Wednesday, September 23, 2015

"Looking Justice in the Eyes (and Loving God) - Yom Kippur Morning Sermon - September 23, 2015

On January 26 of this year, on the eve of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, HBO screened a new film directed by Andre Singer, “Night Will Fall.”  My initial response to the film came out something like this: “Watching the HBO Documentary "Night Will Fall" on the making of the film first directed by Alfred Hitchcock about the liberation of Concentration Camps - very chilling....very sad.....and giving me a sense of determination to keep the Judaism in which I believe alive through thought, study, song and action.”
    Every year, in our Torah readings, in our study and on Pesach, we retell the story of confronting an oppressor to bring about “liberty and justice for all.”
 Around that time in January when "Night Will Fall" was shown on television, we had just read Exodus Chapter 12 as our weekly Torah reading. That passage described the first celebration of Passover and detailed the rituals that would enable the Israelites to escape the consequences of the last plague, the death of the first-born male children. It noted that God would not send the “Destroyer” to take the lives of the Israelite first- born because of their faith in God. The rabbis explained that the word “Destroyer” referred either to an “Angel of Death” or to the tenth plague itself. Either way, the Israelites were only able to escape slavery and oppression through a show of divine power against the supposed might of Pharaoh and not only because the cause of freedom was ethical, moral, right and just.  
    I am left wondering why it is that, sometimes, only a show of force or outrage can end oppression and bring justice. We know this from more recent examples in human history. The Civil War ended slavery at the cost of many lives. The film “Selma” chronicled how demonstrations led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights activists, as well as behind-the-scenes and, later, open support from government officials, led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. The march portrayed in the movie brought together many people from that locale and from throughout the country to fight for rights and justice via peaceful means.  What they were attempting to do was to destroy hatred, establish a standard of fairness and heal a society. That work still continues today, as the NAACP recently organized a march from Selma to Washington, D.C. to heighten awareness on exactly the same issue.  In that effort, many of my rabbinic colleagues took part, carrying a Torah scroll along every step of that journey.
     In the aftermath of World War II, there were many reasons to shed light on how injustice and persecution through social isolation and restrictive laws led to the mass murder of so many people simply because of who they were rather than what they had done.  “Night Will Fall” told the “backstory” about why it took so long for footage shot during the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, as well as Dachau and Auschwitz, in 1945 to see the light of day. Sidney Bernstein of the British government’s Ministry of Information and his team, including supervising director Alfred Hitchcock, drew on all of that footage to create a harrowing film entitled “German Concentration Camps Factual Survey.” Sadly, that film was never seen to its full completion due to the politics of the time.  The United States and Great Britain, especially, decided that the film might alienate the German people at a time when the Allies were counting on Post World War II Germany to be a positive partner in reshaping Europe. That politically expedient approach, in the view of many people, did a disservice to the victims of the Shoah who could not raise their voices in protest. 
   Still, some film excerpts were used to strengthen the case against Nazi war criminals at the Nuremberg Trials.  Some of the footage had been included in a 1980s film, “Memory of the Camps,” narrated by Trevor Howard.   It wasn’t until 2010 that staff at the archives of the Imperial War Museum in London revisited in earnest the shelved reels of film. Last year, the Museum released the finished product of the “German Concentration Camps Factual Survey” as it had been intended to be seen.  The HBO movie “Night Will Fall” traced how the “Factual Survey” was finally brought together.  It included interviews with survivors, soldiers, and members of the camera crews who captured images that, they believed, would be beyond dispute in the future.
   This film showed how it took the combined forces of the Allies to end the oppression and murder of the Shoah and to create a record of the horrors from which future generations could, hopefully, learn important lessons. The images are disturbingly graphic, but I believe it is worth seeing every frame of that documentary. Perhaps the end of oppression and hatred will come about through cooperation and healing, rather than by force, at some point in the human history that lies before us. We can only hope for that possibility.  
     This day of Yom Kippur is about a particular type of power and force that is not based in violence or physical might.   There is power in forgiveness and in attempting to improve ourselves through admitting what we have done wrong and then dedicating our lives to self-improvement.   Faith in our own potential to reconcile with each other is a force to be reckoned with in a world that seems to thrive on division rather than on unity.  Realizing that we can work together to give all people an opportunity to thrive in this world is a first step to making justice and peace a reality for all humankind.  
    Judaism has much to teach us along that path towards justice and peace.   The Torah reading for this morning envisioned all of the Israelites standing together to hear Moses’ message about their need for solidarity as they were about to enter the land of Canaan.   Moses reminded the people that God’s teachings were not too hard for them, nor were they far off in heaven or across the sea.  The knowledge of “the right thing to do” was in each person’s mouth and heart.  Every individual had it within his or her power to make a difference in the world.   The command UVACHARTA V’CHAYIM, choose life and good, keeps Judaism vital from one generation to the next.  In a nearby section in the Torah, Moses told the people that, once all of their brothers and sisters had made their way back to their land, "the Eternal your God will open up your heart and the hearts of your offspring to love the Eternal your God with all your heart and soul, in order that you may live.”     It is loving God with the depth of our being that can lead us to live and to thrive.  
    In his book, UPON THESE THREE THINGS: JEWISH PERPSECTIVES ON LOVING GOD,”  Dr. Jeff Levin of the Baylor School of Medicine, brought together a veritable catalog of Jewish teachings to show how our love of God and our reverence for life itself can enrich us and the human family.   He began with the familiar words of Rabbi Shimon the Righteous from the Sayings of the rabbis, Pirkei Avot: AL SH’LOSHAH D’VARIM HAOLAM OMEID: AL HATORAH, V’AL HA-A-VODAH, V’AL G’MILUT CHASADIM – upon three things the world stands: on learning, on worship and on deeds of lovingkindness.    We sing these words almost every time we take the Torah from the ark.   They offer both guidance and a warning:   guidance to engage in Jewish practices that will enable us to make the world a much better place; and a warning that, if we don't do them, the world will not stand.  Why are learning, worship and loving deeds so important that the world's very existence rests upon them?   Study of the Torah, Talmud and other Jewish texts involves cognition, engaging our minds and souls in expanding our knowledge and wisdom.   AVODAH is serving and worshipping God, whether by our ourselves or with a community.   AVODAH involves the act of feeling, using our hearts and our spirits to connect with the Oneness that encompasses the universe.  Worship also engages us with one another and with the human family.  G'MULIT CHASADIM, doing acts of lovingkindness puts our bodies to work to be God's hands in order to express what is in our hearts, our minds and our souls.  Within Judaism,    study and prayer are supposed to lead to action.  TORAH and AVODAH are intended to lead to G'MILUT CHASHADIM.   This is our mission every day, of which we are reminded when we recite the words, "You shall love Adonai your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your might." All three of those commands connect with the soul of study, the heart of prayer, and the might that enables us to perform an act of kindness.  The opposite of taking the opportunity for learning, worship and doing a kind act is presented in the Talmud in this statement: "Rabbi Judah said, 'Three things shorten a person's days and years:  To be given a scroll of the Torah to read from and to refuse; to be given a cup of benediction to say a blessing over and refuse, and to assume airs of authority."  Rabbi Judah lamented what is lost when someone rejects the prospect of learning from the wisdom of our tradition, when anyone steps aside from a moment of reciting a blessing that could make that instant positive and memorable, and when a person believes that maintaining fame, fortune and position overrides any command to help people or a community in need.  Another "three things statement" of Rabbi Shimon ben Gamaliel echoes the original that we know so well.  This Rabbi Shimon said that the world stands on justice/din, truth/emet, and peace/shalom.   Dr. Jeff Levin explained that the second set of three described a world in which the first set of three are fulfilled.   Where there is Torah and learning, there is truth.  Where there are worship and service to God, to godliness, and to a holy community, there is peace.  Where acts of lovingkindness prevail in the affairs of human beings, there is justice.   I recently saw one anonymous statement that expresses how such justice and kindness can come to be in a diverse world.  It declared: "We don't have to agree on anything to be kind to one another."  
    On these high holy days, the Un'taneh tokef prayer also identifies three things that can change our lives and divert far away from us the worst outcome that could emerge from what we have done wrong.   We recite in that poignant reading: "U'T'SHUVAH U'T'FILAH U-TZ'DAKAH MA-AVIRIN ET ROA HAG'ZEIRAH - Repentance or return, prayer and righteous acts can avert judgment’s harsh decree and enable us to stand as individuals so that we can support the ethical character of our community. 
     Dr. Levin understands all of these teachings together as aspects of the Jewish approach to loving God.   If God loved us and gave us the Torah, then we are studying the wisdom of our tradition because of love, and love should envelope us as we learn new insights from our heritage.   If we are taught to love God with all our heart, soul and might, then our words of prayer are declarations of affection and commitment back to God - and, by extension, to each other - as partners in creating a beloved community.   Jewish philosopher and theologian Martin Buber expressed this very point well when he said, "To love God, truly, one must first love people.  And if anyone tells you that he loves God and does not love his fellow humans, you will know that he is lying."  
   And finally, the command to perform G'MILUT CHASADIM, acts of lovingkindness, demands that we seek justice in the world based upon a sense of love.  In the words of Rabbi Leo Jung, "One will never know God through either more intellectual endeavor, or through more emotional identification with God's spirit.    It is only by passionate love of and work for the widow and the orphan, the stranger and everyone else who is underprivileged that one's knowledge of God may reach the human peak."    
      Some of those very notions about what God wants us to do, and how we can fulfill the essential teachings of our tradition, are central to the Haftarah reading for this morning in Isaiah Chapter 58.   These words continue to reverberate down the centuries as we consider how to apply them to our world:  "The people say, 'When we fast, why do You, God, pay no heed? Why, when we afflict ourselves, do You, Eternal One, refuse to take notice?'   The prophet responded: 'Because on your fast day, you think only of your business, and oppress all your workers!  Because your fasting leads only to strife and discord, and hitting out with a cruel fist.  Such a way of fasting will not be heard on high....Is not this the fast I look for:  to unlock the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every cruel chain?   Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your house?   When you see the naked, to clothe them, and never to hide yourself from your own kin.  Then your light shall blaze forth like the dawn, and your wounds shall quickly heal; your Righteous One will walk before you, and the Presence of the Eternal One will be your rear guard.'"
   It is this passage, and many, many others like it in the Torah and Prophets, that present to us a path for loving God  which will be based upon fairness, compassion, liberty and justice for all.    It is such passages as those of the rabbis and the prophet Isaiah that led Dr. Jeff Levin to conclude: "To love God means to be precisely the person that God would have us be, acting on our highest, God-given instincts for the benefit of all our fellow beings....I would assert that being generous and just and kind and loving and philanthropic and charitable and responsive to the needs of others is the truest way for a Jew to express love for God. This path defines the uniqueness and genius of Jewish spirituality.  Following it devotedly is our surest way to bring tikkun, repair, in its fullest sense, both to the world and to ourselves." 
     These teachings come from our heritage, not from ideological columnists, not from political pundits, not from any particular cable news channel.   Much of the material presented in the context of news commentary has its place, in that realm, in the political discourse that belongs outside this building.  IN THIS PLACE, we are about TORAH, AVODAH and G'MILUT CHASADIM.   We are here to find ways to love God and to love and be kind to each other even when we disagree.   We are here to learn how to cross our philosophical divides and join together to fulfill the commandments in this afternoon's Torah reading: love your neighbor as yourself and love the stranger as yourself as well.  Do not oppress the stranger, including those who make seek refuge with you, because you were a stranger in Egypt.   We are here to find ways to help people in need because our tradition demands that we do just that, through tzedakah or  g'milut chasadim in partnership with the greater community.  Giving to the High Holy Day food drive, to our ongoing recipients for our donations, brings us closer to that goal.   Studying what Jewish texts say about social justice and aging, as we will do this year, and exploring the wisdom of Judaism on a variety of topics, can bring us to new and shared understandings.  Sitting together in worship can lead us to justice and to love.   And we may not realize it, but these words of prayer and my words that I offer to you and to myself are there for a reason.  A recently-shared quote from renowned philosopher Soren Kirkegaard caught my eye.   It says: "People have the idea that the preacher is an actor on a stage and they are the critics, blaming or praising him.  What they don't know is that they are the actors on the stage: the preacher is merely the prompter standing in the wings, reminding the people in front of him of their lost lines."  
   These lines are in our mouths and in our hearts and we can do them.     We can choose life and good.  We can practice learning, worship, and deeds of kindness that can make our world more just and loving.      We can each find our own ways to practice our heritage, and practice it we must.   This is our mission that emanates from our hearts, our souls, and our minds.  Dr. Jeff Levin concluded in his book that if we don't bring the best of Jewish thought, feeling and action into the world, the world will not stand as it should.
     We know that there are times in the past that the force of our teachings and the power of our action could not withstand the greater forces around us.  Nevertheless, we are still here to remind the world how passionate and misguided hatred can lead to unthinkable violence and genocide and how righteousness can still survive that dark night.        

      We are grateful for people like the Imperial War Museum staff that heroically restored film footage which, they believed, the world must see in order to prevent such human evil from happening again.   We have it within our power to find partners along an arduous but necessary journey towards justice and hope throughout the world.  To reach that goal, we need to be here for each other, always finding the good in one another, committing ourselves to work with our fellow human beings to assure that night will not fall again, but that, in the words of Isaiah, "our light will shine in the darkness, and our night will become bright as noon, and the Eternal will guide us always."  May we draw close in love and light to the Eternal Spirit of the Universe and to each other in the days and years to come.  

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