It was two days after Rosh Hashanah as the rabbi was taking advantage of some peaceful time following the New Year. It was gratifying to see congregants, long-time community members, extended family and guests come together for prayer and celebration. Fortunately, the rabbi’s Yom Kippur evening sermon was already complete, so he could begin to focus on the “home stretch” of High Holy Day sermon creation – his D’var Torah for Yom Kippur morning. He appreciated that the Torah and Haftarah readings for Yom Kippur day are overflowing with significance and meaning. There would be much to discuss.
In the morning, the passage from Deuteronomy Chapters 29 and 30 speaks of how divine guidance – in the form of the Torah’s commandments – are not far away from us, but in our mouths and hearts, so that we can easily find a way to practice them. We read every year in that section the command to choose life and good over death and evil. The proclamations in the morning Haftarah, from Isaiah Chapter 58 remind us that ritual is important and valuable especially when it moves us to action. Isaiah asserted, in his own special way, that participating in worship and community celebrations can and should lead us to apply to our lives moral principles such as kindness, appreciation of nature, freedom, learning, understanding, combating hatred and providing all people with a sense of hope for the future.
On Yom Kippur afternoon, the Torah reading from Leviticus Chapter 19 characterizes what it means for us to be holy, culminating in the goal of loving our neighbor and the stranger - all people - as ourselves, always recognizing our common humanity. Finally, the afternoon Haftarah portion from the book of Jonah tells the story of a man that some commentators call the quintessential “anti-prophet.” Jonah had no compassion for the people of Nineveh, to whom he was directed to deliver a warning to repent for societal wrongs. He refused to carry out his prophetic mission of telling them to change their behavior because they were not Hebrews like he was. Yet, as a prophet, he HAD to do what he was told to do. Against his will and through unplanned transportation provided by a very large fish, Jonah found himself where he didn’t want to be – near the city of Nineveh, the very destination he was trying to avoid. At that point, he had no choice but to speak to the people there, who did listen to his warning and change their ways.
All of these portions combine to encourage us to think carefully about what we do every day, calling on us to choose life and good, compassion and understanding, holiness and honesty, forgiveness and love.
Now back to the rabbi. He had been reading in recent months and discussing with his congregation books that shed light on what it means to be a responsible member of the human family. He had especially focused on the issue of social justice, and how certain rabbis interpret the teachings of our heritage as a guide for the work we could do in the greater community.
In his book THE SOUL OF JEWISH SOCIAL JUSTICE, Orthodox Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz highlighted Jewish values that might inspire us to work for justice in the world. He identified tenets of our tradition that direct us to embrace God in our efforts toward building a just and righteous society.
Those principles included the belief that all people are created in the divine image; remembering that the position of God has already been filled, so we should strive to be good and humble human beings; the sense that our ancienthistory as slaves calls on us to be liberators of the oppressed; a notion of obligation to heal the world; embracing God in a way that empowers us to look evil in the face and combat it with love; and a vision of the perfection that we can make real and enduring here on earth.
In her book, THERE SHALL BE NO NEEDY, Conservative Rabbi Jill Jacobs expounded on what Judaism demands of us in caring for our fellow human beings. She cited underlying principles of biblical and rabbinic tradition about how we are expected to approach and assist people in need. She noted that, because everything belongs to God, what we own is temporary. The fates of the wealthy and the poor, she said, are inextricably linked. The bible and the Talmud instituted controls to make sure that the gap between the rich and the poor does not become too wide. Even the poorest members of society possess inherent dignity, and each member of the community is responsible for preserving the dignity of everyone, no matter what their station in life may be. Judaism teaches that the responsibility for poverty relief is an obligation, not a choice. Finally, the eradication of poverty is viewed within our heritage as an essential part of bringing about a perfected world.
Rabbi Jacobs outlined the many meanings of the word that we often use for justice, TZEDEK. TZEDEK, in Hebrew and related languages, could mean legitimate, loyal, true, courageous, dependable, competent, right, responsible or doing one's duty. She explained that TZEDEK is a term that applies only in the context of a relationship with another person. To speak of God’s TZEDEK means that God pursues a relationship of responsibility and loyalty in partnership with us. We are commanded to do the same with each other.
Again, back to the rabbi, who who was sitting in his office at the end of the day, pondering all of these insights from Jewish tradition. He also reviewed responses he received from congregants about how they would define justice. With all of this on his mind, he was, for the moment, overloaded and exhausted. If he could only close his eyes for a few minutes, maybe he could think more clearly….
Suddenly, he heard the Temple doorbell ring. He must have dozed off for a few moments, he thought. He ran to the door and opened it. There, he saw a man with jet white hair and a short beard, wearing a t-shirt and jeans and boots, waiting patiently to enter. His t-shirt bore the words, "Bringing light in the darkness."
“Sorry, sir, I was asleep for a few minutes and finally heard you ringing the doorbell. Welcome! How can I help you? By the way, I like the message on your shirt!”
The man looked around for a moment and said, “Oh, thank you. Well, I came here to talk to you.”
“Really? To talk to me?” asked the rabbi. “How could you possibly know that I am someone you might want to talk to?”
“Word always gets around. You are the rabbi, right? After arriving in your area, I had to go the public library so I could get directions to find my way here. Sorry, no smartphone for me. Nice website, by the way!”
“Thank you! So, what’s your name?”
“My name is Shai. I come from rather far away, but that’s not really important. I didn’t come for help for myself. I came to help you.”
“Me? What would make you think that I need some help?”
“Well,” said Shai the stranger, “You are a rabbi, and it is between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – and you still have one sermon to go, don’t you? I looked at your blog and found some of your past writings. Not bad. I imagine you have been doing a lot of searching lately for new ideas. Have you found the wisdom you were looking for?”
“It wasn't just wisdom I was seeking,” said the rabbi. “I wanted to find some rules to live by that could lead to doing mitzvot and showing kindness and compassion in the community.”
“Well, I know something about that – did you take a close look at the Haftarah for Yom Kippur morning?” asked the visitor.
The rabbi responded insistently, “Why, yes! I know that Haftarah nearly backwards and forwards. Isaiah, Chapter 58 – it features some of the most important principles in the whole Tanakh. Not many passages strike the right balance between ritual and responsibility. This is one of the best – ‘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 – which means any human being! If you do this, then your light shall blaze forth like the dawn.’ That passage presents a series of reminders, Shai, for what we should be doing here in the community. At our congregation, we are already collecting non-perishable items for the local food pantry and we are doing a food drive right now. Members of our community serve at the local soup kitchen. We collected donations this year to support a tent city that provides shelter for people who don't have their own homes. One annual fundraiser contributes to an organization that builds homes for community members in need of assistance. We organized a series on how we can address and ease poverty in our area. Our members give individually to many worthy causes and do good work as a congregation.”
Shai the stranger was impressed, “You have done a lot to bring this biblical passage to life, to live out the teaching of that prophet. I think your members understand that their religion teaches that every single person is a manifestation of God, made in the divine image. No matter what your status in society, people who have more or less than you, or the same as you, are part of the same human family. The more you recognize God’s presence – God’s face – in the face of other people, the more God will be present within you.”
“I have thought about that a lot in relation to working for justice,” said the rabbi. “Shai, I know that we are commanded to follow after justice - like it says in Deuteronomy, TZEDEK, TZEDEK TIRDOF - justice, justice, shall you pursue. Why do I feel sometimes that justice is running after us and can't catch up? You know, I recently asked my congregants about what justice means to them and what they might do that would bring justice to the world."
"So, rabbi, what did they say about justice?" Shai was intrigued.
"They said that justice could be a balance in society between right and wrong, between tyranny and freedom, between acceptance and oppression. It could be a set of standards we hold for everyone on an equal basis. Another view suggested that justice is a commitment to refrain from revenge disguised as appropriate punishment. Still another comment claimed that there is only revenge, and no real justice."
Shai hesitated, "No real justice? You know, I have felt that way sometimes, that there is only injustice that has to be stopped or curtailed. Some people have told me I am a dreamer. I simply replied to them that I would always hold on to my optimism and deliver my message of working for justice to anyone who could hear. So, rabbi, what did they say were actions they could perform that could bring Justice?"
The rabbi was eager to share this list. "Well, there were some encouraging suggestions: Tutoring students for better achievement, working towards rehabilitation for inmates in jails, doing what is right even if it means taking a risk, and acknowledging people with a smile to recognize their humanity. They suggested that we could work for justice by being a good listener without judging what we hear, learning from our mistakes, making a commitment to love each other no matter what, and speaking up for those who are afraid to ask for the respect and consideration they deserve.”
Shai thought for a moment and said, “So I know that Isaiah Chapter 58 speaks a lot about keeping the Sabbath as central to your faith and practice. I believe that your Sabbath offers an ideal that points to many of these aspects of justice that you mentioned. The Sabbath has at its core the values of freedom, rest, encouraging creativity, and preserving equality. The Sabbath teaches the importance of taking time to consider and develop new ways of improving the world. You said that you feel like justice is pursuing you, instead of the other way around. Perhaps resting even a little on the Sabbath would give justice a chance to catch up with you. If you do that, you would give yourself an opportunity to realize that the memory of the ancient experience of slavery places the Jewish community here and around the world in a special position to advocate for freedom for all people who are oppressed and to show mercy to people who may be stuck in a difficult place in life for one reason or another. When we are inspired to work for justice, to make the world as fair as we can make it, then light can blaze forth, and the night can become as bright as noon.”
The rabbi was enraptured by what he heard. “Shai, maybe you can give my sermon on Wednesday morning! That was amazing!”
“No, I will leave the rabbi’s task to the rabbi. There is another thought I should share that you might want to include. I have been following in the news about people within the public realm calling each other names and using some rather unfortunate and extreme imagery. Remember what Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz said in his book that you read and discussed: "The effect of social intimidation and mockery truly is lethal.... Shaming another is considered a life and death issue. The Gemara teaches that “Whoever shames his neighbor in public, it is as if he shed his blood” (Bava Metzia 58b). Maimonides taught that “It is forbidden to call someone by a name they dislike” (Deot 6:8).
The rabbi expressed his gratitude to his guest. “Shai, thank you so much for that reminder and for all of your wisdom and encouragement. I have a sermon to finish, I suppose. I should probably get back to it.”
“You will,” answered Shai, “but first you have to wake up.”
“Wake up….what do you mean?”
“Rabbi, ask me my full name….”
“Your full name- let’s see, Shai – Y’sha-yah – Y’shayahu – that would be….Isaiah – THE ISAIAH?”
“I knew you’d get it – yes, it’s Isaiah…..time to wake up.”
The rabbi was awakened abruptly by the phone ringing. It was an assisted living facility. Someone was in need of a visit. The rabbi knew there were other tasks to which he needed to attend. So, even if it was only a dream, there was something crucial and urgent in what the rabbi thought he had heard – in a land of freedom, we have a golden opportunity to help people in need, to ease hunger for people all over the world, to provide relief and shelter, and to find common ground and foster civility with everyone because there is much to be accomplished. Isaiah’s words echoed in the rabbi’s mind – and heart, “If you remove…the menacing hand, the malicious word, if you make sacrifices for the hungry, and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then shall your light shine in the darkness, and your night become bright as noon. God will guide you always.”
Those are words we need to hear again and again, the rabbi thought, not just on Yom Kippur, but every day. So, for a new year, it was and is his hope that every congregation could unite behind a banner of compassion, humility, selflessness, justice, and peace. So may WE do, once again, in 5777.