Rabbi Freedman: Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon: 
Hineini: Standing Up for Voting Rights

A Berkman Mercaz Limud class was studying the Akeidah, or “Binding of Isaac,” one of the traditional Torah readings for Rosh Hashanah morning. In the story God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. As Abraham lifts his knife for the sacrifice an angel stops him at the last second; Abraham having proved his faith in God. When the class came to the arrival of the angel, one child burst out crying. “Why are you crying?” asked the teacher. “Didn’t the angel come, and wasn’t Isaac saved?” “Yes,” sobbed the child, “but what if the angel had been late?”  

In the original telling, this conversation was actually between Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and his father. In recounting this story later in life, Heschel would often add that although an angel cannot come late, we, made of flesh and blood, can. Angels are never late, but we can be. How many times have we all said, “I’ll call them tomorrow…” or, “that can wait another day,” only to discover we were too late. Heschel is imploring us not to wait, not to put off what we need to do, because tomorrow might be too late.

This past spring, I was too late. Worried like many of you about going to my local polling place in person, I chose to apply for a vote-by-mail ballot. I meant to fill out the online form back in March but I was a little preoccupied. Then came April, and before I knew it, it was May and the deadline to apply had arrived. I submitted my form in just the nick of time and awaited my vote-by-mail ballot. I kept checking the mailbox, everyday, excited to cast my ballot. Monday, no ballot, Tuesday, no ballot. The election was fast approaching and it still hadn’t come. I called the city office for help, no answer. I emailed, no response. And so I kept waiting. Before I knew it, it was June 2, Election Day, and my ballot still had not arrived. My ballot arrived the next day. It was too late. Angels are never late, but humans can be. 

I don’t know whether it was the postal service, the state, or city offices, but somewhere, someone was too late and I was disenfranchised as a result. 

There are over ten million people eligible to vote in our state. In 2016, nearly four million of those people didn’t vote — some by choice, and many because they faced barriers to the ballot box. Barriers like too few polling places, a lack of interpreters, and inaccurate voting records. One of the most important races on the ballot in 2016, the presidential race, was decided here by 44,000 votes. Pennsylvanians votes matter—and not enough of them are being cast or counted. 

We have an opportunity to do something. But in 46 days it will be too late. It is our moral obligation to ensure that every Pennsylvanian who is eligible to vote on November 3 has that right afforded to them. There are no angels coming; it is up to us. 

Rodeph Shalom is proud to be a part of the Reform Movement’s 2020 Civic Engagement Campaign. It is grounded in our belief that democracy is strongest when everyone participates. 

This is not a partisan issue. Our goals are to ensure that our Reform Jewish values are present in the public square – all within
501 (c) (3) guidelines. This means that we will advocate for issues like equal access to the ballot and that we will not endorse candidates or parties. Voting rights may have been politicized – but they are not partisan. This is rooted in our most basic Jewish value of standing with the oppressed in our society and ensuring equality and justice.

Poor, minority, and geographically isolated communities are typically the most at risk for disenfranchisement and voter suppression. We have an obligation to stand up for their right to vote because all people are created b’tzelem Elohim/in God’s image; everybody has a spark of God’s Divine light inside of them. Every voice needs to be heard and every vote needs to be counted.

So here’s what we’re going to do about it!

Our first goal is to have 100 percent voter participation within our congregation. This is the low hanging fruit. I am proud to say that we have a highly engaged voting congregation already but we are not going to rest on our laurels. October 19 is the last day to register before the election. Please make sure you and your friends and family are registered and commit to voting in November. Studies have shown that people are more likely to vote if they commit to voting ahead of time. We will post a link at the end of the service with some commitment cards for you to fill out. Think about your voting plan now: Are you going to vote by mail? In person? Do you know where your polling place is this year? What time are you going to vote?

I am excited to share that teen members of our congregation are already working hard to get out the vote among their peers. If you are a teen, or maybe someone who can’t yet vote but wants to make a difference, please also fill out a commitment card and one of our teen leaders will reach out — probably on Snapchat or Instagram or something!

The second goal in our campaign is to combat voter suppression. According to an article in The Philadelphia Inquirer, tens of thousands of Pennsylvania voters were disenfranchised in the primary elections last spring. When I first thought of voter suppression, I imagined goons standing near a polling place and threatening you if you didn’t vote for the right candidate. I learned that voter suppression can come in many forms, including what happened to me last spring. Voter ID laws, a lack of polling places, poll workers, and interpreters, restrictions on vote-by-mail; these are all forms of voter suppression.

Voter suppression is not new. Just over 100 years ago, women in our country finally gained the right to vote with the ratification of the 19th amendment. Countless women worked tirelessly for their right to vote. Women like Harriet Forten Purvis, an African-American abolitionist and first generation suffragist from Philadelphia, who knew how important it was to count every voice and every vote. Standing on the shoulders of Harriet Forten Purvis and countless others who have worked for universal suffrage, we too must commit ourselves to this righteous work. 

Angels are never late, but we can be. This year, in this upcoming election, we can’t be late. Are you ready to stand up and be counted? Are you ready to help ensure that every eligible Pennsylvanian has the chance to cast their ballot. Are you ready to say hineini/here I am.

When God called out to Abraham at the beginning of the Akedah story, Abraham said, “hineini/here I am.” As they were walking up to the sacrificial altar and Isaac grew scared, he called out to his father, and Abraham said, “hineini/here I am.” And when the Angel of God came down to stop the sacrifice, yelling, “Abraham, Abraham,” Abraham once again said, “hineini/here I am.”

Are you ready to say hineini/here I am? According to Rashi, “Hineini is the answer of the pious. It is an expression of readiness.” God called to Abraham to prepare him to do something difficult. Abraham understood this; this is why he said hineini/here I am.

Are you prepared to do the work? Are you ready to say hineini/here I am?

At the end of the service, please follow the link to fill out your commitment card. Commit to:

Registering to vote

Creating a voting plan

Doing voter outreach within the congregation

Or joining in our advocacy campaign to combat voter suppression

Ten days from now, on Yom Kippur, we will read the words of the prophet Isaiah: 

“Is such the fast I desire, a day for people to starve their bodies? Bowing your head like a reed and lying in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call that a fast, a day that the Eternal wants? No, this is the fast I desire: to unlock fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke; to let the oppressed go free; to break off every chain. It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to ignore your own kin. Then shall your light burst through like the dawn and your healing spring up quickly; your Vindicator shall march before you, The Presence of the Eternal shall be your defense. Then, when you call, the Eternal will answer; When you cry, God will say hineini/here I am.”

When we say hineini, God says hineini. We are partners in the ever unfolding work of creation. Tikkun olam/repair of the world is built on the premise that God created this world incomplete for us to finish the work. When we show up, when we stand ready, declaring hineini/here I am, we bring God’s presence into this world. When we say hineini, God says hineini.                                                                                                                                        
Angels are never late, but we can be. This New Year, may it be your will, God, that we are not late. This New Year, may we all say, hineini/here I am. 

Ken Y’hi Ratzon/May This be God’s Will. Amen.