Old Challenges Anew – What Can We Do (Yom Kippur 5780/2019)

This post was delivered as a Yom Kippur sermon at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in October 2019. It was part of a series called Old Challenges Anew. You can listen to an audio recording via the Kol Hadash Podcast.

The year 1492 was shattering for the Jewish psyche. Centuries of happy, stable, culturally creative Jewish life in Spain came to an end as all self-identified Jews were expelled from Spain. Some fled to Portugal, and for them 1497 was another disaster, when they were forcibly converted and not allowed leave for a decade. The Portuguese Inquisition continued to pursue secret Jews until 1821. Those Jews from Spain and Portugal, the Sephardim, dispersed across the seas, finding homes in the Ottoman Empire, Italy and the South of France, the Netherlands, the land of Israel and the New World. In their shattering, their scattering, their exile and their powerlessness, some mystically-minded Jews imagined a new creation story. They pictured the beginning of the universe as the transmission of divine light through material vessels, but the energy was too powerful and the vessels shattered, scattering shards with sparks of light clinging to them all over the world. To repair this shattering, the Hebrew god gave his chosen people special deeds to perform that, with proper focus, could free those sparks and restore them to the divine realm. This would repair the world – the real origin of the term tikkun olam, long before our modern use for community service or social justice. In the face of their own shattering experience, those medieval Sephardic Jews still imagined a way to find motivation, to have agency, to have a positive impact on their fate. Even if they were wrong on the facts.

This Jewish New Year, we have addressed Old Challenges Anew. The Jewish journey through the human experience has given us insight into hatred, civil conflict, religious and cultural evolution, and the ongoing challenges of meeting old human needs in new ways. One of the most basic human needs is the need to feel like we can actually DO something, that we have some control over what happens to us. Even if we no longer believe in an actual book of life, in which is written on Rosh Hashana and sealed on Yom Kippur who will live and who will die, we still ask, “what can I do?” Once upon a time, we appeased many gods, and then one god, hoping to live longer and better, praying to avoid misery and death. Those medieval Jewish mystics gave cosmic significance to Jewish ritual and ethical commandments. Today we have tarot cards and horoscopes, therapists and personal coaches, we want to know deep truths about our lives and to know what is coming next, and what we can do about it, and then to act.

That last step, actually acting and making sure we are doing the right thing, can be daunting with all of the challenges we face. As we saw on Rosh Hashana, antisemitism may be the world’s oldest hatred, deeply embedded in European culture and in both political extremes. And hatred is on the rise – a recent poll showed that 10% of Europeans admit they are unfavorable to Jews in their country, and 36% said they were unfavorable to Muslims; almost 40% were unfavorable to the Romani, better known by the slur of Gypsies. Like Cain’s sin after killing Abel, political civil war crouches at the door, looking for cracks in liberal democracy to infiltrate and undermine and divide and destroy. Crime, refugees, pollution, the national debt, extreme weather, immigration policy, antibiotic resistant infections, healthcare costs, racism, sexual harassment and rape – the hits just keep on coming.

And thanks to how much time we spend on computers and the internet, they can come at any minute of the day and all day long. When I became a rabbi 18 years ago, I never imagined that I would spend so much time in front of a screen: email, Facebook, Twitter, blog posts, writing, researching, communicating. And the news temptation is always there, just a few taps away.

Medieval Jewish mystics put the 613 commandments of rabbinic Judaism to magical use to “repair the world;” today I have 5 steps that can help us to act and not just wait to see what happens. Our attempts to repair the world can also apply to repairing relationships. That is the core of a Humanistic Yom Kippur – working towards forgiving others, forgiving ourselves, and earning forgiveness from those we have wronged.

One of the most important things we can do is make sure to take a break! Get outside while the weather is nice, or even if it isn’t. Listen to music you love, not just podcasts and news. Do a puzzle. Play a game. Find a new restaurant. Spend quality time with children or grandchildren or good friends. Try resolving an argument without resorting to Google. Come to a Kol Hadash Shabbat service to let go of the cares of the week, the month, the outside world, or to approach them in new ways. The world will keep on spinning without your watching it, and some time may give you more perspective. And you need real life to ground you before dealing with the big challenges. Even those Jewish mystics contemplating the origins of the universe were rooted in community: they were expected in synagogue for prayers 3 times a day, and they not supposed to study these deeper truths until they were over 40 and married. An early rabbinic saying still applies: ayn kemakh, ayn torah – if there is no bread, there can be no learning (Mishnah Pirke Avot 3:17). You need to earn a living, and to eat, and to live your life.

When there is breaking news like a hurricane hundreds of miles away or political scandal, it is very easy to get sucked in to watching hour after hour after hour of coverage; the cable TV equivalent of rubbernecking a car accident on the freeway. It is probably wiser to watch for a bit, and then step away and do something else, and then look back again in a few hours or even the next day – you will get more information with more understanding in a fraction of the time, and you will have had several hours of doing something else in the meantime! It is not your civic duty to give yourself an anxiety attack. Take a break!

The second skill we need is “crisis triage.” In a hospital emergency, they have to decide which cases require immediate attention and which can wait for an hour. When we are facing dozens of issues, we have to choose which causes to support, where to spend our attention and energy and outrage. It is inevitable that some issues will be more important to us than others. We should strive to get beyond only our own self-interest, like supporting a local school district when one has children in school, or donating to one’s religious community. Yet it is both reasonable and pragmatic to focus our efforts on what we find most meaningful and impactful, whatever our political orientation. Growing up, my parents kept a list of the charities they supported posted by the main phone. It had a pragmatic purpose: to know right away when someone called for money when they last donated and how much. But there was also a pedagogic purpose: it showed me and my sister that giving to support important causes was important. And we would have know what causes they supported if we could have deciphered their handwriting!  

Rabbinic law knew there were times commitments could conflict; if you have 613 commandments, they are bound to run into each other. How do you honor your parents if they are thieves? Can you kill an attacker to save a third person’s life? To save a life, including your own, can you break shabbat rules or eat non-kosher food? For them it was mitzvah triage, balancing commandments. For us it is mitzvah triage, choosing among good deeds with our many criteria: relevance, impact, personal meaning. If we only act universally, we will be consumed. If we only act locally, we will miss the big picture. We need some of both.

A third path to acting and acting right is to evaluate before we act. What we do should be effective, not only well-intentioned. Sometimes good intentions have unintended consequences, or impact others in ways we did not expect. Some cities that banned plastic grocery bags found that residents started buying more plastic garbage bags, which are heavier duty and use MORE plastic per bag than the grocery bags they had been reusing for garbage! Bankruptcy laws, housing projects, school reform – we have to learn from their effects and not just rely on good intentions.

Or consider calls to boycott Israel and Israelis anywhere in the world until, well, Boycott Divestment and Sanctions or BDS activism can be ambiguous in its goals – equal democratic rights for all residents? Two states, Israel and Palestine? ONE state with no Israel? The intention of some BDS supporters to advocate for human rights is admirable, but the method may be ineffective and even counter-productive because without a clear goal, the extreme goals of some BDSers to eliminate Israel are applied to all.

Let’s be clear: a large portion of the American Jewish community accepts that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza’s borders is very problematic. After bombings of Israel’s busses and cafes in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and the Gaza rockets of the last 15 years, many Israelis feel the situation is like Thomas Jefferson’s description of slavery: “we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him nor safely let him go.” But Jewish communal dialogue about what to do is constrained by accusations of antisemitism, self-hatred, or naïve idealism. A few suggestions from the US State Department in 2010: if someone only blames Israel for ALL the problems, that is a problem. If they demand Israel do what no other nation would do, like not respond to rockets fired into their territory, that is a problem. If you deny the right of Israel to exist – if you support a Palestinian or a Kurdish national homeland but reject a Jewish national homeland, that is a problem. Using Israel litmus tests to tell “Good Jews” from “Bad Jews” has no winners: for some on the right, “Good Jews” defend Israel no matter what and favor expanding West Bank settlements; for some on the left, “Good Jews” are anti-Zionist Jews because sympathy with the oppressed means Palestine good and Israel bad, period. As you might have guessed, I am not a fan of simple answers or black and white thinking on complicated issues. The antisemitism accusation should be saved for clear cases that cross red lines. If we want Israel to change its course, we have to be engaged with and support people on the ground who share our values; Sheldon Adelson is certainly doing the same. Evaluate before we act, and then be sure to act!

Even after we decide what to do, we need to know how to get there, even if the goal is far away. The fourth step is to work together, for the long haul, even in small steps. There are two related dangers to the idea of “tikkun olam,” repairing the world. On one hand, in both Jewish mystical thought and modern activism, we find the seductive lure of a perfect world, either at original creation or in an ideal future. If we are working to restore or to create a perfect world, then any measures are justifiable and any obstacles must be obliterated – after all, who are you and your individual interest to stand in the way of the perfect? And why bother doing anything that aims short of the perfect goal? Utopian thinking is dangerous. Jewish thought was often skeptical of messianic activism; a famous rabbinic teaching says that if you hear the messiah has arrived while you are planting a tree, finish planting the tree, and then go see about the messiah (Avot de Rabbi Natan, 31b). Chances are, it’s a false messiah like every other one has been (at least, for most Jews beyond Messianics and some Chabadniks!). There is a serious problem of plastic in the oceans, but your personal choice of straw or no straw is much less impactful than industrial use and plastic bags in the developing world. Yet you can still do your equivalent of planting the tree, taking small steps with a small impact. It may or may not be butterfly wings that eventually cause a hurricane, but don’t do nothing just because you can’t do everything. After all, one vote is a very small thing, but it can also be the most important thing we do.

On the other hand, if anything short of perfect is not enough, we may become unwilling to acknowledge real progress along the way. Milestones are important; they inspire us to keep running. Accepting that life has been improved both revolutionarily and incrementally means accepting partial victories, small steps forward. I did not expect the tidal wave that led to national recognition of gay marriage in 2015; it seemed to me in the decade before that a gradual strategy of creating separate civil unions to show doubters that the world did not end would build confidence. Today we are experiencing a backlash to that leap forward, but at least 400,000 married same-sex couples are enjoying legal recognition of their loving partnership, and that is a good thing. The right thing. We have not ended racism or antisemitism; but in 1926, 50,000 Ku Klux Klansmen out of 3 million members paraded through Washington DC; today, less than 100 years later, the Klan has fewer than 8,000 members, and the 2017 Charlottesville protest had about 500 white supremacists, many of whom have been prosecuted for crimes committed during the march. AirBNB even cancelled their AirBNB reservations, because AirBNB users agree to “accept people regardless of their race, religion, national origin, ethnicity, disability, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, or age!” Not perfect, but definitely better. Maybe instead of “repair the world”, we accept that the world is a jalopy that will never be completely fixed, and “improving the world” is a more realistic goal; I’ll even settle for “making the world less bad!”

Fifth and finally, we need to find the inspiration to act, and to keep acting. Remember Newton’s first law of motion: an object at rest will stay at rest without a nudge to get it moving (Newton did not write “nudge”). His second law applies too: if inertia and friction slow us down, we need to KEEP nudging to keep things moving. And if not us, who will? The major symbolic action on Yom Kippur when the Jerusalem Temple stood was the Scapegoat – a sacrificial animal that received the sins of the community and was driven into the wilderness. Even today, the most orthodox Jews follow a rabbinic tradition called Kapparot or Kappores, where a chicken is passed three times over one’s head as one says “This is my exchange, this is my substitute, this is my atonement. This chicken shall go to death and I shall proceed to a good, long life and peace.” The chicken is then killed and given to charity. Now we might critique this as not really doing anything to right the wrongs committed that year, and those same Orthodox Jews would agree with us – they are also required to find people they have wronged to apologize, and to make themselves available to those who have wronged them. Human forgiveness must come first, even before asking divine forgiveness through days of penitence and prayer, or through poultry.

Humanistic Jews are sometimes asked, “if you don’t pray, what do you do?” The best answer I’ve heard is: “We DO!” Do not rely on scapegoats or vicarious atonement – do the work yourself. Do not trust to miracles or providence or inevitable progress – act to see the good you want to come true. If we need inspiration, we can find it from all the good we have already done, and all the good being done every day. It does not make the nightly news or clickbait headlines, but there are good people doing good things every day. It’s rare that I quote a Presbyterian Minister, but in this case it’s Minister aka Mister Fred Rogers.

Whenever there is a catastrophe in the movies or on the air, always look for the helpers. There will always be helpers. If news programs could make a conscious effort of showing rescue teams, medical people, anybody who is coming into a place where there’s a tragedy to be sure that they include that. Because if you look for the helpers, you’ll know that there’s hope.

These are five steps for moving from seeing all of our crises to doing something: balancing crisis mode with living our lives; triaging which issues are the most important to us; evaluating before we act to have both good intentions and effective actions; working even in small ways to get the ball rolling; and making sure we keep that momentum.

If you have been paying close attention, you noticed I have not told you exactly what do to. I am not that kind of rabbi, and you do not need ME to do that. Choose the issues that motivate you, inspire you, anger you, and you will find an organization that is working to address it. They will have plenty of suggestions of what to do. Concerned about food insecurity? Take a look at Mazon: a Jewish response to hunger, or your local food bank. Want to help refugees? The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society is still in business. Worried about the separation of religion and government? Take a look at the Society for Humanistic Judaism’s new Jews for a Secular Democracy, or larger national groups like Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. Poverty? Death with Dignity? Literacy? Domestic Abuse? Find your causes, and then find your people to work on them together. The choice is yours, I cannot make it for you. Only you can decide what is most important to you.

Those Sephardic Jews fleeing Spain in 1492 had many choices – they could stay and convert, they could flee as refugees to Catholic Portugal or France or Italy, or to Protestant Holland, or to the Muslim Ottoman Empire, or to the new world across the great ocean. Each choice had its positives and drawbacks, both then and in the centuries that followed. There was no one right answer to do the right thing, no matter how much they prayed; life is not a choose your own adventure book. The right thing was to do.

As our new year begins, may we all find the courage to act when needed, and to work together. Shana Tova.

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4 Responses to Old Challenges Anew – What Can We Do (Yom Kippur 5780/2019)

  1. Pingback: Old Challenges Anew – High Holidays 5780/2019 | Shalom from Rabbi Chalom

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