financially and physically lifted our communities from the depths of collective imagining into reality. That’s a whole lot of love. But it isn’t enough.
Until we stand our ground and see every human being as worthy of the miraculous beauty we celebrate in each other’s eyes in our synagogues, it isn’t enough.
It will never be enough until wickedness is gone, until all the oppressed go free and every yoke is broken. Just because the Messiah hasn’t come yet doesn’t mean she isn’t in the room with you right now, and in every room in every home and on every street, just waiting for someone to recognize the humanity and the divine spark in her eyes.
And before you think that I’m speaking at you and not to myself, let me borrow from Yom Kippur’s language and confess my own sins. My story might sound trivial, but it is in my eyes every second:
A few months ago, I was trying to finish my work and get home in time to prepare for Shabbat. The shul’s copy machine was broken, and so I had to run across the street and make some copies. I was rushing, too fast probably, coffee spilling, copies to make, and the Prophet Elijah appeared in the guise of a homeless person I had met a few times before and he asked for my help. But other things were more important. The Messiah could have come that day, but it wasn’t important enough to even slow me down.
I wish that were a singular event in my life, but it isn’t. And, for me, it stands for something quite urgent in the world. I valued the coffee in my hand and the copies I could make more than the human being before me. Et Chata’ai ani mazkir hayom. I acknowledge my sins right now. I was wrong. I sinned when I didn’t even look the person in the 2017 New Cotton Summer Take a Seat Children’s T-shirt eye. I forgot God in his eyes and, through that lack of care, diminished God in my own.
We look at Syria and Gun Violence and human trafficking and hunger and poverty and we forget, because remembering hurts too much, the refracted images of God involved. But the flesh we ignore is our own.
Isaiah isn’t done with us, and we’ve got work to do. I’m asking you to please do this work as a holy communities, as righteous communities. We don’t agree about God, but we agree that doing right is a mitzvah, a command we dare not ignore. Because our liberation, as Lilah Watson famously said, is bound up in every other’s.
Two questions that matter quite a lot:
The first is: What keeps you up at night?
Pour it out. we’re in this together. Our shuls are groups of loving people. We care about the world in different ways, but we support each other unconditionally. We’re family. The pain any of us feels is pain all of us feels, and the way we’ll mobilize to answer larger wounds in the world is by naming our own.
The second question is: What gifts can you bring to support your community’s effort to engage and heal the world (tikkun olam)?
You have the opportunity to organize, to market, to pray, to fundraise, write, sing, teach – and the most precious gift of all – to give of your time. When we know what strengths we can marshal as a community, we will miss fewer opportunities to act righteously.When you have the power to do something that needs doing, it is your responsibility. We have it in our power to be righteous, and we therefore are obligated. Be a leader in your community and be righteous!
A week ago, I was privileged to collaborate with my dear friend and colleague Rabbi Jason Klein, in formulating a question asked of President Obama during a Rosh haShannah call from the White House to American Rabbis.
American Jewish history has had waves of civic engagement, and in this moment of our nation’s history, there is dire need for the repair of our social fabric, a “recovenanting” of the American faith community to heal our urban communities. What is the role you, as convener-in-charge, hope we’ll have in this urgent national task?
The President’s answer was to hand the responsibility back to us. What, he challenged us, would be the place of the American Jewish community in leading America to a better day?
Friends, our world is in need of our strength. And we have a lot of strength to offer.thousands of people choose Judaism every year. Fair trade kosher items are emerging thanks to Jewish activism. You might think that’s not a big deal, but the slaves who make the other products don’t think that way. We convened Gun Violence rallies, staff food pantries, march with sisters and brothers for civil rights, and the list goes on and on, But these are gifts we’ve already begun to give.
But, deep in our hearts and our bones, we know it hasn’t been enough yet.
Many Jews are reporting that davening these past holidays has been the deepest it’s ever been. A friend, Helen Schneider, explained it succinctly: it just needed to be. Our communities are in the world, and we are hurting, and so our prayers have to be better than ever before. And they were. Just look at the power at our disposal.
I haven’t been sleeping much these last weeks. And I have a feeling I’m not alone. This world of ours is not in great shape, and as soon as we think we’re used to one crisis another rears its head. So let’s rear ours. We are Jews in the world, and we’ve been slaves, and we’ve been exiled, and hurt. As Heschel taught us: “In the realm of the spirit, only [one] who is a pioneer is able to be an heir.”[Man is Not Alone, p. 164]
So let’s, together, demand an end to pain for all people. Heschel once again, pointed us in this direction when he said that “the heart of human dignity is the ability to be responsible.”[Required: A Moral Ombudsman]
Dear God, we’re going to try to remember not to be calm, not be silent, not to close our eyes.
Love us, Adonai, and help us restore the arc of our love affair, the very same moral arc of the universe your prophets Isaiah, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Martin Luther King Jr, sang and shouted and cried over.
God, we’re just groups of people. But we’re also so much more. Look at the tears in our eyes and help us never miss the Messiahs on our streets.
And it’s tiring to care so much, God, so we ask for the strength to love each other – and ourselves – as much as we’re willing to love the world. Fill us with enough strength to make our commitments sustainable.
Adonai, we know we are required for the sake of the world to give what we can. Help us be strong enough to give what is necessary. We’re here, and we’re trying. Be with us please.