WHAT KIND OF PEOPLE WORSHIP HERE?
Ever since I was a kid, I paid close attention to my rabbi’s sermon at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services. Not to diminish their religious significance, but these holidays are like the Super Bowl for rabbis. All the congregants show up and this is the big moment.
This year I missed Rosh Hashanah services. So I was so grateful when my cousin, a rabbi in Washington DC, posted her sermon for all the world to hear. And all the world should hear it. Hannah has been getting proximate. Her voice, her perspective, her words deserve a platform. I’m honored to share her profoundly inspiring sermon on this space and I hope you’ll take a listen.
On Rosh Hashanah, there is a major emphasis on the rabbi's sermon. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are some of the most attended services of the entire year on the Jewish calendar and its a real opportunity to speak to your congregation. I initially struggled with what I wanted to say this year. I am a rabbi in Washington, D.C. On the one hand, the election is on everyone's mind, especially here. On the other hand, there is a constant barrage of election related news. With two major party conventions, ongoing debates and non-stop media coverage, it feels like everything there is to say, has already been said. With that in mind, I wrote about how faith helps us to zoom out, to situate ourselves in a larger story, and remember the values that we want to animate our lives
---- Rabbi Hannah Goldstein
A few weeks ago, I was coming up for air after a dizzying dive into the day’s news, searching for something to distract me from polls and gaffes and Nate Silver. I sat down and listened to Martin Luther King reading “A Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Rabbi Roos had said it was a worthwhile endeavor in the midst of this busy season.
For 55 minutes, I listened to what has become an iconic milestone in the struggle for Civil Rights. Written in 1963, Dr King respectfully explained to his fellow clergymen why now was the time to act against injustice. He expressed his disappointment with white moderate complacency. He described traveling through the South, admiring the beautiful churches, but wondering, “What kind of people worship here? Who is their God?”
His letter made me wonder, “What kind of people worship here? What kind of people are we? What brings us here on this most sacred day? What does our faith demand of us?”
In truth, there are many reasons that we are here. For some, it is the tug of history, a shared destiny with an ancient people, this is what Jews do on Rosh Hashanah. For others it is more personal, someone we love wanted us to be here, a commitment to our family. And probably for many of us, though we may be reluctant to admit it, we come because of guilt or superstition.
I would like to think that we are all here for another reason: We know that Judaism has something to say about why we are here today. On Rosh Hashanah, when we celebrate the miracle of creation, the birthday of the world in which we live, we consider who we want to be out there! We are a unique congregation, filled with worldly and intelligent people. We follow the news, read the papers…some of you make the news and write the papers. There is no shortage of information available about what’s going on out there. Some of you are probably reading that information on your phones...at this very moment.
Sinai has a unique relationship with politics, one that I was reminded of during a trip with our 6th graders last spring. We walked past a Bernie Sanders campaign poster, and one of our 11 year olds commented, “You know, I really like some of his ideas, but I just don’t think he’ll be a viable candidate in the general election.”
35 days before one of our nation’s most unprecedented presidential elections, you took this time to sit in these pews and attend services on Rosh Hashanah. You decided to transcend this moment, to take a break from the emotional whiplash, extricate yourselves from the daily minutiae to find your place in a larger story. Rabbi David Posner, a mentor of mine, used to say, “I don’t preach about current events, I preach about eternal events.” We situate ourselves in the Jewish story to remember that we are part of something that is not only responsive to the passing moment, but that attempts to guide us through the longer arc of time.
More than two thousand years ago the Hebrew prophets faced similar questions. They were truth tellers, who saw beyond their brief moment in history, and their own political context. They looked around their corrupt and unjust cities, and asked, “Who worships here?”
Among the most eloquent was the Prophet Micah’s words; “He has told you, O Man, what is good. And what Adonai, God, requires of you.” Ki im asot mishpat, v’ahavat chesed, v’hatznei’ah lechet im elohechah. “Do justice! Love mercy! And walk humbly with your God.”
The Talmud teaches us that Moses received 613 commandments, but Micah reduced them to three principles. All of the rules and prohibitions in Judaism, distilled into three easy to remember guiding values. They were relevant then, and perhaps even more so today.
Do mishpat, do justice. Of course, we care about justice. We are a social justice congregation, our past rabbis social justice giants. Who among us would consider themselves, “anti-justice.” And yet, Micah places this first in his threefold list of what is good, of what God requires of us. The commandment to do justice bears repeating over and over again, and justice must come first.
There is a midrash, a legend, about the birth of Judaism. God says to Abraham, “Lecha Lecha—go from your land, your birthplace, your father’s house…” The Midrash, anticipates Abraham’s journey, and likens him to a man who is traveling and comes upon a palace that is in flames. The traveler wonders, “Is it possible that this palace has no owner?” How can they let their palace burn? The owner of the palace, looks out from a window in the burning palace and says, “I am the owner.” So too, Abraham wondered, “is it possible that the world has no ruler?” God looked out and said, “I am the ruler, the sovereign of the universe.” In essence, God said to Abraham, “Lech Lecha, be the father of a special nation, a people I can call upon when the house I built is in flames.”
We are the descendants of Abraham, called to put out the fire. From the very beginning God envisioned a Judaism of partnership. When we see that things are not as they should be, we are supposed to be the fire brigade, to get the fire hose.
This is what it means to do justice. We are not told to think about justice, or talk about justice, or even to pray for justice. Judaism is not a passive religion. It is not always meant to make you feel good. The voice of the prophet calls out to us, to do mishpat, to open our eyes to injustice around us, to see that the house is on fire, and to run to get the hose.
Doing justice requires vigilance and commitment. It is a call that we must answer again and again, no matter who sits in the White House come January.
Many years ago, in a sermon to this congregation, Rabbi Eugene Lipman warned his people about indifference in the face of an election (he was talking about a midterm election in 1970). “The American political system works to the extent that elections get held and thereafter someone carries on the process of government after a fashion. Great needs remain unmet and we try not to hear or to pay much attention to the minorities whose members scream that there can and must be better ways in the richest, most powerful nation in human history.” There is no shortage of work to be done.
Doing justice means voting and canvassing. It means ensuring that anyone in this country with the legal right to vote has no obstacles to performing that sacred rite of democracy. It means doing justice here, in our community. It means supporting a Syrian refugee family, buying school supplies for Project Mensch and volunteering at Sinai House, advocating for affordable housing, rallying for gun violence prevention, calling for racial justice, passing paid family leave legislation. Great needs remain unmet in this city of abundance.
As Dr. King wrote in his eloquent letter, “What kind of people worship here?” We need to answer, we do, a community tirelessly busy in the unending, demanding, and difficult work of “doing justice.”
The Prophet Micah taught us: “Do justice. Love mercy. And walk humbly with your God.”
We are told to do justice, and then we must, “Love chesed, love mercy.” If doing justice is a call to action, loving mercy is a worldview. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught, “What the Lord required of man is more than fulfilling one’s duty…To love means to transfer the center of one’s inner life from the ego to the object of one’s love.”Loving chesed means turning yourself inside out, shifting your focus from yourself to the other.
Loving mercy requires ongoing work. Doing justice can be impersonal, coldly delineating between good and evil in the world. Loving mercy means cultivating a capacity to see the other, even when you disagree, even when they are hard to love.
Soon, we will stand before the ark. We will sing the words of Avinu Malkeinu, and we will implore God to judge us with “tzedekah, v’chesed”. We ask that God treat us generously and with kindness. On the High Holy Days, we cry out to God, appealing to God to judge us with justice, and with mercy, as we recommit ourselves to doing the same to those around us.
In 2010, Brian Stanton began to take pictures of New Yorkers. His original goal, was, as he wrote: “to photograph 10,000 New Yorkers on the street, and create an exhaustive catalogue of the city’s inhabitants." He decided to includea brief excerpt from interviews he did with his subjects and he posted them on social media. He called the project “Humans of New York.”
It is an idea that has spawned flattering imitation. Cities all over the world now have their own “Humans of…” accounts. Humans of New York has 20 million followers on social media, and Brandon has used the project to achieve greater ends. He has taken the project overseas, telling the stories of Syrian refugees, of people living in Israel and Palestine, South Sudan and Ukraine. He has taken the project to a prison and a pediatric cancer center.
Each post follows the simple formula, a short quotation and an image of a person. Humans of New York has inspired activism, the pursuit of justice. The online community has raised money for inner city schools, for scholarships, they bought a man a wheelchair. The formula works because it turns a stranger into a person. It puts astory to the image of a child suffering in a conflict overseas, about which he has no control nor understanding. It shows the pain of a drug addict, the desperation of one who is homeless. In a few sentences, these interviews that accompany the photographs remind the viewers of the humanity of the other; each of us holds a story that we carry inside. Each person you pass on the street, on the metro, who stands in line behind you in the grocery store is deserving of chesed, even those we would prefer to turn away from. It is up to us to make a choice to treat them with grace, and mercy and compassion.
“Who worships here?” As the Prophet Micah said: people who believe in mishpat, in justice, those who strive to see the humanity in the other, understand the meaning of chesed, who see the spark of the divine which rests in each heart, from those closest to us, to those with whom we disagree, to those with whom we have but a passing encounter.
The Prophet Micah teaches, “Do justice. Love mercy. And walk humbly with your God.”
Justice is what we do, loving kindness is how we see the other, and Micah, reminds us to, “walk humbly with God.”
Humility is personal, it is about how we see ourselves, it carries a spiritual imperative. First, we must walk humbly with those around us. Humility means pausing before we speak, it means truly listening. It means allowing ourselves to keep our minds open enough for new ideas to grow. But not to be so open minded, as a professor of mine used to say, that your brain falls out. It means, in the words of the prophet Ice Cube, “to check yourself, before you wreck yourself.” Or as another of my teachers reminded me, to be wary of the self-made man who worships his maker.
In a now famous moment in modern sports history, this August the San Francisco 49ers quarterback, Colin Kaepernik sat down for the national anthem. He had sat down for three consecutive games, when a journalist tweeted a photo of Kaepernik sitting and protesting the national anthem. Kaepernick explained that he was protesting police brutality against people of color.
Nate Boyer, a former football player and green beret responded with an open letter to Kaepernick in the Army Times. “As I ran out of the tunnel with the American flag I could feel myself swelling with pride, and as I stood on the sideline with my hand on my heart as the anthem began, that swelling burst into tears. I thought about…the men I’d fought alongside who didn’t make it back. I thought about those still overseas who were risking their lives at that very moment.” Boyer went on, “Even though my initial reaction to your protest was one of anger, I’m trying to listen to what you’re saying and why you’re doing it...There are already plenty people fighting fire with fire, and it’s just not helping anyone or anything. So I’m just going to keep listening, with an open mind. I look forward to the day you’re inspired to once again stand during our national anthem. [and when you do] I’ll be standing right there next to you.”
After the letter was published, Boyer and Kaepernick met. Boyer helped Kaepernick refine the protest. Instead of sitting, which looked like Kaepernick was opting out, he began kneeling. At the next game, Kaepernick knelt, and Boyer stood at attention beside him, Boyer’s hand over his heart. Each man confident in his place, and humble enough to learn from and listen to the other.
Rabbi Bachya ibn Pakuda teaches, “On what do the virtues depend? All virtues and duties are dependent on humility.” The prophet Micah concludes his three point blueprint with humility, because we cannot do justice, we cannot love chesed, without a sense of our own individual limitations.
Micah bids us, at the end of his lesson, to walk humbly im elohechah, with your God. No matter your concept of God—a loving parent, a harsh judge, a presence, a spirit, a void, a nothing at all—when we sit in these pews during the 10 days of awe, we confront our own limitations, our mortality, at times our vulnerability, in a world that is at once beautiful and sublime, and at other times unfair and unpredictable. Who by water, who by fire, we are humbled by our own powerlessness. We come to remember that we are at the mercy of a force that we do not fully understand, and so we must live the best way we know how for the precious time that we have.
As we sit together for these High Holy Days, we each ask ourselves, “Who worships here?” What are the principles by which I lead my life? What are the values that transcend this moment and weave a thread through each decision? Has that thread frayed? Am I doing what is good, what God requires of me? Am I doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with my God?
These are eternal questions, questions that connect us to every person who sits in a synagogue at the dawn of 5777. Questions that link us with every person who has sat in a temple, synagogue, shteibel or shul for generations. As we busy ourselves in the day to day, we cannot lose ourselves, our perspective, our connection with all that is grand, and beautiful and eternal. On Rosh Hashanah, we worship here and commit ourselves to living the values that have guided our people for centuries.
In this new year, may you walk humbly with your neighbor and with your God, may your heart overflow with chesed, and may you do abundant justice.