This post was originally delivered as a Yom Kippur Morning sermon at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago in September 2020. It was part of a series on Five Jewish Questions. Video is available here.
Hillel was one of the most famous teachers in Jewish history, but we do not know that much about him. A Babylonian Jew by birth, he came to Jerusalem to study Torah and Jewish law before the year Zero and became the pre-eminent scholar of his generation – the end of the Pharisees and beginning of the rabbis. Hillel’s name has been used for college campus organizations, Jewish day schools, synagogues, even an Israeli organization that supports people leaving ultra-Orthodoxy for the wider world. Hillel was known for his patience, his love of peace, his humility, and especially for his turn of phrase. It is ironic that one of his most famous phrases celebrates the virtue of impatience – “if not now, when?”
In traditional Jewish thought, patience was absolutely a virtue. From the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple until its future rebuilding in the age of the messiah, Jews were to wait, and wait patiently. Recall the scene in Fiddler on the Roof when they are expelled from the shtetl – the tailor asks the rebbe “we’ve been waiting for the messiah all our lives, wouldn’t now be a good time for him to come?” The rebbe smiles and says, “We’ll just have to wait for him someplace else.” When you think about it, it’s good to be the messiah. When you finally arrive, everyone you care about is happy to see you; you get to fulfill all those promises made by priests and prophets and rabbis and scripture to reward the righteous and punish the wicked; you are the only and final court of appeal, and all judgements are definitely final. Best of all, no matter when you arrive, no matter how long people have waited, the messiah is always on time, because your arrival must be the way it was meant to be. The patience of Job was not just for Job (Job actually spends several chapters complaining – which somehow feels more Jewish). Patience was for all Jews to wait for the end of exile, the messianic age, and supernatural redemption.
But waiting has never been good enough for some; they have stubbornly insisted that people actually have a role to play in their own deliverance. Sometimes they tried to force the coming of the messiah, or influence the universe towards redemption through mystical thought and practice. With the dawn of the secular age and organized Jewish political activity, many movements acted to improve the lot of the Jewish people. Sometimes it was actually moving, fleeing tsarist or Nazi or Arab nationalist oppression to freedom elsewhere in the world, including in America. Sometimes it was a secular messianism, working for a glorious revolution in society, economy and values that would make antisemitism a relic of the bourgeois capitalist past. Sometimes it was an identity revolution, defining and celebrating Jewishness as an ethnic, even a national identity. The modern state of Israel was born from Jewish people tired of waiting for a messiah to save them – they decided to save themselves. They lived out the challenging reality of Hillel’s timeless question, “If not now, when?”
This Jewish New Year, we have explored questions from Jewish culture with universal significance. Hillel’s challenge is perhaps the most apt at this moment. Too many people are too fed up with too many problems, and they are done being told the problem is just with them or that patience will work this time – again. The desire for rapid change has been articulated in many ways – the fierce urgency of now, justice delayed is justice denied…. There are always clever reasons for “not now.” We can’t change too fast; we don’t know all the consequences yet; some of us like the status quo; you can’t change this issue without dealing with all these other problems; change itself is scary. I remember an amusing children’s book about the definition of “in a minute”: the youngest child’s parents and siblings are too busy for him and put him off with “in a minute,” “in a minute,” so he decides that “in a minute” means never.
What makes these clever reasons challenging is that sometimes they are true – yet they are not enough to stop change. In the late 1990s in organized Humanistic Judaism, a new melody was created for the song Ayfo Oree, written by Rabbi Sherwin Wine in the 1970s. The new melody was more upbeat and singable, but some complained about changing the melody. They said, “this is the way we’ve always done it!” Of all branches of Judaism, Secular Humanistic Judaism is the one movement that should never rely on “this is the way we’ve always done it” – we’ve changed so much! There may have been a reason for a practice decades ago, but we have to re-evaluate that reasoning and decide if it operates NOW. It is true that sometimes the answer to “if not now, when” is “in 6 months” or “after we have more information.” It took Kol Hadash 3 years of study, discussion and planning to change our dues system to include a Contributing Membership with a self-chosen financial commitment. We were not the first congregation to do so, we studied the data, and more have followed us in this small-scale Jewish communal revolution. 3 years ago, if we had been asked, “if you aren’t changing the Kol Hadash membership model now, then when?” our answer was “not now, but soon.” And we kept our word.
The cliché version of Jewish questioning is: “why do you always answer a question with a question?” “Do I?” For problems in Jewish law, is the issue under debate happening during the day or at night? On Shabbat or on an ordinary day? Who is doing it and where and why? So it is not exactly evading the first question to ask more questions. When we say “if not now, when?” we can ask what counts as “now”. Does “now” mean to start the process, or to finish it? Does now mean to open the topic or to conclude the discussion?
And to have a now, there has to have been a then, a time before now. We cannot change the past, though we can change how we understand our past . Slavery in the Jewish tradition and the American tradition; 2,500 years of Jewish history with almost no women clergy until the last 50 years; narratives of national establishment that ignored other peoples present and rooted in the same land. I cannot change my own personal history as a child of the 1980s who enjoyed the School House Rock video about American Westward migration: it was so crowded on the East Coast, we needed “Elbow Room.”
The way was opened up for folks with bravery.
There were plenty of fights
To win land rights,
But the West was meant to be;
It was our Manifest Destiny!
The trappers, traders, and the peddlers,
The politicians, and the settlers,
They got there by any way they could.
The Gold Rush trampled down the wilderness,
The railroads spread across from east to west,
And soon the West was opened up for good.
Notice anyone missing from that story, or how we might tell it differently today?
SchoolHouse Rock’s immigration song “Great American Melting Pot” is overwhelmingly Eurocentric, never mentioning Native Americans or Latinos who were already here, or any Asian immigration or heaven forbid African kidnapping. “America was founded by the English, but also by the Germans, Dutch and French….” The video’s cartoon images of non-whites will shock you, as they shocked me when watching them again 30 years older. As a child, I enjoyed those videos, and I learned both tolerance and stereotypes from them. As part of my maturation, I have unlearned now some of what I learned then.
So too for all of us, and for the interlocking societies to which we belong – to understand this moment of “Now,” we have to know what happened THEN to get to now. We have to learn our real history, even and especially the uncomfortable parts, even and especially from perspectives foreign to our own. Who were the Native Americans who met Columbus, and what did they think of what happened next? How does the American story change if you refocus the narrative on women or slaves instead? When should we date the beginning of American democracy – 1787 with the writing of the Constitution, 1870 when former male slaves could theoretically vote, 1920 with women’s suffrage (at least white women), or the Voting Rights Act of 1964 – happy 56th anniversary of American democracy?
In the same way, we need to tell the story of Jewish national self-determination differently. On one hand, and absolutely true, the forging of a new Israeli identity from a global Jewish diaspora of Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Mizrahi, Ethiopian, and many other Jewish cultures, and the many successes of the start-up nation. At the same time, we can understand that creating a Jewish national omelet broke and still breaks many Palestinian eggs. Hillel’s aphorism “If Not Now” has inspired a Jewish activist organization for Israel/Palestine under that name. The group began because after 50 years since the 6 Day War, mutual national recognition and genuine peace seemed further away than ever, and the organizers were tired of hearing histories with one side always right and the other always wrong. The activists remain engaged with Israel – after all, criticism is still engagement! But they are motivated to take action NOW because of their new understandings of what happened THEN.
Hillel’s most famous question is actually the last of 3 questions – as we have seen, there’s never only one question. “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not now, when?” At one moment, we need to consider our individual needs, what others may need, how we need their support for our needs, and ALSO the question of when. Hillel’s first 2 questions push us to think from our own perspective, and also for the benefit of others if we want them on our side. Today if we want allies in the fight against antisemitism, we should BE allies in fights against racism and bias and discrimination. Xenophobia means “fear of the stranger;” as we heard last night from Exodus 23, in our tradition “you should not oppress the stranger, for you know the spirit of the stranger since you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” When we vote or volunteer or work or advocate, if we are for ourselves alone, what are we? I am a cisgender heterosexual married educated white man employed and housed in affluent suburbia. With those demographics, chances are I will personally be ok no matter who wins an election. But I do not only vote for me – I vote with compassion and enlightened self-interest for those I care about, for the society I want to see, to treat others as I would want to be treated. I am definitely a values voter – my values are just different from Jerry Fallwell, Sr. OR Jr.
The Jewish new year began 9 days ago with Rosh Hashana. These 10 days have been an opportunity for reflection, for self-evaluation, for judgment. Yet that thought and reflection must lead to action. What have we done since that beginning to truly make a new start? What can we do NOW to address our challenges now and soon? When the problems are many and large, it can be hard to know where to begin. Here are three concrete suggestions – remember, as a Humanistic Rabbi I am not in the Commandments business.
- Change your priorities from sounding good to doing good. The CEO of Netflix recently confessed that when he used to say “family is most important,” he was lying. He became aware he was lying as he noticed he was ignoring his family to do more work over and over again. Think about issues you’ve found challenging and disturbing this year. Then look at where you spend your advocacy and charitable giving and volunteer resources. Do they match? Can they be improved? Are there more effective organizations that focus specifically on the issues you want to address? Don’t let yourself get stuck on “this is the way we’ve always done it;” re-evaluate and do even more good than before.
- Push yourself to do the uncomfortable, even if only once a day to start. Getting in John Lewis’ “good trouble” can be hard to make ourselves do, be it on the streets, social media, or private conversation. But if you hear something or see something that needs correcting, push yourself to invest the time, the ego, the energy in pushing back. It is easier to be an anonymous bystander, harder to put the spotlight on yourself as an active UPstander. The more we push ourselves to do what is uncomfortable but right, the better we will become and the more natural it will be. We might inspire others to do the same by our example.
- Find one way you can do something more, and then do it. This year I chose to become an Election Poll Worker to deploy my relative youth and health to fill a need. Fortunately I have a flexible daily work schedule and an understanding employer. I have thought about doing this for years, since my household follows the Chicago tradition to vote early and vote often (which we interpret as “every election”). This year pushed me to actually do it – if not now, if not this year, if not at this moment, well, I had no answer other than – do it!
These three suggestions will not change the world; by themselves changing your priorities, doing the uncomfortable, and doing one thing more will not change your life. We cannot rely on Commandments from heaven and cosmic justice and messianic deliverance, so getting ourselves into better habits of doing better is how Humanists can meet that basic human need for atonement and self-improvement, the need that Yom Kippur was created to fulfill. For us, the measure of whether a society or system or action is good is its effects on human beings in the real world in which we live. And there is no reason to wait if we know that what is, is not good. If not now to reduce suffering, if not now to push for justice, if not now to see good be done, then when indeed.
These have been our 4 questions this Jewish new year – and they had nothing to do with matzah or reclining. Who am I to confront Pharaoh? Am I my brother’s, my sibling’s keeper? Shall not the judges of the earth do justice? And if not now, when? If these questions have served their purpose, they have opened up new possibilities in your minds and hearts for the new year that will make for new beginnings. None of us are Moses or Abraham or Cain or Hillel – each of us has our unique opportunity to leave our unique stamp on our small corner of the world. Do not wait, for who knows if this moment will come again, and who can see what will happen after? Think, reflect, consider….and do!