Who shall live and who shall die? Who will be tranquil and who will be troubled? Life’s profound uncertainty is embedded in our ancient High Holy Day words.
The Unetaneh Tokef prayer on Yom Kippur asks the hardest, deepest questions of our lives and leaves us without answer. We do not claim to know. Yet, about one thing we are clear. In response to the hardest questions, Unetaneh Tokef concludes, proclaiming these words to God: “You urge us to return from our ways and live. Until the day of death You wait for us.”
Amid the mystery, in this we believe: Human beings have the capacity to change. To do better. And God is waiting.
Even in this unprecedented time, when massive numbers of people are ill or dying, when livelihoods are at risk, when societal injustices reveal tragic impact to the most vulnerable, when we feel the pain of distance, when nearly everything is out of our hands… even in these times, when I need to pre-record this sermon, not knowing precisely, what the reality or news headlines will be, when you hear my words… I have faith, that our tradition’s timeless wisdom was written, for just this moment. For every moment. We are pre-recording. And it does not matter. Because the wisdom of our tradition is eternal.
From cradle to grave, across time and space, from the beginning. Tradition teaches: when human beings were created, God did not start with a city, or even start with one household—or one bubble, as it were. God creates a single person first. Why? The Talmud declares: For the sake of peace among humankind that one should not say to the other, “My parent is greater than your parent / my lineage is greater than your lineage / my race is greater than your race.” The entire purpose of the creation story could be to teach us this message of equality: We all come from the same.
But, we have yet to shape a world that honors oneness. And God is waiting.
For the sake of peace among humankind that no one should say, my race is greater than your race, as individuals, as a community, and as a society, we must be compelled by the Unetaneh Tokef’s faith that we have the capacity to change. For our world needs change.
And that change needs us. Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel taught: Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim; We must take sides. The injustice of systemic racism violates our tradition’s teaching of equality, and pervades every element of our society—a society that has yet to address seriously, or attempt to redeem itself for the enslavement of millions of people. 2020 has been our tragic teacher, shining a light on generations of racial inequities.
Let me tell you the story of my grandfather. First generation American, a proud patriot, Grandpa Sol returned from the Second World War and fulfilled his two dreams. He married his beloved, my grandmother, and he built his business.With a GI Bill loan, Grandpa Sol purchased a home, acquired equity, and positioned himself as an entrepreneur. Grandpa chose Montauk, the small fisherman’s town at the eastern end of Long Island, where he was captivated by the most beautiful beach he had ever seen. There, Grandpa picked up his hammer and — an incredibly hard worker — with his own two hands he built the motel, that would become the family business.
His life tells the story of the American Dream; and his life tells the story of more than one kind of bigotry. While my grandfather built his motel, he had to physically stay there all night long, to protect his property from local anti-semitic vandals. And that same grandfather who was an ongoing target of antisemitism, that same grandfather had returned from the War, to a mortgage no black man could have accessed, and it probably didn’t even occur to him, that this was the case. My grandfather grew his business, and his wealth, and I had a college fund, before I learned how to spell my name. That’s my white privilege. Antisemitism and white privilege within my one family’s story.
Some of us have unearned privilege, because we are white or male or straight or with physical ability. So, if we work very hard we are more likely to attain success, than is a person who works very hard but lacks that particular privilege. Privileges on the surface benefit us.
But if I am entitled to a college fund, in a society originally built on the enslavement of human beings, does that really benefit me? What does that do to my soul? To our soul? How can we be whole, in our privilege, how can we be whole, if others are not? The inequity does not only damage the underprivileged groups; it infects our entire society and all of us who exist within it. It damages our souls.
Tonight in our vidui/our confession we prayed to make atonement as we spoke the words: Al chet shechatanu lifanecha b’zadone uvishgaga/The ways we have wronged You deliberately and by mistake. I do not believe members of my family were deliberately racist, or that members of our congregation are intentionally racist. Still our participation in racist structures, deliberately or by mistake, damages our souls, and makes us responsible for repair. For repentance.
God urges us to return from our ways and live. Human beings have the capacity to change. To do better. And God is waiting.
In his consequential book, How To Be An Anti-Racist, Dr. Ibram X. Kendi of Boston University teaches: The only way to undo racism is to consistently identify it and dismantle it… Being an anti-racist requires persistent self-awareness, constant self-criticism, and regular self-examination.” Naming his own racism as he describes his journey of change, growth, responsibility and repair, throughout the book, Kendi teaches: the good news is racist and anti-racist, are not fixed identities. We have the capacity to change.
What Kendi calls self-examination and change, you and I call t’shuvah/repentance and Cheshbon hanefesh/the accounting of the soul — our rigorous work of change, growth, responsibility, and repair. The Talmud instructs: repent the day before your death. Every day potentially the day before our death, every day we repent.
God urges us to return from our ways and live. To do better. And God is waiting.
Together, let us ask: What does racism do to our soul? As a congregation, let us commit to persistent self-awareness, constant self-criticism, and regular self-examination, that we may consistently identify racism and help to dismantle it.
In our congregational work, we will focus on African Americans’ experiences; we will center brown and black voices—both from within the Jewish community and from the greater community.
I invite you to participate in learning and action with our Anti-Racism Work Group where we discuss racism in a trusted space, and strive for difficult conversations in order to understand more deeply how racism pervades our world, and what specific actions we can take next.
Let us commit together, to the sustained work of anti-racism in ourselves and in our world.
I was moved by Ibram Kendi’s journey and by his bold conviction—that we need to consistently identify racism and dismantle it. He lets none of us off the hook. Such a strong message could offend his audience, his readership. Yet Kendi takes his message all the way. What is the source of his courage?
At first, while Ibram Kendi was working on his book, he felt afraid to write his deepest truths. He feared his personal storytelling would feel too vulnerable, and his stance, too bold. And then, Kendi was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer, at the age of 35. All of a sudden, nothing was stopping him. This book was his last chance. He no longer worried about how it would be received; by the time readers consumed it, he would probably be dead anyway. He became fearless, and he said exactly what he meant. It was death—the scariest thing of all, that urged Kendi to take his purpose all the way, to not be held back by fear—it was facing mortality that revealed Kendi’s greatest courage.
What will facing mortality reveal in us? Yom Kippur—its question: who shall live and who shall die — Yom Kippur is our diagnosis. Our near-death experience. All of a sudden, nothing is stopping us; nothing is coming between us and our truth. This is our last chance. We no longer worry about how we will be received. So we become fearless, we do and say exactly what we mean. Only intensified with pandemic, mortality scares us into an honest, unmasked investigation of our lives, demanding we ask: what is possible, what is at my essence, how can I have an impact, what are the hardest truths I need to see, from what can I no longer avert my eyes. Facing our mortality–the scariest thing of all, that we may reveal our greatest courage. All year, God has been waiting.
A great shofar will cry and a still small voice will be heard; and it is telling us:
God urges us to return from our ways.
Until the day of our death, God will wait for us.
Amid the mystery, we know we have the capacity to change. To do better.
May our mortality, reveal our greatest courage.
God is waiting.