Yom Kippur Morning, 5778
Rabbi Joseph R. Black
Temple Emanuel- Denver, CO
My Dear Friends,
A story is told of the untimely death of a man who left behind a young wife. After the initial period of mourning had ended, the deceased’s widow purchased a grave-marker and set the date for the unveiling. As the time for the unveiling came closer, the widow discovered, to her dismay, that her husband had not been completely honest with her. In fact, instead of providing her with financial security, he left her with hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt – the result of some questionable investments. She also found out that he was not entirely faithful to her during the course of their marriage. As you can imagine, she was devastated. She was also very angry. It was too late to cancel the unveiling: guests had been invited and the stone had already been ordered and carved with an inscription. She called the monument company to see if anything could be done and they told her that while they could not cancel the stone or erase the engraving, they could add something to the inscription – but it had to one of their “standardized” texts – to personalize it any more would be prohibitively expensive. She asked for a list of standard inscriptions and eventually she found one to her liking.
The day of the unveiling arrived and the widow came with her friends and family to the cemetery. When the stone was unveiled, everybody present saw two inscriptions – the old and the new - side by side, which read: “Rest in peace…..Until we meet again.”
It’s a funny story -but it also belies a hidden truth that calls out to us on this Yom HaKippurim – this day of Atonement. There are moments in our lives when we are confronted with a truth that we didn’t ask for and didn’t want to know about, but once we hear it or see it, we have no choice but to act upon what we have learned.
And so, this morning, I want to talk about how we look at the world and how our preconceptions and closely held notions of who we are can sometimes put us in places and positions that take us out of our comfort zones and force us to either live in denial by shutting out the reality in front of us, or rethink our priorities and take a stand for a cause that we know is just.
A good example of this was how, this past week, we all were placed on the sidelines of the NFL watching as players, coaches, pundits and our president weighed in on the practice of athletes kneeling during the singing of our national anthem. To some, kneeling is sign of disrespect - to our nation and its flag. To others, it is a powerful form of protest – not against the flag or our nation, but against systematic racism and injustice against people of color that continues to exist in the face of denials by those in power. Both sides have let their feelings be heard – loudly and clearly. Ideally, the national conversation sparked by this controversy could have paved the way for dialogue and understanding among different communities. Unfortunately, that does not seem to be happening. If anything, the opposite has occurred. There are many who delight in and profit off of the division that is being sown, the polarization we are experiencing, and the demonization of the opposition that is taking place all around us. As I have lamented for some time, dialogue has been replaced by diatribe in our society and civility is paying the price. We either do not want or are unable to listen to one another anymore.
There’s a phrase that originated in Black culture that I learned in the context of interfaith and inter-religious dialogue. I am uncomfortably aware that using this phrase could be seen by some as an act of cultural appropriation – but I think that its meaning and history can help us to understand an important and necessary reality that we all face. The phrase is:
Getting “woke” means that you have been enlightened to important issues that confront us as a society: issues such as institutionalized racism, religious and ethnic persecution, environmental pollution and economic injustice. When someone is “woke,” they no longer can ignore the inequities that surround them. The Nobel Laureate, Bob Dylan, perhaps anticipated and expressed this concept best in the 1960’s when he asked the question: “How many times can a man turn his head, pretending he just doesn’t see?”
Moses was Woke.
In the book of Exodus we read how this child of privilege – who grew up in Pharaoh’s household - went out “…to his kinfolk”. He saw a taskmaster beating a Hebrew slave and when he saw that no one else was doing anything to stop the violence, he stepped in and slew the Egyptian[i].
Moses was not alone. If you think about it, “waking up” or “getting woke” is a central motif that has always been present throughout literature and popular culture:
- From Jacob’s ladder to Hamlet’s ghost;
- From the black and white of Kansas to the technicolor splendor of the Land of Oz;
- From Harry Potter’s Hogwart’s letter, to Oskar Schindler’s list
A few years ago, I read an interesting book called Sum: Forty Tales From the Afterlife by David Eagleman. It’s an easy read - consisting of 40 short contemplations about what the afterlife might be like. This is not a religious text – Eagleman is a neuroscientist, not a theologian. In his essays, God exists – but not in a way that we might recognize. Sometimes God is portrayed as a married couple, or a committee, or an entire species of dimwitted creatures that created us by mistake. In one essay, God is the size of a bacterium. In another there is no God at all and people in the afterlife battle over stories of God’s non-existence.
I want to share one portion of one of Eagleman’s essays. He writes:
When you die, you feel as though there were some subtle change, but everything looks approximately the same. You get up and brush your teeth. You kiss your spouse and kids and leave for the office. There is less traffic than normal. The rest of your building seems less full, as though it’s a holiday. But everyone in your office is here, and they greet you kindly. You feel strangely popular.
Everyone you run into is someone you know. At some point it dawns on you that this is the afterlife: the world is made up of people you’ve met before.
Eagleman continues to expound and expand on this concept – and it soon becomes clear that all the choices you made in this life are played out for eternity: the people you connected with in this world are the only people that exist in the next world. If you limited yourself in life – death is also limited. After a while – you see just how shallow or deep your life really was.
Eagleman’s afterlife is the world we create for ourselves. If we worked to make the world a better place – than the afterlife is a better place. If not – it is lonely, isolating and monotonous. How many of us currently live our lives in a narrowly defined, carefully crafted cocoon? How hard do we work to prevent ourselves from seeing, hearing or getting involved in things that make us uneasy or uncomfortable? How often do we change the channel when we hear news that upsets us?
The great theologian and social activist, Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that “…indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, … in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”[iii]
Elie Weisel taught: The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference. The opposite of beauty is not ugliness, it's indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it's indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, but indifference between life and death.[iv]
When we recite the Al Chet prayer – one of the key sins we confess is:
Al chet she chatanu lifanecha – b’imutz ha lev
“For the Sin we have committed against You by hardening our hearts.”
In other words, on this Yom Kippur we need to acknowledge the fact that when we harden our hearts to the truths around us, we sin against God and ourselves. In order for change to occur; in order for our lives to be truly meaningful - we need to be committed to changing ourselves. That is what this sacred day of Yom Kippur is all about.
As we read a few moments ago in our Haftarah for Yom Kippur:
"Is not this the fast I look for: to unlock the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every cruel chain? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your house? When you see the naked, to clothe them, and never to hide yourself from your own kin?[v]"
Judaism teaches us that we have the ability to change the world – one action at a time. With that ability comes responsibility –
- to speak out when we see injustice
- to act when we can make a difference
- to refrain from doing nothing when confronted with the need for change.
It is for this reason that I want to share with you a small portion of a statement published by the Central Conference of American Rabbis that many of my colleagues from within the Reform Rabbinate are also sharing during the High Holidays this year. It is entitled:
One Voice for the New Year, 5778
The Talmud teaches, “If you see wrongdoing by a member of your household and you do not protest – you are held accountable. And so it is in relation to the members of your city. And so it is in relation to the world.” As Jews we are held accountable in ever-widening circles of responsibility to rebuke transgressors within our homes, in our country, in our world. One chutzpadik medieval commentator teaches we must voice hard truths even to those with great power, for “the whole people are punished for the sins of the king if they do not protest the king’s actions to him.”
Today I speak words of protest, joining hundreds of my Reform rabbinic colleagues across the nation in fulfillment of our sacred obligation. We will not be silent. We will, without hesitation, decry any moral abdication of people in leadership who fuel hatred and division in our beloved country.
This is not a political statement.
We, like the prophets before us, draw from the deepest wisdom of our tradition to deliver a stern warning against complacency and an impassioned call for action. We call on you to rise up and say in thousands of ways, every day, as proud Jews and proud Americans: “You cannot dehumanize, degrade and stigmatize whole categories of people in this nation. Every Jew, every Muslim, every gay, transgender, disabled, black, brown, white, woman, man and child is beloved of God and precious in the Holy One’s sight. We the people, all the people, are created b’tzelem elohim, in the image of the Divine. All the people are worthy of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.[vi]”
I share this statement this morning not because of political philosophy, or liberal or conservative leanings, but because I cannot be silent when I see moral equivocation in the aftermath of neo-Nazi thugs marching through the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia.
I share this statement because I see women being debased and degraded and their right to choose how they will take care of their own bodies is threatened.
I share this statement because I see rights of my LGBT brothers, sisters and congregants threatened.
I share this statement because I see freedom of our press weakened by accusations of “fake news” that echo dangerous patterns of governmental repression against which we, as a nation have fought and for the sake of protecting, too many of our finest have died.
I share this statement because I am worried about the rise of anti-Semitism, racism, Islamophobia and intolerance that is plaguing our country and that has not been forcibly condemned by those whom we have chosen to lead.
I share this statement this morning aware that it may upset some of you. If it does, that was not my intention – but instead of stewing over your feelings, or writing a anonymous note or email – call me. Let’s sit down over a cup of coffee and talk to one another. We may not agree, but at least we can disagree in a way that reflects the holiness and humanity that God has implanted within us.
I am aware that intolerance is a two-way street. There are many on the left and the right of the political spectrum who have contributed to the climate of distrust and division that infects our nation. There is a great deal of work to be done to bridge this divide.
My dear friends, this next year will be filled with challenges and opportunities. For those who are troubled by inequities - here in our own nation and around the world, we cannot sit silently. We are compelled to act.
As Jews, we are tasked with Tikkun Olam - repairing our world. Today is about getting “woke” – about asking difficult questions about whether or not we did all that we could to bring about change. We need to look at one another with compassion and understanding – regardless of who we are, how we voted, what we believe – how we live and how we love. We can start by working together to make a difference.
Imagine what the world would be like if every person in this sanctuary went out of their way to volunteer or make a difference for two hours a week. Just two hours... Imagine what we could accomplish! I know that many of you do give of your time and resources in the community – you help those in need - you feed the hungry, you volunteer for Family Promise here at Temple or Habitat for Humanity. You sit on boards and share your knowledge and resources. One thing that I want to ask of all of us as we continue the vital work of repentance and renewal that is the hallmark of this holy day: The next time you read a tweet, or feel wronged, or find yourself overwhelmed by a feeling that nothing will ever change, do something to make the world a better place. Volunteer. Send a letter to a loved one. Call your mother…whatever you can do to change the negativity that surrounds us to something positive. If you are “Woke” then use your awakened state to make the world a better place.
May the promise of this holy day help us all to bridge the gap between the world as it is – and the way that the world is supposed to be.
Amen - Gmar chatimah Tovah – May we all be sealed for an awakened blessing in this New Year.
[i] Exodus 2:11-12
[ii] Talmud Bavli - Berakhot 55b. Whether or not this is a proper translation of Rabbi Nahmani’s comment – which referred to our understanding and interpretation of dreams is under debate. This quote was also ascribed to Anias Nin in her essay, “Seduction of the Minotaur.” Cf. https://quoteinvestigator.com/2014/03/09/as-we-are/
[iii] AJ Heschel, "The Reasons for My Involvement in the Peace Movement" (1972); later included in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity (1996)
[iv] US News & World Report (27 October 1986)
[v] Isaiah 58:6-7
[vi] Adapted from the statement: “One Voice” Written by Rabbis Elka Abrahamson and Judy Shanks – edited by Rabbi Karen Kedar. As of this writing, over 400 Reform Rabbis signed on to this statement and many delivered it from their pulpits.