Moral Unorthodoxy – Erev Rosh Hashanah 5777 – Rabbi Jason Nevarez

On a brisk day this past Spring, I had the privilege of taking my children, Ethan and Sophie to Ellis Island –the very place their grandfather traversed in 1908, from the town of Vilna, Lithuania. As we took the ferry from Battery Park, we sailed right around the Statue of Liberty. They were in awe of her sheer size, understanding that it was this magnificent monument that greeted new immigrants and refugees, welcoming them to their new home in NY and beyond.

ellis-island-immigration-museum-2_cLady Liberty’s image stayed with us as we disembarked at Ellis Island and proceeded with the self-guided audio tour. They both immersed themselves in the experience — carefully examining every room we entered, every photo we saw. Sophie focused on the faces of the children and the short narratives that accompanied their photos. She couldn’t wrap her head around the fact that her great grandpa George could ever have endured the treacherous journey. How could she ever imagine living a life filled with such harshness, suffering, and an arduous journey to a completely unknown new land.

This short journey to Ellis Island resonated deeply, the faces remaining with all of us after our departure. Soon after we were back home, another image, that of three-year old Aylan Kurdi, came searing into my mind. Aylan, whose parents valiantly tried to flee Syria to give him a life, literally and figuratively, never made it to a new land. Rather, he washed up on a Turkish shore in his tiny red t-shirt and blue shorts. He drowned, along with his five-year old brother and mother when his desperate father could no longer keep their heads above water, having been battered by unrelenting waves that their rubber raft simply could not sustain.aylan-kurdi

Aylan, of course is just one singular member of the vast global refugee population that has flooded our media for the last several years. But, this small boy tore into my consciousness, a boy who, at three years old, spent his entire life trapped in a world of horrific violence and utter despair. This boy who tugged on my (and many) heartstrings, will never get the chance to kick a soccer ball. He will never go to school, wrestle with a difficult math problem, cut class, go on a hike, or learn to hate broccoli. As I recalled his image, I wanted nothing more than to undo the unbearable pain that had been brought to his family, his community and later, to the world at large.

And all of a sudden, it became clear to me – the world’s shofar had sounded for me and others with Aylan. What all the numbers, statistics, media sensationalizing couldn’t do – the image of Aylan did in an instant.

Aylan’s story moved me so much that I joined 15 other rabbis in August on a fact-finding mission to Berlin, a hotbed in the midst of the current refugee crisis. One of my first experiences there was a visit to a remnant of the Berlin wall, where photographer Kai Wiesenhofer created an exhibit called, “War on Wall”, a profound exhibition of faces and war-on-wallstories of injured refugees plastered on a remaining section of the Wall. In his introduction, he states: “It is a paradox of war that the image of a single person makes the biggest impression upon us; the one whose face we can see, the one whose name and fate we can actually recall. The bigger the number of victims, the less we are touched emotionally. Instead of increasing our consternation, large numbers somehow numb the reality of it. Numbers are abstract- people are not.”

Paul Slovic at the University of Oregon calls this paradigm “psychophysical numbing” – if I can’t do everything, I’ll do nothing. Almost daily, newsfeeds and subsequent rhetoric in support or opposition of refugees became commonplace – I, too, became numb – “that’s their issue”, I recall, thinking to myself several times.

And then one day, a small boy who washed up on the shores of Eastern Europe, broke through the numbness.

The reality IS that most of us walk through this world focused on just trying to get through the day while we seek to quiet the issues that stir intense feelings within us. While we may stop for a moment to acknowledge the pain, the tragedy, or the need, many of us (including myself), shake our heads and quietly keep on walking.

For a moment, Aylan awakened us, surely me, too late to the horrors of a crisis fueled by our own indifference.

As a society, we’ve sh-childrenbeen here before. We woke up to the insanity of this country’s gun culture four years ago after parents and families had to bury 26 innocent young souls
gunned down in their classrooms just 25 miles from where we gather this evening. It was too awful, too vivid for us to walk away at that very moment. But soon after, our Facebook feeds quieted, we shook our heads, brushed away tears, and kept on quietly walking. We did the same after Virginia Tech, Tucson, Aurora, Fort Hood, Charleston and Orlando.

We shake our heads, angered, concerned….and quietly keep on walking.

We acknowledged the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow in our country when Trayvon was eric-garnerkilled, and our laws didn’t change.  Our social media exploded again when Eric Garner died in a strangle-hold, or Freddie Gray, who was shoved into a police van with such blunt force that he suffered spinal cord injury and ultimately death. And most recently, the events in Charlotte last week continue to feed this seemingly endless cycle, leading to further loss of innocent civilian and police lives, further inciting violence and disdain for those in blue. For a moment, we become outraged, vocal, sorrowful and motivated and soon after, we keep on walking….

Paradoxically, as a Jewish community, we stand proudly, for years, fighting for the rights of the African-American community– from the days of modern theologian Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel walking with Dr. King in Selma, exclaiming, “I felt like my feet were praying.” Yet, the latest iteration of organizational justice for the African-American community, the Black Lives Matter movement, blindsided the Jewish community with the recent unveiling of its social and political policy agenda. It portrays a strategy well beyond police brutality, and accuses Israel of genocide and apartheid, seeking to hijack important work that addresses deeply rooted societal challenges, with a platform that brings about contempt and bigotry toward Jews. Few leaders spoke up, and many of us just kept on walking….

Even locally, in our own backyard we see homeless on the streets of NYC or Mt. Kisco, and immigrants who occupy local street corners in find work so they can sustain their families.
immigrants-on-street-cornerWe may take notice for a moment, but do we truly acknowledge that they, too, are our neighbors? Chances are, we keep on walking….

It is a harsh and never-ending cycle. Truly the world would be so much simpler if all we continued to worry about was soccer or baseball, dine in or take-out, iPhone 7 or 7 Plus. And yet here comes Aylan’s image in my mind, again and again – shattering complacency, and pushing me (and perhaps some of US) to remember how fragile this journey we call life, truly is; to stop walking, turn around and face one another with an outstretched hand.

The blasts of the shofar come every year to not only wake us up (which I have charged you with in the past), but for me this year, the sacred voice of the shofar calls us to STOP walking away, take notice, and act.

In the book of Deuteronomtzedek-tzedek-tirdofy, we are commanded: “Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof – justice, justice, shall you pursue.” (Deut. 16:20). Our mandate for being a free people is the ongoing pursuit for justice – fighting for the rights and ensuring the dignity of the other. Judaism takes the pursuit of justice in earnest, emphasizing the word tzedek, justice, in Torah, two times, one right after the other.

But could the sages of our Torah have possibly understood the enormity of this task in 2016? Think of how many news alerts we receive in the course of one day. Could they have ever fathomed the spiritual confusion that comes when we carry tiny screens with us everywhere, notifying us in real time to every act of human cruelty, every tragic story, violent protest, – every possible political poll? Never before have we had access to so much input. How could we be expected to even hold it all, let alone act?

Joan Kantor, beloved congregant, friend, and teacher in our Religious School, recently penned a Letter to the Editor in the NY Times, responding to an op-ed entitled: Scrutinizing Our Frenzy. She notes, “Once again, I have to make room in my busy schedule to respond to your article about being busy. Don’t you people understand that I don’t have time for this? Do you really want me to admit that my crammed, stressful to-do list days are an excuse not to face who I am on the inside? I have so much going on, so many places to run to, so much to worry about. Can’t you just leave me alone and let me “not be”?”

Joan has it right. Today, there is no question that we have reached the saturation point. No surprise, then, the growing backlash to the world’s refugees crisis or our country’s race relations. Or the divisiveness that has radiated, on these issues and more, fed by our current political cycle. If we can’t make space and time to honestly look at ourselves and make self-care a priority, how can we move from a state of psychophysical numbness to one of compassion, empathy, and action?

Over these Days of Awe, we are charged to look within and to take inventory – looking deep to acknowledge both the pain and the progress.

In this inventory of our culture, I do see the growth: our unprecedented ability to treat illnesses; outstanding advances in science, medicine and technology, the newly opened forum to address gender questions, the seemingly endless charitable organizations that work hard to make an impact every day, creative solutions to end water crises in Israel that are shared with developing nations….and let us not forget WAZE! Thanks to Israel’s Start-Up Nation!

As I also take stock of the pain and the hardening of the heart: millions dead, victims of war, hatred, religious extremism and terror, and better technology to weaponize hatred and kill more efficiently and effectively – I see a significant imbalance.

What a dynamic tension: in the past century, we have learned how to think deep: I have witnessed children in our own congregation printing in 3D, and watched some of the greatest medical advances to date. Robots are communicating and teaching each other; whole cities have moved off of electrical grids and are now powered by wind and air; online stores are providing information about our genes that will make it accessible to learn more about our health.

But somehow, we have not yet figured out how to feel deep, to build stronger bridges of humanity. We have yet to overturn the U.S. legacy of racism and temper this world’s attraction towards anti-Israel, anti-Jewish vitriol. We lack the sechel, the common sense and political capital in figuring out how to protect children in our classrooms and malls and theaters from disturbed young individuals armed with weapons of war or how to provide our own citizens equal opportunity of access to all that our country has to offer.

We can send rovers to Mars, build self-driving cars, but we can’t muster the collective will to care for the world’s most vulnerable: refugee children, leaving them no choice but to venture into a raging sea on broken inflatable rafts?

We tout ourselves as the most powerful generation ever to inherit this earth, yet we still convince ourselves of our personal powerlessness. Friends – this is a “moral crisis”.

SO…what can we do to stop, take notice and act? How do we harness our creative genius and frame it in the moral choice to stop walking and turn to face our fellow human?

A critical first step is to let our empathy lead us to moral action. Our capacity to see all moral-actionhuman beings as reflections of ourselves, not as “other” will make a difference to the person at the other end of a gun barrel, or those holding on for dear life to a raft that has no business crossing the rough sea. Or to the parents who fear that their children won’t make it home from school; and reduce the fear that emanates, on either end, between a police officer and a person of color. Empathy is what allows the divine to dwell between two people – for love to overcome hate, peace to overcome violence.

In 1967 at an interfaith conference in Washington, DC protesting the War in Vietnam, Rabbi Heschel told a story about his first encounter, at the age of seven, with the Akeidah, the binding of Isaac, which we will read tomorrow morning. He recalls sitting in class, reading the story from the Book of Genesis. When the moment comes that Abraham holds the knife over his son’s throat, Heschel begins to cry. By the time the angel cries out: Abraham, Abraham, lay not your hand on the child! he is sobbing uncontrollably, overcome with terror. ‘Why are you crying?’ the Rabbi asks him. ‘You know that Isaac was not killed!’ ‘But rabbi,’ he says, ‘supposing the angel had come a second too late?’ The Rabbi comforts him, explaining that an angel cannot come late. “My friends,” Heschel notes decades later, “an angel cannot be late. But we, made of flesh and blood, we may come too late.”

While we may not be able to bring an end to war, oppression, and hatred on our own (I am well aware), the reverberations of the shofar blast mandate us to actively seek out and do our part. We can change the fate of the world and its people by choosing not to come too late.

That frenzy referred to in the NY times Op Ed is the focus on all we think we need to do and be. It precludes us from seeing beyond ourselves and it burns us out physically, spiritually so much so that we may render ourselves helpless. Yet we can turn our best intentions into meaningful, sacred deeds if we choose to stop, take a breath and look up. Here are a few concrete actions steps to support our mandate in 5777:

  1. Use the internet and social media to learn what people are feeling, and get caught up on the issues that are important to the community that you want to support. Use your voice, skills, connections and gifts to educate others.
  2. Ask yourself: am I bringing moral conversations home and making space for my loved ones, my children to think deeply and take steps with causes I, or we, are passionate about? Am I deliberately looking up to see where my part is needed?
  3. There are many tangible ways that you can make a difference right here in your spiritual home through participating in our social justice initiatives. Any one of our leadership can help guide you to the many opportunities here at TST.

Chief Rabbi of Palestine under the British Mandate, Rav Kook’s timeless message is key here. He says: “Purely righteous people do not complain about evil; they add justice. They do not complain about heresy; they add faith.” (Rav Kook, Arpelei Tohar, p. 39)

Tzedek, tzedek tirdof – Justice, justice shall you pursue! Pursuing justice still affords us time for work, our families, summer camp, vacations, theatre, and our sporting games. And as I already mentioned, there are people in our own community, perhaps even our own homes, who desperately need us to pay attention, with our love, time and resources. I believe there is room in our hearts to hold all of this.

Commit to not quietly walking away today….or tomorrow. A sweet boy in a red t-shirt and blue shorts stopped me in my tracks. Together, let’s turn our best intentions, our concern and sometimes anger, now into moral action.

I close tonight by offering a prayer, which I hope will motivate us towards next steps in this New Year of 5777 and beyond:

Mi Shebeirach Avoteinu v’Imoteinu

God of our Fathers and Mothers, Source of Creation

This year, help us to STOP walking away.

Know that while we come together during these holy days to be in community with one another, our liturgy, inspired by You, calls us to turn our moral crisis into moral action.

Help us identify our wealth of skills, knowledge, influence and resources, and turn them into deeds that support the human condition and human dignity.

Help us to motivate ourselves, and one another, so that we can infuse this world with much-needed justice, light, empathy and healing to bring about wholeness in humanity.

Amen. Shana Tova.


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