“Alone, Together” (Yom Kippur 5776/2015)
Olam Chesed Yibaneh.
We will build this world from love.
Tonight we stand humbled. We sway. We touch our own hearts and reach for each other’s. We sing. We cry. We reunite. Tonight, we heal by allowing in the pain and vulnerability and the hope – all of it.
On the one hand, Yom Kippur leads us to look within: How have I failed during the year gone by?
On the other, we speak in the collective: AshamNU, BagadNU. WE have been guilty, WE have done wrong.
And so, tonight, we are here and we are there, spanning the globe as the Gathered Jewish People, more of us together for Kol Nidrei than on any other night. We are individuals and we are community and we are a People. Tonight, we are alone together, the kind of soulful group Billy Joel once pointed to when he sang, “Yes, they’re sharing a drink they call loneliness, but it’s better than drinking alone.”
In the end, we are all here. Thank God.
Yom Kippur always finds us. Each and all, it finds us. Even if we feel lost, Yom Kippur reminds us we are not. Every note of Kol Nidrei knows how and where to find us, as we inhabit our different emotional places, gathered in one sacred physical space. The Jewish People stands alone, together, tonight. Some call that togetherness God. Some call that togetherness family. Some think the difference is an illusion.
Regardless of what any one of us does or doesn’t believe, we are here, thank God.
What a year it has been. Ups and downs too many to count. What should a rabbi talk about tonight? The torrent of Racial Injustice revealing untended wounds in our body politic? Antisemitism rearing its ugly head time and time again in Europe, in America, and elsewhere? (Our memories might be too full of recent heartache to immediately recall the terrorist attacks and murders of Jews at the Hyper Cacher in Paris and in the main synagogue in Copenhagen, but these were just last January and February.) Perhaps we should focus tonight on the assault on women’s reproductive rights being waged in the halls of the United States congress right now? Or, perhaps we should name the tension surrounding the nuclear deal with Iran, about whose outcome no one – not in our Homeland nor here at home – can truly yet speak authoritatively, advocates on both sides still coming from places of unwavering vision and existential fear?
It’s a list too long to even generate. But. This is our world. And we are Jews in it. We are living our story as we always have: Vulnerably. Alone. Together.
So: What should we talk about tonight? I’ve been wrestling with topics ranging from the most intimate to the most global, knowing that the prioritization of any topic overshadows so many others.
But then I saw an image that made my choice for me. That, in the end, pulled it all together. That image demanded and challenged. You and I and the entire world saw that image. The one of the 3 year old boy, face down in the sand on a beach.
The name of that boy was Aylan Kurdi z”l. He was in one of two boats, carrying a total of 23 people that set off separately from the Akyarlar area of Turkey, headed to Greece, where they could have attempted to enter the European Union. But their overcrowded boat capsized, and Aylan washed up a few miles to the northeast in Turkey, not far from a beach resort. The dead included five children — among them Aylan’s 5-year-old brother — and one woman, their mother.
We looked in horror at this image. The whole world did. And then most of us looked away. How could we not? How can we endure the horror of what that image represents?
But we keep hearing numbers. We succeeded in increasing the number of Syrian refugees the United States will accept from only 10,000 to a new figure of 175,000. These are refugees seeking asylum from war ravaged Syria and Eritrea. 175,000 Images of God who are and were 3 year old children. I stood this past summer, on the border of Israel and Syria, and saw and heard bombs go off in the near distance, part of the ongoing civil war in Syria. From that vantage point in the Golan Heights, I was also able to see in Jordan a large city, Jordan’s third largest, entirely populated by Syrian refugees.
We hear other numbers. Germany announces they will accept 875,000 refugees. Germany! How intense, how impossible, to hear this with Jewish ears. This, after the unforgivable sin of murdering 6 million Jewish souls? No act will ever achieve atonement, but for a Jew today to hear of Germany taking responsibility for a homeless, persecuted people…
But then we hear more numbers. Bigger numbers. 4 million. 4 million. 4 million refugees from war-torn Syria. 4 million.
Friends, open your hearts. Please. Please. I know this kind of talk shuts us down. But don’t shut down tonight. Keep your eyes and your hearts open. That image of one child is not of one child – it is God’s Image abandoned by us all. It is your child. Our child. And our tears, comingling with the tide that came and went around that poor boy’s body, won’t accomplish anything. It is not about what we feel, it is about what we will do. It is not about what any one of us claims to believe; it is about what we will do.
No detached theology will save this world. Prayers that remain locked in books and sanctuaries do not help. As we read in the Midrash:
“[The Prophet Isaiah prophesized:] ‘You are My witnesses, says God, and I am God (Isaiah 43:12).’
The rabbis took this to mean that God is saying:
“If you are my witnesses, I am God; if you cease to be My witnesses, I am not God.”
The prophet Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel z”l wrote on this:
“This is one of the boldest utterances in Jewish literature and is full of meaning. If there are no witnesses, there is no God to be met… For God to be present we have to be witnesses. Without the people Israel, the Bible is mere literature. Through Israel, the Bible is a voice, a demand, a challenge. (A Declaration of Conscience, 1964)”
Yom Kippur demands your open eyes. Today is not the birthday of the world. Today’s job is a lot harder. Today we look at our post-creation world, and it can be hard to keep our eyes open. Even harder to keep our hearts open. It’s going to hurt. So that’s how we’ll start: by not pretending it doesn’t hurt to actually see the world the way it is.
And looking won’t be enough. You can cry your eyes out, and nothing will change. The way we’ll stay strong enough long enough to do something about it will be by remembering the words of the ancient sage Ben Hei Hei, who taught us “Lefum Tzara Agra, according to the pain is the reward.” If that is the case, then there is an immense reward waiting for the whole world somewhere in the future. May it be so.
You might think that the responses to these problems are in heaven, too distant to reach. But I say to us all tonight that they are not in the heavens. They are so very near to each of us. So very close. The answers are in our hearts and through our hands, if only we could be brave enough to be witnesses, to let God’s pain in and fix our broken world, piece by piece.
Let’s let some of that pain in. Don’t try to comprehend 4,000,000 refugees. Just call to mind the image of Aylan. And ask yourself this one question: Who’s child is Aylan?
Follow my thoughts into what might sound, at first, like a different topic.
I share the following personal story from this past summer with my daughter’s permission:
We were waiting, with our shul group, to ascend the Temple Mount. It was my second time, having been hesitant for political, emotional, and religious reasons to ever visit that site. When planning a recent shul trip to Israel and considering a visit to the Temple Mount, Ariel Sharon’s provocative actions there were in my eyes, my recognition that the site is holy to more than only Jews was in my heart, my discomfort from being prohibited from praying on a site that is also holy to Jews seared my soul. But, when I voiced my reluctance to lead a group to the Temple Mount, my dear friend and teacher, Jared Goldfarb, who served as our guide and educator, challenged me, saying:
“Menachem, you can’t claim that this is a trip with diverse voices if you only go where you’re comfortable and where people agree with you.”
He was right. So we went.
That first visit, a few years ago, was magnificent. I remember being very apprehensive about what we’d encounter. And yes, the Waqf guards of the Islamic Trust charged with protection and maintenance of The Temple Mount, eyed my Kippah with suspicion, checked my pockets for prohibited items, like a siddur (prayerbook), all this as I carried one of my children on my back. Once we crossed the security threshold, I looked around in shock. It was peaceful and quiet, soccer balls and picnics, families and small learning circles. So very different from the tense air at the Kotel! I was confronted by a vision more beautiful than I expected, and felt blessed to just be there in admiration.
So, when organizing this last summer’s Israel trip, I felt more comfortable making that same decision. And my daughter Ariel, recently Bat Mitzvah’ed, joined us, this time not on my back. I was so excited to share with her and with our group the peace of that space, the grandeur of the architecture, the power of encountering another sacred narrative just inches from our own more-familiar one.
We neared the security checkpoint. But the rules had changed: No Jewish symbols allowed. Ariel’s Magen David (Jewish Star) necklace had to be tucked into her shirt. Now Jews were also not allowed to wear a kippah, so I took mine off and wore a hat instead. And now Jews weren’t allowed to sit down anywhere on the Temple Mount. Given the tensions at the site, sometimes exacerbated by a small group of extremist Jewish activists, I swallowed my own discomfort and led the group forward. We found a spot to stand in the shade, and I shared with them my pride that back at Netivot Shalom, that very night, we were hosting our Turkish Muslim sisters and brothers as they have sounded the call to prayer for the holy month of Ramadan in our sanctuary these last 8 years. I was proud to remind us of our commitment as a shul to also being a sacred home for our Christian sisters and brothers from the church across the street to hold Easter services these last 8 years, and that it was actually a lesson we could learn from Islam’s construction of the Temple Mount itself, since the Dome of the Rock was intentionally not created as a mosque, as a Muslim prayer space, out of respect for Judaism’s and Christianity’s religious roots in that space. That’s why the Al Aqsa Mosque is also built atop the Temple Mount, so that the new Muslim prayer space would not erase other faith’s connections to the place.
As I shared these teachings, my daughter was leaning her head on my shoulder. I felt that warmth and was proud to be sharing this holy space and a vision of inter-religious respect with her. Suddenly, a Waqf guard ran toward us, shouting “NO touching! No touching!” I looked, in shock, and explained “this is my daughter.” “No touching!” I wasn’t going to let go of her. I looked at the guard, and said quietly and firmly, “This is my daughter.” He eventually walked away, and Ariel and I broke into tears, holding each other, our group standing in shock. A moment later, as we tried to regain our emotional momentum and work our way to the path leading away from the Temple Mount, another Waqf guard ran at our group, shouting “No Touching!” My daughter’s tears on me, I looked at him, and said “This is my daughter. You’re making her cry.” As her body shook, the Magen David necklace came out from under her shirt, and the guard’s eyes widened, and he shouted, “How did you get that Jewish symbol up here?!” I looked at Jared, and we began to leave more quickly. We left that space, which didn’t feel so holy any more, followed by a growing, angry group of Waqf guards. We were shaken to our core, to say the least.
I ask you, and wish I could ask those guards in some safe way: Who’s child is Ariel?
One last experience, an inadequate attempt to weave together these ideas and perhaps also the suggest ion for the beginning of a response:
We are blessed, as Netivot Shalom, to have many members wielding beauty in the world. One person who grew up in this community, Rebecca Bardach, made Aliyah with her family years ago, and now serves as Director of Resource Development & Strategy for Hand in Hand, Yad b’Yad, the Center for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel. Hand in Hand is a system of bilingual Jewish-Arab schools in Israel and, through this, is building a shared society.
Less than a year ago, Jewish arsonists burned the first grade classroom at Yad b’Yad in Jerusalem. On that floor, children’s books were burned. A first grade classroom for Jewish and Arab children. So, this summer, Netivot Shalom members joined Rebecca in that room, whose fire scars are now invisible, covered instead with delightful finger-paint in Arabic and Hebrew. But we know those scars are there. We sat in that classroom, on the children’s seats, as witnesses, and we committed as a shul to raising one scholarship for one Arab student and one scholarship for one Jewish student every year. There is no room for hate. This is a place of great hope. Of heart. Of blessing. If you’d like to help us with that commitment, please contact me very soon through the shul office.
Who’s children are these first graders?
We know the answers to these questions: they are our children. 3 year old Aylan, 13 year old Ariel and first grade Arab and Jewish children and each of us, just slightly older children, one teeming mass of vulnerable children – we are all here, we are all children, we are all each other’s.
This world is meant to be a place of great hope. Of heart. Of blessing.
From the intense urgency of every screaming headline,
it would seem like there isn’t enough of anything to go around:
But we know that isn’t true.
There is enough.
We have enough.
We just haven’t decided to share well,
to truly expect goodness of each other.
This world and every beating heart on its blessed face
ache to be reborn, to be loved, to be shared.
We have enough.
We have more than enough.
What is it to be a human being? We are our stories. As Oliver Sacks z”l taught us:
“If we wish to know about a man, we ask ‘what is his story–his real, inmost story?’–for each of us is a biography, a story. Each of us is a singular narrative, which is constructed, continually, unconsciously, by, through, and in us–through our perceptions, our feelings, our thoughts, our actions; and, not least, our discourse, our spoken narrations. Biologically, physiologically, we are not so different from each other; historically, as narratives–we are each of us unique.” (The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales)
We can’t respond to the number 4 million, each of which is a unique story. But we know what it is to be a stranger, to have our narrative be treated as alien by others. The Torah includes the exhortation to do right by strangers, to care for the vulnerable – because we were strangers in a strange land. To quote the complicated Science Fiction author Robert Heinlein, we “grok.” We know. We intuit. We’ve been there.
The problem is, it’s been a while. And we forget what it is to have our own children’s futures unsure. That’s not completely true. We American Jews can sometimes forget. Just spend one 10 minute period in a bomb shelter in Ashkelon, Sderot, Tel Aviv, Haifa, and you’ll remember. But woe to us if we let Jewish vulnerability, here or in Israel, erase Torah’s demand to bear witness to God’s Image in every person. The Torah’s commend to be fair to the stranger because we were strangers in Egypt is actually another way of saying: if everyone is a stranger, there is no such thing.
Which is why it’s so hard to look at Aylan. Because he’s your son. He was worthy of dignity. He was worthy of life. Every person is.
Friends, what am I asking you to do? The hardest thing there is to do: open your eyes and don’t hide from the pain. See it. Then do something about it. Get involved. Support groups like HIAS (HIAS.org) who are leading the Jewish effort to respond to the Global Refugee crisis. Support Hand in Hand’s work to remind us – not just our children – that we belong to each other. Choose a corner of the world where your soul can make a difference, and go there even and especially if it hurts – lean yourself into that, because that’s where your work awaits.
Hear the voices of those who call out for help, and remember that ours is not to complete the work, as long as we take it on. Our collective power to do good in this fragile world is nothing less than Godly.
But hear this not as affirmation. We’ll have enough time to rest once we fix this world. These next 25 hours of Yom Kippur will be meaningless if we let their message stay in this room.
Bear witness to your sisters and brothers, Muslim, Jewish, Israeli, Syrian, Black, White, Christian, old and young this Yom Kippur. If we don’t, we have no right to expect forgiveness. We don’t have to agree about ANYTHING to be kind to each other. Being kind, sharing love in this world is not dependent upon anything.
So we pray, with hearts that are full and open and wounded and strong and pulsing and ready:
May this be a year in which we demonstrate moral courage through our deeds.
May we take seriously our own power and cultivate our own faith – and the faith of others – in this world.
May it be the kind of year that cracks us all wide open, so that we can build this world better than before, lifting as much of the blessed burden as we’re able.
Gmar Chatimah Tovah – May you be written and sealed for life this year.