Yom Kippur 5778 - September 2017
Temple Bat Yam & North Tahoe Hebrew Congregation
Listen to these words. Think about the where, the what, the when maybe even who. Consider what they could be about, their setting and their time in history.
it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace [DO NOT READ: as envisaged by the prophets of Israel]; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; (Israel’s Declaration of Independence).
What do you think? Do they sound familiar? Nod, raise a hand if you have a sense of their origin.
These words stand among the ideas and the ideals that have shaped the institution of Democracy, along with so many inspirational statements that have outlined clear visions of our hopes, our dreams, our aspirations. Great thinkers, leaders, theologians, politicians, activists and countless others continue to give rise to the frameworks in which we experience life: The service clubs, our businesses, government and so on. These words could have been written by numerous thinkers in recent centuries. Yet, they are the founding words declaring the Modern State of Israel in 1948, less than seventy years ago.
These words craft in our mind a nation founded on the democratic principles we cherish. They speak to a tolerance, an acceptance of the other unequivocally. Surely, in the aspirational moment of declaring independence, hopes are articulated and they require work to be realized. For certain, Israel has and continues to be at the forefront claiming these human values in many ways and not so in others, there is room for improvement and growth. America, our home, our own expression of these cherished values lives these growing pains too. Following the events in Charlottesville, we spoke here in this congregation, in this room, about our fears, our anxieties, our frustrations, our anger about the clear and present feelings that these ideals were not being lived, or worse they were being abandoned.
Following that Shabbat, I wrote a piece for our local paper and shared the following:
This great nation we call home, the United States of America, has been a bastion of tolerance which has been tested in every generation. Through the generations this evolving society stretches its arms wider in an effort to uphold this idea. But the question plaguing me, perhaps all of us, at this moment is whether or not tolerance has run its course. In other words, is tolerance always possible? I learned last month, in attempting to devour every article, blog post and interview I could, that tolerance, however, does not mean being tolerant of those who preach intolerance. There are limits to this value. Tolerance cannot spread its arms wide enough to include and embrace the intolerant. (http://www.tahoedailytribune.com/news/opinion/tolerance-meets-its-test-and-its-the-intolerant/)
This clarion call is real. It demands our attention to understand who we aim to be as individuals, as Jews and as a Nation. Can tolerance versus intolerance be a litmus test for us? When national debates rage and fill our senses to their limit, we must ask which are intolerant; which resonate exclusivity rather than tolerance and inclusivity. When Israel struggles to uphold equality for all valid and authentic Jewish religious expressions, let alone those of its citizens and neighbors, we must ask: Is it a picture of growing tolerance or a non-starter of intolerance. Our great sage, Bachya Ibn Pakuda, wrote in the 11th century: Days are like scrolls, write on them what you want to be remembered. Do we want our scrolls to be inked with the growing pains of tolerance or do we aim to inscribe our days in the Book of Life with isolation and intolerance? It is about a conversation that must continue. I spoke to you about listening on Rosh Hashanah, true active and generous listening so that we can grow and evolve as individuals, as a society in the ways that will foster a future that we can and will be proud of.
Yom Kippur, this day of days, this Sabbath of Sabbaths, I believe, is a contributor to this conversation too. The hallowed and, sometimes if not always, challenging words of this day both articulate a vision of a life well lived, a community well maintained AND almost more importantly create the avenues to understand our missteps, failures and growth left to be experienced.
The words of the Kol Nidre itself may be the best example. The opening volley of Yom Kippur, Kol Nidre, gives us the script to say: May all the commitments I make be absolved if after honest effort I am unable to fulfill them. When I asked my dear friend and Dean of the Hebrew Union College, Dr. Jonathan Cohen, about the value and import of the Kol Nidre he responded, “Oh my - where do I start!?” he said, “The Kol Nidre is the most amazing piece of our liturgy of the High Holy Days in the sense that it forces us to face our humanity in the face of a perfect divinity (construct). It has everything to do with our human inability to live up to our own expectations of ourselves. In this text,” he went on, “we are finally forced to come to terms with our failings and our inability to commit to keeping our word to ourselves and to others.”
Yes, this Day of Atonement is about the missteps, and it is ALSO about the aspirations. It is about examination of our values, of the way we live, the way we want to live and the way we ought to live. It is about using the microscope the day provides to observe our world, the institutions we cherish and what they both need from us to continue as God’s partners in shaping Creation - which is the totality of human experience.
The national identity in our country is certainly being obscured by the headlines, by the behaviors of some and the words of others. Keeping pace with the societal changes and natural ebbs and flows of our human experience shakes the very ground we stand on. Yet, we know that change is the only constant. And, over the course of time, we know too that the guidelines that frame our communal life need constant examination and revision, for Yom Kippur is not solely about our own personal accounting. Inscribed on the Jefferson Memorial, we read:
"I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as a civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors." (Southeast Portico of the Jefferson Memorial, -Excerpted from a letter to Samuel Kercheval, July 12, 1816.)
And in our own Jewish tradition, we resonate this reality. Our sourcebook and what binds us to one another, our story - Torah, is celebrated on the holiday of Shavuot in the Spring - what we call Z’man Matan Torah - the Time of the Giving of Torah. And note this is the giving of Torah, not the time Torah was given…in the past. Rather it is an ongoing, living and breathing reality. So too, it is with how we embrace, how we live and uphold this ideal of tolerance. It must and will always be a moving target that will be reached in some moments and missed in others.
The heightened concerns, the very real concerns, about anti-semitism, about hate speech and violence is shaking the moral compass of our nation. The experience over the last year and longer, is making it increasingly difficult to discern where this arrow of that compass points. Not necessarily because we are less aware of where we stand, but rather because the institutionalization of these sources of hate, of anti-semitism of intolerance has grown and gained strength. As Rabbi Sharon Brous of Ikar in Los Angeles so poignantly articulated to her community on Rosh Hashanah,
“Charlottesville did not happen in a vacuum - it is the inevitable outcome of racism being met with anything short of forceful, explicit condemnation. There’s a reason white supremacists didn’t wear hoods to march in streets this summer. They didn’t feel that had anything to hide…” (http://ikar-la.org/wp-content/uploads/RH1-RBrous-Sermon-THE-BUG-IN-THE-SOFTWARE-OF-THE-WEST.pdf)
When intolerance becomes enshrined above tolerance; when fear, exclusion and denial of the other is the first offering rather than, as we shared, listening and exploring what we can become together, then tolerance hasn’t run its course, rather it has been abandoned. And this, my friends, is a very real concern. It is our reality, that is teetering between intolerance, isolation and fear on one side and tolerance, acceptance and learning on the other. It is up to us to know how we can lean towards tolerance and to shape our future with the materials of our own rich history entwined with that of those with whom we share this nation, this Earth.
Sometimes, though, this litmus test of tolerance versus intolerance can be harder and more difficult to apply. Neo-Nazis, White Supremacists and White Nationalism is easier to identify as a source of intolerance than other forms of protest.
Surely we’ve all been surrounded by the ongoing and very public protest of professional football players and other athletes. I recall moments not too long ago when we, as a culture, bemoaned the way we uphold professional athletes as role models, yearning for more and better behaviors from them. Well, we’ve arrived in a sense. What began down the highway from us in San Francisco has snowballed into a real, and crucial, national debate. The NFL versus the President is a conversation growing louder faster than fingers can tweet. From one perspective, it may seem like a controversy that will fade, maybe its not worth our energy. Or, perhaps this is another expression of tolerance versus intolerance.
When we aim to live Jefferson’s prescient words about the progress of the human mind and hold dear the reality of our aim to live tolerance and ensure its place on the mantle of the future we are creating, protest will certainly remain as a critical and effective tool in our belt. Let me be clear, I am not going to express an opinion about the how, the when or the where of these public statements. But, I will state clearly that this conversation, this debate, this kind of protest is exactly what should engage our intellect and our souls as we examine which of the arguments uphold tolerance and which preach intolerance. That is a task for each of us on this day of Yom Kippur.
When I began these words, I shared the sacred words from Israel’s Declaration of Independence. A statement of aspiration, a vision of a future for our beloved State of Israel - a place I hope to visit with you this June - please join me. Yet, there too, this litmus test must be applied. I firmly hold that I do not deserve a vote in the State of Israel. I am a Zionist, I am an Ohev Yisrael - a lover of the Land and People Of Israel. And while I do not get a vote, I do deserve a voice - is it our Jewish State. It is one founded on these principles of tolerance, equality and acceptance, in its own words, “irrespective of religion, race or sex.” And yet, over recent decades there is an increasing volume of protest among and between Jews. This, to me, is one of if not the most pressing issues facing the State - that is its Jewish identity. Some in this very room have family members who fought boldly for the right to a Jewish State and in order to remain so, it must continue to aspire.
This summer, the State of Israel reneged on its promise of equality at the Western Wall, a struggle our Progressive Jewish friends, and some of us, have protested for, have yearned for. The growing intolerance we are experiencing by the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate of Israel towards our Judaism is simply unacceptable. It, in my mind, does not pass this litmus test of tolerance versus intolerance. The ongoing struggle over the status of conversion in the State of Israel continues to be problematic as well. We long for the day when those committed to engaging with Judaism and becoming Jews will be fully, unequivocally accepted as such in the Jewish State…this commitment is enshrined in those words from Israel’s Declaration of Independence.
In our own country and in our beloved State of Israel aspirations towards our Democratic principles will always evolve, there will be always growing pains throughout our lives and those of our grandchildren. And, they will require our effort to remain within reach. One way we have to respond as we realize these very real and challenging growing pains of democracy is to learn, to understand better from where we are coming.
In our Mishnah, Akavya ben Machalelel taught: Reflect upon three things and you will not succumb to sin: Know from whence you came and to where you are going, and before whom you will give an accounting. (Mishnah Avot 3:1)
To know from where we came is to know our past and that of previous generations. To know where we are going is to know that, though our physical lives will end, we will bequeath a world, a society, a community to our descendants. And, before who will we give an accounting? Surely before God, the Mystery of Creation, whatever is our belief. But it is also before the world, before others - those with whom we share this Earth.
I don’t believe it is enough for me to talk form the bema and you, in your seats, to listen. I don’t believe we, as Jews, are those kind of people. This is the year for US to learn, for US to challenge, for US to interpret. Let us commit to investigating together this year. So, as we move closer to celebrating Israel’s 70th year, over the coming months, we will examine the past decades of our own nation and that of Israel together. We will share from this bema perspectives to question and learn, we will engage in discussions as we study text and Torah and we will create formal opportunities to learn. We will look at our Reform tradition’s track record with regard to issues of justice, we will reflect them in the mirror of our American and Israeli history and in this way, we will gain tools to shape our future - to know where we are going, so that when we stand here next year in judgment of our world, ourselves, our community we will be doing one part in crafting the world we want. We will be becoming the individuals we aim to be as Jews and as a nation.
G’maru Chatimot Tovot - May we all merit goodness, on our behalf and that of our children, in the coming year. Shanah Tovah.