Yom Kippur Morning – 5778

Yom Kippur Morning 5778

September 30, 2017


In general, I am not a big fan of superhero movies. Sometimes I watch them to humor other family members. But I was the one who insisted on going to see Wonder Woman on the big screen the first weekend it came out. Partly, I was intrigued by the Israeli actress, Gal Gadot, who plays Wonder Woman. But what drew me in even more was the allure of the feminist storyline in which a whole island of superwomen, who are strong and smart and bent on justice, have the capability to redeem the world.

In his syndicated column God Squad, Rabbi Marc Gellman responded to a reader who viewed God as having the power to fix all of the world’s ills. Comparing this theology to the superhero genre, Gellman wrote: “If there really was a Superman, then why would any of us need to do anything to keep the world safe? We would just sit around on our collective (tuchuses) waiting for “Supe” to handle it.” (July 22, 2017)

The problem with believing in an all-powerful, Wonder Woman-like God who will swoop in and save us when the world is taking a header is that we may wait until it is just too late. So often in history human beings have failed step in when people were suffering, only to witness utter mayhem and destruction, brutality and loss of life on large and small scales. While God has a role in redeeming the world, that role is not to fix the world for us, but to teach us what to do and how to do it.

Both of our scripture passages on this Yom Kippur morning include such teachings. First we heard Moses pleading with us to “choose life and not death; the blessing and not the curse.” He specifically pointed out that God will NOT do this for us, but that choosing life and blessing is something very close to us and WE can do it. Moses understands our natural timidity and hesitation and addresses it head on: “No, this is so very near to you—in your mouth and in your heart that you can do it.”

And then, moments later this morning, Isaiah asked us to cry out, full-throated, and to reach out to help when people are suffering, in very specific ways: “To break the bonds of injustice and remove the heavy yoke; to let the oppressed go free and release all those enslaved, to share bread with the hungry and take the homeless poor into our home.” Isaiah could not be clearer — that God is looking to each of us to act when there are troubles in the world.

Both prophets implore us to be brave and courageous, jumping in to save the day, as if each of us is a Wonder Woman. And these prophets encourage us, knowing full well that we do not have access to Wonder Woman’s Lasso of Truth, her indestructible bracelets, and her awesome boomerang tiara.

At this juncture in the history of our nation and indeed the history of the planet, nothing is more important than understanding that human beings can and must step in to alleviate suffering, save lives, and even save the world. Rabbi Rachel Gartner of the Rabbinic Human Rights group T’ruah said: “Our tradition is infused with the idea that there is a gap between what is and what should be” and it is up to us to “jump into the breach.” (T’ruah HHD call, Aug 2017)

And yet, there are very powerful forces that keep us from taking this leap.

It is hard to think of anything more scary and threatening to our way of life as Americans and as Jews than the white supremacist rally and violence in Charlottesville in August. Could we have imagined as we sat in these pews a year ago that neo-Nazis would march with burning torches, swastikas and combat gear en masse in the public square in the United States of America?

After Charlottesville, Rabbi Michael Marmur quoted the Book of Esther where Mordecai comes to Esther and implores her to save her people from destruction. He asks her: “Mi yodea im la’eit kazot higa’at lamalchut?” “Who knows if you have come to your royal station just for this moment?” (Esther 4:14) Marmur went on to suggest that, in America, we Jews have “married into the royal house and taken on the trappings of sovereignty.” (HUC Post-Charlottesville call Aug, 2017). That is, we American Jews have power and privilege in ways that world history has never seen before. So, when we see our own people or others at risk, we must use our privilege to speak out and to act.

This is our moment. How will we use our privilege to act in response to Charlottesville? Will we just hope that things die down or will we actively demand that our leaders hold accountable those who promote and support hate-filled speech and actions like those of that weekend? It is crucially important when we talk about Charlottesville to not limit our focus to anti-Semitism. Granted, the shouts of “Jews will not replace us” and the unfurling of Nazi flags were consciously used to frighten Jews. But white supremacy is, by definition, the attempt to oppress and intimidate people of color. The location of the rally, at the site of a Confederate statue, was designed to send a signal to people of color: Be afraid because there are many today who emulate Confederate leaders – those who fought to preserve the denigration, oppression and enslavement of people of color.

As much as we need to speak out from our place of privilege about our own people’s plight, we must also heed the famous call of Rabbi Hillel: “Uchsheani l’atzmi, mah ani?” “If I am only for myself, what am I?” When we see government leaders and the justice system taking a pass on confronting racism, it becomes absolutely essential that we step up.

Our society is struggling with bigotry on so many levels. One area is the issue of police brutality and killings of people of color, which has been further fueled by the fact that very few officers have been convicted in these cases.

I took a walk with a group of rabbis in the Sandtown section of Baltimore this summer, where Freddie Gray was killed. We listened to activists seeking justice for that sadly neglected community. One was the sister of an earlier victim of a police killing. She explained how she never planned on being an activist, but felt compelled to do something after the officer who killed her brother was exonerated. She decided to hold a demonstration on the corner where he was killed, and she has done so every week without fail for well over 200 weeks. This is what it means to jump into the breach between what is and what should be.

Like the woman in Baltimore, we need to find our own proverbial or actual street corners upon which to stand, but not merely to stand there and hold a sign; rather, to go into the places where there is need, to roll up our sleeves to bring relief, and to advocate for as long as it takes until justice is done and real change is evident.

Now you know and I know that there are many forces at work that keep us from entering into the gap between what is and what should be. Three of the most powerful forces are fear, a sense of powerlessness, and a lack of feeling personally responsible. It is important to address these directly.

We often fail to act because we fear backlash and consequences. What could happen to us, our loved ones, or our people if we speak up or become involved? Isn’t this fear exactly what motivated the vast majority of Europeans in WWII, who chose to look the other way while the Nazis rounded up their neighbors? There were life and death consequences to standing up to the Nazis or harboring Jews. Perhaps the choice to get involved today is not a life or death choice, but there can be serious consequences. Once we speak up, we become targets ourselves. The issue for which we advocate can disrupt our lives or possibly our livelihood.

And yet there are those who accept those risks and do speak up. Robert Wright Lee IV did just that after Charlottesville. A descendant of Robert E. Lee, 24 year-old Pastor Lee said to his United Church of Christ congregation in Winston-Salem, NC: “If you are silent at a moment like this, if you do not condemn the racism you see through whatever channels and avenues you have, you can leave church now because you’re doing church wrong.” (Weekend Edition, NPR Aug 20, 2017)

Pastor Lee received violent threats after this sermon. But he persisted, speaking out about statues of his distant uncle and namesake on NPR: We have made an idol of Robert Edward Lee.

We have made him an idol of white supremacy. We have made him an idol of nationalism and of bigotry and of hate and of racism. And that’s unacceptable. And not only as a person of goodwill but for me as a Christian, I can no longer sit by and allow my family’s name to be used as hate-filled speech. Pastor Lee said that it was “worth every risk to him to try to redeem racism.” (NPR, Aug 20, 2017) Sadly, although some in his church supported him, Lee was forced to resign from his church due to the controversy that swirled around his remarks.

Is there anything for which we would take such a risk?

We also fail to speak out because we fear losing power or control. Witness the situation in Myanmar, where the Nobel Peace laureate and de facto national leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has been largely silent about the ethnic cleansing of some 300,000 Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar in recent months. Suu Kyi has variously denied that there is a problem and minimized it, calling news reports about the refugees “fake news.”

Undoubtedly, Suu Kyi fears she will lose whatever power she has in a country largely run by a militia if she does speak out. But one has to ask: If a Nobel Peace Prize winner and popular leader isn’t willing to “cry aloud, full-throated,” as Isaiah demanded, who will? As Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa implored Suu Kyi: “If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep.” (Vox, Sep 11, 2017)

Another reason that regular folks like us fail to speak up or to act to save lives is because we feel powerless. There is so much tragedy in the world and so much that has to be done to fix the world’s problems. We feel overwhelmed by the issues, and, furthermore, we feel impotent to make a difference. A good example of this is the world-wide refugee crisis.

When we contemplate all of the human beings on every continent who are running for their lives, leaving everything they know and the homelands they love, to find safety and well-being for themselves and their families, we can indeed feel very small and our ability to impact the situation insignificant. Moses tells us to “choose life and blessing” and yet we listen to the Unetaneh Tokef reading on these High Holy Days, and we feel the heavy hand of fate come up against that exhortation. Who shall live and who shall die? Who will be tranquil and who will be troubled. Who calm and who tormented? We ask ourselves: How much of a choice do we, or those struggling to leave dangerous situations, actually have?

And yet we know that thousands upon thousands have made arduous journeys over the centuries, our own ancestors among them, and they have prevailed over incredible odds and under extreme hardship, with the help of people who did not give up on them. As a people who have repeatedly had to flee and resettle throughout history, we Jews have a special obligation to overcome feelings of powerlessness and inadequacy to do what we can for immigrants and refugees, to welcome them to this country, and to assist them in far-flung places. Our Beth Hillel Social Action committee has determined to make a year-long study of the world-wide refugee crisis. We are offering a number of opportunities for members to become educated and to join in a process of discernment to decide what concrete steps we, as a congregation, can take to help. Instead of continuing to feel overwhelmed by the issue, we want to empower our members to act. Soon, you will receive an invitation to be part of this effort.

Finally, perhaps the most challenging barrier to acting to bring about change is a failure to take personal responsibility concerning the world’s woes. This may be the most powerful hindrance of all: We can easily decry racism when it is displayed with flags and torches. It is harder to admit the racism we all harbor within. Racism and xenophobia thrive in the world because they thrive within us, and we do not take personal responsibility for their persistence. A good hard look in our heart of hearts will show that each of us has prejudices and stereotypes that we have not fully vetted or revealed, even to ourselves. We cannot root out racism and hatred on a societal level, until we root our own.

One way to access and understand our internal racism and prejudice is to join in conversation with others—to hear their truths and to share our own. Kenosha’s Coalition for Dismantling Racism will provide two such opportunities in late October and early November at the Civil War Museum.

These are never easy conversations to have. But only when we are courageous enough to begin this kind of conversation can we hope to be a part of the solution. How can we possibly follow Isaiah’s prescription: “To break the bonds of injustice and remove the heavy yoke; to let the oppressed go free and release all those enslaved, to share bread with the hungry and take the homeless poor into our home,” when we harbor fears and misconceptions about those who would be the recipients of these acts?

At the end of his piece on the problem of thinking of God as Superman, Rabbi Gellman quoted this morning’s Torah portion in which Moses tells us: “Uvacharta bachayim,” “Choose life.” Gellman concludes that saying the words “Choose life” to us is God’s job. But learning the words is our job. God, after all, is not Superman or Wonder Woman. Thinking of God as a superhero represents wish fulfillment. Acting to avert evil and suffering is what God, through our prophets, teaches us to do. It is not an easy undertaking. It can be risky and personally challenging, but we must go forward without fear. It is our most sacred obligation.