Yom Kippur 5780: Rabbi Greg Wolfe
Putting our Values into Action: Our Lives are Hanging in the Balance!
The sound of shofars blared across the heavens; thunder roared and lightning flashed, casting ominous shadows against the vaulted ceilings of the divine judgment chambers. There was a great flurry of activity in the supernal court on high as even the angels trembled. All was being made ready as the proceedings were about to begin for the annual State of Humanity Report, given each year by the Holy One of Justice and Mercy, just before Yom Kippur. The Book of Life lay open on the podium, each and every life prominently on display, each life—the fate of all life, really—hanging in the balance. The tension grew by the moment and there was a great flapping of wings and furrowing of brows as the anticipated review was expected to be more disconcerting, more dire than ever, this year. Red warning lights had been going off in the control room for months now over many corners of the globe signaling: a world climate in crisis, escalating violence, an upsurge in human rights violations, a widening gap between rich and poor, and more and more people living unhoused on the streets. Strife and suffering were on the rise and the value of human dignity at an all time low! In fact, the Angels of kindness and Truth, justice and peace all reported losing ground in the past year.
Then, with a mighty thunderous clap, the Holy One descended upon the room, slamming the Great Book of Life closed with divine disgust. “I have just about had it with this humanity project! I am ready to throw the whole Book at them and start all over! Alas, my world, my beautiful earth, what is to become of her?!” A heavy silence fell over the room as the Source of All Life paced back and forth, clearly agitated and upset by what was transpiring in the human realm. A murmur burbled up through the heavenly throng. None had seen God so wroth since perhaps the Golden Calf or maybe even Sodom and Gemorrah!
One by one, the various angels began to speak up, clamoring to assuage God’s anger with constructive suggestions. One called out helpfully, “Well, can’t we just force them to do the right thing, to behave morally and ethically? You know, maybe throw in a few motivating curses like in the good ol’ days!” “Well,” sighed God, “I did endow them with free will. Sometimes, I wonder…. But I have come to realize that these humans must choose to be good on their own or it really doesn’t count. They must really want to be good. Otherwise, they won’t really change; they’ll just pretend to be better. And I have heard enough of that to last me for eternity!” Then, another angel piped up, “Maybe we could send a fire or a hurricane, or even a flood. You know, as a kind of warning that time is running out, that they’d better shape up or things will get much worse very soon.” A tear rolled down God’s cheek, “The truth has been very inconvenient. Ever since the days of Noah, nobody really wants to pay attention to the shifts in the weather. I have tried all those things and we just can’t seem to get people to take the necessary action. I have been getting a lot of thoughts and prayers, however, on the subject.” A third angel breathlessly called out, “ I know, I know! What if we send down inspiring teachers and scholars, and maybe a great rabbi or two, you know, who can motivate the multitudes and incite a wave of courageous resistance that will be a force for change to build a better world for all! After all, You have given over great teachings, filled with so many ways that humans can bring justice, holiness, and compassion into the world.” “No, no, no! What we really need are those prophets of days gone by,” chimed in another. “Those courageous voices and daring visions for what the world could be. Remember how great is was when we had those giants of justice like Isaiah and Amos and Micah demanding that people love mercy, do justly and walk humbly with their God?! Boy, that got people’s attention!” God nodded solemnly, “I still get chills when I hear his words read each Yom Kippur in the synagogues. I can still hear Isaiah’s booming voice like it was just yesterday: ‘Is this the fast I desire, a day for people to starve their bodies?…And lying in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call that a fast, a day favorable to God? No, this is the fast I desire: To unlock fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free;…It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to ignore your own kin.’” (Is. 58:5-7)
“Ha, ha, ha!” This new voice, a chillingly hollow laugh, came from the back of the hall. “You are all wasting your breath!” It was Satan, the paradigmatic prosecutor of humanity in Jewish lore. “I have been pretty quiet since the days of Job, but I have been watching and these humans you have created, O God, are simply too enamored of their own power and prestige to act with any semblance of moral courage. They are perfectly happy with their comfortable lives. They satisfy themselves with material wealth and pay no heed to the suffering of their neighbors. Happy are they who trust…no one! They convince themselves that the ills of the world don’t really affect them. Besides, they are way too busy running around checking things off their bucket lists!” God took a deep breath and in a focused whisper replied, “Ah, but you are so wrong, Dark Angel! I admit that these are trying times, and I can lose my patience with my creations, for sure, but I have always had and continue to have faith in humanity in the end. For I created each human being in the divine image to teach them that every life is of infinite value and should be treated as such. So they will never forget their responsibilities to care for the most vulnerable and weak in society—the widow, the poor, and the orphan—and to care deeply for the immigrant and the oppressed. I have implanted within them sparks of divinity so that they will strive, in their highest moments, to clothe the naked and shelter the homeless, and to embody my loving qualities in their daily lives. I have even given them special days and moments to reflect on their lives, like Shabbat and the Days of Awe, to take account for how they have been acting, how they have been treating each other and the world, so that they can change for the better. And, yet, and, yet…it just seems, at times like these, that we are fighting an uphill battle.”
All of a sudden, a commotion stirs in one corner of the room as the four archangels, Gabriel, Michael, Uriel and Raphael, make their way through the crowd. “Sorry, sorry! Excuse us, coming through!” They are holding parchments that radiate a bright golden light. “We’re so sorry to be late,” Gabriel, the chief angel, announces, bowing low to the ground “but these glowing reports have just come in, O, Holy One of Blessing! And I think that we have finally found the answer to Your prayers, the hope for the future of the world! Remember how you didn’t want to give the Torah to Moses with out some assurance that it would be kept for all time?” “Yes,” God acknowledged, not sure where this was going. “Well,” Gabriel continued excitedly, “at first Moses offered the ancestors, but you said that wasn’t good enough. So, he suggested that perhaps the scholars could be good guarantors. But, again, you would not accept them either. Then, Moses promised the children. The people would promise to teach Torah to their children and that would guarantee that the Torah would continue for all time. And, with that, You smiled and agreed to give the Torah to the people on that one condition: The children! And, once again, today, the children are the promise! You should just listen to the voices of the children of the world who are standing up every day, demanding action, inspiring so many others to acts of goodness. The passionate voices of these young, new prophets dare to challenge the leaders of the world and level scathing critiques against those in power just like some of our very best prophets of old. It is the children who have come to redeem the world. They are the titans of tikkun olam for today!”
Michael stepped forward, his voice caring and resonant, “Just listen to what this one 16 year old girl from Sweden has accomplished in a very short time. In just the last year, she has become a household name as she unleashed a world-wide torrent of activity. Let’s see, yes, I have her name here: Greta Thunberg. It started all so simply. She began skipping out on school every Friday and protesting in front of the Swedish parliament to demand that her government do more to tackle the challenges of the looming climate crisis. Almost single-handedly, she has created a movement that is sweeping across every country and every land! What began with one girl raising her voice has recently sparked a world-wide climate strike, led by teens, with millions gathering across the globe to demand greater action in every country to respond to climate change. There’s a note here, too, that, even in the small hamlet of Davis, CA there were hundreds upon hundreds who gathered together, young and old, speaking out to protect planet earth. And last month, Greta delivered a passionate speech at the United Nations Climate Action Summit, accusing world leaders of not taking the climate crisis seriously. She spoke her prophetic truth to world powers, let’s listen to her words:
“My message is: We’ll be watching you! I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school…. Yet, you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you! You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words…. People are suffering! People are dying! Entire ecosystems are collapsing! We are in the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth. How dare you! For more than 30 years the science has been crystal clear! How dare you continue to look away and say you are doing enough when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight!”
A hush fell over the crowded hall; not a few angels were wiping away a tear.
Raphael stepped forward next, his hands quivering with emotion as he began to speak. “There are hardly any tragedies more devastating than the mass killings of our young people. These next teen prophets have lived through unspeakable horrors as they experienced first-hand the impact of gun violence at their high school. 17 of their friends, teachers and classmates were murdered at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School only a year and a half ago. But they refuse to be silenced. They refuse to be mollified. They refuse to allow things to stay the same. These young prophetic voices are leading the fight to create sane gun laws in order to stop the madness. They gathered at the Florida state capital in Tallahassee, days after the attack, to express their outrage and frustration at the lack of responsiveness to passionate calls for the reform of current gun laws.
Let’s listen to the words of Delaney Tarr, a young survivor of the attack:
“We want gun reform. We want common sense gun laws. We want stronger mental health checks and background checks to work in conjunction…. We want privatized selling to be be completely reformed so that you can’t just walk into a building with $130 in your pocket and walk out with an AR 15! …[The lawmakers] must do right by us or they will lose their jobs…. We’ve had enough of thoughts and prayers… We are coming after every single one of you and demanding that you make a change.” (https://www.cnn.com/2018/02/
The angels hovered over the edges of their seats, uplifted by the courage and conviction they were witnessing in these brave young individuals. Maybe, just maybe, there is hope; hope for the world, hope for the beautiful souls created in God’s image. The angels hung tightly to these wisps of hope.
Then Uriel stepped forward, another glowing parchment in his hands. “Let me tell you about another amazing young woman,15 year old Autumn Peltier, who is a bright light leading the way on behalf of our planet. She is one of Mother Earth’s water warriors demanding that world leaders act now to stop the pollution of our waters; our oceans, lakes and streams. Autumn, a First Nation activist from Manitoulin Island in northern Ontario, Canada, has been concerned about safe and clean drinking water in Canada’s First Nations for as long as she can remember, inspired by her great aunt’s passionate advocacy for the protection of the Great Lakes. This teen has already won many awards and has recently become one of Canada’s water commissioners. And she is only 15!! She represents 40 First Nation communities across the country. There are some indigenous communities that have been without access to clean water for over thirty years, and it still seems as though government officials haven’t been taking these problems seriously. Water is not only necessary for life, but it holds a sacred value to Autumn and her people. (https://scholarblogs.emory.
Autumn first spoke at the UN in 2018 when she was just13 years old, let’s listen to what she said:
“We can’t just pray any more. We must do something, and we need to do it now!” We must “warrior up and empower each other to take a stand for our planet. My heart is in our land and in our water. Where I come from. Ask yourself, where your heart is? Where is your spirit? My heart and spirit is where my community is and where my ancestors are buried. Where the water is fresh and I can drink from the lake. My grandfather told me to remind everyone where your heart is. As we need our land to live and we can’t be here without the land and the water. We are all connected” In encouraging others to stand up for Mother Earth, Autumn says, “Learn as much as you can from your elders and your teachers. Talk to your friends and share ideas. Inspire and encourage others. If you have a idea, act and make it happen. Don’t be shy, there are no rights or wrongs — anyone can do this work. Just do it!! Our message is stronger when it’s more than one person.” (https://www.narcity.com/news/
All the hearts in the room swelled with pride as the heads in the hall bobbed up and down as one in agreement.
Gabriel rose next to his full height to address the room, “Some of these young prophets are working on the global scale while others are working on a national level and still there are other teens who seek to improve the lives of those living in their own community. One of these shining stars is 17 year old Lucy Beckett, from Elk Grove, California, who was one of the 15 winners of the Diller Teen Tikun Olam Award this past year for her work with refugee children. Lucy set out for Seattle in the summer of 2017 to volunteer at the Reform Youth Movement’s Mitzvah Corps Pacific Northwest summer camp for refugee children. She never dreamed what would happen next. Lucy watched the way the campers responded to the experience and discovered the power summer camp could have. Lucy went home determined to bring this type of transformational experience to refugee populations closer to her home in the Sacramento region. She immediately began working to start Camp Nefesh (meaning Camp for the Soul!), an organization created to bring the typical American summer camp experience to refugee children in the Sacramento area. Camp Nefesh, housed at Congregation B’nai Israel in Sacramento each summer, offers children new to the country the opportunity to connect with one another as well as get acclimated to their new home all while swimming, dancing, playing, and just being kids. “I know I can’t fix the problem of finding safe places for refugees and immigrants of the world,” Lucy remarked, “but I hope that Camp Nefesh has done something to help.” https://www.dillerteenawards.
The heavens now radiated with a golden light, as if the very spirt of these young agents of change filled the court of High Heaven with new possibility and promise. At this point, the four archangels took their seats, and all the angelic eyes were lifted up to God. You could have heard a pin drop. The Holy One of Blessing picked up the Book of Life again, weighing it carefully in each hand, this time with a new sense of reverence for the life-giving potential and hope that these young heroes hold out for the human race. So much hangs in the balance! So many lives hang in the balance…
This Yom Kippur, we need to ask ourselves, down here on Earth, how do we step up to take action? How do we harness the power of repair and renewal to help right the wrongs of human injustice? How do we build a better world for all? And will we be able to tip that balance in the direction of hope for the planet? Or not? These incredible students have dared to speak out, to challenge world leaders, to declare that doing nothing is no longer an option.We are humbled in their presence and inspired by their passion and the power of their convictions. We would do well to raise up their voices, to respond to their call, if not only for our own sakes then for theirs, and for our children and grandchildren who will inherit this world from us.
Our Jewish values summon us to action. They are not just some nice ideas that live in our minds or in some ideal world. Our values have real world implications. They make real world demands upon us and require us to speak up and take a stand. But we are not simply taking a stand against something. We are standing up for something! And this takes courage. This takes commitment. This takes perseverance because the arc of history, though it bends towards justice, does not bend easily or quickly. But together we can bend that arc; together, we can shape the world in which we hope to live using the guiding values of our tradition that have animated, motivated, and elevated our people for generations.
Our Jewish values challenge us to reach beyond what is and to dream about what may seem impossible and then to make it come true. In the famous words of Theodor Herzl, “Im tirtzu ein zo aggadah.If you will it, it is no dream!” The young activists we have heard about, who are just a small sampling of inspiring teens around the globe, challenge us into action and embody the very best of our Jewish values.
The very first value that these young people exemplify, in my eyes, is the idea of “Hineini!,” which might be best translated as “Here I am, ready to serve with my full self!” “Hineini!” was Abraham’s response when God called him to take his son, Isaac, up the mountain (Gen. 22:1) Moses responded, “Hineini!” when he heard the call from the burning bush to lead his people out of slavery in Egypt. (Ex. 3:4) The prophet Isaiah also heard the voice of the Lord call out to him when God needed a messenger, saying, “Whom shall I send?…And [Isaiah] said, Hineini, Here I am, send me!” (Is. 6:8) In each of these cases, Hineini communicates a deep commitment to respond completely to the task at hand with a kind of selflessness and desire to serve a cause greater than ourselves. This is what our young prophets of today have done; they have said, “Hineini,” and responded to the needs of the world with a sense of profound calling. We, too, are being called. We, too, must decide how we will respond, “Hineini!”
The second Jewish value that these courageous teens model for all of us is captured in the well-known story of Cain and Abel. After Cain kills his brother, he is queried by God: “Where is, Abel, your brother?” Cain answers, “I don’t know, HaShomer achi anochi?, Am I my brother’s keeper?!” (Genesis 4:9) While God does not answer Cain’s attempt to avoid responsibility directly, I believe that the entire Torah that follows is God’s response. Whether we are being reminded to care for the widow, the orphan and the stranger for the 36th time or the fact that the Torah makes it explicit that we are each created in the Divine image, our sacred texts never let us forget that we are bound in sacred covenant to one another and must look out for each other’s well being—to feed the hungry, to save lives, to care for our planet. We are, in every sense of the word, one another’s brother and sister. Our young prophets of today have answered that eternal question in the affirmative—Yes! We are all brothers and sisters. They know deep in their hearts that what happens to one affects us all, whether it is gun violence, the debasement of the environment or the lack of care for immigrants and refugees. We, too, are being called to respond: “Yes! Ha’shomer achi anochi! I am prepared to accept my sacred responsibilities to my brothers and sisters!”
In Leviticus 19:16 and Deuteronomy 16:20, we are taught yet another very important Jewish value: To be moral individuals and to create a moral society, it is not enough to simply refrain from doing bad things. For most of us, that’s a pretty low bar. The bigger challenge is that we must also be prepared to go out, sometimes out of our way, to do something good. In the holiness code of Leviticus we are instructed, “al ta’amode al dam re’eicha, do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” This means that if you see something wrong you are obligated to respond, to act, to get involved in whatever way you can. Apathy and turning away are not options. And in Deuteronomy, we are commanded: “tzedek, tzedek tirdof, justice, justice shall you pursue!” We must actively seek out justice and work with unrelenting resolve to ensure that justice is available for all and not just the few. Our young prophets of today are forcing us to look at the problems of our world, to truly see that our neighbors are suffering, that our planet is in crisis, that our valuable resources are being greedily gobbled up. We can no longer pretend that we don’t know what is going on. “How dare you!” they cry out. “How dare you refuse to do what is right, what is just, what is needed!” The pursuit of justice is on! The only question that remains is whether we will be participants in that chase or merely bystanders. Let us be among those who cannot stand idly by.
And, finally, let us also take comfort in the words of Rabbi Tarfon, who used to say, as he is quoted in Pirke Avot, the Ethics of our ancestors (2:16), “lo aleicha ha’mlacha ligmor v’lo ata ben chorin l’hibatel mimena—we are not responsible to complete all of the work, but neither are we free to not get involved.” We must get started! Our world depends on us! Often in the face of derision and even bullying from their detractors, our young prophets teach us the importance of not being deterred by those who are trying to distract us from our cause. We could easily be daunted and overwhelmed imagining how we will ever solve some of these world problems. However, we must focus on what we are able to accomplish and know that we can be a force for positive change. May each of us act in such a way that we will come to know that we have left one corner of the world better off because we were there.
These core Jewish values that come from our sacred tradition bespeak an understanding of our world in which every human life, indeed, every living being, including our Earth itself, has value; where each individual, no matter their race, creed, gender or sexual orientation, is created in the image of the Holy One. A world where we are responsible for one another’s well-being and sustenance. A world where we share a deep and abiding connection with all. Despite the fractious nature of the world, underlying it all is an interweaving that connects us all together. It is our rootedness in our ethical tradition, in our community founded on our eternal values, that gives us the strength and moral courage to act, to demand that injustice, racism, and prejudices of any kind cannot and will not be tolerated in our world. These are the ancient teachings that have guided our people for generations. We are continually challenged to see how these lessons can be applied to our life in today’s world.
At this time of year, in this holy moment, when the heavenly court assesses us not only as individuals, but as humanity as a whole, we must hold a mirror up to ourselves and ask whether we are we fulfilling our highest potential. How could we be better? Our moral courage comes from striving to be the best that we can be and to living up to our most sacred values. Here at Bet Haverim, our Team Tikkun Olam, our newly re-energized Social Action Committee under the leadership of Roy Kaplan and Alan Hirsch, is hard at work to mobilize and take action to address the pressing issues of our time and we need you—your hands, your heart, your spirit. We need each and every one of you to get involved! The time is now. The time to act is here! We can’t wring our hands any longer; we must roll up our sleeves and get busy. Our children are calling to us! Our future is depending upon us! Our planet is begging us! Those who are suffering need our support and involvement! We cannot remain silent and idle any longer. Let our hearts break open! Let our hands reach out. Let our voices rise up, echoing the passion of our prophets of the next generation. Let each of us find our own passion and get busy. There is much work to do and the time is now. Let us know how you want to be involved. Together, let us say Hineni, here I am, ready to serve. Together, let us each be a pursuer of justice, a protector of our brothers and sisters. And may no one stand by, ignoring the distress of our neighbors!
Meanwhile, back in God’s heavenly court room…the angels murmur their approval. Perhaps we have found the way to avert the crises facing the world. They look with anticipation to God and ask, “So, is there hope? Will Earth and humanity be saved?” God smiles in that enigmatic, divine way and replies, “We’ll see. Let’s go ask the kids!” *
ken y’hi ratzon
*with thanks to Rabbi Marc Gellman for the sermon ending, which is a riff on his midrash of creation called “Partners” in Does God Have a Big Toe?
Rabbi Greg Wolfe