Youthquake, populism, feminism, complicit, nationalism, fake, hashtag. What do they have in common? All were declared to be the Word of the Year in 2017. I don’t know what the word of the year will be in 2018, but I have a nomination for the expression of the year, if there is such a thing. And that expression is “like drinking from a firehose.” It is a metaphor – at least in the day and age of people actually trying to eat laundry pods or down a spoonful of cinnamon I hope it is a metaphor – that represents the impossibility of absorbing all of the information, news, and other stimuli that come at us constantly in an interconnected world. It is possible that there is more news happening now than ever before but we have to admit it is equally likely that it is the same amount of news but there is simply more access to it and avoiding the rushing output of the firehose is for most of us all but impossible.
While last night we spoke about someone whose life was spent considering the larger questions of existence and faith, we cannot ignore what our tradition refers to as inyanei d’yoma, the issues and challenges of our day and these times. And we have to admit with humility that the specific news items that are above the fold today – kids, ask your parents what that expression means – will likely fade from memory if not by next Yom Kippur than certainly by the one after that. If it were not so then we could not persevere; we rely both on experiencing with intensity and feeling that which is important and also the capacity to move forward into a new year, even back into life after pain and loss.
We have to deal more effectively and productively with so many challenges domestically, including parental and family leave, the opioid crisis, systemic poverty, a polarized political climate which is either the cause or the result of a polarized electorate, education funding, food insecurity, prison reform, climate change, sea level rise, and the list goes on and on. Add to that list our international concerns over brutal dictators, human rights abusers, fair elections and trade, modern slavery and human trafficking, and our particular focus on Israel and her neighbors, BDS, and campus challenges and opportunities for advocacy and it all could and sometimes probably should keep us up at night. And so it is risky, I think, to take on three particular matters that rose to our attention over the year just ended, but this Yom Kippur I feel called to do just that.
And these three topics are family separation at our border, the #MeToo movement, and Parkland.
There is a strange mitzvah in Parashat Ki Teitzei, the commandment to shoo away a mother bird before taking its eggs or its young. It seems to be today practically almost irrelevant, like the long list of sacrifices or the clothing of the High Priest about which we also read. But just as we learn from those sections of the Torah, we learn from this one. While the reasons for the commandments are not often spelled out, commentators for centuries have sought to drill down to the essential message of and even reason for each of them.
It is Nachmanides, known as Ramban, the 13th-century Spanish Commentator who tells us that this commandment teaches us to distance ourselves from cruelty. The kind of heart that can tolerate causing pain to a mother by taking her children away in her sight is a heart that has become too hard. The Torah seeks the building of a world where people exercise responsible stewardship over the earth and all of its inhabitants. Sometimes that will entail utilizing her resources and at other times preserving them. The mitzvah of the mother bird is our anti-cruelty declaration whether we are utilizing or preserving.
We can use, but we cannot abuse this world God has loaned to us for safekeeping. Of course we cannot be cruel to the earth by poisoning the environment, permanently damaging or destroying ecosystems, accelerating extinction of species, failing to address sea level rise and more, and we cannot be cruel to animals even if we accept the Torah’s permission to occasionally eat them – and this from a committed vegetarian. But all that pales in comparison to the divinely commanded imperative to avoid cruelty inflicted by one human being on another. I am asking that on these High Holy Days we take note and account of the cruelty that was inflicted on thousands of mothers and fathers and children at our own borders as they were separated from each other, for the stated purpose of de-incentivizing further illegal immigration.
A combination of factors up to and including protest, activism, our courts, and a change of mind if not heart by policy makers ended this practice, but its after-effects reverberate. These include reunions that have yet to happen and those that happened only on condition that it would take place in the country from which a family had fled, sometimes in search of a better life but often because of fear of bodily harm or death. Our rotation away from offering as many immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers as our economy and vast land can handle will be in retrospect a black mark on our miraculous progress as a nation blessed by God. I love this country and the Jewish communities its freedoms have allowed us to establish and grow. As the children and grandchildren of immigrants and refugees, we are the last community that can stand by silently as those whose children and grandchildren will likely be the most dedicated, patriotic, and grateful Americans are vilified and turned away. Of course, we need secure borders and an enforceable immigration and asylum policy but events of the past year did not reflect what we would want for ourselves and our children were the situation reversed, as it so often has been in Jewish history.
As the High Priest of old progressed through the rituals of Yom Kippur toward achieving Divine Forgiveness for the people and a fresh start to the New Year, we are also constantly striving to build, grow and improve. And although it is a huge topic and one that will not be comprehensively or satisfactorily addressed here it is too big to ignore in these moments. Our Torah and Haftarah readings on these holidays include examples of women whose voices were raised and heard. We hear Sarah, we hear Hagar, we hear Chanah, we hear the spirit of Rachel, and we reference with sympathy even the voice of the mother of a defeated enemy general. Our wonderful machzor has done a good job of including new liturgy, poems, reflections, and inspiration to further thought. Much of it authored by women and egalitarian in tone and language. In a male-dominated narrative and textual tradition, this is noteworthy, but it is not enough. This year will be remembered as a turning point toward hearing the voices of women raised against men who behaved in ways that are antithetical to so many of the values that we strive to live by. Our Jewish community – synagogues, institutions, schools and of course our homes and families – have to be united in recognizing and improving on the already significant impact of the #MeToo movement, an imperfect but important stride forward in establishing a society where no one’s body is objectified, no one is prevented from career advancement for reasons of gender bias, and no one’s raised voice against emotional, professional, and physical abuse is silenced.
I know that we are together today in a room full of really good people – kind, caring, considerate and mindful of the ways our words and actions affect those around us. Most of us have not committed the egregious crimes and violations some powerful and famous men have been accused of and are, to some extent at least, being held accountable. Yet we are also mindful of the words used to introduce the Kol Nidre prayer last night – we are given permission to pray in ha-avaryanim, with fellow sinners. We have fallen short, missed the mark, failed, sometimes subtly and sometimes miserably. If you have always, every single time, without ever failing to take into account the gender balance and imbalance that exists in all of the places you have worked, all of the places you have shopped, all of the interactions that you have on a daily basis with people you know well and barely know at all then as the Canadians like to say “good on you.” But that is a very high bar, and few have succeeded in reaching let alone clearing it.
There are myriad layers, problems, inadequacies, subtleties and even overreactions and confusion between what acts and words are inappropriate and which are hurtful, what is distasteful and what is prosecutable, what should inspire conversation and what should be career ending. These issues are mired in constructive and destructive definitions and expressions of masculinity, a woman’s inherent right to express herself fully in a way that makes sense to her and is not a product of the expectation of others, most especially men, and much more. The impossibility of a comprehensive understanding of everything involved in what created this problem does not absolve anyone from the responsibility of being part of constructively addressing it, of really listening and making positive change.
If you are a woman whose voice has been silenced, whose body has been commented on, objectified, or God forbid touched in a way that was uninvited, offensive or hurtful, you deserve to be heard, supported, and to be part of a community, tradition, and culture that has this year taken a step on the long climb to actual equality. Our Jewish organizational structures have made great progress but have not always been and are not yet as fully cognizant and affirming of this value and practice as we would like and expect them to be. A famous Jewish demographer who I won’t name in this context was recently accused of and held accountable for debasing behavior and of stalling women’s careers whose advancement he controlled. My female colleagues in the clergy have consistently reported cringe-worthy congregant interactions that happen in public and in private. And one of my heroes Ruth Messinger this year wrote an Op-Ed detailing her own experiences with and documented examples of gender bias in our Jewish communities. And even though I agree with almost every word that comes out of her mouth and is committed to paper by her pen, I especially want to emphasize these: “This is…a critical moment in the lives of women and girls with a deep reveal of persistent problems of pervasive gender bias, sexual harassment, and assault. We will all be measured going forward by what we do now to step up and keep these issues under sharp focus until dramatic new strides are made.”
It would not be a reflection on the year just ended without speaking of the precious souls lost to this world on February 14th at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School. It was the day that everything that may have felt abstract or distant about gun violence, and gun violence in our schools specifically, no longer felt foreign. What only happens elsewhere happened here, at a school nine miles from our front door serving our students in Parkland and Coral Springs.
There are not enough words to express our continued sadness, shock, outrage and stunned disbelief that the first school shooting in this great country was not also the last, that things that might have prevented this tragedy were not done, that we have even now not seen nearly enough progress to believe that the unthinkable will not be upon us again in this school year and that has to be completely unacceptable to everyone regardless of party affiliation or second amendment sentiment. No parent should have to wonder whether their child is coming home from school, no child should go to school with anything less than a sense that the adults in their world have done everything they could possibly do to make sure they are safe there. It should go without saying, but for some reason, it still needs to be said that the spilled blood of innocent children, heroic teachers, coaches, and staff members cannot be seen as a tragic but unavoidable byproduct of American freedom. The freedom to live free from fear of the wrong gun being in the wrong hands utilized for the wrong purpose will and must be viewed as a freedom that will be guaranteed to all of us as much as any other.
And we will get closer to that better reality because of the Jewish value and hard-won experience that out of tragedy can spring hope, the green shoots of the future grow in even the most devastated blight and sources of sadness. No one invites trauma into their lives, but everyone it touches experiences one of two aftermaths. They can push ahead and continue to grow and live and struggle and claw their way out of the darkness, or that darkness becomes thicker and denser until it is inescapable. We would not fault any devastated parent, grandparent, brother, sister, relative or friend who has gone quiet, who is in a deep way inconsolable in the aftermath of terrifying loss and we pray today for their strength.
We have been inspired by MSD students with names like Hogg and Gonzales and Kasky and more who are now familiar nationwide for the cause they did not want and fame they would trade in a heartbeat if those February moments could be changed into a normal Valentine’s Day. We are elevated by the parents who carry the memory of their beloved children with them as motivation to try and make a positive difference for other families, and by the overdue recognition of the bravery of teachers who are called on every day to put the lives and safety of their students ahead of their own if necessary, as Scott Beigel, Aaron Feis, and Chris Hixon did on that awful day. Their memories and the 14 students who did not come home are remembered on this day of remembrance, and their too-short lives have and will yet inspire great kindness, hope, and action.
I started the High Holy Days with an informal sermon that included a Passover reference, and I am going to end with one. We recite in the Haggadah that a very important Rabbi named Gamliel taught that if you don’t mention and even point out the three central symbols of the seder while it is happening, then you have not fulfilled your responsibility. On Passover those are – do you remember? The bone representing the Paschal sacrifice, matzah, and the bitter maror. We have a similar responsibility today though there is not even a crumb of matzah or, as I’m sure you have noticed by now, anything else to be had.
Today we focus on Teshuvah – the capacity to say I’m sorry and to commit to doing better. Tefillah – the necessary act of the spirit and will that reaches upward to find connection to that which is Eternal and everlastingly good, compassionate, loving, and true. And Tzedakah acts of righteousness, of planning and pledging to give of what is only temporarily ours – money, time, care and concern beyond even what we may be naturally inclined to offer. Perhaps you will join me in considering what I’ve shared today in these terms.
We do teshuva for ways we, collectively and individually, have stood by as women’s voices have been diminished and their bodies objectified or targeted. In our Tefillah, we pray that anyone victimized by violence, nearby or further away, will be among the last to experience that kind of pain and loss, and commit to remembering and acting in a meaningful way to make it so. And in keeping with our obligation of tzedakah, we can be of a generous mindset, heeding our tradition’s call to protect the most vulnerable, to be as expansive as we are able to be toward immigrants and asylum seekers. We are the beneficiaries of past generations that understood this country to be a beacon of freedom and a haven for the oppressed and endangered. By partnering in these efforts, we will head into the New Year with hopes that it will be more peaceful and positively productive for us, our country, Israel, and the world.
I wish you, with gratitude and great respect for all the ways you have and will continue to make a real and lasting difference, a Shanah Tovah and G’mar Chatimah Tovah. May we all be inscribed and sealed for a good year.