Yom Kippur Morning, September 23, 2015

Shana Tova and G’mar Chatima Tova!  Sally, our family, and I greet you on this most important day of our year, the day when we stand alone before God and the heavenly court, when the imagery of God as the Decider of our fate pervades our consciousness.  In fact, God does not decide our futures- we do.  The power to change, to make teshuvah, is in our hands.  Only we can make the moral choices to become kinder and more empathic human beings.  Only we can alter our behavior and choose our words.  Only we can make the decisions that change our fate.  God does not actually write down our names in the Book of Life or the Book of Death…we do it ourselves…

I base my remarks to you this morning on a text from the Book of Isaiah, chapter 51, verses one and two.  These two verses, written by the prophet over 2,500 years ago, have had an immense impact on our communal fate, the later history of the Jewish people until this very day.  First the text and then I will explain.

Listen to Me, you who pursue justice

You seek the Lord:

Look to the rock you were hewn from

To the quarry you were dug from

Look back to Abraham your father

And to Sarah who brought you forth

For he was only one when I called him

And I blessed him and made him many.

Why should justice seekers look to Abraham and Sarah?  Why is justice associated with God’s blessing?  Why does the text emphasize Abraham’s age when God called him?  These questions and others are worth exploring.

Abraham and Sarah were iconoclasts.  They rejected the cultural norms of their age and followed the one and eternal God, the God of the universe.  Abraham destroyed idols and had no tolerance for injustice.  He even argued with God over the fate of the evil inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah!  He held God to account when he said (Genesis 18:25) “Shall not the Judge of the earth do justly?”  Abraham shattered assumptions.  God chose him because he was able to look at life through the prism of justice and mercy.  Abraham and Sarah were outsiders, estranged from the inhabitants of the land in which they lived by their belief in the one God who insisted on moral behavior, quite unlike the gods of the pagans.  Our God could not be placated with sacrifices and magical rites.  Our God only wanted us to do justly and walk humbly with Him.  Abraham was the original Jew because he was counter-cultural.  Even as a child, he refused to embrace the idolatrous values of his time.  He was the paradigm for the Jewish people from ancient times to this very day- an outsider who looked critically at society and refused to embrace its norms.  God chose Abraham and his descendants to challenge authority, to question assumptions, and to seek a life of justice and mercy for all God’s creation.  No one said this better than Baltimore born and raised Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, one of the great American rabbis of the Twentieth century:

“There is no quiet life for Jews anywhere, at least not for long.  The only question is whether one lives among the tempests with purpose and dignity.  We Jews know why we suffer.  Society resents anyone who challenges its fundamental beliefs, behavior, and prejudices.  The ruling class does not like to be told that morality overrules power.  The claim to chosenness guarantees Jews will live unquiet lives.  I say it is much better to be the chosen people, the goad and the irritant to much of humanity, than to live timidly and fearfully.  Jews exist to be bold.  We cannot hide from the task of making the world more just and decent…Jews must stand up for a society that is bound by human morality- and speak truth to power.”[i]

Like Avraham Avinu and Sara Imeinu, we are the perpetual outsiders, looking in and pointing to the inherent injustices and wrongs in the societies in which we live.  At least that was the way it used to be in America.  Fifty years ago, we could not live east of Falls Road, work in certain occupations, and walk into many private clubs.  There was rampant anti-Semitism in the United States throughout three quarters of the Twentieth Century.  American society has been transformed over the last forty years. We have become more diverse and much more accepting.  Jews are found in every neighborhood and profession.  We are completely American, comfortable in our gilded ghettos, and at home in the top echelons of American society.  We are not outsiders any longer.  In fact, we are leaders and trend setters.  We are no longer critics of societal mores because we shape societal mores.  Generation X and the Millennials have inherited a society that our grandparents could only imagine- a place where Jews are completely at home.  That is not to say there is no anti-Semitism in the United States.  There is, but it exists among the right and left wing fringes of society.  The vast majority of Americans have no qualms about their children marrying a Jew.

The problem with this acceptance is that we cannot critique the culture of which we are an integral part.  We have abandoned the age old role of the Jew.  Along with this change is something I find very disturbing- a loss of empathy.  Baltimore is going through its most harrowing days since the riots of April, 1968.  Where is the Jewish community?  Where are our Jewish agencies in the struggle for justice?  How many Jews have gone to the Sandtown-Winchester to see for themselves the plight of its residents?  How many of us actually care about what happens in inner city Baltimore?  Are we on the streets demanding jobs, better housing and educational opportunities for the poor of Baltimore?  Have we become so inured to suffering that we no longer care enough to act?  Where is our empathy?

Mel Brooks is a comic genius.  In almost all of his comedy, however, is a critique of American society.  “Mel Brook’s humor emanates from his Jewish identity.  Brooks locates the roots of his comedy in Jewish pain.  He said, ‘You want to know where my comedy comes from?  It comes from not being kissed by a girl until you’re sixteen.  It comes from the feeling that as a Jew and as a person, you don’t fit into the mainstream of American society.  It comes from the realization that even though you’re better and smarter, you’ll never belong.”[ii]  One of Brook’s most hilarious and meaningful vignettes is in the great movie, “Blazing Saddles.”  I watched it again this summer and was incredibly moved by one scene in particular.  How many of you have seen “Blazing Saddles?”  If so, bear with me.  If not, you must see this movie.  “The entire film reverberates with the Jewish sense of alienation that leads Brooks to concentrate on the problems of outsiders in the Old West, those segregated by race, color or religion.  Jews, as such, never really appear in Blazing Saddles, though one of picture’s funniest moments occurs when an Indian chief, played by Mel Brooks himself, begins speaking Yiddish to a family of African-Americans.   It seems appropriate that the West’s most conspicuous outsider, the Indian, should speak in the tongue of history’s traditional outsider, the Jew.”[iii]  What is not apparent to us but was clearly known to Brooks is that during the early era of Hollywood, in the twenties and thirties, most Indians in Westerns were portrayed by Yiddish speaking Jews.  So Brooks was making a profound statement while spoofing a Hollywood tradition.

Listen to what Brooks, the Indian chief, says to the African-American family in the covered wagon.  I will translate for those of you who do not understand Yiddish. He looks at them and says, “Shvartzes, zeit nicht meshuga!”  “Blacks, are you crazy?”  Then he looks at his braves and shouts, “Lozem geh!” “Let them go.”  Turning back to the family he says, “Kop a walk. It’s alright. A be gesind. (Be well) Take off.”  Looking at his braves he says, “A be gezehen in deine leben?” “Have you seen anything like this in your life? They’re darker than we are! Wooh!”  What Brooks did in that one line, “They’re darker than we are” is establish commonality with other American outsiders, African Americans and Native Americans.  A hundred years ago in this country, Jews were considered to be “people of color.”  Brooks not only feels a solidarity with other people of color but feels empathy for them.  His comedic shtick still resounds with significance.

In order to demonstrate our empathy and represent you, Sally and I drove to Cheraw, South Carolina at the end of August to participate in the NAACP’s Journey for Justice.  The Union of Reform Judaism, through the Religious Action Center, co-sponsored the forty day march from Selma, Alabama, to Washington, D.C. on the fiftieth anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery civil rights march.  While it may appear that the civil rights struggle is over, that is far from the case.  Voting rights are under attack in several Southern states and racism is still rampant in American life.  Each day Reform rabbis and other Jews marched arm in arm with African Americans while holding a Torah, memorializing the rabbis who carried a Torah while marching with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. So I marched in 90 degree heat holding the Torah next to my chest.  I am not ashamed to admit to you that the awl haTorah, the burden of Torah, was never heavier.  Despite the physical toll, we felt a kinship with our fellow marchers and were proud to represent the Jewish community in the ongoing struggle for justice.  The most obvious difference between this march and its fifty year old antecedent was that instead of beating and arresting us, the state and local police protected us.  Some aspects of American life have certainly gotten better.

Empathy, understanding another’s situation, no longer comes naturally to us.  We do not have an outsider’s frame of reference.  We are neither poor nor oppressed, ill-educated, ill clothed or hungry.  We are completely at home in the suburbs and the lovely parts of Baltimore.  As an editorial in the Baltimore Sun recently said, “Whatever is causing Baltimore’s recent spike in crime, we can be certain it’s not because there’s an excess of civil liberties granted to black people.  The evidence of racial disparity is irrefutable:  the life expectancy in Baltimore’s poorest neighborhoods is worse than in Syria. And police brutality is not some imagined problem; the city has doled out millions of dollars in settlements in recent years…those young people who threw rocks at police or looted Mondawmin Mall or otherwise behaved as criminals weren’t doing so at the behest of a civil rights movement seeking recognition or redress.  The perpetrators were, however, the product of neighborhoods caught in a long standing cycle of drugs, crime, poverty, and joblessness from which there is little escape and about which outsiders often have a minimal understanding or empathy.”[iv] I could go on and on about what is called the “architecture of segregation” and what we can do to end the entrenched cycle of generational hopelessness and despair, but that is not a sermon nor is this the time or the place.  What I can do is urge you to join with me in listening to stories. To stories?  Yes, that is correct.  I would like you to listen to stories.

Over the next few years, we will work with our church partners in BUILD to develop relationships with African-Americans, especially inner city African-Americans.  The only way to do that is to listen to their stories, what they have to say about their lives and their aspirations.   The only way we can develop empathy is to meet these people and start caring about them as human beings.  Once we develop empathy perhaps then we will care more deeply about social justice and the lives of thousands upon thousands of Americans who live in the inner cities, trapped by forces beyond their control.  Of course, personal decisions and behavior enable some to escape, but they are the exceptional ones, like Dr. Ben Carson who is now running for President.  Having made the remarkable journey from a Detroit ghetto to become one of the world’s top pediatric neuro-surgeons, Ben Carson thinks that most other people in similar circumstances can be like him. Once he made it, it seems he left whatever empathy he had behind. Ordinary people just do not have much of a chance for a decent life.  When we get to know them, perhaps we will want to help them as individuals and do our best to change the system that entraps them.

You see, I do want you to be content with your lives.  “In Judaism, such serenity as we are granted comes from the joy of making something better, not accepting something that is worse.  One of God’s names is El Shaddai.  One rabbinic interpretation is that God is saying “dai!” – enough!  God is saying, “I’ve done as much as I intend to do.  Fixing the rest of the world is now your task.  Eschew complacency; leave serenity to calm interludes on mountaintops.  Down here, where the world is filled with suffering and brokenness, feel upset, angry, inspired- and join the fight.”[v]  Join me, join Sally, join Abraham and Sarah, Mel Brooks, and Jews who have lived for the last three thousand years.  On this Yom Kippur, let us begin to develop empathy and help make Baltimore better for all its inhabitants.

Said God to the prophet Isaiah:

Listen to Me, you who pursue justice

You seek the Lord:

Look to the rock you were hewn from

To the quarry you were dug from

Look back to Abraham your father

And to Sarah who brought you forth

For he was only one when I called him

And I blessed him and made him many

Amen and G’mar Chatima Tova

[i] Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, Mishkan HaNefesh, Yom Kippur, page 231.

[ii] Lester D. Friedman, Hollywood’s Image of the Jew, page 187.

[iii] Ibid, page 228.

[iv] Baltimore Sun, September 7, 2015.

[v] Rabbi David Wolpe, the NY Jewish Week, August 21, 2015.

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