Sixty nine years ago, in 1954, I was elected by my high school class to give the address for the class at our graduation ceremony. That was a mere nine years after the end of World War 2. We all were well aware that the war had ended because of our use of the atomic bomb. The beginning of the cold war with Russia might be traced to the Berlin Blockade in 1948. We knew that the United States and the USSR lived with the constant threat of mutual destruction. The Korean War was raging during our high school years. This was the world we faced when we graduated high school.
I no longer have a copy of my graduation speech. However, I have never forgotten my opening line, delivered to a class, looking to an unknown future, but having been born and raised in a world of terrible destruction and constant threat. These were my words, “someday, far into the future, a worldly gracious sun will rise over a world already bathed in the light of peace.” I wanted to give my classmates hope that what lay ahead for them would be better than the lives their parents had to survive of depression and war., or their present world of war and the threat of nuclear disaster.
In 1963, Martin Luther King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech from the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.”
This is my sixtieth observance of Yom Kippur since being ordained as a rabbi, six decades of delivering sermons and of leading or participating in worship. Every Yom Kippur, I stand before an open ark and listen to the painful and emotional sound and words of Avinu Malkeinu. I pray – halt the onslaught of sickness, violence and hunger; halt the reign of those who cause pain and terror. Every Yom Kippur, I repeat over and over, al cheit shechatanu – for the sin we have committed. We are guilty of dozens of sins – each year, every year – we return, we plead for help and we find that the sin never seems to be resolved. Once again, this year, as every year, – Avinu Malkeinu, our father, our king, al cheit shechetanu – for the sin we have committed.
We are about to enter the Yizkor service. Yizkor is a time of memory, a time of reflection. I reflect on the meaning of those words I have been saying for sixty years and more. We confess we attempt to climb steps to holiness. We seek forgiveness. And then I remember – I remember my graduation speech and I remember the words of Martin Luther King. For me, the greatest sin we have committed is that the hope of my graduation speech and the dream of Martin Luther King are still just that – hopes and dreams. We have failed to bring about a world in which we can be at peace, and the children of every black person in this country are still judged by the color of their skin. Al cheit shechatanu – for the sins we have committed.
So I speak to my grandchildren who are not with me today. They are building their own lives, in marriage, in work, in college. I want to hold them and cry with them and tell them I am sorry I am not leaving a better world for them. That will not do. That will not guarantee to them a life that is filled with meaning and love and safety and unlimited opportunity and peace. Beating my breast and pleading for help to a god that may or may not be there to listen will not give them the world and the life they deserve – or even give them life at all. No – that will not do.
So I share with you my sense of despair, but I want them to know that I do not surrender, that I will not allow what I see as the threats to their lives and their future to go unanswered. We seem to live in two worlds. One is a world in which human life is to be manipulated so that some can gain power at whatever the cost. The other is the world which this congregation represents, where our history drives us – a world in which our sacred texts speak to us with a clear message – if you want to save human life from itself, if you want your children and your grandchildren to not just survive but to thrive, then your task is clear and we will show you the way.
The first attempt of the destruction of our people was by the Pharaoh of ancient Egypt. He decreed that every first born son of the people of Israel was to be put to death. His goal was genocide. Over the centuries, we have experienced almost every form of human degradation, torture and death. Auschwitz and the Holocaust were the twentieth century’s version of “let us kill the Jews.” It has been a popular cry for centuries and is still heard today. But we are here. We survive. I would like to change the English pronunciation of the name of this sacred day to the day of atonement, the day when we do not just say al cheit, but a day when we pledge to each other that we will join together to bring to this world the values that have kept us alive. During the Unetaneh Tokef prayer is a phrase from the Book of Kings – vekol d’mamah dake yishama – a still small voice is heard. That quotation refers to moment in the life of the prophet Elijah. He was fleeing from King Ahab and he found a cave where he hid. He asked god to take his life in despair. God commanded him to come out of the cave and stand on a mountaintop. A strong wind passed him, then an earthquake, and then a fire. God was in none of these. Then a still small voice. That is the voice of our history. It is the voice to which we must listen.
That voice does not speak to us only of our own survival. The Book of Job struggles with question of human suffering. Job demands a dialogue with god to know why he and innocent people face terrible tragedy. Job is being tested by a bet that he will continue to believe even in the face of the loss of his family. God refuses to meet him. But he challenges Job with the argument that Job dare blame a universe he cannot fully understand. Implicit in that challenge is the question – why do you think that there is some force beyond yourself that is intentionally causing you the loss of your family and personal pain. Perhaps Job’s friends are correct – look within, job. There you may find the answer. A midrash speaks about the creation. God says to Adam – I have created many worlds and destroyed them because I was not satisfied. I now have created this one. It now is your hands. If you destroy it there will be no more. Yet – even with all of our scientific knowledge, even with our understanding of astronomy and physics and earth science, there are those who believe that there is some force beyond human life that is destroying this earth and that we have little or no control. It is only one of the latest examples of belief without evidence, or rather, belief in spite of evidence. Dramatic heat, flooding, melting ice, rising water temperatures do not convince. Look within, Job. We have a responsibility to change this dynamic and to save this earth.
This congregation proudly represents the diversity of human life. That diversity is under attack in ways that i have not seen in my lifetime. Women are being denied the right to be responsible for their own bodies and receive necessary medical care. Racial history is being banned, teachers and doctors are being told it is illegal to give assistance to those dealing with issues of sexual orientation, gerrymandering is threatening the voting rights of minorities, immigrants are dying at the border – and all of this is coming from government officials who are claiming to speak in the name of American exceptionalism and biblical morality. We cannot allow this blatant political interference in human rights and human behavior. We cannot leave unanswered claims about religious values that are absolutely contrary to the sacred texts we hold dear.
Underlying all of this is an attack on the truth that is threatening the very existence of our democracy, freedom in Israel and peace in the world. Millions in this country believe that an overwhelming election somehow was stolen, that our judicial system is corrupt and that minorities are destroying white privilege. An Israeli right wing minority is demeaning the legitimacy of their court and Russians are being told that the Ukrainians are Nazis and terrorists. Joseph Goebbels and Adolf Hitler set the standard – “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people eventually will come to believe it.” The prophet Amos lived in the northern kingdom of Israel in the 8th century B.C.E. during the reign of Jereboam. Amos was not happy with the behavior of his people, religiously and morally. He told them that their god was going to punish them, but at the same time, he made this promise: “I will restore my people Israel. They shall rebuild ruined cities and inhabit them. They shall plant vineyards and drink their wine. They shall till gardens and eat their fruit. And I will plant them upon their soil, nevermore to be uprooted from the soil I have given them.” We must not view that soil only as physical. The soil we have been given is moral – it is the soil from which the prophets of Israel spoke. It may be a miracle that we Jews have survived. When the Zionist dream became a reality and the state of Israel was born many saw that moment as final fulfillment of a dream. We dare not accept that view of our history. It was only the beginning. We are with Moses at the Burning Bush. When called, he responded, here I am. We are there when God tested Abraham, and he answered, hineni – here I am. We are with the prophet Isaiah when he heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send?” And he responded, “here I am, send me.” We are Israel – to fight not with weapons of war, but with instruments of peace and justice and caring – to lift up the widow and the stranger and the orphan and the poor, to care for this Earth, to protect our freedom and promote the truth wherever that may take us.
The fifty-six signers of the declaration of independence showed us the way with these words – “we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.” It is a pledge we the people of Israel made at Sinai when we responded, naaseh v’nishma – we will do and we will listen. It is our commitment to our children and our grandchildren and to future generations. In the words the prophet Micah – to act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
We no longer will stand helpless while our neighbor bleeds. Together we shall challenge amoral and immoral authority. Together we shall challenge injustice. Together we shall right the wrongs that threaten this earth. Together we shall offer hope where there is despair and love where there is hate. Together we shall listen to the voice. Together we shall say to my grandchildren – here we are, send us.