Now is the Time to Act
Kol Nidre 5777
October 11, 2016 – 10 Tishri 5777
Congregation Bet Ha’am
Rabbi Jared H. Saks
When my cousin became Bar Mitzvah, we gathered in his rabbi’s study shortly before the service. I noticed a sign on the rabbi’s desk: The rabbi’s charge is to comfort the troubled and to trouble the comfortable. I was probably in the 6th grade and it may have been the first time, though I wouldn’t realize it for years, that I considered entering the rabbinate. Later, I learned that “when the disciples of the greatest Talmudist of the late nineteenth century, Rabbi Hayyim of Brisk (1853-1918), asked him to define the task of a rabbi, he replied: ‘To redress the grievances of those who are abandoned and alone, to protect the dignity of the poor, and to save the oppressed from the hands of the oppressor.’” Captured in Rabbi Hayyim of Brisk’s response, I believe, are both parts of my cousin’s rabbi’s charge. I believe it is my task to remedy the suffering of others, in large part, by opening the hearts of those who can help and instilling within them a responsibility to act.
Our tradition does not romanticize poverty or praise suffering. Judaism does not hold that those who suffer are being punished for their sins, nor do we believe that people suffer because of the first human beings’ sins in the Garden of Eden. So contrary to a Jewish worldview is suffering that in his Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides taught, “It is impossible to turn the mind to higher things when you are hungry or thirsty or without shelter or in pain.” Our tradition denies the notion that inequality is God’s will. “Judaism rejects the almost universal belief in antiquity and throughout the Middle Ages that hierarchy and divisions of class are written into the structure of society. What human beings have created, human beings can rectify.”
We are taught that God is all good and all powerful, yet we know that there is still suffering in the world. It would seem, then, that God must either allow suffering, which would mean that God is not all good, or that God is unable to stop it and must, therefore, not be all powerful. But there’s another way to approach this conflict. Judaism asserts that there is divine justice, that the wicked who prosper will get their just desserts and the righteous who suffer will get their just rewards; however, “God wants us to strive for human justice – in the short term, not just the long term; in this world, not just the next.” While Judaism holds that God will enact divine justice in the World to Come, God still calls upon us to create human justice in our world.
Viktor Frankl once wrote, “Being human means being conscious and being responsible.” One of the most “distinctive and challenging ideas” of Judaism is “that God invites us to become, in the rabbinic phrase, [God’s] ‘partners in the work of creation.’” We are called to act like God. Just as God provided clothing for Adam and Eve, so must we clothe the naked. Just as God visited with Abraham when he was ill, so must we visit the sick. Just as God freed us from bondage, so must we free those who suffer. “The God who gave us the gift of freedom asks us to use it to honour and enhance the freedom of others… More than God is a strategic intervener, [God] is a teacher.” It is not God who will be the miracle maker in our world; that is our task.
Maimonides summarized his challenging work, The Guide for the Perplexed, with two verses from Jeremiah: “This is what the Eternal says: ‘Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows Me, that I am the Eternal, who exercises kindness, justice, and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,’ declares the Eternal.” After all of his complicated commentary on our tradition, Maimonides teaches that at the core of our tradition is a return to kindness, righteousness, and justice; chesed, mishpat, and tzedakah. The ultimate purpose of Judaism is, “to honour the image of God in other people, and thus turn the world into a home for the divine presence.” We do this not through our beliefs, but rather, through our deeds. The Talmud describes God’s greatness in God’s upholding the cause of the orphan and the widow, loving the stranger, and providing food and clothing for those in need. We are called to do the same. We will come to know God not through our contemplation and reflection, but rather through our emulation of God.
“Some, said Shakespeare, are born great; others achieve greatness, while others have greatness thrust upon them. The last seems to me the story of Jewry: an unexceptional people, often stubborn, rebellious, fractious, capricious, not what anyone would instinctively call a community of saints, yet made great by being asked to do great things.” On this day, Yom Kippur, we stand before God arrogant and stiff-necked, yet willing to say that we have made mistakes. Our greatness will not be achieved through our own perfection, for we are not perfect; but rather, our greatness will be achieved through our perfection of the world. The message of this day should not be about our faith in God. Instead, it should be a reminder that God has faith in us. God calls us to repair the world. This is why Judaism doesn’t believe that the Messiah has come; there is still work to be done and God trusts us to do it.
“We are here to make a difference, to mend the fractures of the world, a day at a time, an act at a time, for as long as it takes to make it a place of justice and compassion, where the lonely are not alone, the poor not without help; where the cry of the vulnerable is heeded and those who are wronged are heard.” We do this by sharing what we have, by understanding that what we perceive to own is actually held in trust for God, and one of the conditions of that trust is that we use what we have, both the tangible and the intangible, to help others. “Civilizations survive not by strength, but by how they respond to the weak; not by wealth but by how they care for the poor; not by power but by their concern for the powerless. What renders a culture invulnerable is the compassion it shows to the vulnerable.” If this holy day causes you to contemplate life’s meaning, know this: exhibiting responsibility for others lends “meaning and meaningfulness of life.”
One of the most profound defining aspirations of Judaism is generosity. We see it in both the lowest and highest moment of the Israelites’ wandering in the wilderness: the construction of the golden calf and the construction of the Mishkan, the portable wilderness sanctuary. In both moments, the people willingly give to the cause and in the latter actually have to be asked to stop giving, because they exceed the needs of the project. Generosity is at the core of the Jewish practice of tzedakah. As a word, tzedakah, really isn’t translatable. A friend of mine defines it as ‘just charity,’ not in the sense of simply being charity, but rather acknowledging the root it shares with the Hebrew word tzedek, justice.
“In English, (as with the Latin terms caritas and iustitia) a gesture of charity cannot be an act of justice, nor can an act of justice be described as charity. Tzedakah means both.” If you were to give someone $100, the other is either entitled to it or not. If the other is entitled to it, it is an act of justice. If he or she is not, it is an act of charity. But in Judaism, giving tzedakah is both an act of justice and an act of charity. Tzedakah, unlike mere charity, is a legal requirement in Judaism that can be enforced, like justice. “Post-biblical Judaism [through its laws of tzedakah] was faithful to one of the Bible’s most powerful imperatives, that a society is judged by what it contributes to the welfare of the least advantaged, ‘the widow, the orphan, the poor and the stranger.’”
“A later sage noted something strange about the geography of the Holy Land. There are two seas in Israel: the Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee. The latter is full of life: fish, birds, vegetation. The former, as its names suggests, contains no life at all. Yet both are fed by the same river, the Jordan. The difference, he said, is that the Sea of Galilee receives water at one end and gives out water at the other. The Dead Sea receives but does not give. The Jordan ends there. To receive without reciprocating is a kind of death. To live is to give.”
Our responsibility to emulate God in the world extends beyond tzedakah. Another integral component of Jewish life is the act of chesed, kindness. “Where tzedakah is a gift or loan of money, chessed is the gift of the person.” Tzedakah is for the poor, but chesed is an act performed for anyone in need, anyone dealing with injustice. Though the actual costs of chesed are less than tzedakah, it is often worth a lot more. A gesture of loving-kindness can be invaluable to the recipient. I will never forget the act of chesed performed by my 7th grade Language Arts teacher, Diane Kasiski. As pennies rained down around me in the school cafeteria, Mrs. Kasiski picked up her lunch tray and sat down next to me, telling me what it had been like being the only Polish kid in her school growing up. God exists in the world through acts of loving-kindness. “‘You are,’ said God through the prophet Isaiah, ‘My witnesses’ (Is. 43:10) – not by seeking to convert those of another faith, but simply by reaching out to embrace the image of God in another human being, by seeing the divine Other in the human other.”
The rabbinic principle of chesed is extended beyond the particular to the universal through the rabbinic principle of darchei shalom, the ways of peace. “For the sake of peace,” says the Talmud, “the non-Jewish poor should not be prevented from gathering gleanings, forgotten sheaves, and the corners of the field. Our Sages taught: for the sake of peace, the non-Jewish poor should be supported as we support the Jewish poor; the non-Jewish sick should be visited as we visit the Jewish sick; and the non-Jewish dead should be buried just as we bury the Jewish dead.” These, the Sages teach, are the ways we build peace in the world, and they, along with other acts of chesed are obligations because they lead to peace.
Our tradition’s call to alleviate suffering is greater than these three concepts – tzedakah, chesed, and darchei shalom; justice-based giving, loving-kindness, and the paths of peace. Our story is one of social protest. And where God led the charge at the beginning, God has passed us the baton. “In the Bible God removes the chains of slavery from [our] people; [God] does not impose them. The religion of Israel emerged out of the most paradigm-shifting experience of the ancient world: that the supreme power intervened in history to liberate the powerless. It was in and as the voice of social protest that the biblical imagination took place.” Now, the responsibility lies with us.
“There are cultures that relieve humankind of responsibility, lifting us beyond the world of pain to bliss, ecstasy, meditative rapture. They teach us to accept the world as it is and ourselves as we are. They bring peace of mind, and that is no small thing. Judaism is not peace of mind.” Judaism, rather, demands courage. Unlike Karl Marx’s view of religion as opium of the people, Judaism is meant to sensitize us to suffering and calls us to alleviate it. We alleviate suffering not through equality of income or wealth, but rather through equal dignity.
One of the best examples of this ideal in Judaism is Shabbat. There are many ways to practice Shabbat, and when done properly – and I’m not talking about being shomer Shabbos, the observance of Shabbat laws precisely – Shabbat can create “a shift in consciousness not just on Shabbat, but throughout the week.” Think about how radical was the notion of Shabbat: “not only wealthy people and owning class people had a mandated day off, a day to rest, but that slaves and animals got the day off.” Today this would mean one day each week without any of our service workers. There would be no bus drivers, no police or fire for non-life threatening situations, no caregivers for our children or elderly family members. Shabbat is, “a great equalizing practice and that is a radical idea.”
There’s another radical concept within Judaism that reminds us of the importance of equal dignity. That concept is Talmud. The very structure of Talmud is diverse points of view, various perspectives, from a broad period of time, all on the same page together. “The Talmud itself is inviting us, it’s actually imploring us, to recognize the value of inclusivity and the need for diversity… If we were to take this to heart and actually follow the form of the Talmud and change our institutions, our communal institutions, our government, our private enterprises so they actually reflected the true diversity of our population, our society would look different tomorrow and that’s a radical idea.”
These two radical ideas, Shabbat and Talmud, which demonstrate the value of equal dignity in our world, these foundations of social justice and social action, do not even rely upon the prophets to justify tikkun olam. These, along with the concepts of tzedakah, chesed, and darchei shalom, are engrained into our collective psyche. These created the foundation for tikkun olam in Judaism, which, among the concepts I’ve mentioned, is the least rooted in Jewish law. It comes to us from Jewish mysticism. “It is an expression of faith that it is no accident that we are here, in this time and place, with these gifts and capacities and this opportunity to make a positive difference to the world.” This means that each of us is here for a divine purpose and God needs each of us to act on that purpose. The Kabbalists, the Jewish mystics, understood Creation in three stages: tzimtzum, sh’virat ha-keilim, and tikkun olam. Tzimtzum was God’s withdrawing from a portion of the universe to make room for Creation. Sh’virat ha-keilim was the shattering of vessels containing God’s light, whose shards were scattered throughout the world. Tikkun olam is the task of finding those shards and bringing them back together, reuniting God’s presence in the world. “Each religious act we do has an effect on the ecology of creation. It restores something of lost harmony to the cosmos.” “If you spend your life searching for evidence that, as [Immanuel] Kant put it, ‘Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made,’ you will certainly find it. But if you spend it searching for fragments of light that lie, as Jewish mystics believed, scattered throughout the universe, you will find them also – and this is a no less just view of the human condition.”
Stosh Cotler, CEO for Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice, asks what the words ‘Jewish authenticity’ mean to you. For many of us, the concept of Jewish authenticity conjures up images of lighting Shabbat candles, attending worship, participating in a Passover seder, reading Torah. What if Jewish authenticity includes things like Jewish abolitionists protesting against slavery, Abraham Joshua Heschel marching with Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma, Jews rallying to raise awareness about genocide in Darfur?
“Authentic expressions of our tradition are subversive and they are not subversive just for subversive sake; they are actually subversive for the common good and … the experience of being Jewish, Jewishness is, at its heart, a practice of everyday revolution.” What is radical, revolutionary, and subversive about Judaism? These are loaded words! But the answers are Shabbat, Talmud, tzedakah, chesed. Why? Because they are the darchei shalom, the paths to peace.
The other question Stosh Cotler asks is, “When did American Jews lose our identities as revolutionaries? Why have we backed away from our radical roots? “The American Jewish community is one of the most affluent, educated, integrated, and safe diaspora communities our people have ever known… If we were to act as empathizers and prophetic actors, we now have more power in American society, that if we leveraged that power for the common good, it would make a real difference.” So, why does it seem that we do not do everything we can do? Can we still be radical, still be activists, when we are no longer the ones who are disenfranchised by the system?
One thing is possible: we are just as active, just as committed to working on justice, but it is our Jewish communal organizations that no longer reflect our radical roots. “56% of American Jews say that working for justice and equality is the very essence of what it means to be Jewish,” yet our communities invest only between one- and two-percent in direct advocacy. “If we are not leveraging our community’s tremendous resources for the common good, who are we?”
On this day, when we contemplate our lives, when we will hear Isaiah’s message tomorrow about what God truly desires, we need to remember the prophets’ warnings: “The prophets warned against a rift between the holy and the good, our duties to God and to our fellow human beings… The message of the Hebrew Bible is that serving God and serving our fellow human beings are inseparably linked and the split between the two impoverishes both. Unless the holy leads us outward toward the good, and the good leads us back, for renewal, to the holy, the creative energies of both run dry.”
Inspired by these principles, a dedicated, diverse group within our congregation, our Tikkun Olam Task Force, has spent the past 6 months working to bring our congregation’s participation in tikkun olam to the next level. In the year that has passed, our congregation grappled with our participation in a rally in support of Syrian refugees. Our religious school program incorporated family tikkun olam programming, which left our families wanting more opportunities to mend our world. Out of these powerful encounters with one another, a conversation began about how we could do tikkun olam better.
Our congregation has long been involved in these pursuits. Our Tikkun Olam Task Force has determined that now is time for us to reaffirm our commitments to tzedek, righteous work that ends the ills of society, and tzedakah, righteous acts of kindness, and infuse them into all aspects of congregational life. We recognize that tikkun olam is at the core of Jewish identity in general and Reform Jewish identity in particular. In the 1999 Statement of Principles, our movement declared, “We are obligated to pursue tzedek, justice and righteousness,” because social action and social justices are the “central prophetic focus of traditional Reform Jewish belief and practice.”
In the coming months, our Tikkun Olam Task Force will unveil a directive to guide our role in the work of mending the fractures of our world, as well as a process for thoughtful decision about the causes we will support and nimble action to support them. This is work in which we must engage, even as we recognize the diversity within our particular Reform Jewish congregation. We recognize that a renewed commitment to tikkun olam will not be without conflict, without divisions within our congregation, but divisions do not automatically lead to divisiveness. We will to tackle the toughest issues of our day and lend our collective power to the work of tikkun olam. Failure to lend our congregational voice in service of the world’s repair would be a violation of our commitments as Reform Jews.
God trusts and empowers us. God even empowers us to make mistakes. We are not asked to be perfect. “We sin, but God forgives. We err, but through our errors we learn. We fall, but God lifts us. We fail, but – as Rabbi Tarfon said, ‘It is not for you to complete the work, but nor are you free to desist from it.’ We do our best: that is all God asks. The ethics of Judaism are demanding, but they are also profoundly forgiving.” Now is the time to act. G’mar chatimah tovah, may you be sealed for blessing in the Book of Life.
Cotler, Stosh. Discontinuing Jewish Continuity. JDOV (Dreams, Observations, Vision). Filmed at UJA-Federation of New York, 2014, <http://jdov.org/talk/discontinuing-jewish-continuity/>.
Sacks, Jonathan. To Heal a Fractured World. New York: Schocken Books, 2005.
 Jonathan Sacks. To Heal a Fractured World. New York: Schocken Books, 2005, p. 5, quoting Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Halakhic Man, trans. Lawrence Kaplan (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1983), p. 91.
 Maimonides. Guide for the Perplexed, III:27.
 Sacks, p. 36.
 Sacks, p. 23.
 Sacks, p. 3.
 Jer. 9:23-4.
 Sacks, p. 4.
 Sacks, p. 10.
 Sacks, p. 5.
 Sacks, p. 37.
 Sacks, p. 6.
 Sacks, p. 32.
 Sacks, p. 36.
 Sacks, p. 41.
 Sacks, p. 46.
 Sacks, p. 47.
 BT Gittin 59a-61a.
 Sacks, p. 18.
 Sacks, pp. 27-8.
 Stosh Cotler. Discontinuing Jewish Continuity. JDOV (Dreams, Observations, Vision). Filmed at UJA-Federation of New York, 2014. <http://jdov.org/talk/discontinuing-jewish-continuity/>.
 Sacks, p. 72.
 Sacks p. 75.
 Sacks, p. 10.
 Sacks, p. 9.
 Sacks, p. 12.