In These Times | Rosh HaShanah Sermon 5777
Delivered by Senior Rabbi Rachel Timoner
Last year I came to this sanctuary on Rosh Hashanah morning to meet you.
I came with fresh hope, speaking about all of the promise
and possibility in our lives.
I spoke about miracles, about the miracles of our existence.
Those miracles are still here, all around us.
But this year I come to you in a very different spirit.
I come to you broken-hearted, bruised and battered.
And I know that some of you come to this sanctuary this morning
feeling that way too.
We are here together after a year saturated with violence,
a year in which hate was given license and spread.
In August, a friend of mine, a rabbi,
tweeted her reaction to Donald Trump’s immigration speech.
For the next 24 hours, she was subjected
to an anti-Semitic barrage unlike anything she’d ever seen.
Images of Adolph Hitler were sent to her, swastikas,
and comments like those received by many other Jews this year:
“Throw her in the gas chambers,”
“Fire up the ovens!”
“Go back to Poland!”
“Go back to Israel!”
In June, on the holiday of Shavuot,
after our incredible celebration of Torah
through all-night learning, the news reached us
of the Pulse Latino gay nightclub in Orlando.
For hours we watched the live footage
as the death count rose to 49.
Was he an Islamic fundamentalist terrorist from ISIS?
Was he a homophobe?
Or was this just another American mass shooting?
Last month, baby Sidra was born in a refugee camp.
Her family fled death in Syria many months before.
Their treacherous journey across the sea
led them to a wretched existence in a Greek camp.
Sidra’s parents desperately did not want to give birth
before settling in a new country,
but there is no country that will take them.
Their baby has no passport, no nationality, no home.
Two years after the killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice by police in Cleveland,
a 10-year-old black boy in Newark named Legend Preston
was picking up a basketball
when suddenly police closed in with shotguns drawn.
The 10 year old panicked and ran.
The police chased, shouting, threatening to shoot.
They thought he matched the description of an armed robber.
Gratefully neighbors stopped them before they killed the boy.
Legend was shaking in tears, gasping for air,
“I thought they were going to shoot me,” he said.
What do these events have to do with each other?
Violence and human degradation coming from so many directions,
Innocent children and adults murdered for being black;
families languishing in camps while we compare them to Skittles;
repeated invocations of gas chambers and ovens for Jews;
a backdrop of mass murder.
In the beginning, on the sixth day, God created human beings
in God’s own image.
In the next generation there were two brothers,
one of whom murdered the other and had no remorse.
By the generation of the flood, humanity had become so corrupt
and so violent
that God could not countenance our presence on earth.
The Talmud (Eruvin 13b) says
that the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai
debated for two and a half years
about whether humanity should exist.
One side said,
‘It is better for man never to have been created
than to have been created.”
The other side said:
“It is better for man to have been created
than not to have been created.”
Through two and a half years of debate,
Hillel and Shammai counted [our deeds] and decided:
it would have been better if humanity had never been created.
But, they said, now that we have been created,
we should sift through our actions. We should examine our deeds.
Here we are, created, and as Jews in this moment haunted
by the idea that one day our grandchildren will ask us:
“How did you let it happen?
The Jewish people had seen this before:
angry racist mobs, angry anti-Semitic mobs.
Talk of ‘taking back the country.’
A leader who said he would round people up
for their ethnicity or religion.
A leader who threatened violence.
A leader who attacked the free press.”
“Jews know what it is to be the slave,”
our grandchildren will tell us.
“Jews know what it is to be the despised minority.
Jews know what it is to be the refugee, the immigrant,
the wretched refuse of the teeming earth.
Jews know what it is to be criminalized, to be the objects of racism.
Jews know what it is for our lives not to matter,
to be hunted in our own country.
Jews know what it is to have borders closed to us.
Jews know what it is to be mocked, shamed, tormented, threatened, scorned.
How did you not see the signs?” our grandchildren might ask us.
“How did you not do more to stop it?”
I do not believe in facile, hyperbolic, or alarmist comparisons.
I do not believe in frightening people to make a point.
I do not believe in exaggerating to be dramatic.
But the fact that we cannot understand how this could be happening
and the feeling that there is an insanity gripping our country,
this should be a red flag.
This is all familiar to our people:
The economic despair
The cultivation of blame
The repetition of lies
The non-functioning of government
The giving up on democracy
The scapegoating and conspiracy theories
The white supremacism, the anti-Semitism
The fear, the anger
We have seen this before.
Elie Wiesel, alav hashalom, said,
“We must take sides …
When human lives are endangered,
when human dignity is in jeopardy….
Wherever men and women are persecuted
because of their race, religion, or political views,
that place must — at that moment –
become the center of the universe.”
This sermon is not about how to vote in this election.
This is bigger than an election.
I am here to say that standing idly by is not a Jewish value.
Neutrality when life is at risk is not a Jewish value.
Silence in the face of injustice is not a Jewish value.
The Jewish thing to do is to take a stand, to speak, to act,
to do everything in our power to prevent great harm.
The United States of America
has been a safe haven for the Jewish people.
The values of freedom, democracy, and human dignity that are inscribed
in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution come from our Torah.
Those of us whose ancestors were smart enough or lucky enough to settle here
have enjoyed conditions of acceptance and advancement
unprecedented in Jewish history.
If we want it to remain so for our children and grandchildren,
it seems to me that there are two things we must do.
First, we must ensure that the forces of hate
do not take power in our lifetime.
Second, we must uproot and heal the violence and racism
that are the underpinnings of this phenomenon,
that are so deeply rooted in American soil
and have become so endemic to our culture
that they can be easily whipped up in a matter of months.
Until we do both of these things,
Jews will never be guaranteed safety and well-being in this, our home.
The larger context of global violence – of terrorism, of war
– the nativism we see in Europe –
provide a backdrop to a violence that has been soaking through
American society since it began.
And all of it is coming to fruition right now.
We cannot understand this phenomenon of bullying and hate,
xenophobia and white supremacy in America today
unless we understand its particular origins and history in this country,
going all the way back to the African slave trade
and the genocide of Native Americans.
Last spring, many CBE members came together to study systemic racism,
and we discovered in new depths that this same country that gives us
unprecedented freedom is steeped in violence.
We read about the connection between the arrival of the first slave ships
and the laws of segregation, and the eugenics movement,
and the racism inherent in the police and prison systems,
and the hatred we find in the faces of those who want to build a wall.
When we see angry mobs, when we hear their hateful chants,
when they threaten violence, this is not new in America.
It is not an anomaly. It’s not only about one candidate.
It is something very old and familiar. It used to be called a lynch mob.
Anti-immigrant rallies are not new. They go all the way back to the Alien and
Sedition Act of 1798, the Know Nothing Party, and the Immigration Restriction
Leagues of the 1890’s. Jews were among the targets.
When we see gun violence, mass shootings, we must remember that ever since
men assembled to form the first Indian hunting party, mass shootings have been
commonplace on these shores.
Black people being killed, shackled, held against their will –
that’s ingrained in the very fibers of the American fabric.
Our country had 244 years of slavery before the Emancipation Proclamation,
but there have only been 153 years since it became law.
244 years compared to 153 years,
and for all of those 153 years black people have been disproportionately, brutally,
hanged, beaten, shot, shackled, imprisoned.
It is good that we love our country.
We should love our country.
We must love our country.
Because we love our country we must make it more true to its promise.
Martin Luther King said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent
about things that matter.”
There are people who would like to divide the Black community and the Jewish
community right now. There is toxic slander against Israel in one line of the
platform of the Movement for Black Lives. This line of the platform
must be directly opposed. Unequivocally.
There are Jews who say that our people’s safety therefore depends on distancing
ourselves from the work to make Black Lives Matter in America.
I will speak about Israel on Yom Kippur, but for now this is my message:
the struggle for the freedom and safety of the Jewish people in this country
will always be linked to the struggle for the freedom and safety of Black people
and immigrants in this country.
David Duke knows that.
The Ku Klux Klan knows that.
The Nazis who are getting louder in this time know that.
What is happening right now is a mirror being held up
to the soul of our nation,
and to our souls as Jews.
Jews have been given white privilege in America,
making it tempting for us to look away
from the consequences of white supremacy
and to imagine that we will never again be its target.
But this moment proves that we will always be linked to the outcast, the stranger,
And our current privileges are not worth the cost.
The pain expressed in the streets of Charlotte, Milwaukee, Chicago, and Baltimore
The murder of innocent men and women in Tulsa, Minneapolis, Baton Rouge
And it’s in our name.
This is not who we are.
This is not who we want to be.
It is in our interest as Jews—
it is in the interest of the wholeness of our souls—
to unravel the system of racism and the violence that supports it.
Today is called Yom Ha Din, the Day of Judgment.
It is a time of reckoning.
It is a time of raw honesty.
It is a time to sift through our actions,
to examine our deeds.
As Abraham Joshua Heschel taught us,
“In a free society, some are guilty but all are responsible.”
Although you and I may not use our hands for violence
on the streets of our country,
the police are our hands. They’re working for us.
For the most part, they’re doing what they’re told to do—
in the name of protecting us.
You and I don’t close the doors on the cells that lock people away.
But Rikers Island right here has 78,000 people a year,
91 percent of whom are Black or Latino;
many of whom are held months or years without trial
because they don’t have enough money for bail.
You and I didn’t invent the War on Drugs,
and the devastation of communities that followed,
but we tolerated it, we looked the other way.
Most of us don’t own guns, we don’t shoot people,
but are we sure that our investment portfolios and pension funds
are not supporting the manufacture of guns
that are destroying these same communities
and now our own?
Most of us have not been out there chanting “Build that Wall!”
but where have we been as anti-immigrant rhetoric
intensified over the last 20 years?
Where have we been as anti-Muslim hate has spread this year?
We too were immigrants.
We too were religious minorities.
We too were refugees.
And as for the global backdrop of Islamic fundamentalist violence
that terrorizes us,
much of it is outside of our control, but some of it is not.
We ourselves didn’t choose to bomb Iraq the first or second time,
but the wreckage was paid for with our taxes.
And we cannot entirely separate the extremist violence that has flourished there
from the rubble and vacuum in which it grew.
Today we sift through our actions.
Today we examine our deeds.
Because we believe that we can change.
While contemplating the two and a half year debate between Hillel and Shammai,
Dr. Tamar Frankiel asks, “What is the point of creation?”
If the point of creation is a perfect world, then humanity should not exist.
We do too much harm.
But if the point of creation is the process itself—the process of growth,
of learning, of evolution, of redemption—
humanity is essential.
Precisely because we are so flawed, and because we have the capacity
to do teshuva, to evolve, to change.
We must not give up on our species.
In the beginning God created humanity and then destroyed us.
Through the experience of the great flood, God learned
never to give up on humanity again.
Humans, like God, are learners.
Our learning is uneven, and not as fast as anyone would like,
but we do learn, we do grow, we do change.
Many generations after the flood, Abraham came into the world
and with him the idea of protest.
When Abraham saw wrongdoing he took action.
When Abraham saw injustice, he spoke up.
From his example, the rabbis taught: “One should love protest,
for as long as there is protest in the world,
goodness and blessing come into the world
and evil departs from the world.” (BT Tamid 28a)
In the generations after Abraham, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau
fought, coveted, hated, were selfish.
But in each generation they learned and grew
until we find Judah, our namesake.
Judah allowed his brother Joseph to be sold into slavery.
But then, over time and the events of his life,
Judah learned how to acknowledge his wrongdoing
and how to acknowledge the pain he caused through his actions.
When faced with a similar situation, with the option to remain silent
while his brother Benjamin was imprisoned,
Judah was not silent.
Judah spoke up.
Judah risked his own comfort and safety to prevent harm to his brother.
Judah did teshuva. Judah changed.
And Joseph forgave.
When Judah and Joseph wept and embraced, a great trauma was healed.
Rashi teaches that God originally tried to create the world
only with the quality of judgment, but the world would not stand.
It wasn’t until God used an equal measure of judgment and compassion
that the world could survive.
On Rosh Hashanah, Yom Ha Din, we say that God is sitting on the throne of
judgment. But the Zohar teaches that with the sound of the shofar
God rises from the throne of din/judgment and sits on the throne of
So what is the way forward for us?
Whatever we do, it must be defined by compassion, it must be defined by love.
We must saturate ourselves with compassion
to the degree that we are now saturated with violence.
We must bathe ourselves in love
in the way we are now bathed in violence.
We must love ourselves enough to believe that we can change.
We must love each other enough to believe that we can change.
We must be vulnerable: feel, ache, hurt, allow our hearts to break.
But love is not just a feeling. Love is not just a broken heart.
Love is action. Love happens with our hands and our feet and our voices.
Love is made real when we show up.
So what does love look like in this moment?
In the next month, love is doing everything in our power to stop hate.
This is not a wait and see moment.
This is not an I’m too busy moment.
This is a stop everything, single focus moment.
Members of CBE are traveling to Ohio October 28th-30th in a non-partisan effort
to counter voter suppression in Black and Latino communities.
[Zachary speaks] “My name is Zachary Katznelson and I’m a member of CBE. I like many of you worry deeply what this election will bring if hate is allowed to overcome love. The threats to communities of color are threats to us as Jews as well, perhaps even existential ones. So I’m going to Ohio in a couple weeks to ensure people can vote. I hope as many of you as possible will join me.”
After the election, love is doing the work to really understand systemic racism
and putting ourselves on the line to uproot it.
[Cara speaks] “My name is Cara Raich. When Rabbi Timoner asked me to help her organize our race series, I didn’t know what to expect and was concerned about treading into such challenging territory. What I came to realize, after engaging in the work of reading, learning and talking, is that knowing systemic racism exists in our country is entirely different than feeling it through a deeper understanding of the experiences of others. I can never unknow what I learned, I can never deny the benefits I have received because of the color of my skin and I can never again feel like it isn’t my responsibility to try to heal the wounds caused by racism everyday. The soul-stirring journey we took together during the race series profoundly moved me and made me optimistic that the status quo can and will change.”
[Tom speaks] “My name is Tom Ochs. This year, I made a simple decision. Stop talking and start acting…those who know me, know that wasn’t easy. I said yes to being a facilitator, joined the Race Action Group and agreed to become a board member for an organization that works with formerly incarcerated citizens and advocates for closing Rikers Island and ending mass incarceration. I’m showing up, taking action. And now, we’re asking you to do the same.”
CBE’s Dismantling Racism Action Group will be working on a local campaign
to win specific change on racial justice this year.
Our learning began last spring and will continue.
Our action begins now. Anyone can join.
In the meantime, we cannot turn away from the refugees who have nowhere to go. [Wendy speaks] “My name is Wendy Star and I’m a member of CBE. We have all seen the photographs of young children who tragically did not make it to safety. We have also seen the families who did make it to safety but now desperately now need to be resettled and need aid and compassion. These photographs called to me and I can no longer sit by while families are ignored or worse targeted with racism and violence. Please join me. As a group we can change minds, pressure governments to welcome refugees and assist resettled refugees here in the US.”
Sukkot at CBE will be dedicated to refugees. By Yom Kippur, our website will have details about what you can do through CBE to support refugees,
and on Yom Kippur there will be tables with information about what you can do on all of these issues.
Thanks to all four of you.
Sometimes it feels like the problems of our world are too big and we are too small, but thanks to many of you, there are concrete ways we can get involved
and make a difference.
That’s what love looks like.
And right now, today, this is what love looks like: Doing teshuva.
Proving that human beings can change. By changing.
Choosing one thing to change in the world, and one thing to change inside of you.
Selfishness. Violence. Racism. Internalized anti-Semitism. Hatred, lack of
empathy. Greed. They’re in all of us.
You can’t do everything. If we try to change too many things, we’ll fail
and find ourselves back here next year, doubting that change is possible.
If we choose one thing, one aspect of our behavior or character,
if we focus on it and refocus on it, if we read about it, write about it, reflect on it,
talk about it, become mindful of it, we will change. I speak from experience.
God learned from the flood never to give up on humanity again.
And in the next generation there were brothers
who did one another no harm.
This is what multi-generational redemption looks like.
This is what change looks like. This is what love looks like.
So our question is: how, today, will we love?
If we can love ourselves even as we clearly see our shortcomings,
love ourselves into doing better, into being better, we will change.
If we love our country into doing better, into being better, it will change.
And we’ll come back here next year,
and over many years,
and over generations,
not only more of who we want to be,
but believing in humanity through our own example.
Dear God, Source of our lives, give us the strength to love.
Give us the courage to change.