Rosh Hashanah Morning Sermon: Our Social Justice Stories

A recently heard a story about a group of campers by the side of a river. They saw a body floating by. They all ran into the water, pulled the person out, performed CPR and saved the person. As they were packing up their tents, they noticed another body. Again they jumped into the water, and rescued the man. As they were getting into their cars, they saw another body come floating by. As they were saving this person, one person turned to another and asked: Maybe we better get up-river and see if we can find the source of this problem!

Yes, we’re good at attaining short term goals, but we don’t worry about what comes later. Like the campers, we’re good in a crisis, at saving people as they float by. When we see pictures of hunger on the T.V. and destruction on the front pages of our newspapers and magazines, we react. At these moments we’re good at providing food to fill empty stomachs. However, we don’t often ask what is happening up the river. We aren’t so good when the pictures disappear.  When the images are no longer in front of our eyes, we forget those that remain.

Rabbi Ron Friedman of Temple Israel in Boston distinguishes between Social Action and Social Justice.  He says that Social Action is when we hold events like Mitzvah Day or food drives that attempt to solve the immediate problems before us.  We are doing Social Action amazingly well here at Rodeph Shalom and we need to continue to do it well.  With the hard work of the entire RiSe Up! committee and volunteers, we make a difference everyday for so many Philadelphians in need.  Whether it is through tutoring, mentoring, feeding the hungry or interfaith dialogue, Social Action addresses those immediate concerns of our community.

Social Justice, Rabbi Ron Friedman maintains, is when we work for long term solutions that strive to solve the underlying problems of our society.  Although Social Action, the drowning camper right in front of us, needs constant attention, this New Year offers us the opportunity to grow and change, and challenges us to go beyond short term change and also look for long term solutions.

However, the assumption is that each one of us here at RS feels able to make changes in our life – able to make changes in our world. That might be a big assumption. So, let me just ask: “Do you feel able?”

Power is defined as “the ability to act.” So I want to know: Do you feel able? Do you have power to bring about change?  Maybe we can learn to be more patient, more accepting. We can stay in shape, watch less TV… But can we address the issues and concerns that really keep us up at night? Do we have the power to act in our community or in our city?

My guess is that many of you answered, no.  When it comes to changing institutions or public policy, we feel: Powerless. Hopeless. Defeated. Trapped. Limited. We can’t imagine new possibilities.

Why? We feel powerless because we operate as individuals. We see ourselves as independent entities. Atomized. Separated. We feel powerless because one voice asking for better public schools doesn’t get heard. We feel powerless because one voice lobbying for affordable housing is swallowed up by the sound of bulldozers clearing land for the next development. We feel powerless because we’re alone.  We don’t have relationships with our neighbors, our fellow congregants, the families that share our schools, our offices, our gyms… We feel powerless because we don’t know one another. We don’t know what we have in common. That we have shared interests…that some of the same issues keep us up at night. We feel powerless because we don’t know what connects us – What binds us together.

And I hate to say it, but it’s not just a feeling. Standing alone, we really are powerless. We are not effective when we act alone.

So how do we, Congregation Rodeph Shalom, regain our power so that we can make changes in our lives and in our world? How do we regain our power so that we stop feeling trapped and hopeless? The first step is building our relationships with one another.

And that starts with a conversation. Here’s your opening line: What keeps you up at night?  What are you concerns? And the answer is not a list of issues. The answer is a story about who you are and what you care about. The answer is a personal experience that helps to explain your insomnia. The answer is an invitation to hear someone else’s story about what keeps them awake. And we begin to feel connected – less alone – less isolated. Because when we make our private pain public, we realize that we are not alone in our struggles. We are connected. And those connections give us the power to act, the power to change.

The 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are known as aseret yemai teshuvah – the 10 days of repentance. 10 days for transformation and change. 10 days for connection and conversation – conversations which will build relationships that will give us the power to change.  We all know that in order to make change in our personal lives we can’t do it alone. It’s the relationships that we have with our friends and family that help move us toward the people we know we can be.  The same is true for making changes in our public lives – our shared lives as citizens of Philadelphia. We can’t do it alone. We need relationships to transform the world as it.

This year, our congregation is going to be holding a series of conversations, asking the question, “What keeps you up at night?”  Rather than talking about the nation, we will talk about ourselves and our concerns, telling each other stories that help us understand why we care so deeply about public education, civil rights, or the economy.

The Jewish theologian, Martin Buber articulated these values in his concept of an I-Thou relationship.  He wrote about the true encounter that can happen when two human beings meet each other. These encounters should include our full attention to the other and their individual life experiences. This is ideally, how we really get to know another person.  By looking beyond how the other person can serve us and hearing the unique story each one has to tell.   In forging relationships based upon Buber’s model, we create the opportunity to see the Divine image in another person.  The space between us becomes holy, as we listen to another and the other listens to us.  We catch a glimpse of God in our engaging interaction.

Jewish tradition teaches that every Jew is encouraged to write a Torah scroll.  Even a sofer, a scribe, who is well trained in this holy art, must spend many years to complete each scroll.  How impossible would this be for each of us?  There must be a deeper teaching embedded in this tradition.  The message here is that we are to imagine our own lives as sacred text.

Rabbi Laurence Kushner tells a beautiful story.  Years ago, at his synagogue in Sudbury, MA, he was asked by the pre-school teacher to meet with the children in the sanctuary.  The High Holy Days were approaching so he decided to show the children the ark, which held the Torah scrolls.  His plan was to spend some time with the students on the bimah and then open a Torah so that they would be able to see what the inside of the Torah looked like.  He describes how excited the children were to come up to the bimah and their curiosity about what it would look like when he parted the ark curtains.  As is usually the case with young children, things took a lot longer than he had planned.  Instead of rushing through the opening of the ark, he decided to postpone that part of the lesson until the following week. He asked the children to think about what they would see when he opened the ark at their next meeting.  The next day, one of the pre-school teachers approached the rabbi with this report.  She told him that the kids had a heated debate about what was inside the ark.  One child, who apparently had watched too many game shows on television, claimed that there was a “brand new car” behind the curtain.  Another child argued that there must be a Jewish book inside the ark.  Still another, young existentialist said that the ark was empty.  But the most interesting answer came from the child who said that next week, when the rabbi opened the ark, there would be a large mirror.  As Kushner teaches, this last answer was probably the closest to the truth.  We know that a text is holy when we can find ourselves in the narrative.  The Torah can help us take a closer look at our own lives in order to find our own story and it is through the sharing of our stories that we build communities of obligation and responsibility.

As Carol Ochs writes in her book, Seeing Our Lives as Torah, “Interpreting our own experiences and hearing stories of others as if they are Torah opens us to creative possibilities.”  In a sense, when we tell our stories as Torah, we emulate God’s creative capacity.   God created the world through words. “Vayomer Adonai, y’hi or, va’y’hi or, And God said, Let there be light and there was light.”  The word itself was the tool of creation.  Through giving voice to our own experiences, history and values, we create meaning and affirm the idea that we are created in God’s image and endowed with the same potential for being creators.

After we share our stories with one another, the second step in our congregational blueprint to change the world will be to prioritize what each of you has shared with us. There are thousands of problems we face. We would be paralyzed, facing an impossible task if we attempted to solve them all. Together as a congregation we will sort through our issues, prioritize them, choose those that most affect each of us, and those around us.  The work of Social Justice is enormous. Despite our numbers, we will not succeed if we work alone.

Our next step, having heard from you what our priorities should be, is to create a grand coalition of those who care about Social Justice. We will join with those in other synagogues, mosques and churches around Philadelphia and around the nation, who have had the same conversations, who have prioritized the challenges their communities face. Once our agenda is clear, once we have created a united religious community committed to Social Justice, we will act over the long-term. With a strong and unified voice we will take our vision to those with the power to make a difference. We will visit politicians, and work with them to bring about changes, large and small, that will further our vision for a better world. Our voice will be heard.

This is the season of change. And change takes time. We’re not racing toward the finish line. We’re building blocks called relationships that help us to reclaim and rediscover our power to act in this world. Step by Step. Step One: Let’s start a conversation. Aseret Yemai Sichah – the 10 days of conversations. Next year, let’s talk about how we’re going to use our relationships in order to act, in order to bring about change. This year, beginning with these next 10 days, let us tell our stories.

Now is the time to begin building our own relationships. With our own conversations. Imagine if we took this model and brought it here to Rodeph Shalom. What if we started to gain real power to act as a result of our conversations with one another? Can you imagine feeling empowered and active, able to make changes in our lives, our schools, our neighborhoods, and our city? Can you imagine your children and grandchildren seeing first-hand how a synagogue can be a force of change in Philadelphia? Can you imagine securing a future for them that is full of opportunity and hope? Can you imagine not one rabbi or cantor calling out for justice and equality, but an entire community stepping forward, united in voice and action, ready to bring about change? It starts with a conversation.

God, Source of Justice, as we enter into this New Year full of trepidation, help us to reach out and build relationships that give us hope, faith and power to effect change in the world.

Let the sound of the shofar be our wake-up call from a restless night of sleep. Ready to engage with our community. Ready to listen and ready to share.

Help us to imagine a world filled with justice and compassion and peace – a world in which we have the ability to act, the power to change, for our own sake, and for the sake of future generations. Amen.