My Kol Nidre sermon from 5776 on Racism, White Privilege, America’s Journey for Justice.
This is my Kol Nidre Sermon for 5776. There is a special post script after that happened the next day.
Gmar Chatimah Tovah May you be inscribed in the Book of Life and Memory. .
On this holy night of Kol Nidre –we just prayed that God forgive us from making vows in haste. Vows that we made last year that we couldn’t fulfill. Promises that we made to ourselves when last year we stood before God and the Torah scrolls and vowed to change our ways. How comforting that God forgives us.
Together we recite the Kol Nidre prayer each year knowing that God is always ready to receive us in repentance. And if you don’t know that—then let me reiterate. God is always ready to receive your repentance and accept your prayer. Today on Yom Kippur and any day of your life even at the very end of your life. That is why we recite the Viddui prayer on our deathbeds.
The viddui is a prayer we recite also at this season. We recite the short confession—the Ashmanu and the long confession Al cheyt shechatanu l’fanecha. For those familiar with daily prayer a form the viddui, is in the Tachanun service added on in the daytime service. The other is the beside vidui—a final confession and last rite for Jews. No not just for Catholics—the last rites—where do you think they got it from? The viddui prayer helps us confess any of our personal sins while affirming our hope in God. It ends with a recitation of the Shema and the final words Adonai Hu HaElohim—Adonai is God. Our Neilah service tomorrow afternoon concludes with these very words.
As the Midrash Tehillim teaches us. It is written, “Cast your burden upon God and Adonai will sustain you.” (Ps. 55:23) No matter how many time you bother Adonai, God will receive you. (Midrash Tehilim 55:6)
But our task on Yom Kippur is two fold—confess and make teshuvah to our God for the sins committed between God and me. But the much harder task is actually to confess our sins and make teshuvah to the individuals we have hurt. To those we have sinned against-in our words and behavior. I think it is infinitely harder to go to someone you have a dispute with, someone you know you have hurt, look them in the eye and say the time has come to apologize to you for my behavior toward you. I am truly sorry and I want to take steps to heal our relationship.
That is the beginning of real teshuvah.
My friends we have to make real teshuvah. We have a pervasive problem. One that America must deal with. One that white America must deal with-and that is the sin of racism and bigotry against African Americans. We as a nation have never come to grips with the horrors of slavery and the continuing systematic dehumanization of black Americans in our country. And its time for learning and listening and teshuva. Not only in a general way for the sin of bigotry or racism but it is time to come to grips with the institutionalization of racism in the fabric of our American society, the sins of slavery and the ways in which the African American community still suffers from its effect.
I am not saying that we all are bigots. But I am saying that some of our actions have reflected this problem. When African American members of our congregation tell me –that some question their authenticity as a Jew—we have a problem. When the African American or mixed race children of our congregation are whispered about—we have a race problem. When you are still using the Yiddish derogatory word – Shvartze to describe an black or brown skinned person –we have a race problem. And for this we must make teshuvah.
We all have a role to play in the way white privilege has caused us to turn a blind eye about the challenges of being a person of color in this society.
We Jews didn’t used to be white—we were Jewish. We were ethnic—white was for Anglo-Saxons Protestants. We too were excluded from the same covenants and restrictions in clubs, and work and neighborhoods. But something happened as we Jews climbed the economic ladder and ladder of privilege. We began to break into circles that used to not want us. We worked to throw off our difference changed our names, got rid of our particularism as Jews and for most of us—the ultimate horror of the Shoa- made it increasing unfashionable to discriminate against Jews. Oh there still is Anti-Semitism—I am not naïve. But lets be clear—we have allowed for the most part the white skin that many Jews have to help us pass in society. Why now there are even clubs who used to not want us as members and secretly still don’t want us Jews as members who will accept us as members….. As Groucho Marx famously said—“I don’t want to be a member of club who has me as a member.” Go figure.
I know this isn’t a comfortable conversation to have. It never is comfortable or convenient. But my job as a rabbi is to be a nudge- to wake you up out of your complacency. America has a race problem. And that means we do.
There is teshuvah to be done-for the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Ezell Ford, Eric Garner, Dante Parker, Kajieme Powell, Jordan Baker, Rumon Brisbone—I could go on and on listing young men of color, unarmed, shot dead by police or wound up dead in police custody in the last year or so. Some are names you recognize because they have received publicity. But there are many more that have not.
But you say they were running from police or doing something they should not have been. We should not try to justify that kind of brutality done in our name. We are innocent until proven guilty—at least for white people. Something tells me that none of those young men if they had been white would be dead now. Arrested maybe—but not dead. Even the horrific white murderer Dylan Roof of 9 African American people in the church in Charleston was arrested and served Burger King because he was hungry. There is a cavalier attitude about the worth of black men and women in our country dates back to the horrific period of slavery-and the very founding of our country when African slaves were only counted as 3/5 of a person. Not really human. Not a whole man or woman.
And so out of the fires and protests of Ferguson, MO and Baltimore and Philadelphia and Cleveland, OH, reminiscent of 1993 in our own city we now have to result to a hashtag #blacklivesmatter. Shouldn’t that be self-evident? But tragically in our society it is not. That hashtag is no different than the sign the sanitation workers in Memphis, TN, wore in 1968 as they marched for a 10 cent pay raise, and the right to get out of the rain in the cab of the truck where the white driver sat rather than in the back of the garbage truck with the garbage.The sanitation workers marched that April day in 1968 with signs around their necks. I am a Man. It was that very strike that brought Dr. King to Memphis where he was assassinated. Murdered because of racism.
I am speaking tonight about the deep repentance we must do as a country on this issue of race because our cities have been burning again. Young people are dying here at home. And because this summer I had the honor and privilege to go to Selma, Alabama and carry the Torah on behalf of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and each of you as part of the NAACP’s Journey for Justice. The fact that 50 years after the Voting Rights Act was signed, and 50 years since the march from Selma to Montgomery by Dr. King and other leaders including Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel —and Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath who held a Torah during that march who was head of the then Union for American Hebrew Congregations the old, name of Reform Judaism, that we still have to march to restore access for voting for all Americans—means teshuvah must be done. Fifty years ago there were protests for civil rights. Massive outpourings, the Freedom Summer. But in the last number of years there has been a steady and constant tearing down of equality for African –Americans and people of color. Even as we LGBTQ Americans come into fuller equality—we especially who are tasting a bit of liberty and freedom must not turn our heads away from others.
This summer I was on the first leg of the march of 1000 miles from Selma to Washington, D.C. that ended Sept. 16 with a rally. More than 200 Reform Rabbis were part of this journey. Every single day through the rural south, often in over 100 degree temperatures—Reform Rabbis marched along side members of the NAACP for fair criminal justice system, uncorrupted and unfettered access to the ballot box, sustainable jobs with a living wage, and equitable public education.
I marched with a Torah from Chicago Sinai congregation—one of the nations oldest Reform Synagogues-Over the Edmund Pettus Bridge—site of the Bloody Sunday riot. Like Reform Rabbis of the 1960’s I knew that what I did that day was help renew a long historic partnership between the Jewish and African American communities. And I know my participation along with 1 of every 10 Reform Rabbis, helped to make a bit of teshuvah-each step of the way.
You may not know but Reform Jews were instrumental in the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People—now NAACP. Founded in 1909 some of its earliest Presidents were philanthropist Julius Rosenwald- part owner and leader of Sears, Roebuck and VP of Chicago Sinai (hence the Torah from that community), and Kivie Kaplan- who was also a founder of the Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center in Washington, DC. our public policy arm.
Fifty years ago this year-the Congress passed the Voting Rights Act. It was an historic turning point in the civil rights movement. It was drafted in the conference rooms of our own denominations’- the Reform Jewish movement’s Religious Action Center in Washington D.C. The involvement of Reform Rabbis, and the Reform movement both lay and clergy in the advancement of civil rights has a long history. But in recent years beyond the pulpit exchanges of Martin Luther King weekend—we have let the deep bonds fizzle-and the commitment to fight racism in this country expire. And we dare not sit idly by as our country slides backwards—destroying the advances that we once had made.
The Voting Rights Act was destroyed by the Supreme Court, denying access to the ballot box for millions. In a 2013 case: Shelby County v. Holder by a 5-4 vote.the court struck down a key section of the act. It struck down as unconstitutional Section 4(b), which contains formula that determines which jurisdictions are subjected to preclearance for any changes in their election law or voting rules based on their histories of discrimination in voting.
And so I marched in Selma to restore and press for the Voting Rights Advancement Act which would fix the problems identified in Shelby v. Holder and restore the protections of the ballot box and equal access to the ballot box for all citizens. No more keeping African American and Latino citizens from exercising their franchise to vote.
I marched in Selma because the education system in this country is limping not only for African American children but all children as the surge to privatize the greatest gift we give our children has taken hold. And the lack of funding for public education, in particular in zip codes that have greatest poverty is part of the unwillingness to support the common communal fabric with tax dollars. We here in California know all too well how the California public Education system from University to pre-K has been destroyed and tarnished what was once one of the best education systems in the country. The Journey for Justice called for a safe and equal access to education for all students.
And my participation and the leadership of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and our Religious Action Center was built upon history. But our participation in this Journey for Justice is fueled by the recognition that the work isn’t over—in fact it seems that there has been increasing evidence that our country-has moved backwards in its advance toward equality for African Americans.
August 2013, Sentencing Project report on Racial Disparities in the United States Criminal Justice System, submitted to the United Nations, “…one of every three black American males born today can expect to go to prison in his lifetime”. The discrepancies in sentencing are overwhelming and another effect of the racism in our midst.
In his book Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson describes the incredible odds against African Americans in the criminal Justice systems. He was a young lawyer when he founded the Equal Justice Initiative, located in Montgomery, Alabama. It is a legal practice dedicated to defending those most desperate and in need: the poor, the wrongly condemned, and women and children trapped in the farthest reaches of our criminal justice system
I met Bryan this April at the Religious Action Center’s Consultation on Conscience. He spoke to us passionately about the deep biases inherent in the criminal justice system-of the inconsistencies in setting bail, and sentencing, and particularly in death penalty cases for African Americans-and brought the proof with him.
He shared this story about just one aspect of the racial problems in the criminal justice system:
A defense lawyer who also happens to be African American arrives early for trial dressed in a suit and sits waiting at the defense counsel’s table. The judge and prosecutor walk out talking casually. Catching sight of the lawyer, the judge orders him to leave the courtroom because defendants are not permitted inside before their lawyers arrive.
What does the lawyer do? He introduces himself as the lawyer for the defense.
What does the judge do? …Laughs nervously. The prosecutor?… Laughs nervously? And the lawyer? …Wills himself to laugh nervously because he is unwilling to risk prejudicing the judge against his client.
Where in the country do you think this happened?…not in the South but in the Midwest. When?…not in the 1950s but today.
That defense attorney was Bryan Stevenson. Stevenson not only confronts these presumptions in his professional life, but he and other African Americans endure implicit racism on a personal level as well.
The Great 17th Century Sage : Ya’akov Emden (Germany, 1697-1776) She’elat Ya’betz wrote:
A Jew who has power/authority (adam chashuv) has the obligation to rescue the oppressed from the hands of the oppressor by all means available to him, whether by direct action or through political effort, regardless of whether the oppressed is Jewish.
And so when I marched in Selma and more than 200 Reform rabbis marched on America’s Journey for justice to help right a grievous wrong. As part a process of teshuvah for my complacency. For our complacency.
Reform Rabbis and our Religious Action Center are committed to doing something and with your help we will not any longer sit idly by the blood of our neighbors. Mauled by the beasts of racism. We can be champions of teshuvah and healing and hope.
So tonight on this Kol Nidre, on this holy night. I am asking you to do two things to make a difference. First, on your way out there are post cards from our Religious Action Center. They have the historic photograph of Dr. King and Rabbis Heschel and Eisendrath walking together at the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, where I journeyed this summer. Take one. And sign it and join with 1000’s of other Reform Jews this High Holy Days who will urge Congress to pass the Voting Rights Advancement Act so that access to the ballot box especially in places with deep racism, poll taxes, and are using other tactics to deny African Americans or other people of color, the ability to vote if they are citizens.
Secondly right here in our own state—the Assembly and Senate just passed bill number 953. Let us together as part of Reform CA-call our Governor so that he will sign AB 953.
African Americans and Latinos are disproportionally more likely to be detained, arrested, charged with a crime, imprisoned, and killed by police than whites. The Talmud teaches us that God created mankind from one human being so that no person can say, “My ancestor is greater than yours.” We are taught in Pirkei Avote that “your friend’s dignity should be as dear to you as your own.” Jewish tradition compels us to speak out against biased policing. AB 953 will enhance transparency and accountability, mend trust in law enforcement, and improve public safety. As part of our teshuvah this season I am asking you to contact Gov. Brown and urge him to sign AB 953.
Your call or email to Gov. Brown makes you part of a strong Reform Jewish force for racial justice in California. You will have a direct impact on the lives of our neighbors and people of color.
The journey for Justice is long. What began in Selma on a hot summer day, blistering in 106 degree temperatures, you can continue. Continue it for our country. Continue it because we cannot continue to stand by the blood of our neighbors and family members. Continue to make teshuvah for the ways we have turned a blind eye. And we can’t look away any longer.
Not from Eric Garner who ended up dead because he sold a few illegal cigarettes or Trayvon Martin who was walking home from the 7/11.
Because of a friend I made that day in Selma—his name was Middle Passage. I did a double take when I met him…not sure I had heard him correctly—but I did . Rabbi Lustig and I gave him a ride from the opening prayer ceremony at the Boyton house to the rally and the bridge. Middle Passage was a 68 year old African American veteran who rode a bus from his home in La Rae Colorado, 1300 miles to join the march. His hair was long and in dreadlocks with a touch of grey. He wore a big straw hat and had his sleeping bag with him and a smile on his face. He told me he took the name Middle Passage because of slavery… (For those that don’t know The Middle Passage was the stage of the triangular trade in which millions of Africans were shipped to the New World as part of the Atlantic slave trade.)
He told me he was marching because his late younger brother, Reverend Dr. Larry C Menyweather-Woods, a Reformed Zion Union Apostolic church pastor and longtime NAACP member who fought for civil rights.
Each day of the journey—including the first day—Middle Passage was at the front of the marchers. He carried with him most days a huge American flag—that he wore with a special holster designed for flags like are worn by a military color guard. Each day Middle Passage would call out from the front to those of us further back—pothole, be careful, uneven pavement—so that no one would fall or trip on the way. Middle Passage in many ways was the heart and soul of the Journey. He was friendly, accepting of everyone and kept all of us focused about the importance of the Journey for Justice.
Middle Passage died on mile 922 of the journey—Saturday before Rosh Hahshanah suffering a massive coronary. He inspires me still and this holy days I am saying Kaddish for him. I now work for racial equality in his name. He touched all of us deeply in his love for our country and his effervescent energy that we can and must do more. Middle Passage—you didn’t finish that Journey for Justice—but we will.
So too a young woman Keshia Thomas. She did finish the actual march. She marched every day the entire way. From that push-off in Selma to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Such an inspiration. She often carried the Torah—and she befriended every rabbi who marched- because she felt the rabbis and the Jewish community were really there for her—unlike other religious groups—no other organized group of clergy marched…..
Keshia is a heroine in her own right. In June 1996 a branch of the Ku Klux Klan announced plans to hold a rally in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Several people in the Ann Arbor area planned to hold a protest against the Ku Klux Klan’s presence on the day of the rally. Thomas was one of several people that attended and protested from an area that had been fenced and set aside for the protesters. The protest proceeded until one protester announced over a megaphone that there was “a Klansman in the crowd”.The unnamed man was a middle-aged white male wearing a t-shirt depicting the Confederate flag and an “SS tattoo”. The man began to run but was knocked down, kicked, and beaten with placards. Keshia, who was at that time 18 years old, shielded the man from the crowd and shouted for the attackers to stop. And they did.
After the rally Keshia was praised for her actions.
She said she had protected the man because of her religious convictions and because she “knew what it was like to be hurt … The many times that that happened, I wish someone would have stood up for me.” A few months after the June event, she said, “I was hanging out at a coffee house and I remember one of the locals coming up to me and saying thank you. I said for what…he said that that was his dad that I saved. That was powerful.” Keshia wil be visiting Kol Ami Friday night Oct. 2 in our Sukkah. I hope will join me in meet this true hero.
What is powerful is when we can be like Keshia and Middle Passage of blessed memory, marching forward, encouraging us all to be part of America’s Journey for Justice. All two hundred rabbis who marched are speaking to our congregations this High Holy Days season to enlist each of you to be part of this journey for justice and racial equality in our country and around the world. On this Kol Nidre eve-let us as a community- make teshuvah for the sins of bigotry our own and our nations. (music enters) On this Kol Nidre let us take some concrete actions-that will change the way our state and our country treat people of color. And in this coming year-let us work on personally ridding ourselves of the biases and prejudices that creep into our every day interactions without us being mindful of the them. And in this New Year-let us reach out and take steps to be part of renewed partnership between the Reform Jewish community and the African – American community working side by side for racial justice and equality, equal access to the ballot box, safe top notch public schools, transparent policing, and a true reformation of our criminal justice system.
Ken Yehi Ratzon.
P.S. These are some of the photos the flashed on the screen during the sermon. The next morning my synagogue Board of Trustees announced they had bought a memorial plaque for Middle Passage as a way to commemorate his life and a a step in the journey for justice.
My Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon—Choosy Mother’s Choose…..
Shanah Tovah u’metukah. I wish you each a happy and sweet New Year.
Do you like creamy peanut butter or crunchy? That was always the debate in my house growing up. My mother was big on creamy JIF peanut butter. You remember. Choosy mothers choose JIF? She was big on the dreaded Concord grape jelly. To this day I will not eat grape jelly nor will my sister. That was the only kind of jelly my mom would buy.
Same with the peanut butter. Only creamy. I wanted chunky and I dreamed of having Skippy peanut butter. Today I don’t eat that at all preferring healthier natural almond butters or cashew butters. Without those homogenized trans fats but the battle between creamy peanut butter and chunky peanut butter was epic in my family’s home! But I think my mother liked the tag line. She was being choosy. Meaning she had the power to make the decision for our family. . In this case it was about peanut butter. But symbolically being a choosy mother was much much more. And it relates to his season of the Jewish year. Laid before us each are many choices about our lives.
Tonight is Rosh Hashanah. The old year is behind us and we give thanks that we are here to celebrate the rebirth of the world! We made it another year. We give thanks that for the next 10 days of this holy season that we will rebirth our souls and ourselves. But this is also a time of choosing. Of choosing to become the person you have always wanted to be. Of choosing to face your faults and errors. Of choosing to confront the sins and choosing to make teshuvah and choosing to grow and change
It is not as simple as choosy mothers choose JIF but it is the time of year when we pray, reflect, confess, and forgive others, and ourselves for failing to choose to do our best. This is the time of year when we stand before God and our own vulnerabilities to choose life and to give life to our greatest selves.
It takes 9 months for a fetus to grow into a child and for a human mother to give birth. It is still one of the planet’s holiest miracles. In the ideal from an act of love and intimacy a new human being comes into this world 9 months later. But it takes a lifetime to give birth to the person you are to become. It takes a lifetime of experiences, of growth, learning, and development to gain wisdom. It takes a lifetime to be you; for we are always growing, changing, learning, unlearning, and developing throughout the course of our lives until the last breath we shall take. But each and every day we face many choices.
Even as we grow into adulthood and get settled in our ways of being, the human challenge, the spiritual and religious challenge is to pay attention to whom you have become and to turn from our moral failures and our character flaws. Our challenge is to become the best you; the better you. Our challenge is be born anew. We choose on this New Year to enter into this 10 day of repentance chamber. That begins with Rosh Hashanah tonight and ends with the last blast of the shofar on Yom Kippur day.
That is why the Shofar sounds so plaintively on Rosh Hashanah. That is why we usher in this New Year. The Jewish people long ago recognized that to truly live b’tzelem Elohim; to truly live in the image of God- and to be in the image of God – to find the Divine in you-you must recognize your capacity to change the way you do things, to change your mind. One of the great gifts of humanity is that we can choose to change!
God’s mind changes a number of times. It is one of the great ideas of Judaism. That God is influenced by human action and words. So Moses can plead with God to not exterminate the Israelites after they sin at the Golden Calf. And the prophet Jeremiah reminds us that God can be influenced by repentance and of course that is one of points of the story of Jonah that we will read on Yom Kippur afternoon, that the people of Nineveh can repent from their sins and God will save the city from doom!
My friends, this is a profound and amazing idea—to be created and live in the image of God-b’tzelem Elohim – our human task is to be able to change our selves and change our world for better. We can not only change our minds, we can change the way we do things. We can make a repair in the world at large and the world of our interior. This is tikkun. – Repair. This is Tikkun olam. Repairing our holy world inside and out.
This Holy Sacred Season of Awe – from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur is to mark the birth of the world and the rebirth of you. A chance to repair our inner world so that we can repair the outter world we live in. We are God’s hands, God’s feet in this Tikkun HaOlam- in this Repair of the world and the repair of you.
From the wisdom of our Sages and ancestors- It only takes ten days-to cleanse your soul, make teshuvah, and be reborn for the New Year- spiritually pure and with all the potential for doing things right this year. But let’s be honest sometimes it takes longer. Sometimes it can take years to forgive others and forgive ourselves. But during this 10 days- we can dedicate it to making atonement. Offering up or regrets, our sins, so that when the Gates of Repentance close at the end of Neilah—we have put ourselves back on the path toward wholeness and holiness.
From now until the final sounding of the Shofar on at the end of Yom Kippur –we Jews are tasked with re-aligning our spirits, a tune-up for our intentions, a yearly spiritual examination of our words and deeds and our time together will include some of the prescriptions needed to lead a healthier life, a moral life, a stronger ethical existence, a deepening of your Jewish heritage. This is what we do together as a community.
Because the truth is we are not monks, living an acetic life. We Jews have always lived in the world.
Recently in the New York Times there was an article about the monks of Shaolin in China. This group of Chinese Buddhist Monks is famous for their dedication to Buddhism and the Martial Arts. This group of ascetics, teach their famous acrobatic warfare from teacher to disciple and they live a life of celibacy, vegetarianism and martial arts. These monks throughout Chinese history have despite Buddhism’s emphasis on non-violence been some of China’s fiercest warriors, defending different princes and dynasties, as well as fighting outside invaders at times. Depending on the century and the dynasty, the monks thrived or were almost destroyed but they kept their traditions alive passed from generation to generation. The Shaolin monks exist today as a strong bearer of Chinese culture. The monks who mostly live in the Song Mountains of China, at the Shaolin Temple lead an ascetic life focused on their Buddhism and Martial Arts. They have received much criticism of late because their leader- has marketed the Shaolin way to the world. He has franchised the name and their brand of martial arts. He has created a tourist site in China for the curious to visit and other sites in China to learn the martial arts of the Shaolin. He has licensed the name for movie making and even tried to offer stock in the monastery. The leader of the monks-who once led simple lives drives a fleet of fancy cars and has evidently taken lovers who he supports in Australia. I believe that the temptations of the world for this group of ascetics have overwhelmed their ideals because they withdrew so much from the world. They lacked balance.
But for us Jews, we are of the world. We don’t have monasteries to escape to, or ashrams of silence; we have synagogues abuzz with sound. We have a Beit Knesset, a house of gathering where we come together not only to give voice to our hopes and dreams, not only to study and pass on our traditions, but to gather as a Jewish people. Our history has shown that we have balanced our communal needs as Jews. We Jews build a Jewish community while engaging with the world. Even in Medieval times or earlier during Roman times, going way back in our history, we Jews balanced our engagement with our own and the outer world.
The danger for all of us now and the elixir of our time is that we are too much in the world. We as a people are losing our balance. We leave behind the synagogue, our ancestral place of gathering because it isn’t enough of the world. It seems too parochial. It seems to no longer speak the language we can relate to; religion seems increasingly superfluous in these days and times. And of course if you have no faith only a rational view of the world, and only see the world and life in black and white-then hope is dead along with God. So why bother to tie yourself regularly to the Jewish community, the synagogue?
But the great friend of the Jewish people, Pope Francis wrote profound words: Faith is not a light, which scatters all our darkness, but a lamp which guides our steps in the night and suffices for the journey. During these next 10 days, faith in God and faith in our tradition as Jews will help carry you and cleanse you on this holy journey.
So this time of year is our ingathering- our journey. Rosh Hashanah is our time of rebalancing our worldliness and our Jewish teachings, the pressures of earning a living and the sweetness of the Torah. This day that we celebrate, Yom Harat Olam, the birth of the world- is our time of reconnecting as Jews- and at a time more than ever before when we –the Jewish people come together- to heal ourselves of the hurts, disappointments in ourselves and the world around us and to try and turn to a more holistic way of being in the world than the year before. We don’t choose to simply turn inward. We turn around. We do teshuvah.
Because after the ten days of Awe we will go back out into the world and have to manage and grow and deal with our homes, our families, our children, our businesses, our studies, our successes, our failures with the possibilities that we can with the help of our Jewish community and family and OUR congregation, overcome our past transgressions to reveal a new strengthened voice together.
Rabbi Albert Lewis, z’l who headed Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles for many many years- shared the following story.
During his lunch break at work, Joe took a seat on a bench next to a fellow worker and began rummaging in his brown paper sack. He pulled out a sandwich, examined it and again muttered in disgust, “Ugh, peanut butter!” He opened the next sandwich, examined it and again muttered in disgust, “Ugh, peanut butter!”
Joe left both sandwiches uneaten. His buddy, who was greatly enjoying a cheese sandwich, sympathetically asked, “ If you don’t like peanut butter sandwiches why don’t you ask your wife to fix you some other kind?”
Joe frowned at him and said, “Wife? I packed these lunches myself!”
Like Joe, many of us are constantly complaining about problems and conditions that we have packed into our own lives, And like Joe, many of us are just not willing to face up to the fact that we ourselves made the sandwich. If we are upset about our spouse, or if our children seem to be inconsiderate, or if we are angry with another person, we regard them as the cause of our problems. Right?
The answer is sometimes “wrong!” It is true that there are some areas of our lives over which we have little or no control. But many of us have fallen into a routine, a habit, a way of living that is our doing not someone else’s. Every day we as it were pack our own sandwiches and then complain that we don’t like them.
It is this season of the year that reminds us that we can change the pattern. We can if we are so inclined, choose and change the contents of our sandwich to something more tasty, more meaty, more healthy, more enjoyable, more moral, more ethical, more spiritual. Or we can end the year complaining “Yich! Another peanut butter sandwich!” and then start the New Year over again with the same menu. That’s fine if you are satisfied with only peanut butter. But then accept that you like being stuck in your ways.
This is our eternal challenge. How can we use this New Year season to become the person you have always wanted to be? Our history, our heritage asks of us to take a deep look at the recesses of our existence. Even the places we would rather ignore. And you know what they are. Even if you would rather live in denial deep down you know what you must confront. This is the time to do so, this is the season. This is when we Jews seek to rebalance our inner and outer lives. When we are called by God to change for the better. When we make teshuvah by examining our spiritual selves and trying to renew our faith in ourselves and in God.
Rosh Hashanah, Yom Harat Olam, the day of the world’s birth, humanity’s birth, your rebirth, gives each of us the opportunity to start afresh, to acquire new tastes, new ways of living and to Choose to be different and it teaches us that, more often than we are willing to admit, we pack our own lunches in this world. (Rabbi Albert Lewis, The World of the High Holy Days, Jack Reimer, ed. Vol 1. P. 37 adapted).
May this New Year be the year of being choosy for you and your family. Choosing the best Jewish practices so that these ten Days, the Yaamim Noraim, these ten day of awe will be the time and the year that you really choose and commit to and act upon the changes that will bring you the positive outcomes and the moral reboot that you have needed and have wanted. May this be a year you choose and commit to balancing your Jewish life and the life of the world around you. May this be the year you will bring you outer world and inner world into harmony and balance. That is what we do here together seeking peace and harmony in our world and ourselves.And choosing to change. I am glad you are here for the next ten days of the holy journey choosing to move toward a harmonious and balanced you! Ken yehi ration so may it be God’s will.
The following is my Rosh Hashanah Morning Sermon for 5776
Shana Tov. Boker Tov. Good morning and Happy New Year everyone.
Character. It is the template of a good person. When we say a someone has character, We mean they are upright; Trustworthy and honest. When we describe a person of character we see someone who can overcome hurdles, tough situations with grace and discipline.
We admire people for these kinds of qualities. Precisely because not every one can live up to such high standards.
Someone with character is devoted to their family and/ also to their work. We use it in so many different ways. When we say someone has character. We are describing someone who can perhaps tough out a difficult situation through discipline, fortitude as they live out their ideals.
Recently, author and New York Times columnist David Brooks latest book, The Road to Character, discusses this in detail. He presents many stories of American heroines and heroes who possessed the qualities of selfless devotion to their families, work or vocations as examples of character and how we might begin to examine our own lives for these traits.
One of the most interesting aspects of Brook’s book emphasizes the teachings of one of the greatest 20th Century Jewish thinkers and theologians, Rabbi Joseph Soleveitchik. Rabbi Soleveitchik wrote a very important book in the 1965 called “The Lonely Man of Faith”.
In it and Brooks explains Soloveitchik’s teaching very well. The noted Orthodox rabbi talks about two archetypes or people – Adam 1 and Adam 2. Remember the word Adam in Hebrew means human being—(besides being the name of the first human being in the Torah). And Rabbi Solveitchik’s idea is that the two creation stories in Genesis teach very different messages about human nature.
Brooks explains Solveitchik like this:
“Adam I is the career-oriented, ambitious side of our nature…external Adam, resume’ Adam, Adam I wants to build, create, produce and discover things, He wants have high status and win victories.” (p. xii)
While, “Adam II wants to obey a calling to serve the world.” “Adam II wants to love intimately, to sacrifice self in the service of others, to live in obedience to some transcendent truth, to have a cohesive inner soul that honors creation and one’s own possibilities.” (p. xii)
“…Adam 1 –the creating, building, and discovering Adam –lives by a straightforward utilitarian logic. It’s the logic of economics. Input leads to output. Effort leads to reward. Practice makes perfect. Pursue self- interest. Maximize your utility, impress the world”
“Adam 11 lives by an inverse logic,” Brooks writes. Adam II lives by “…a moral logic, not an economic one. You have to give to receive. You have to surrender to something outside yourself to gain strength within yourself. You have to conquer your desire to get what you crave…. To nurture your Adam II moral core, it is necessary to confront your weaknesses. (Ibid.)”
Oh it’s not very in fashion now. In our world today having character, being ethical, trustworthy and honest seems old-fashioned. It doesn’t comport with the outrageous behaviors we see all around us; the often-shocking language, comportment and behaviors of those in the public eye. Of course there is the mean spiritedness of politics and reality television (often one cannot tell the difference between the two); the kind of selfishness of our economic theories that put the corporate fat cats above the communal good. And don’t forget the increasing income gap in our society between the 1% and the rest of us. This emphasis on the rights of the commercial corporations over people is an example of the lack of character and the denigration of character ideals in our country.
When Corporations matter more than people then the ideals associated with having character like selfless devotion to the community and to humanity, then we know this is not among society’s values. When leaders pit one group against another as a way of retaining power- without an outrage then this is a how you know that the ideals of character are not among society’s values. When all decisions are based on what feels good to me-rather than considering the impact not only on self but also on family, friends and community-then the notion that living a life with character is no longer seen as positive. We live in an Adam I world.
But on Rosh Hashanah we Jews come together to try to restore our character. Our Jewish responsibilities, our mitzvot, are designed to help each and every adult live a life with dignity and to live a life filled with character. The mitzvot of our tradition teach us to be honest and trustworthy. Our mitzvot speak to us of caring for our family even when they are annoying: we are taught to honor our parents, not love them. The mitzvot of our tradition try to shape us into living up to our title- as being created B’tzelem Elohim—in the image of God. Our tradition, our Judaism (which is Solveitchik’s point) helps us to aspire to live lives like Adam ll. Rosh Hashanah in particular and these ten Day of Repentance and Yom Kippur remind us to seek out the Adam ll parts of our being. These holy days remind us to aspire to live lives of holiness-Be holy for I Adonai your God am holy.
In society that surrounds us we are subject every day to images and sounds that eat away at our souls. More cars and hamburgers are sold with an appeal to our base natures. And for most of us-even those of us responsible for the creative material that is used across media platforms are forced by the powers that be to deal at the level. Sell more product- buy more just to have more. All you have to do is feel good. Now there is nothing wrong with nice things-or feeling good but if this is our main goal and society’s emphasis then we are missing the point of living a life of meaning and a life lived with character. We are missing the meaning of a life filled with holiness.
I contend that this lowering of the human endeavor, this emphasis on corporate greed has translated into making us little better than the animals themselves. When we human being operate at that level-we lower our standards and add to a world that is desensitized to human pain and suffering, that is desensitized to meeting the needs of the most vulnerable, we ourselves withdraw. We say I am only going to be concerned with myself and my family. Selfishly we protect what we have because of course someone else is after it. And the structure of a society that cares for its own is destroyed. My friends, we are close if not already at that point. When we see the body of three year old Syrian boy wash ashore because no one will address the crisis of those fleeing war and turmoil in Syria-we are barely hanging on to the lowest rung of humanity.
Yes there is the occasional outpouring of caring-a hurricane in the Philippines, an earthquake in Nepal or Haiti but it is driven by emotion-not discipline. And so Haiti is still in deep trouble all these years later-and Nepal? Who is really helping out there still? Noblese oblige—the nobleman and women who take pity on others to help out occasionally is so different than our notion of tzedakah—of righteous giving. For tzedakah is a discipline. Tzedakah is not charity. It is righteousness. Tzedakah is not something we do only when we are moved to but a discipline we must engage in each and every day. Being called to righteousness develops character-rather than pity in those less fortunate than ourselves. Tzedakah is yes a moral obligation. Not something that gives you just a tax break.
Rosh Hashanah morning and the sounding of the shofar is calling you to say – it is time to rebuild your character. The Shofar is reminding you to live a life as Adam ll. Teshuvah repentance is about recommitting your life to ideals of our Jewish tradition. Of examining where you strayed- yes where you sinned and renewing your ability to live a life of character. The High Holy Days is our time as a Jewish community to say we can do this together!
The Shofar this morning is calling you to look toward your God, your Higher Power, to fall in love again with the Divine Spirit of Universe and to cleave to God as the kabbalists would say. To know before who you stand on this holy day. This is the season that is urging you to take responsibility for nurturing the Adam ll in you.
The sound of the Shofar is calling the Jewish people together to become a force for good in the world. A force that helps society at large live lives filled with character. We used to call that Or LaGoyim—to be a light to the nations. We used to believe that Jews had a mission in this world—to live by ideals of Torah- I am not talking about rituals tallit and tefillin or even kashrut) I am talking about the mindfulness that Judaism calls us to live by-in how we treat our neighbors, how mindful we are about the widow, the stranger and the orphan in our midst, the mindfulness to remember that we were slaves in Egypt-and that we can’t, we mustn’t treat others as slaves. Not our gardeners, nannies or housekeepers or teachers.
Sadly, our society treats us all as slaves-slaves to the corporate bottom line—with only a lucky few who get to have a piece of the pie.
Our Jewish tradition teaches us that this is the season of change. This is the season when we can affect our community. This is the season when you can turn toward God and living a life of holiness. Repentance, Teshuva is just that—sin drives us away from godliness, holiness but teshuvah helps us draw near again. Rosh Hashanah is Yom Harat Olam, the rebirth of the world. What will it take for you to be reborn this holy day season-and live your life with character rather than as a character?
The great neurologist, and psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Dr. Viktor Frankel wrote in his classic book, Man’s Search for Meaning:
We who lived in concentrations camps can remember the men who walked through the huts, comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken away from a person but one thing, the last of the human freedoms- to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstance to choose one’s own way.
And there were always choices to make, (he writes). Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would become a plaything of circumstances, renouncing freedom and dignity to become molded into the form of the typical inmate or whether you would choose instead to be free.
Today on this day of rebirth, renewal and repentance you can choose as well. Will you freely choose to change the course from the wrongs of the past year? The habits that hold you back? Will you choose dignity, responsibility and living a life of character or will you choose instead to remain the same. Repentance indicates change. A change of attitude and action. A commitment to live with ideals and repentance indicates a turning toward living a life of holiness.
The shofar sounds for you to remind you of today’s task. Dignity. Nobility. A sense of life’s purpose and meaning. A deep and profound connection to our God and to the Jewish people. The shofar is calling you to be a part of something bigger than yourself. And calling upon you to choose to live a life of meaning. The Shofar is calling you home-to live out the holy responsibilities of being Jewish. The Shofar is calling you to be a part of your synagogue that stands for these ideals and to support the synagogue—a holy place that reminds us to live lives of Adam ll rather than continue to reinforce the lives of Adam l.
Ask yourself what the Shofar is calling you to do and to become today?
A successful businessman was growing old and knew it was time to choose a successor to take over the business. Instead of choosing one of his directors or his children, he decided to do something different. He called all the young executives in his company together.
He said, “It is time for me to step down and choose the next CEO. I have decided to choose one of you.” The young executives were shocked, but the boss continued, “I am going to give each one of you a seed today – one very special seed. I want you to plant the seed, water it, and come back here one year from today with what you have grown from the seed I have given you. I will then judge the plants that you bring, and the one I choose will be the next CEO.”
One man, named Jim, was there that day and he, like the others, received a seed. He went home and excitedly, told his wife the story. She helped him get a pot, soil and compost and he planted the seed. Everyday, he would water it and watch to see if it had grown. After about three weeks, some of the other executives began to talk about their seeds and the plants that were beginning to grow.
Jim kept checking his seed, but nothing ever grew. Three weeks, four weeks, five weeks went by, still nothing. By now, others were talking about their plants, but Jim didn’t have a plant and he felt like a failure.
Six months went by — still nothing in Jim’s pot. He just knew he had killed his seed. Everyone else had trees and tall plants, but he had nothing. Jim didn’t say anything to his colleagues, however, he just kept watering and fertilizing the soil. He so wanted the seed to grow.
A year went by and the CEO asked the young executives to bring their plants to work for inspection.
When Jim told his wife that he wasn’t going to take an empty pot, she asked him to be honest about what happened. Jim felt sick to his stomach, it was going to be the most embarrassing moment of his life, but he knew his wife was right. He took his empty pot to the board room.
When Jim arrived, he was amazed at the variety of plants grown by the other executives. They were beautiful – in all shapes and sizes. Jim put his empty pot on the floor and many of his colleagues laughed, a few felt sorry for him!
When the CEO arrived, he surveyed the room and greeted his young executives. Jim just tried to hide in the back. “My, what great plants, trees and flowers you have grown,” said the CEO. “Today one of you will be appointed the next CEO!”
All of a sudden, the CEO spotted Jim at the back of the room with his empty pot. He asked Jim to come to the front of the room. Jim was terrified. He thought, “The CEO knows I’m a failure! Maybe he will have me fired!”
When Jim got to the front, the CEO asked him what had happened to his seed. Jim told him the story. The CEO asked everyone to sit down except Jim. He looked at Jim, and then announced to the young executives, “Behold your next Chief Executive Officer — Jim!”
Jim couldn’t believe it. Jim couldn’t even grow his seed. “How could he be the new CEO?” the others said.
Then the CEO said, “One year ago today, I gave everyone in this room a seed. I told you to take the seed, plant it, water it, and bring it back to me today. But I gave you all boiled seeds; they were dead – it was not possible for them to grow.
“All of you, except Jim, have brought me trees and plants and flowers. When you found that the seed would not grow, you substituted another seed for the one I gave you. Jim was the only one with the courage and honesty to bring me a pot with my seed in it. Therefore, he is the one who will be the new Chief Executive Officer!”
If you plant honesty, you will reap trust
If you plant goodness, you will reap friends
If you plant humility, you will reap greatness
If you plant perseverance, you will reap contentment
If you plant consideration, you will reap perspective
If you plant hard work, you will reap success
If you plant forgiveness, you will reap reconciliation
So, be careful what you plant now; it will determine what you will reap later.
Sometimes the sins, the failures we encounter along life’s path are the holiest of moments when we can turn it around, learn to surrender to living honestly. Just as Jim seemed to fail, the truth literally set him free. He lived his life with nobility, dignity and honesty.
This year you can plant within your soul the seeds of character. And you can nurture all year long a life that calls you to live in this way. And this year we need you to help our synagogue remain healthy and strong by planting seeds for its future. Because if we keep living lives of Adam I,the synagogue and Jewish life will be doomed because Jewish ideals and mitzvoth are based on the life of Adam II.
It’s Rosh Hashanah the time of year where we repent and ask God and our fellow human beings to forgive us from our sins. It is a time of starting over with a clean slate.
Hear the call of the Shofar to plant within your own soul a commitment to a life of integrity and character. Indeed you will reap a life of meaning and blessing.
As my gift to you—on your way out today- the ushers will distribute-a packet of sweet basil seeds. No they are not boiled—but hopefully you will go home and plant them and nurture them and grow luscious sweet basil for your cooking and your home. The sweet basil I hope will remind you to live a New Year with sweetness and responsibility. A New Year filled with living a life of character. Plant goodness, honesty, trust, hope, ethical living and mitzvoth in 5776. Happy Planting. Ken Yehi ratzon.