October 5, 2022 – 10 Tishrei 5783
Congregation Bet Ha’am
Rabbi Jared H. Saks
There is a prayer that appears in our Shabbat evening worship with which some of you are familiar. Its words are a call for us to mend the broken world in which we live. It begins, “Disturb us, Adonai, ruffle us from our complacency; make us dissatisfied. Dissatisfied with he peace of ignorance…” and concludes, “Disturb us, O God, and vex us; let not Your Shabbat be a day of torpor and slumber; let it be a time to be stirred and spurred to action.” It may not seem to some to be much of a Shabbat prayer. To understand its power, it’s important to understand its origin.
This prayer was written by Rabbi Mitchell Salem Fisher, who after his ordination from the Jewish Institute of Religion, served two congregations in Manhattan in the late 1920s. In 1930, however, Rabbi Fisher abruptly resigned his pulpit. In his resignation letter, which was published in The Hebrew American at the time, Rabbi Fisher laments that he felt restricted from addressing the real issues of the day from the pulpit. He writes, “I retain as ever … my love of Israel and Israel’s faith.” The trouble, he writes, “lies in the dreadful contrast between what the synagogue should and can be and what the synagogue is.” Rabbi Mitchell Salem Fisher struggled with the fact that, “religious institutionalism … shuts out a disturbing reality and thus inhibits the fight for a more just world.”
If you ask me what my greatest struggles are in my rabbinate, more often than not, I’ll share that I do not believe that I, and by extension, we as a congregation, are doing enough to mend the broken world in which we live. It rarely feels to me as though we are living Rabbi Fisher’s charge, ensuring that the borders of this sanctuary – both physical and virtual – are not where our Jewish values stop and they do not shelter us, “from the winds of truth, justice, and reality.”
Judaism demands that we actively engage in the repair of our world. Among the three things that can guide us in our spiritual growth is tzedakah, acts of justice and righteousness that repair the world. Serving food at soup kitchens, Yom Kippur food drives, winter coat collections, the stuff-a-truck diaper drive just this past weekend at the J, these are all necessary and crucial acts that tend to people’s immediate needs. At the same time, they are only temporary. When the last coat has been handed out, when the last diaper has been distributed, when the bags of food are emptied and the donations are shared with organizations, there will still be people in need, until we address why there are people in need.
At the same time, “policy initiatives such as raising the minimum wage and adopting fair tax policies will provide greater equity for the working poor and seek to address the increasing gap between the haves and the have-nots in our society, but they will not feed a hungry child today.” We need both social action and political action in order to change our world.
Now, I know some of you may already be squirming in your seats. A political action sermon on Yom Kippur. Couldn’t the message be uplifting and inspiring? Yes, it could, and I hope you’ve found that uplift and inspiration in my other sermons through these holidays. This, however, “is what the liturgy and readings of Yom Kippur want of us,” writes Rabbi Julia Andelman. Our haftarah reading, from the book of Isaiah, asks if our ritual behavior and our social and moral behavior are in sync. “The haftarah is a sharp indictment of the notion that ritual practice and moral behavior can exist in separate realms.”
Listen again to Isaiah’s words: “Is this the fast I desire? A day to afflict body and soul? Bowing your head like a reed, covering yourself with sackcloth and ashes? Do you call this a fast—a day worthy of the favor of Adonai? Is not this the fast I desire— to break the bonds of injustice and remove the heavy yoke; to let the oppressed go free and release all those enslaved? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and to take the homeless poor into your home?” “If we spend the day fervently engaged in ritual activities and then return to our lives as if nothing has changed—as if spiritual self-reflection has nothing to do with how we conduct ourselves in the world—then we have missed the point entirely.”
“Going through the motions of Yom Kippur with a sense of complacency about the problems of the world around us is, according to Isaiah, a fundamentally un-Jewish way of relating to God.” And Isaiah is not alone in this message. Consider Amos:
I loathe, I spurn your festivals,
I am not appeased by your solemn assemblies.
If you offer Me burnt offerings—or your meal offerings—
I will not accept them;
I will pay no heed
To your gifts of fatlings.
Spare Me the sound of your hymns,
And let Me not hear the music of your lutes.
But let justice well up like water,
Righteousness like an unfailing stream.
Reform Judaism draws its charge for social justice from the prophetic tradition. In his book The Prophets, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel asks about the manner of the prophet. His daughter, Susannah Heschel, in the book’s introduction explains that to her father, the prophet is, “a person of agony, whose ‘life and soul are at stake in what he says,’ yet who is also able to perceive ‘the silent sigh’ of human anguish.” A prophet is not only a divine soothsayer, not only a warning against sin, not only a voice for social justice. “God is raging in the prophet’s words.” The prophets not only conveyed the divine message, but also the divine outrage at the people’s moral failures. The prophets embody God’s righteous indignation. Susannah Heschel writes, “The prophets were not simply biblical figures my father studied, but models for his life,” as they should be in ours.
Many of us are familiar with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s remarks after joining with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1965 Voting Rights march from Selma to Montgomery: “I felt my legs were praying.” Heschel teaches us that it’s not our words alone that make up our prayer, but our actions, as well. What we often do not hear, however, was Heschel’s greatest regret of that day: “Jewish religious institutions have again missed a great opportunity, namely, to interpret a Civil Rights movement in terms of Judaism. The vast majority of Jews participating actively in it are totally unaware of what the movement means in terms of the prophetic tradition.” And he was equally concerned with those engaged in Jewish life who were completely detached from the concerns of the outside world. “Judaism, he wrote, had become a platitude, when it should be spiritual effrontery. The modern Jew had become a messenger who had forgotten the message.”
This day is not only about our personal spiritual development. “God demands more of us. To avoid reflecting on our actions in realms of social action and social justice on Yom Kippur would be to fly in the face of what our prophets and the rabbis who highlighted their texts, are trying to teach us.” This day, we are called to resist that self-centered temptation and instead to hear the obligation to tend to others’ needs. What do we mean when we say, “Al cheit shechatanu l’fanecha… for the sin of hardening our hearts?” We have hardened our hearts to poverty, homelessness, and despair. Traditionally, the Yom Kippur Amidah ends with this personal prayer: My God, before I was created I was unworthy; and now that I have been created, it is as if I had never been created.” It may seem self-deprecating at first, but Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook sees it this way: Each of us was created at the precise moment when we had a specific purpose in the universe. “Only when we direct our actions toward the higher purpose of our existence do we become worthy of having been created.” This day, we are called to figure out what the world needs from us. Answer a call to a problem you can help solve, a suffering you can alleviate. “Yom Kippur is the day to identify it and to commit, amidst all our family and work and personal obligations, to do something to help.” Merely showing up to pray, to fast, to study, to beat our chests, is not enough.
Last night, I spoke about the Unetaneh Tokef and how t’shuvah, t’filah, and tzedakah guide our impact in the world. It is said that on this day, we say more words in prayer than on any other day in the year. “Prayer must not be dissonant with the rest of living… The divorce of liturgy and living, of prayer and practice, is more than a scandal; it is a disaster,” writes Heschel. The words we pray are promises. “Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehoods. The liturgical movement must become a revolutionary movement,” writes Heschel, “seeking to overthrow the forces that continue to destroy the promise, the hope, the vision.”
“Amos and the prophets who followed him not only stressed the primacy of morality over sacrifice, but even proclaimed that the worth of worship far from being absolute, is contingent upon moral living, and that when immorality prevails, worship is detestable.” While the prophets do not condemn worship, they do insist that deeds of injustice, or not acting on behalf of justice, destroy worship’s value.
There are those who would say we should be engaged in justice work, but not engaged in politics, that religion doesn’t belong in politics. “In the Pentateuch, the relation of man to things of space, to money, to property is a fundamental religious problem,” writes Heschel. Through the prophetic texts and the passages the rabbis have selected, especially for this day, we see that Judaism is political. Shabbat is political. Imagine a world in which every single person except for truly essential employees – medical professionals, first responders – had not only a mandated day off, but the same mandated day off as everyone else. What would our world look like if we actually lived that Torah value?
Let’s take just one issue as an example: hunger. Isaiah tells us this morning, “Share your bread with the hungry.” Okay, if we only share our bread, if we conduct food drives and support local agencies addressing the immediate needs of hunger, we will help people who are hungry right now. But, if we engage in work that seeks to understand why people go hungry and endeavor to change the system that allows people to go hungry, we are going to have to be political. And, as the prophets teach us, this is not contrary to our Jewish values, but an integral, inseparable part of them.
There is, of course, a difference between being political and being partisan. We have the authority, both in our tradition and in American law, to advocate for policies and positions, to lobby on issues from a Jewish perspective. What we cannot do is endorse a particular candidate or party. While our work may align with one political party more than the other, ultimately we are relying on Torah and Jewish tradition to inform our position.
Our Reform Movement has long been a tradition of social justice. “Reform Jews are committed to social justice. Even as Reform Jews embrace ritual, prayer, and ceremony more than ever, we continue to see social justice as the jewel in the Reform Jewish crown. Like the prophets, we never forget that God is concerned about the everyday and that the blights of society take precedence over the mysteries of heaven. A Reform synagogue that does not alleviate the anguish of the suffering is a contradiction in terms.”
“The mission statement of the Union for Reform Judaism includes the mandate to ‘foster the vibrancy of Reform Judaism through Torah (lifelong Jewish learning), avodah (worship of God through prayer and observance), and g’milut chasadim (the pursuit of justice, peace, and deeds of loving-kindness),” and our own Mission, Vision and Values Statement at Bet Ha’am includes the commitment that, “our Jewish ethical heritage is a gift that can and should guide us as we engage together in Tikkun Olam, the repair of our community, nation, and world.”
Our progressive religious voices are needed in the public sphere. “If we don’t bring these progressive religious values into the public arena with us, we will abandon the public square to those offering a different view of religion and values,” a view that doesn’t mesh with ours and may well cause us harm. “Addressing the fundamental issues of justice and peace that roused the prophets and gave birth to the prophetic ideal of Reform Judaism requires entering the public arena and speaking out on policy matters.”
Over the past year, Bet Ha’am members have engaged in issues of tikkun olam, aiming to bring justice to our world. Small groups have gathered with Wabanaki REACH to learn about Wabanaki-Maine history and efforts to secure Wabanaki Sovereignty in the near future. As a people who spent two-thousand years in exile, we have some understanding. As a people who was also targeted for extinction, we can empathize. We have gathered a reproductive justice team. While we haven’t had much work to do just yet, we know that there will be opportunities to secure abortion rights here in Maine and to protect people elsewhere who are seeking safe, legal abortions or who help them happen. As I shared last Kol Nidre, while politicized in our country today, abortion access is a Jewish value. Our ancient texts demand it be seen that way.
What is the point in uttering the words we’ve uttered over these Days of Awe if their meaning is dropped as we walk away from these services? What is the point of teaching our children, generation after generation, the history, customs, and traditions of our people if there is no connection between them and life outside the synagogue? Judaism is meaningless if it isn’t put to use. There’s a story of a rabbi and a soap maker who go for a walk together. The soap maker is a skeptic and asks, “What’s the point of Judaism? Look at all the trouble in the world. What difference has Judaism made? What’s been the point of all the sermons and texts and interpretations if the world is still broken?” The rabbi doesn’t respond and the two keep walking until they come upon a child playing in the dirt, filthy from head to toe. “What’s the point of soap?” asks the rabbi, “With all the soap in the world, and this child is still dirty!” Of course, the soap maker says, “Soap only works if you put it to use!” “Ah-ha!” says the rabbi, “So it is with Judaism.” We can’t relegate Judaism to holidays and worship, to seders and candlelightings. We must live it in the public sphere.
Judaism is a tradition that appreciates debate and values differing opinions. Minority opinions are recorded and regarded with high esteem in the Talmud. Just as not every person in the congregation appreciates every aspect of worship or religious school or holiday observances, or even of maintenance of our building and grounds, “it is impractical to expect unanimity among the membership on any given issue.” “Our diversity should not deter us from speaking out when the voices of the prophets inspire us to stand up for those who are vulnerable and fight injustice.”
Ultimately, “there are three levels of tikkun (repair): tikkun atzmi (repair of the self), tikkun kahal (repair of the community), and tikkun olam (repair of the world). Religious life without all three is, at best, lacking in spiritual effectiveness and, at worst, lacking in Jewish authenticity. This year, join our congregation in our justice work. Let’s use the voice we’ve been given and answer the prophetic call to repair the world. G’mar chatimah tovah, may you be sealed for blessing in the book of life. If you are fasting, may you have a meaningful fast. Shanah tovah.
I Have a Voice
I will open my eyes
I will not look away
I will use this gift I’ve been given
I have a voice
My voice is powerful
My voice can change the world.
Change the world!
I will give of myself
I will reach out my hand
I will use this heart I’ve been given
To take a stand
|Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech ha-olam she’asanu, she’asanu b’tzelem Elohim||v¨T©t QUrC Ubh¥vO¡t ²h±h okIg¨v Qk¤n Ub©Gg¤J oh¦vO¡t okmC|
I will fight for the truth
I’ll stand up for what’s right
I will use this strength I’ve been given
To be a light
 As cited by Jim Hale, “Disturb us, Adonai,” Juneau Empire, May 16, 2018.
 Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), Speak Truth to Power: A Guide for Congregations in Taking Public Policy Positions, 2007, p. 5.
 Isaiah 58:5-7a.
 Amos 5:21-24.
 Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Prophets, New York: Perennial Classics, 1962, p. xiii.
 Heschel, The Prophets, p. xiv.
 Heschel, The Prophets, p. xix.
 Abraham Joshua Heschel, Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996, p. 261.
 Heschel, Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, pp. 262-3.
 Heschel, The Prophets, p. 250.
 Heschel, Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, p. 261.
 Eric Yoffie, speech to the UAHC Executive Committee, emphasis added.
 URJ, p. 4.
 URJ, p. 3.
 URJ, p. 4.
 URJ, p. 7.
 URJ, p. 7.