Kol Nidre – Do Not Despair!

The world we live in can be very frightening and upsetting, perhaps even more so in recent times.

The litany of things facing us:

As human beings:

global warming that many experts are saying is inevitable, even if we were to eliminate all carbon emissions today – and climate refugees already exist in the millions

As Americans:

  • We’re in the midst of impeachment hearings, and it doesn’t feel like a cataclysm.
  • Separation of children from their parents on our border and the death of a number of them in our custody
  • Income inequality is at its highest in 5 decades
  • We are extremely polarized, and growing more so

As Jews: we are experiencing anti-Semitism from every level of society:

  • From the highest level where our loyalty as Americans is questioned
  • To swastikas drawn in schools and parks in our own communities
  • To neo-Nazi rallies where people chant: Jews will not replace us.
  • To shootings in synagogues.

My first position out of rabbinical school was with the Jewish Community Relations Council of Philadelphia. My role was to support inter-group relations (I staffed the Black-Jewish Coalition, developed the Latino-Jewish Clergy Coalition, worked on domestic public policy – like gun safety – and supported the local Jewish community. Synagogue security was then, as now, a concern. People would call about whether and what levels of security they should have at their synagogues for the High Holidays. Then we could, and did, say: never has there been a shooting in a synagogue.

Until this year, I have not seen the need for armed guards. This year I feel differently.

It would be easy to despair in face of these challenges, these horrors. They are not new to us:

Our people’s history is one of living in a broken world.

The story, as told by Genesis, begins with the fratricide of one of the first children born to humanity. We know that violence, jealousy, fear, and division seem to be built into our human nature.

As Jews, our literary tradition says we were slaves in Egypt, referred to as vermin, oppressed, and murdered. And then there is the history we can document, beginning in Biblical times and continuing to the present: exiles, crusades, ghettoization, pogroms, genocide, terrorism.

We have always faced difficulties. Yet we have survived and not succumbed to hopelessness. What is the wisdom of our tradition for our situation today?

We always recognized that this world is in need of repair.

Rabbi Tarfon used to say: It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you free to neglect it.

We always knew that there would be more repair to do than we could complete in our lifetimes. We always knew that we live in a broken world.

The response has always been: Have Faith, Build Community, Take Action

Have Faith

Faith is not, as Lewis Carroll wrote in Alice in Wonderland: believing in six impossible things before breakfast.

The Hebrew word for faith is emunah, and we see an example of it at one of our previous difficult times. The Israelites, recently out of Egypt, were hungry and exhausted and were attacked at the rear by Amalek. A battle ensued and as the book of Exodus (17) tells it: “whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed; but whenever he let down his hand, Amalek prevailed. But Moses’ hands grew heavy; so they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it, while Aaron and Hur, one on each side, supported his hands; thus his hands remained steady until the sun set.

וַיְהִ֥י יָדָ֛יו אֱמוּנָ֖ה

Emunah here means steady. And that’s what faith means to us: steadiness. Not a belief in dogma. We have always had an aversion to dogma. Maimonides wrote a creed – the 13 principles of faith – which were controversial at the time and generally ignored for centuries after. Later they were set to music and the hymn Yigdal was created. But we sing this as a song, and do not recite it as an affirmation of belief.

Having faith means being steadfast, not losing our heads to fear and anxiety, and being able to carry on.

So how do we do this?

Jewish tradition has always prescribed prayer, study, and Shabbat.

Prayer, which, in Hebrew, is reflexive: leHITpalel – to judge oneself, to clarify for oneself. It’s an internal process -like meditation. Whatever is going on in the world or in your life, is better and probably more skillfully handled after a few minutes of quiet centering.

Study:

Our people has thousands of years of seeking to address the questions that are alive for us today. You don’t have to figure out all the answers on your own: there is tremendous wisdom coming from our community and beyond.

Shabbat:

The rabbis said Shabbat is “a taste of the world to come.” We are invited to enter into a space created by the imagination of our ancestors and continued by ourselves: to believe, for 25 hours a week, that the world is perfect. That nothing need to be fixed. That, as we read last week in Genesis: God saw all that God had made and behold, it was very good.

We know that’s not the case. We know brokenness is part of the way things are; but we must imagine how the world might be if we want to work to make it so. We envision it and then work into that vision.

Also, we need rest. We need a break from all the bad news and the horror. We need to find some ease in our souls – not to put our heads in the sand, but to refresh and renew, so that we can get back to work.

The Jewish tradition itself can be a source of strength and support.

Perhaps you saw the article in the Times two weeks ago about a shofar that was blown in Auschwitz on Rosh HaShanah. This shofar is now on view at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park. This is the story:

Chaskel Tydor was a longtime prisoner entrusted as work dispatcher at one of the more than 40 Auschwitz subcamps. On Rosh Hashanah 1944, he contrived to send some religious prisoners out on a distant detail where they might make a minyan for prayer. He did not know that they carried something with them. But when they returned one confided to her father that a shofar had been produced and blown.

The following January, 1945, the Germans hurriedly began dynamiting Auschwitz and emptying the camp as the Russians approached. Mr. Tydor and some 60,000 other survivors were herded on a 30-mile march to another subcamp. But the night before they left another prisoner came up to him and pressed on him a rag-wrapped object. It was the shofar.

The man said: “I’m going to die on this march. If you live, take this shofar. Tell them we blew the shofar at Auschwitz.”

Chaskel Tydor survived the march and ended up back in Buchenwald where he was liberated by the American Army on April 11, 1945. Later that year, he joined a group of former concentration camp prisoners and other freed Jews aboard a steamship to Palestine, then under British mandate, and soon to become Israel. Off the coast of Haifa on Rosh Hashanah 1945, he blew the shofar.

This is one of many stories of extraordinary acts of faith – steadfastness – performed by Jews in the camps. Not because people believed that they would be punished by Heaven for failing to observe in these circumstances, but because their observance was an act of resistance to those who would dehumanize them and deny them the ability to be true to themselves and their tradition. Truth – emet – is the same root as emunah, faith. Faith is being true to who we are.

John Lewis, now a congressman from Georgia, who was beaten senseless on the first march from Selma to Montgomery, what became known as Bloody Sunday. He was interviewed a few years ago by Krista Tippett, director of the On Being Project and host of a radio show and podcast of that name. He spoke of faith and of the community that made it possible.

Of his work in the civil rights movement, Congressman Lewis said:

I discovered that you have to have this sense of faith that what you’re moving toward is already done. It’s already happened…you live as if you’re already there, that you’re already in that community, part of that sense of one family, one house. If you visualize it, if you can even have faith that it’s there, for you it is already there. And during the early days of the movement, I believed that the only true and real integration for that sense of the beloved community existed within the movement itself. Because in the final analysis, we did become a circle of trust, a band of brothers and sisters. So it didn’t matter whether you were black or white. It didn’t matter whether you came from the North to the South, or whether you’re a Northerner or Southerner. We were one.

The first step was to live as if the vision were reality. Then to create it in the community of activists. This essential aspect of emunah is learned from our story: Moses’ hands remained steady because Aaron and Hur held them up. We need each other for strength and support.

In these times, as in the time of the civil rights movement of the 50’s and 60’s, we must come together. Change is not made by individuals alone. And it is always the time to make change.

As the political philosopher Michael Walzer wrote in his book, Exodus and Revolution, the basis of the Jewish story is that:

— first, that wherever you live, it is probably Egypt;

— second, that there is a better place, a world more attractive, a promised land;

— and third, that “the way to the land is through the wilderness.” There is no way to get from here to there except by joining together and marching.

We can join together as a Jewish community. In these hard times, we need each other for support. Take advantage of the fact that we are here. You don’t need to struggle alone. Together, we can work to be a presence in our geographical area, a force for good.

And we can, and must, connect with our broader community. We can do that right here. As we feel a rise in anti-Semitism, there are others who are experiencing increased bias as well: immigrants (who are labeled as criminals and drains on the economy), gay and lesbian people (just today the Supreme Court heard arguments about whether people can be fired for being gay, lesbian, or transgender), and people of color (who are told to “go back where they came from,” as though this is not their home). Let us follow in the holy footsteps of John Lewis and build the beloved community. If we do that right here, maybe it can grow beyond.

How do we do this? Let us take action, and we can begin right here:

  • We are hosted here each year by the St. Hugh’s community. They host a number of social ministries and would welcome our support. We could help with their literacy programs, their food pantry (and you are invited to contribute food and finances to it), English as a second language. By doing so, we could contribute to the needs of our community and get to know our neighbors at the same time.
  • On January 12, we will hold an activism training for children and adults that will prepare us to more effectively make our voices heard and have an impact on our elected officials.
  • On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, we will host a day of service.

In the meantime, we might follow the advice of Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg: when you’re feeling overwhelmed about how much injustice there is, and how big the problems are:

1) Make a list of 5 things that you could do that would help, in whatever way.

2) Pick one thing that you could do today. And one this week.

3) Revisit the list next week.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel joined the third march from Selma to Montgomery. Reflecting on his experience, he said that he felt like his feet were praying.

Which brings us back to faith. One version of the Al Chet includes:

for the sin we have committed before you by giving in to despair. Terrible things are happening. We may not be able to prevent them. But we can try. Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, who taught that joy is a mitzvah and that it is forbidden to despair, also taught that: If you believe you can destroy, you must believe you can repair.

Chaskel Tydor’s daughter, Dr. Judith Tydor Schwartz said: “If it’s one thing I know from all the thousands of survivors I interviewed, it’s that the impossible was possible, both to the bad and the good.”

Tomorrow night we will blow the shofar one last time this holiday season and recite the age-old expression of Jewish hope — “next year in Jerusalem.” Next year, in a world at peace. Let us believe it can be so. Let us work to make it so.

Kein yehi ratzon.

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