Where Are We?
Kol Nidre 5771/2010
In early July I received an email from a New York City colleague. It was early morning, I hadn't read the paper yet, but the email said, “Aren't you glad you aren't a rabbi in NYC now?” I didn't know what he was referring to until I opened the paper to the unfolding controversy regarding Park 51, and the proposed Islamic Center in lower Manhattan.
The issue was not whether the Center should be built, the issue in my friend's email was about the anger, the hatred, the lack of civility in how people talked about this project, “those people”, “that religion”, “that Imam,” that was so troubling.
My colleague went on to say that he had been contacted by the media to weigh in on the project, whether it should be built, whether 2 blocks away from ground zero was “hallowed ground”, or “far enough away,” and really, how could any Muslim think it was OK to do this.
On the one hand, yes, I suppose I was relieved not to be on the other end of those questions as a rabbi in New York City. On the other hand, having been a rabbi in New York City when the towers were attacked, having taken part in an interfaith prayer service the night of September 11, 2001 including Muslim clerics, and having lived through those awful days, the email from my friend brought me back to what made that time even remotely bearable.
What made an impact on me nine years ago was the incredible way people spoke to one another, the way strangers helped each other, the way it didn't much matter where you went to pray at the end of the week -- we were all in mourning, all suffering, and all New Yorkers, who had had witnessed the unthinkable.
In the weeks that have followed since the controversy of Park 51 unfolded, I have grown quite concerned. I fully recognize the strong sentiments that have been aroused, and the passionate expressions of grief that are still raw for many families. As a Jew and as a rabbi, however, my commitment to the principle of the free exercise of religion, a principle that has allowed Jewish Americans to flourish in this country has been at the forefront of my mind.
So here on the holiest night of the year, as we continue to bear witness to anger and hatred across the country, to threatened Koran burning, something that we as Jews know all too well -- tonight I want to return to our roots -- both American and Jewish -- to understand just how lucky we really are, and how imperative is our right to participate in the democratic process. Indeed, it is our obligation.
In order to do so we must return to the beginning. In just two weeks we will begin Genesis again, we will return to the garden, and to the mythic pre-history of humanity. Within the span of a few chapters we encounter the first 2 questions asked of human beings, questions that must be read together if we want to understand the mission of humanity. And to these questions we must return to understand our responsibility today.
After Adam and Eve eat from the tree of knowledge and hide themselves, God asks Adam -- "Ayeka" -- where are you? And, after Cain murders Abel, God asks Cain, “Ai hevel akheikha? Where is Abel your brother?”
If we take the questions literally, they seem silly. Surely God knew exactly where Adam was, God could "see" him. And surely, the Torah does not imagine that God missed Abel's murder. So why did God have to ask the obvious questions? Because neither question is one of physical location.
God was saying to Adam, "You've done the one thing I instructed you not to do, and now you are hiding. Where is your soul? What are you thinking?” And to Cain, God is saying, “Where is your brother? Where is the one other important person that you need to keep track of right here and right now.”
I can see all of you here tonight, and I can see millions of Americans in my mind's eye, but it is imperative that we ask ourselves and each other - "Ayeka" -- where are you? And “Ai Acheikha” -- where is your brother and sister?
I am sure that what I am saying may seem obvious. But the challenge of “the obvious” is that sometimes it renders us “oblivious” and then we miss the boat entirely. So if this seems obvious, pretend for a moment that it is not. Pretend you are hearing this for the first time.
In a little pamphlet of a book, The Way of Man According to the Teachings of Hasidism, Martin Buber offers us a clue to answering the question posed to Adam, that is instructive for the second question as well. According to Buber, when Schneur Zalman (the founder of HaBaD Hasidism) was jailed in St. Petersburg, the chief jailer challenged him with same question we are asking: “How are we to understand that God, the all-knowing, said to Adam: “Where art thou?”
Buber describes Schneur Zalman's response, “Said the zaddik, in every era, God calls to every person: “Where are you in your world? So many years and days of those allotted to you have passed, and how far have you gotten your world?” Then in his own voice, Buber reflects, “Where are you? Whether the question is addressed to Adam or to some other person, God does not expect to learn something God does not know. . . ."
Adam hides himself to avoid rendering accounts, to escape responsibility for his way of living. Every person hides for this purpose, for each of us is Adam and is found in Adam's situation. to escape responsibility for our lives, we turnexistence into a system of hideouts. And, in thus hiding again and again from “the face of God,” we are enmeshed more and more deeply in perversity. A new situation thus arises, which becomes more and more questionable with every day, with every new hideout.
We cannot escape the eyes of God, but in trying to hide from the Eternal One, we are hiding from ourselves. . . Adam finally faces the Voice, perceives his enmeshment, and avows: “I hid myself.”
This is the beginning of the way. The decisive heart-searching is the beginning of the way in life; it is, again and again, the beginning of a human way.” (As quoted by Rabbi Avi Winokur)
Our Americanism matters deeply to us. In the sacred writs of the American experiment, we see ourselves, our Jewish selves. We hear the echo of our own prophetic texts, and we know it is no coincidence. But America today is caught in a spiral of domestic and international challenges and our leadership must not hide itself from reality. How do we find that new, human way? We must ask ourselves those first two questions of the Torah.
Ayekah? Where are we in our quest for meaning and goodness in a world filled with insecurity, anger, and war?
Ay Akhikha? Where are our brothers and sisters, in a world where the politics of insecurity has given rise to political and religious extremism?
Ayekah? Where are we, with still so many millions of Americans without health care?
Ay Akhikha? Where are our brothers and sisters, with financial turmoil at every turn?
Ayekah? Where are we, now that nearly every citizen of the world faces the nexus of the threats of terrorism, civil strife, and weapons of mass destruction in one form or another?
Ay Akheikha? Where are our brothers and sisters in the quest for peace between Israelis-Palestinians?
Ayekah? Where are we with Haiti still mostly in ruins?
Ai Akhikha? Where are our brothers and sisters with Islamophobia as the new household word?
Ayekah? Where are we if we don't heed the call to see the past as the catalyst to pursue change, reconciliation and communal re-engagement?
Yom Kippur is just about that. We take our past year's missteps and see them as that which pushes us to improve our lives and the lives of others. It seems to me during these Yamim Noraim, these Days of Awe that reading these two questions means is that we are nowhere if our deepest questions are primarily about ourselves, our well-being, our souls and the meaning of our lives. But we are only somewhere, if questions about how our brothers and sisters are living agitate us as much as questions about our own souls.
Need another reason?
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principle, and organizing its powers in such form as to them shall see most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” (Declaration of Independence)
Now I am not usually one to wave the flag and profess patriotism throughout the land. But when I started to think about this night, these days in America, and what it means for a Jewish community to ask where we are and where are our brothers and sisters, I felt compelled to return to these sacred texts and remind myself of the values upon which this country was founded and to which we must return in order to have hope for the future.
In the weeks leading up to the Yamim Noraim we study some of the most profound passages in the book of Deuteronomy. The portions are powerful texts of covenant making, visionary leadership, and looking to the future.
They are so relevant to our preparations for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but as the debates raged on about the Islamic Center, a Christian minister threatened to burn the Koran, the cover of Time magazine professed Israelis not wanting peace -- even while talks were underway for the first time in 20 months, and I found myself pretty despairing over the state of the world, I started to see passages in Dvarim as instructive to the challenges facing America a decade into the new millennium.
As the Israelites are about to enter the Promised Land, Moses foresees a time of great prosperity and abundance, and the potential difficulties of such a situation: In chapter 8:10 we first find the basis of the commandment to bless food after one has eaten --
Birkat Hamazon: “When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to Adonai your God for the good land that he has given you.”
The passage continues: “Take care, lest you forget Adonai your God and fail to keep God's commandments, God's rules, God's laws, which I enjoin upon you this day. When you have eaten your fill and you have bought fine houses to live in, and your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold have increased, and everything you own has prospered, beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget Adonai your God-who freed you from the land of Egypt, the house of bondage. . .and you say to yourselves, 'My own power and the might of my own hand have won his wealth for me.' Remember that it is Adonai your God who gives you the power to get wealth in fulfillment of the covenant that God made with your ancestors, as is still the case. If you do forget Adonai your God and follow other gods to serve them, or bow down to them, I warn you this day, that you shall surely perish.”
Deuteronomy reminds us, over and over again, it is time to remember, to remember basics, to remember fundamentals. It is time to remember gratitude and blessing, the sources of our remarkable abundance. And I don't mean the gratitude of pious platitudes
that our political discourse often produces, but the gratitude that says, as my friend and teacher, Rabbi Avi Winokur wrote, “If my gratitude isn't phony, isn't just a pose, isn't just a mood then I'm going to dedicate some of my time to my country and my people
and I'm going to sit down with my kids and I'm going to tell them why staffing the polls one election day is more important than billable hours, and why it shouldn't just be retirees doing that-why I'm doing that, and why I'm working Saturday night to make up the hours instead of going with them to the movies.”
Maybe it's about sitting down together and reading the Gettysburg Address: Where it says “It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us-that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to the cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion . .”
Then it is for us to sit down as a family, as a community, and discuss what this means, to understand what we owe those who fought at Gettysburg and to witness in each other's presence what each of us chooses to do to dedicate himself or herself to a dynamic and bright future for this government of the people, by the people for the people, so that it does not, to paraphrase Lincoln who in turn paraphrased Deuteronomy, perish from this earth.
Maybe then too it is about really reading and understanding that passage from Isaiah that we will read tomorrow morning. “This is my chosen fast: to loosen all the bonds that bind people unfairly, to let the oppressed go free, to break very yoke. Share your bread with the hungry; take the homeless into your home. Clothe the naked when you see him, do not turn away from people in need…“The cleansing light shall break forth like the dawn and your wounds shall soon be healed.… “if you remove from your midst the yoke of oppression, the finger of scorn and the tongue of malice, if you put yourself out for the hungry and relieve the wretched, then shall your light shine in the darkness, and your gloom shall be as noonday. And Adonai will guide you continually. And you shall be like a watered garden like a never failing spring…” And it continues, “And you shall rebuild ancient ruins, restoring old foundations. You shall be known as the rebuilder of broken walls, the restorer of dwelling places.”
Here's what I know. There is a lot to be afraid of in the 21st century. There is a lot to be worried about as we deal with uncertainty and anxiety. But is the answer to let our fear overwhelm us?
Rabbi Les Bronstein addressed this question when he taught that when the angel finds Hagar in the wilderness, the angel tells her, “al tiri” do not fear. The angel says it to Hagar and shows her the well. God says it to Abram and shows him the stars. God says it to Jacob and promises to accompany him down into Egypt and out the other side. Moses says it to Joshua and hands him the reins of leadership. Isaiah says it to the Judean exiles in Babylonia and encourages them to find their way back to Eretz Yisrael. And on and on. Al tira.
But, since we are already afraid,this has to mean something else. “it has to mean “don't be afraid to turn toward the world; don't turn away from the world.” Don't be afraid to face the frightening world with all your heart, your soul, and your might. With all your beliefs. With your whole self. Al tira.”
How do we do this? We return to the two most basic and godly questions of our tradition. Ayekah? Where are you? Ay Akhikha? Where is your brother and sister?
The answers to these questions can only come when we remember the American and Jewish values which propel us to seek a better world for ourselves and others. They only come when we remember as it says in Deuteronomy 30, “this Mitzvah, this teaching, Lo niflait hi - Is not too baffling for you, Lo rechokah hi - Not too far from you at all. No, this lesson, this way of living Is very close to you - Ki karov eilecha hadavar meod, It is in your mouth and in your heart to observe it.
Gmar Hatima Tovah - May our journeys towards teshuva be inspired.
©2010 Rabbi Yael Ridberg
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