These Hands – Yom Kippur Morning 5777

This post was originally delivered as a Yom Kippur sermon at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in 2016/5777 as part of a series entitled “This We Believe.” You can hear audio of the sermon through the Kol Hadash Podcast.

What can these hands do?

There is so much wrong with the world. Violent conflicts in Syria, Iraq, South Sudan, even the south side of Chicago. The threat of terrorism stalks Europe and America. Natural disasters are beyond our control, civil discourse is vanishing, and hatred seems to be on the rise. We do not trust our politicians, we do not trust government officials, we do not trust each other. Forty years ago, the movie Network depicts a news anchor losing his mind and ranting about the world in a way that sounds eerily relevant:

I don’t have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. …. The dollar buys a nickel’s worth; banks are going bust; shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter; punks are running wild in the street, and there’s nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there’s no end to it.

We know the air is unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat. And we sit watching our TVs while some local newscaster tells us that today we had fifteen homicides and sixty-three violent crimes, as if that’s the way it’s supposed to be!

We all know things are bad — worse than bad — they’re crazy.

It’s like everything everywhere is going crazy, so we don’t go out any more. We sit in the house, and slowly the world we’re living in is getting smaller, and all we say is, “Please, at least leave us alone in our living rooms. Let me have my toaster and my TV and my steel-belted radials, and I won’t say anything. Just leave us alone.”

Well, I’m not going to leave you alone.

I want you to get mad!

I don’t want you to protest. I don’t want you to riot. I don’t want you to write to your Congressman, because I wouldn’t know what to tell you to write. I don’t know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the Russians and the crime in the street.

All I know is that first, you’ve got to get mad.

You’ve gotta say, “I’m a human being…! My life has value!”

The climax of the speech, repeated over and over? Those who remember know it well – “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

So what DO we do? If all we are is mad and yelling, what good does that do? If we open our windows and yell, or even sit calmly in a home or a synagogue and patiently pray, it might make us feel better, but do we have confidence that only expressing our desires will make a difference in the real world? Or do we have to take the next step, to move from wanting something to making it real? At a minimum, we should understand that the world is not unrelentingly disastrous – I enjoy a regular feature in the magazine The Week called “It Wasn’t All Bad” that includes the kind of stories that warm your heart and restore some confidence in our fellow human beings.

There are many ways to explain what is different, unique, special about a Humanistic Jewish congregation. This High Holidays we have been exploring one version: “This world, this life, these hands…and you.We ARE believers – we believe in making the reality of this world match our best visions of what it could be; we believe in the inherent equality, dignity and value of every human being; we believe that this life matters. If we want to make the best of this life, if we want to make this world better, then we have to start with the most elemental interface we have with the world – these hands.

At its very foundation, a positive humanism believes in human beings – not only their rights and responsibilities, but also their power and their potential. Too much of religion focuses on the negatives- what we cannot know, what we cannot do, what we cannot control, how we have failed, our limitations. To be sure, a realistic humanism accepts that we are not perfect, nor will we ever be perfect. We are not all knowing, all capable, or always good. Some imagine that Humanism means worshipping humanity in place of a god, when the reality is that Humanism means replacing the act of worship itself. One of our movement’s leaders was once asked, “well, if Humanistic Jews don’t pray, what do you do?” She answered, “We DO.” Since 1952, every American president, Republicans and Democrats, have declared a National Day of Prayer. In 2003, the American Humanist Association created a counter-program – a “National Day of Reason.” But the Humanist parallel for prayer is not thought – it is action! If we want the world to be better, we don’t just hope and pray it gets better – we roll up our sleeves and get to work. There is nothing WRONG with prayer, unless it encourages passivity; prayer and action are more effective than prayer alone. That was the genius of the Zionist revolution a century ago – praying to return to the land had not worked for 2000 years, so beit Yaakov lekhu unelkha – house of Jacob, let’s get up and go!  And they went. We DO.

In order to “do”, we need confidence that WHAT we do will actually make a difference. We have to motivate ourselves and celebrate what we CAN know, what we CAN do, what we CAN control, how we have succeeded, how we have transcended our limitations. As we hear in “Inherit the Wind”:

The elephant is larger; the horse is swifter and stronger; the butterfly is far more beautiful; the mosquito is more prolific. Even the simple sponge is more durable.

What makes human beings different? Our minds, and our skills – these hands. The power of the opposable thumb to grab, to hold, to carry, to manipulate. The dexterity of fingers to braid and to sew, to carve and to create – to invent a musical instrument and then to play it. The warmth of touch to caress, to comfort, to guide a child or to hold another’s hand. There are many ways our individuality is marked: our retina patterns, our DNA, and, of course, our fingerprints. Why those ridges? To help us hold on to what we need, to provide the friction that makes life more of a {snap}.

One of our evolutionary ancestors from 2 million years ago looked very little like us – it was on the line between australopithecus and homo, with longer arms, smaller heads, and shorter, more ape-like bodies than we homo sapiens. What made homo habilis, literally the “handy man,” different, and like us, was its ability to make tools – the making4knowledge to make and use sharp stone flakes and hand axes to butcher animals and to skin them. In other words, homo habilis found ways to meet the basic human needs of food, clothing, and shelter with its own hands.


From that rough beginning of using our hands to magnify their usefulness through the tools we made, we have transformed our lives, and the planet, in ways that no other species has ever done. Sometimes for good, and sometimes in ways that have made new problems. Just recently, I bought airplane tickets on a website, received a confirmation email, and appointment for the flight appeared in my online calendar automatically, without any notice! I’ve started getting cellphone alerts telling me when I have to leave to get to my next appointment. On one hand, this seems very convenient. On the other hand, it’s a bit unnerving. How many of you have let your car parallel park for you? Our future could end up like Star Trek, where our inventions serve us, or like The Matrix, where we serve the machines. To those under 30, these concerns might sound like an old crank whining about those newfangled auto-mobiles that go too fast. When the NSA metadata collection and surveillance program was revealed, a joke began trending on Twitter – #NSACalledToTellMe.

#NSAcalledtotellme go back a page, I wasn’t done reading yet.
#NSAcalledtotellme I should check my voicemail, one of the messages sounds important.
#NSAcalledtotellme the shoes I ordered from clash with the dress I purchased from Macy’
#NSAcalledtotellme what happens in Vegas stays in our Utah data center.

All very amusing, until it affects you. These hands have made amazing things, but sometimes what they can do should encourage caution. These same wonderful hands that make tools can also make weapons – an open palm can easily become a closed fist.

The risks understood, we can still appreciate all the secular miracles that human hands have realized. An old slogan of the Technion University in Haifa was “miracles happen; they take a lot of work.” Over the course of the last 12 years I’ve been with Kol Hadash, I have spent much more time in hospitals than I wanted to, both professionally and personally. As the years have gone on, more and more of the names on our Yom Kippur Memorial list are funerals I have done, people I have known. Yet every visit, I am amazed again at all that we are able to do to lengthen and improve life, all that has been invented by these minds and these hands. The ability to see a baby inside its mother before it is born, and to test for and even treat problems while in utero. The myriad ways to measure how we are doing and find what is wrong, from blood flow and brain activity to the chemistry of our blood and the reflex of our nerves.

We can do so much that it can be difficult to accept those times when we have to fold our hands and accept what we cannot control, what we cannot measure or treat. Even then, when we cannot discover and heal to change medical reality, there are still things that our hands can do. When we stroke the hand of a loved one in hospice care, we are not improving their physical condition, but we are still doing – they know we are there, and they know that we care. And we can use our hands, our energy and effort, in place of theirs – through one of our members’ long hospice experience, I worked with her to do what we could: we wrote personal letters to her closest family, we investigated how to deal with the eventual estate sale, we did whatever we could to lighten the burden on her sons when the time came that her hands could do no more. One of the core messages of Yom Kippur, be it the last chance to get into the Book of Life or the story of Jonah, is that it is not too late to make a difference.

When we say we believe in these hands, we do not only mean our physical hands. Our hands represent our abilities, our knowledge, our skills, our connections to each other. They represent our impact on the world, our ability to control our own lives. These hands are also a reminder of the personal skills that we need. We need to develop our abilities – who knew before cellphones that our thumbs could be so useful to communicate? We need to remain flexible, adaptable, able to respond to new problems. We need to be creative – not just adding a handle to a stone axe to make it better, or making a needle from an animal bone to sew clothing. We need to be creative by taking what we find in 51g20ojbyrlsociety, in Jewish culture, in what we have inherited and then making something new out of it. In the Yiddish folksong “I had a little overcoat,” fabric is made into a coat, then as that gets worn it becomes a jacket, then a vest, then a tie, then a button. And when it is lost, it becomes a story, proving that you CAN make something from nothing, in the title of one book based on the song. There are times we need to be strong with brute strength, and there are times we need to be delicate and gentle, careful and deliberative. We wave hello or shake hands to demonstrate equality, or to show the absence of a hidden weapon, or simply to make a personal connection. Or maybe, according to a recent study by the Weizman Institute of Science in Israel, we shake hands to smell each other – the study found that when people shake hands with someone of the same sex, they were twice as likely to put that hand to their face and subconsciously sniff it. If they shook hands with someone of the opposite sex, they were twice as likely to put their LEFT, non-shaking hand to their face. Certainly more polite than how dogs greet each other. Shaking hands also shows that we still have plenty to learn about ourselves and why we do what we do.

025751a6a2d73c02b32faa377e935cebOur hands are a way we define our groups, in and out. Not every culture greets with a handshake, and some cultures, including some Jews, refuse to shake hands across gender lines. There are secret handshakes, special signs [baseball sign], non-verbal communication even for those unversed in sign language. For those in the Jewish know, a special hand motion is made for the priestly blessing during synagogue services – the symbol is sometimes put on tombstones for Cohens. But if you ask most people out there what the gesture {left} means, they’ll say “live long and prosper” from Star Trek – Leonard Nimoy borrowed the gesture from his synagogue memories. And sometimes even an insult can become endindex-finger-250x250earing – two years ago, I led a memorial service for another of our members who was a real pistol, under 5 feet tall but tough and took no nonsense. Her children told me, and I shared at the memorial service that “if you gave her too much sass or a hassle, she wasn’t afraid of letting you know who was number 1, though not always using this finger.”

“These hands” are not only what we can do, what we have done, how we communicate. Saying that we believe in “these hands” means that we believe we can care for ourselves, and each other. You can find it on a bumper sticker, but it’s still true. “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” One hand needs another to hold, to clap, to play, to build, to connect. This afternoon, we will conclude our exploration of “this I believe” by deepening that connection to each other – “this world, this life, these hands…and you.”

I will conclude with story I told at Kol Hadash 11 years ago, but it is just as appropriate here and now. A student decided to stump his rabbi with a riddle, so he put a small bird in his hand and asked the rabbi “is the bird in my hand alive or dead?” The rabbi knew that if he said that the bird was dead, the student would open his hand, the bird would fly away, and the rabbi would be a fool. But the rabbi also knew that if he said that the bird was alive, the student would quickly squeeze his fist and kill the bird, again making him the fool. The rabbi smiled at his student, and said quite simply, “is the bird alive or dead? The answer is in your hands.


About Rabbi Adam Chalom

Adam Chalom is the Rabbi of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in north suburban Chicago. He is also the Dean for North America of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.
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1 Response to These Hands – Yom Kippur Morning 5777

  1. Pingback: This We Believe – High Holidays 2016/5777 | Shalom from Rabbi Chalom

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