Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Yom Kippur 5781: The Power of Disruption

 A version of this sermon was delivered on Yom Kippur Morning 5781 at Temple B'nai Torah - A Reform Congregation in Wantagh, NY.

As an undergraduate student, I found a work-study job at the main campus library.  Many of the work-study jobs available were based on either checking out books or putting books away.  Having passed AP French, I managed to snag a plum position at the Center for Baudelaire Studies at the French Collections.  My job was to scan, clean up, and catalogue newspaper and magazine clippings from the archives of a French theatre critic, which had recently been donated to the library’s collection.  The French Collections were not easy to get to.  They were in an upper corner of the library, through areas that were seldom traveled, especially by students. 

To get there easiest, I would often take the old elevator.  It was small, slow, and had that gate thing that you had to close yourself for the elevator to operate.  It was a throwback, to be sure.  On the way to that old elevator, I would pass the beautiful wooden card catalog that took up much of the first-floor foyer.  Above the card catalog hung a sign, itself a relic, that stated that the card catalog had not been updated since 1989.  It had been 10 years since anyone had put a new card in those drawers by the time I got there.  It had been 10 years since those beautifully ornate card catalogs had served a purpose.  What used to be integral to the way we learned now sat gathering dust.  Something had come along and disrupted the way books were located in a library.

Of course, I’m talking about computers and database systems that allowed for much faster sorting and searching of books.  As computers became more ubiquitous, the categories of searching for a book – by author, subject, or title – didn’t change, but the method did.  No longer rifling through cards, now just hitting a button to see where in the many floors and stacks of books the one book you were looking for could be located.

We might not feel it now, since we’re 30 plus years into it, but the onset of the computing age disrupted long traditions of how things were done.  No facet of our lives has remained untouched by it.  We all now carry minicomputers in our pockets with the ability to access any information we want, and all of them are more powerful than that first computer installed in 1989.  Some of you are watching me on one right now.  Some of you are on Facebook telling everyone else how great this sermon is!  The disruption that computing brought about has no doubt changed the course of our lives as individuals and as a society.

The personal computing age was a disruption of our own making and our own progress. And as a society, we determined that we liked the new technology and so we embraced it.  But not all disruptions are of our own doing.  Sometimes disruptions are imposed upon us by others.  And sometimes by forces entirely out of human hands.

We’re living through a major disruption right now.  We’re living through a pandemic.  While we are all still working hard just to make it through the day to day, given that we’re six months in, we’re also beginning to wonder what it all means and what lessons we can take from it.  We are seekers of meaning, as humans.  It’s not just about finding out why the pandemic happened; we have a sense of that, thanks to science.  Rather, we seek to make sense of how it has affected us.  Finding silver linings and moments of blessing in the midst of the chaos is important.  To make sense of this, though, requires deeper and longer consideration.  It means reflecting on the broader, longer-lasting results of this disruption.  We know much of what will come after is based on how we choose to respond.

So, how do we respond to such an overwhelming disruption?  If there’s one thing the Jewish people can handle, it’s disruption.  You don’t survive for 4,000 years and not go through ups and downs with the world around you.  The previous disruptions in our people’s history show us that a commitment to values and a sense of flexibility are required.  It’s not about closing the library, it’s about embracing new ways of finding the book we are looking for. 

In the year 66 of the Common Era, the Jews had begun to revolt against the Romans’ imposing rule and high taxes.  The Romans retaliated by looting the Temple in Jerusalem.  By the year 70, Imperial Rome had had it with the Judean rebels.  After four years of skirmishes and political maneuvering, the battalions laid siege to Jerusalem, and ultimately, the Temple was destroyed and the people exiled from their holy city. 

Talk about a disruption.  For the last number of centuries, the Temple in Jerusalem had been God’s abode, the only way that your petition, thanks, apology, or praise reached God.  It went up in the smoke from the altar in a pleasing aroma to the Eternal, overseen by the priests.

The Roman invasion could have been the end.  Jews’ holy sites lay in ruins, their way of life no longer available to them.  Their neighbors gone, either victims of the revolt or having fled.  This could have been the moment that the Jewish people raised the white flag and said to God, “You know what?!  Enough is enough!  This is the second time you’ve kicked us out of your house, and we get the hint!  We’re not coming back!”    

What do you do when the only way to get to God is gone?
  How do you respond when the way of life you knew has been taken from you?  Some Jews did leave, to be sure.  There was a group of folks in the Galilee spreading ideas and teachings about salvation though the Son of God.  But one group of Jews said that rather than let the disruption be their end, they would adapt.  If the old technology no longer was available, they would figure out something new. Does God want all those sacrifices, anyway?  The Prophet Isaiah tells us no, doesn’t he? 

Rabban Yohanan Ben Zakkai, a leader of the early rabbis, saw the writing on the wall.
  He knew the Romans would crush the rebellion and destroy Jerusalem.  He decided that the survival of God’s people and hewing to the values he held dear was important enough to find a way to adapt Judaism to their world after the disruption.

According to the Talmud
[1], Ben Zakkai conspires to have himself smuggled out of Jerusalem.  He first feigns sickness and makes a big ruckus about it, so everyone knows that he has “fallen ill.”  Then, he spreads the rumor that he has died, and he has himself placed in a coffin, which is carried out of the city by two of his colleagues, Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua.  Once out of the city, Ben Zakkai emerges from the coffin and makes a deal with the Roman governor, Vespasian.  The Talmud, not always subtle in its imagery, is making a point with this story about how Judaism will continue to live, and in fact never died to begin with.  The story represents continuity through adaptability.

What deal did Ben Zakkai strike with Vespasian?
 Ben Zakkai says: “Give me Yavne and its Sages and do not destroy it, and spare the dynasty of Rabban Gamliel and do not kill them as if they were rebels, and lastly give me doctors to heal Rabbi Tzadok.”[2] 

After the disruption, this is what’s on Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai’s mind.
 Spare the sages: let us keep our traditions; spare the dynasty: let us keep our future; give me doctors to heal: my people are hurting and I need to care for them.  In the midst of the disruption, his concern is to make sure everyone is cared for.

Every step, Ben Zakkai is thinking about what can be done to adapt to the new reality and care for those around him.
  He knows his actions affect his people.  Save the sages.  Save the dynasty of learning.  Let us go down by the coast and keep to ourselves there, safe and healthy.  Vespasian agrees, and the tradition of Rabbinic Judaism, the Judaism we know, begins in earnest.  Without the adaptation to disruption—and without disruption itself—friends, we would not be here, and neither would the Judaism we know.

The Rabbis may have had no choice but to abandon the Temple physically, but they made a choice not to abandon it spiritually.
  This afternoon, we will read the Avodah Service, which tells the tale of the service of the High Priest and recounts what happened in the Temple in Jerusalem on Yom Kippur.  The Rabbis reframe the Temple worship as prayer and study of Torah, and for them, that is how they, and now we, get to God.  The technology changed.  It required an adaptation to the disruption, a new way of searching.  But it didn’t require leaving the library behind. 

Adaptation also didn’t require leaving the disruption behind.
  It stayed with them.  This pandemic will stay with us.  It will color the choices we make and the world we will inhabit once we’re allowed back out into the world.

It seems so far away still.
  Disruptions are hard to live through. 

Rabban Yohanan Ben Zakkai and his contemporaries were certainly pained to see their glorious city in ruins.
  We are pained as we see the numbers increase, as we feel our lives on hold, as we lose jobs, as we wait for a vaccine.  But the rabbis recognized that there was an opportunity before them, to adapt.  They understood that even without the Temple, God was still present in their lives in very real ways.  Even after the pandemic, all that was important to us will remain, but it will be up to us to consider how we approach it.

Will we allow this disruption to foster innovation in our lives?
  Will we make space after the disruption to reevaluate the lives we lived before?  Will we allow ourselves the flexibility to incorporate the new technology that emerges?  Will we move toward more engagement since we’ve been so distant from each other?  Will we recognize how much we are all connected to each other in ways that we did not understand before?

COVID is a disruption.
  But we will make it through because we do it in a small way every year.  Because Yom Kippur is a disruption too.  It’s a disruption in our year, a disruption to our habits, and it calls upon us to consider what was before and whether we want it to continue after.  As with other disruptions we experience, ultimately today is not about the day itself, but what we choose to do afterwards, mi yom kippurim zeh ad yom kippurim ha’ba: from this Yom Kippur until the next, we heard so beautifully chanted last night in the Kol Nidre.  As much as this day asks us to look back on our deeds, we are also prodded to look forward to the life we hope to live in the aftermath.  We ask ourselves: Will we allow the new technology of teshuvah to guide us today, or will we still be looking through our card catalog of sins?

After we take off our masks for the last time, will we cling to the way we used to do things because it’s comfortable, or will we allow ourselves to embrace the disruption and hear its call to adaptability and flexibility undergirded in values?

There’s no predicting the future.
  But this pandemic will end.  And when it does, we will all have a choice as to how we will live.  At the end of our Torah service, we sing words drawn from the end of the book of Lamentations, which chronicles the destruction of the first Temple: “Chadesh yameinu kekedem, renew our days as of old,” we intone as the Ark doors are closed.  We have a couple of ways of thinking about what these words, chadesh yameinu kekedem, mean.  Are we going to endeavor that our post-pandemic lives will simply return to how things were before, kekedem?  Or, are we going to strive to chadesh yameinu, to renew our days and make the most of the disruption that has been thrust upon us?  Will we have the chutzpah and resolve to make something new and powerful?  Or, will we live with our outdated technology knowing that we haven’t been updated since 5780?

The rabbis never really wanted to go back to the Temple anyway, I think.
  And we don’t want the Temple back, either.  We also aren’t about to start using the card catalog again.  What are we going to upgrade as we emerge from this pandemic?  Perhaps, if nothing else, we will upgrade our sense of responsibility for each other, and leave behind an outdated winner-take-all individualism.  Perhaps, if nothing else, we will hold onto the realization that what we do affects others.  We are all connected to one another; our very breath affects the person next to us.  Our actions have wide ranging consequences.  And I’m talking about for the good!  Think of how our area, our community, this congregation, came together to implement protective, necessarily restrictive measures, to save each other, to save people we don’t even know, and won’t ever meet.

For now, we are in the midst of disruption.
  It’s shaky.  It’s uneven.  It’s constantly changing.  It’s exhausting.  I know.  But it will end.  And when it does, may we all be updated.  May we emerge with a new yearning for true relationship with others and appreciation for the Divine we see as we greet them face to face, not screen to screen, with an embrace.  In the year 5781 and beyond may we all be updated in the book of life for goodness and blessing, for health and togetherness.

G’mar Chatimah Tovah.


[1] Based on Gittin 56b

[2] Ibid.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Kol Nidre 5781: A Strongly Worded Letter to God

 A version of this sermon was delivered at Temple B'nai Torah - A Reform Congregation in Wantagh, NY on Kol Nidre 5781, September 27, 2020.

God, we need to have a talk.

The Torah tells us that this is a day to afflict our souls.  The Torah tells us that this day is supposed to make atonement for us, for our sins, before You, God.  This day is supposed to render us clean, as individuals and as a nation.  We are to deny our bodies and offer ourselves to You.  We cleanse our bodies to cleanse our souls.  But this year, God, I’m not so sure I’m going to feel cleansed, or renewed, or atoned.  Because after this day, this Sabbath of Sabbaths, life continues as it did yesterday, and I gotta tell You, God, life is hard right now, and I know that I’m one of the lucky ones. 

But, when times are tough, where do I turn if not to You?  To whom do we come if not to You? 

I know that we’re supposed to be cautious of how we speak to You,[1] and that even great men and women should be careful about rendering harsh words toward the heavens, but I think You can handle it.  In fact, I know You can.  Abraham argued with You at Sodom, the covenant held.  Jacob wrestled with You in the wilderness, the covenant held.  Jonah petulantly refused to do Your will, the covenant held.

In their footsteps, Eternal our God and God of our Ancestors, I ask: how do You expect us to afflict our souls when they are already so wounded?  How do You expect that we practice self-denial when what we can do is already so limited? 

You want a listing of our sins?  Fine.  We have sinned, over and over again, we’ve got one for every letter of the alphabet!  But when do we call You to account?!  We need some tikkun, God, some healing and repair for our souls which ache with distress, for our spirits, which cry out to be comforted.  We don’t need another day of affliction!

So let’s make a deal: tonight, In the presence of the heavenly court and the earthly court, we’ll forgive You and You forgive us. 

What for?  I’m glad You asked.

Life is hard, and my people and I are tired.  So tired.  Not like in other years.  I know what it takes to make High Holy Days happen.  I know what it means to stay up nights and agonize over words, to craft a meaningful prayer moment, in the hope that they will make a difference.  I have done that before.  This year, there was so much new.  New technology to learn, new interpersonal skills to learn, new habits to learn, new worries keeping me up.  I’m a lifelong learner, God, but hadn’t I already learned how to live my life?

So fine, I learned how to do my job virtually.  But I don’t like it.  It’s not the best way to do this work, God.  The work of teaching Your Torah.  I know You only spoke to Moses face to face, but I’m used to doing it all the time!  I miss seeing people’s faces in front of me.  I miss seeing students in person.  I miss shaking a mourner’s hand and high fiving a bat mitzvah.  I miss handing out lollipops on Shabbat!  I miss blessing people in person!  I miss so much of what was before.  We’ve lost so much of what we knew, and there is no end in sight.  And we don’t know what will come after.

On top of that is all the worry.  And it’s exhausting, too.  Every day, every decision, based on worry for our safety, for that of our families.  Who will be there and where have they been?  How many people will be there?  What’s the viral count in the county right now?  What about the state?  Do I have a mask or sanitizer with me?  Every day, all those questions, over and over.  I know You’re a fan of intentionality, but is this what You had in mind?

And then, God, there’s all the death.  I didn’t open with that because it’s all still so hard to talk about.  So many have died.  So many who did not have to.  Across this country, and across this planet.  I know how busy You’ve been ushering people under Your sheltering wings.  Who shall live and who shall die!?  Who by plague?!  These used to be rhetorical questions, God, remnants of our ancestors and the lives of uncertainty that they lived.  A quaint throwback to a simpler time, before science, before vaccines, when we believed all of it was Your doing. 

So many are grieving their loved ones, their friends, their neighbors because of this virus, because of the violence, because of hunger, because of fires and hurricanes.  So many families in our nation, crushed in mourning.  My people and I are living in a constant state of mourning.  Is that what You hoped for?!  You are supposed to turn our mourning into dancing.  Any time You feel like it!

There’s so much we can’t plan for.  We’re all so anxious because we don’t know what tomorrow will bring.  All we have are questions.  What will we be allowed to do?  How can we plan for things?  What is school going to look like?  Will I have a job?  Every plan needs a contingency.  Every idea needs a backup.  It’s twice the work and twice the worry for every moment of our lives, God.  And it’s exhausting.  It leads to twice the anxiety for a nation that already doesn’t handle mental health well, that thinks there’s something wrong with asking for help.

It feels like there’s twice the potential to make a mistake every moment of every day, and yet, it also feels like we only get half the reward for twice the effort.  Our simchas are joyous but not what we had been looking forward to: weddings without parents, namings without grandparents, b’nai mitzvah without friends.  Our grieving is more pained and without the comfort of community.  Our day to day is so hectic and distracted and uncertain that we don’t know what to feel most of the time.  This cannot be the world You want for us.

Forgive me and my people if we’re just a little tired of bad news.  5779 was difficult, with rising antisemitism, mass shootings, police violence, rising oceans, and a nation more chaotic.  But 5780, You outdid Yourself!  On top of all of that, you took so many from us, and so many who stood for so much that we care about.  You took Kobe and his daughter.  You took John Lewis.  You took Ruth Bader Ginsberg.  You took Rabbi Steinsaltz. You took Carl Reiner.  You took Regis!  My mother still hasn’t gotten over that.

Is there supposed to be some lesson in this, in all this?  My soul aches already, and now I’m supposed to afflict it?  Well, You’ll forgive me if I just don’t have it in me to afflict myself anymore today.  The affliction we’ve been feeling feels like enough to make up for whatever we might have done to deserve it!  But You know what God, tonight, in the spirit of Yom Kippur, we’ll forgive You and You forgive us!

Forgive us if we can’t be fully in it tonight.  Forgive us if the distance between us all is getting to us and if we fail to feel Your presence in the deepest way from our living rooms or our computer rooms.  Forgive us if as nice as this is and as hard as we’ve worked to make it work, if it just doesn’t feel the same for us.  Forgive us.  Pardon us!  Grant us atonement!  We’re doing the best that we can, and this year, 5781, that’s going to have to do!

You know, I’m not the first to come to You in prayer on behalf of my people.  I’m not comparing myself to them, but if their merit may have persuaded You, then perhaps, their merits can count for me and my people.  The rabbis of old who came to You with pleas for help and demands for justice in the world were imperfect like me.  They worked hard to make sense of Your Torah in their times, like we do.  They looked out for their communities in times of trouble like we do.  You listened to them.  Listen to me now with the added benefit of their merit.

What story can we tell You, God, to avert danger away from us?  What prayer from our people’s past can we share so that Your grace and mercy might shine down upon us?  Maybe the Rabbis who invented prayer have the answer!

Some years after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans, there was a drought.[2]  To implore You to send rains, Rabbi Eliezer came before the Holy Ark and proclaimed 24 blessings, yet You did not answer his pleas.  No rains came.

Then came Rabbi Akiva who intoned but two lines of prayer: “אבינו מלכנו אין לנו מלך אלא אתה Avinu Malkeinu, we have no ruler but You!  אבינו מלכנו למענך רחם עלינו Avinu Malkeinu, for Your sake, have mercy on us!”  And then the rains fell.  The drought was abated. 

So, fine.  I’ll give it a shot! Avinu Malkeinu, have mercy on us!  Have mercy on us for the pain that we feel, the distance that we feel, the hurt and the mourning that we feel.  Have mercy on us for the anxiety that keeps us up at night, the stress of what this is doing to us and to our children and parents.  Have mercy on us for the sadness and the division and the violence in our midst!  Avinu Malkeinu, we have no other God but You!  Where should we turn if not toward the East?!

What was it about Rabbi Akiva’s prayer that moved You so?  You told us in a voice from the heavens that it was because Rabbi Akiva was forgiving but Rabbi Eliezer was not.  So it has nothing to do with the prayer at all!?  It has to do with the person’s commitment to forgiveness?!  Are we supposed to forgive so that the rains will come, so that these difficulties will end, so that healing will come to wash away all the affliction?  Who are we supposed to forgive?  Are we supposed to forgive each other?  Are we supposed to forgive ourselves? 

Fine, I forgive myself for the numerous times that I did not live in Your image.  I forgive myself for the times that I did not pay attention to Your will.  I forgive myself for the moments when I did not embody Your spirit of compassion and Justice, Your spirit of consolation and grace.  I forgive myself for the times that I did not love in the way You have commanded us to love, that I did not live in the way You have commanded us to live.  I atone for these and I forgive myself and I forgive my community and my family and my friends, and I commit on this night, this Sabbath of Sabbaths, that I will strive to turn away from those moments of smallness toward moments of goodness and intentionality.  Avinu Malkeinu, I don’t know any other God but You, and I don’t know anything else to say.  Tonight, it’s going to have to be enough!

Maybe it’s not ourselves we’re supposed to forgive, down here in the earthly court.  Maybe we’re supposed to forgive You, up in the heavenly court?  Rabbi Akiva taught us that the greatest commandment is to love our neighbors as ourselves.  Loving our neighbors means forgiving them as we would want them to forgive us.  Does loving You demand the same thing of us?  Ok, fine, God, I forgive You!  Now You forgive us. 

Inscribe us and seal us in the book of Life for good and for blessing.  Forgive us and make this a good year for us.  Forgive us for not acting to spread Your light as we are commanded.  For as much as we are angry at You, we know that it is on us to do Your works here on Earth, to heal the sick, to comfort the bereaved, to teach the next generation, to help the needy, to spread words of peace, to not be daunted by the work ahead of us.  We know it’s on us, God.  But, this year, would it kill You to maybe throw us a little extra help? 

Our souls are afflicted.  We’ve met the requirement.  We’ll forgive you.  Now please, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.


G’mar Chatimah Tovah.

[1][1] Cf. Rabbi Elazar Taanit 25a

[2] Based on story in TB Taanit 25b

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Rosh HaShanah Morning 5781: Faith in the Voting Booth

 A version of this sermon was delivered at Temple B'nai Torah - A Reform Congregation on Rosh HaShanah Morning 5781.

The first action new American citizens take, after their oaths, is registering to vote.  I know this because in 2006, when I became a citizen of this great nation, as soon as the swearing in ceremony was concluded, after the VHS-taped speech by the President and the music video of “Proud to Be an American,” all the new citizens, from all over the world, were taken across the hall in a line and one by one we were each handed voter registration cards to fill out on the spot.

It is a moving sight, to see folks of all backgrounds and skin tones, with accents from all over the world, new Americans, standing in line to accept the most valued, cherished responsibility and right of citizenship: the vote.  It was not always thus.  The founders of this nation only considered white, male landowners eligible for the vote.  It took a civil war, a women’s suffrage movement, and the civil rights movement to expand that right to make it as close to universal as possible.  And yet we know that there are still obstacles to voting in this nation.  From gerrymandering, to closing polling places, to purging rolls, to tampering with the mail, to gutting the Voting Rights Act, which Justice Ginsberg, in dissent, described as throwing out your umbrella when it's raining because you're not getting wet, some will stop at nothing to prevent their fellow citizens the right to vote, and to work to maintain power through disenfranchisement rather than earn it through ideas. 

The Reform Movement is once again promoting a civic engagement campaign which strives for 100% participation in this year’s general election from all Reform congregations.  Our Social Action/Social Justice committee has already been hard at work on this and after the holidays, we’ll be sending out even more information about that and how to be an engaged citizen.  There is no question that voting this year is critical.  As we learn every four years, this year is the most important election ever.  This year, it certainly seems like that’s true.  We have a stark and important choice before us, friends.  Like the choices we make over these Days of Awe, which inform the year we will have ahead, the vote we cast exemplifies the future we hope for.

Civil laws for not-for-profit organizations like synagogues and churches preclude me from telling you who to vote for or who to vote against, even though we know that many flout this law.  Nonetheless, my faith, your faith, and our understanding of what it is God asks of us in our time on this earth all have a role in helping each of us to make that decision.  As Jews we benefit from and value deeply the separation of church and state.  It is among the reasons we have had such success here in America.  The government cannot tell us how to practice our religion, or whether we can.  But the separation does not go both ways, and it shouldn’t.  We are allowed to use our religion to help us decide on the government we want for ourselves and this nation we love.  But what part of our traditions, what elements of our faith and our sacred obligations do we bring with us into the voting booth?  How do we have faith in the voting booth?

To answer that, we look to the morning liturgy and the role of blessing.

Eilu devarim…  These are the things…

These are the things that are limitless, of which a person enjoys the fruit of the world, while the principle remains in the world to come.  They are: honoring one’s father and mother; engaging in deeds of compassion; arriving early for study, morning and evening; welcoming the stranger; visiting the sick; providing for the wedding couple; accompanying the dead for burial; being devoted in prayer; and making peace among people.  But the study of Torah is equal to them all, because it leads to them all.[1]

We chant these words daily, after we bless the study of Torah during our morning service.  We use these words, compiled from the Mishnah and the Talmud, so that the blessing we say each day, la’asok bedivrei Torah, about busying ourselves with words of Torah, is not said in vain.  Every blessing requires its action be fulfilled.  Like the blessing of citizenship demands the action of voting.

To ensure the blessing’s completion, every day, as the action of busying ourselves with Torah, we recite eilu devarim, these are the things: morality, right action, following the ultimate commandment of v’ahavta l’reachah kamocha, love your neighbor as yourself, in all its variations.  Eilu devarim!  These are the things! 

We read this every day, not just because we need a text to study.  There are libraries full of texts that could be included.  This text is a reminder of what it is we value, what it is we hold most important in the way we live our lives, and the way we interact with each other and with God.  When we choose our government, ought we not demand the same from our leaders?  In just 45 days’ time, or sooner if you will vote early or by mail, when we have a decision to make about the future, our future and our nation’s, when we ask ourselves what things are important to us, let these things, eilu devarim, be on our mind.

Hachnasat Orchim, Welcoming Strangers. 

God calls us to create and live in a society which welcomes the stranger and which treats them kindly.  “There is to be one law for you and the stranger alike,”[2] God tells the people as they make their way out of Egypt, before sinai, before the parted sea, almost before any other commandment.  We know what it means to be treated as strangers.  We understand what it means to be treated as less than, treated as a threatening horde, ready to usurp power, to take jobs away.  The Pharaoh enslaved our ancestors because of his fear of the strangers in his midst.  Fair treatment of the stranger is mentioned no fewer than 36 times in the Torah.  It is a value of our people and ought to be a value of every society we are a part of.  And if and when it is not, we ought to fight for it and demand it.

This past February, which I know seems like 18 years ago, before the virus, I took the opportunity over some of the Presidents’ week vacation to witness firsthand how this nation is treating its strangers.  Not well, I learned when I went down to the border with Mexico at Brownsville with a small group of volunteers.  Friends, what I saw there was not the America that any of us want.  Technically, it’s not happening in America because America had closed its borders. 

Even before COVID, America instituted a program in January 2019 known as MPP, the Migrant Protection Program, also known as the “Remain in Mexico” program.  This law means that anyone attempting to enter the USA can be detained here or sent back to Mexico to await adjudication of their case in an immigration court.  That seems reasonable on paper.  It seems reasonable until you see the actual human toll, until you see the families living in tents, stuck in legal limbo.  While there are certainly some nefarious folks trying to gain access, and every nation has a right to police and protect its borders, the majority who have been affected by this law are asylum seekers from Central America.  That means that they fled their homeland due to danger and violence, making their way to our border in order to find a safe haven.  The myth of America still looms large, even if the reality doesn’t match.

America turns them away.  In violation of international law, America has de facto closed its borders to asylum seekers.  At the literal border, at the midway point on the bridge over the Rio Grande, there are immigration agents posted because international law states that once you set foot on American soil, you can claim asylum.  The agents are there to prevent anyone from crossing over.  Canada has since altered its own laws since they no longer consider the U.S. a safe place for asylum seekers.[3] 

Our small group spent just a few days in Brownsville, cooking for and carrying meals to the migrant camp in Matamoros, Mexico, where more than 1500 people are waiting to know what their next step might be.  We served them food, thanks to World Central Kitchen, the NGO whose mission it is to feed people in disaster zones.  We saw planes deporting people to a third nation, under the cover of darkness.  We saw footage of the effect of the child separation policy, hundreds of children imprisoned for the sin of seeking the American dream.  We spent part of Sunday morning teaching school to kids of all ages, sprawled on tarps laid out over the dirt.  The kids’ passion for learning and normalcy was palpable.  Their smiles were infectious and broad.  But that was the only day of school they get.  We saw the human toll that anti-stranger policies exact. 

Eilu devarim, these things I will not forget, that in those people’s faces, I saw our own history of being unwelcome to America at our time of need.  At the same time, I will not forget the humanity I saw and their capacity to find joy in the midst of difficulty.  None of us should forget the importance of welcoming the stranger as we look up our polling place.

Bikkur Cholim, Visiting the Sick.

According to tradition, there are certain rules for this mitzvah.  Among them: Don’t go visit too soon.  Don’t tax the patient with too many visits.  The rabbis of old were practical and also a touch superstitious.  But the Midrash elaborates that there is real power in this mitzvah.  Each visit is said to take away 1/60th of the illness.  When Joseph visits Jacob on his deathbed, the sight of the son he favored most, who was taken from him for decades, whose face gleamed with the beauty of his beloved Rachel, the sight of Joseph, gives Jacob the strength to sit up in his old age.[4]  Visiting the sick is akin to healing the sick, even in just a small way.  We are commanded to be healers of the sick, easers of suffering.

There are ways to stop the spread of this virus.  We know it because we’ve done it here, in New York, on Long Island.  After the hell that was our spring, we have made it to the other side.  We know that social distancing, mitigating risk, and wearing masks are all ways that stop the spread.  We know this because science tells us so and the data tell us so.  Imagine what we could have done had we known, like the President that the virus was airborne on February 7.

The Rabbis of old didn’t have science, but they did have sense.  They had the sense to remind us that we are only supposed to alleviate suffering, not exacerbate it.  In their injunctions against visiting too soon, the commentators say that it’s to prevent the patient from thinking they are sicker than they are, but there was perhaps also a recognition that in the case of illness that is not understood, you should keep your distance for a few days.  They might not have understood that a disease can be airborne, but they didn’t even need that knowledge to advise social distancing

Eilu devarim, these numbers ought to be on our mind: 200,000 Americans dead and nearing 7 million infected, hitting the worst-case scenarios presented all those months ago.  Loved ones dying alone in hospitals.  Frontline workers underequipped.  Families losing the opportunity to mourn in the ways they expected.  Our community’s losses.  Our members who lost loved ones. The line of hearses awaiting burial at the cemetery.  Families whose worlds have been crushed.

Eilu devarim, these things must be on our mind: how much of this might have been preventable if our leaders had chosen to alleviate suffering?  Our votes should bring healing, not more suffering and pain, and we should remember that as we make our plan to vote.

Hava’at Shalom Ben Adam Lechavero, Making Peace Among People:

One of the most important roles for a leader is to comfort people through difficult times.  The prophet Isaiah loved to tell the people what they were doing wrong.  But when the people were at their worst, when the people had lost everything, he chose to comfort them, with words of consolation from God.  As our ancestors wept by the rivers of Babylon, Isaiah reminded them of their promise and their ideals and that though things were tough, a brighter future was possible, if only they stuck to the values of Torah.

There is no question that this nation feels more divided than ever before.  E pluribus unum seems farther away than ever.  As a Jewish community, we value peace and pray to God over and over to cause peace to descend upon us.  We also know that as much as we count on God to heed our prayers, prayer without our action is incomplete. 

This summer, our nation witnessed the largest social protest movement in American history[5] as millions marched for racial justice and against police brutality in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death at the knee of a police officer.  One more violent interaction caught on smartphone video.  Eilu devarim, these are the things we should remember… 2/3 of Americans believed in at least part of the goals of the protest movement.[6] 93% of protests were peaceful.  Of the 7% where there was violence, we could say it was just a few bad apples, but recent reports also indicate that much of that violence was stoked by white supremacists seeking to blame the racial justice protestors and sow discord.[7]  Though the violence was by no means widespread, it is always wrong.  The images of cities aflame, factions of this nation confronting each other in the streets, shattered us all.

Eizeh devarim!?  What words of peace did we hear from our leaders?!  Eizeh devarim!?  What words of consolation from our Commander in Chief, for a nation beaten down, seemingly tearing itself apart?!  What words of shalom, of wholeness of bringing people together?  The lack of words, the lack of a thrust toward peace, the lack of a comforting presence in our nation’s time of greatest need.  That ought to be on our minds as we fill in the bubble.

Talmud Torah Keneged Kulam.  The Study of Torah is Equal to Them All Because It Leads to Them All. 

The rabbis of the Talmud debate whether study or action is greater.  They answer, and here the Talmud explains that it’s all the rabbis, almost as if they shout in unison: “Studying the Torah is greater because studying leads to action.”[8]  What does it mean to study Torah, to busy ourselves with sacred words?  It means for the purpose of living them.  Values have no meaning if they stay in our books.  Our liturgy teaches us that Torah is an expression of our deepest held values.  We are commanded to study eilu devarim, these things, because in studying them, we find ourselves living them.  In making space in our minds and souls for these values, in considering them day after day, there can be no end except to find our hands, feet, and minds living out our values through our actions and our choices. 

We are called to live a life dedicated to and comprised of eilu devarim, these things that are without measure, that we cannot do enough of.  We are called to make our decisions based on eilu devarim, these values.  We are also Americans, called to elect our leaders.  The votes which are our inalienable right allow us the opportunity to put our faith, our values, eilu devarim, into action.  \

This nation has a choice before it this November.  We each have a choice before us.  What values will we bring with us into the voting booth?  What Torah will guide our future?  What kind of society do we seek to build?  What values will we demand our leaders not only speak but act?  These values: eilu devarim:

אֵֽלּוּ דְבָרִים שֶׁאֵין לָהֶם שִׁעוּר שֶׁאָדָם אוֹכֵל פֵּרוֹתֵיהֶם בָּעוֹלָם הַזֶּה וְהַקֶּֽרֶן קַיֶּֽמֶת לָעוֹלָם הַבָּא, וְאֵֽלּוּ הֵן כִּבּוּד אָב וָאֵם וּגְמִילוּת חֲסָדִים וְהַשְׁכָּמַת בֵּית הַמִּדְרָשׁ שַׁחֲרִית וְעַרְבִית וְהַכְנָסַת אוֹרְ֒חִים וּבִקּוּר חוֹלִים וְהַכְנָסַת כַּלָּה וּלְוָיַת הַמֵּת וְעִיּוּן תְּפִלָּה וַהֲבָאַת שָׁלוֹם בֵּין אָדָם לַחֲבֵרוֹֹ וְתַלְמוּד תּוֹרָה כְּנֶֽגֶד כֻּלָּם:


[1] Translation in Mishkan Tefillah with a touch of Gates of Prayer

[2] Ex. 12:49


[4] Genesis 48




[8] Kiddushin 40b