Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon 2017
I have always had a loud voice. No one has ever accused me of being too quiet, too shy, or too hesitant to speak. Over the years, my tendency to talk constantly and loudly has resulted in both my being sent out of multiple classrooms to think about my behavior and in my parents receiving multiple phone calls from exasperated teachers who hoped that they would be able to convince me to quiet down.
I remember that at one point in middle school, I was so proud of my powerful voice that I would challenge classmates to yelling contests in order to prove that I was in fact the loudest.
Along with maturity has come the knowledge that while my voice is a powerful tool, it is most effective when I choose to use it strategically. But, even with this more nuanced understanding, I have to admit that I have continued to be very proud of the strength of my voice.
Perhaps because of my life-long appreciation for my voice, the moments when I have felt silenced have imprinted on my mind and my spirit. I am not speaking of those innumerable times when someone asked- often very justifiably- if I would be quiet but instead of those moments when I felt my voice, my point of view, had been discounted completely.
I would like to begin tonight by telling you about one of those moments. Before I do, I want to clarify that I understand that my experience hardly even ranks on the scale of silenced voices. At every moment in this story, the stakes were relatively low, and I was in no danger. My small struggle can not and does not compare to the experiences of so many who have had and continue to have their voices routinely and even systematically dismissed because of the color of their skin, their gender identities, their sexual orientations, or because of some other aspect of what makes them who they are. My experience does not compare to theirs. But, it helped me understand the power and importance of the role of an ally, and that is why I would like to tell you about it tonight.
This experience happened in a class where we were studying the historical account of a rabbi who lived hundreds of years ago and had, at some point in his life, left his wife and children behind to go on a spiritual pilgrimage. During our class’ conversation, I interjected that I was disappointed to realize that the only time we learned about women was when male authors thought to mention their wives, mothers, or daughters. This was a relatively typical comment for me, and the most I thought would come of it was that our professor might be moved to find a couple additional texts with women’s voices and bring them to class.
Instead what happened was that a classmate responded immediately by saying that my wanting to hear and read more women’s voices was unrealistic as women’s voices had been lost to history. A tangential mention of a wife or a daughter was the best that I could and, even more, that I should hope for. Never one to back down from a debate, I launched into a response that questioned both this person’s knowledge of available historical sources and their comfort with accepting the status quo as the best that we could hope for.
Over the next few minutes, several classmates confidently explained to me and the few others who agreed with me that it had taken us thousands of years to get where we are and that we had already made such great strides toward the full inclusion of women. They argued that we should be patient and be happy with what had already been accomplished.
I tried to respond to their answers, but my perspective, my voice, wasn’t being heard. Close to tears, I just stopped. I froze. I couldn’t figure out how to get my point across, and for the first time in a long time, I felt like my voice was failing me. I hated that feeling, but, in that moment, I didn’t know what else to do.
Then, came a male classmate’s voice. He calmly and clearly said, “I think what I’m hearing Rachel say is that being happy with the progress that we’ve already made doesn’t mean that we can’t ask for more.” His voice, infuriatingly and blessedly, succeeded where mine had not. The conversation changed the minute he participated. He used his voice to amplify mine, and together, our voices were stronger. We didn’t change the syllabus or even the minds of all of our classmates, but I went from feeling like I had been silenced to knowing that I had been heard and understood.
For thousands of years, the Jewish Tradition has recognized the strength and value of voices. Our tradition teaches us that it was with words, with God’s voice, that the entire world was created. It was by speaking that God convinced Sarah and Abraham to leave the only land that they had ever known. The relationship between Moses and God was understood to be incredibly close partly because they were said to often speak with one another. The rabbis of the Talmudic era made to sure to include both the majority’s AND the minority’s opinions.
As Jews, we recognize both the power that our tradition teaches us exists within every voice and the reality that, all too frequently, voices have been and continue to be used to destroy rather than to create.
I am not sure that I will ever forget watching a crowd of Neo Nazis march in Charlottesville and use their voices to chant hateful things. I am not sure I will ever forget watching the leadership of our country and waiting to hear a clear, strong voice unambiguously condemn the behavior of those who marched to celebrate bigotry. These voices- both those that were far too loud and those that were far too quiet- were used to tear others down. They reverberated for all the wrong reasons.
However, even as I wonder if the memories of those moments will ever fade, I am certain that I will always remember hearing of the men and women who came to the synagogue in Charlottesville and used their voices to offer their friendship. I am certain that I will always remember standing with my colleagues of different backgrounds and faiths and listening to them call for respect. These friends used their powerful voices to create and strengthen, and I was proud to stand with them and to add my voice to theirs.
As a Jewish community, we know that there is power in every voice. And, as rabbis, my colleagues and I know that we have the privilege and the responsibility of using our voices to speak truth, to amplify the voices of the silenced, and to challenge ourselves and our communities to continue striving and to continue living up to the values that we hold most dear.
It was with this understanding in mind that almost one hundred rabbis from cities and towns all across the country committed to using the power of the High Holy Days and the opportunity of our sermons to speak with one voice. Over the next ten days, the message that I am about to share with you will be heard by thousands of people- in communities large and small. Every rabbi who chose to participate will share the following words with their congregations because we believe that this message is critical and that now is not a time to be silent.
I stand with my colleagues, and we speak with one voice as we say together that:
The Talmud teaches, “If you see wrongdoing by a member of your household and you do not protest – you are held accountable. And so it is in relation to the members of your city. And so it is in relation to the world.” As Jews we are held accountable in ever-widening circles of responsibility to rebuke transgressors within our homes, in our country, in our world. One chutzpadik medieval commentator teaches that we must voice hard truths even to those with great power, for “the whole people are punished for the sins of the king if they do not protest the king’s actions to him.”
Tonight, I speak words of protest, joining dozens and dozens of my Reform rabbinic colleagues across the nation in fulfillment of our sacred obligation. We will not be silent. We will, without hesitation, decry the moral abdication of the President who fuels hatred and division in our beloved country. This is not a political statement. We, like the prophets before us, draw from the deepest wisdom of our tradition to deliver a stern warning against complacency and an impassioned call for action.
We call on you to rise up and say in thousands of ways, every day, as proud Jews and proud Americans: “You cannot dehumanize, degrade, and stigmatize whole categories of people in this nation. All people- no matter who they are, who they love, or what they believe in- are beloved of God and precious in the Holy One’s sight.
We the people, all the people, are created b’tzelem elohim, in the image of the Divine. All people are worthy of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Rosh Hashanah is Yom Teruah, the Day of sounding the Shofar, whose piercing tones sound an alarm, express our fears and especially in these times compel us to respond with a resounding call for justice.
As rabbis we are, from sea to shining sea, speaking to our congregations in every accent of America to declare with one voice: acts of hatred, intimidation and divisiveness will not be tolerated in these United States. We stand upon the shoulders of the sages, poets and rabbis in every generation who fought for freedom.
We speak in memory of every Jew and in memory of all people who tragically and senselessly lost their lives at the hands of evil oppressors. We call on our political leaders; progressives and conservatives alike, to rigorously uphold the values brilliantly articulated in the founding documents of our country, the “immortal declaration” that all [people] are created equal.
We call on every elected leader to responsibly represent our country’s history and advance its noble visions of tolerance. On this first day of the New Year, WE are “Proclaiming liberty throughout all the land." [Lev 25:10]
Something crumbled inside us when we watched the televised images of Charlottesville’s beautiful streets filled with hate-spewing marchers.
How much more vandalism, how many clashes, which other cities?
We must not accept or become inured to some warped version of “normal,” of racist and anti-Semitic acts or rallies popping in and out of breaking news cycles. Let us never grow numb to the brokenness, but let our pain fuel our vows to respond – with peaceful protests, and with public calls for healing, by building alliances and by speaking in unison with other minorities and faith communities.
Neither silence nor complacency nor waiting anxiously and fearfully for the next wounding event are options. Not for us. Elie Wiesel, of blessed memory, possessed a rare understanding of unimaginable brokenness. His memorable words sound a warning to us today, “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere.”
We hold this insight close, and we offer this prayer, this call to action to everyone in our congregations: May we never be neutral, never silent in the face of threats or of discrimination toward any. Instead, help us to interfere as healers of the broken[hearted] and binders of their wounds. [Psalm 147:3]
The events of these simmering weeks are a wake-up call to the American Jewish community. Racism is wrong whether it seeps into explicit anti-Semitism or not.
The Talmud teaches that God created us all from the first Adam so that no human being could ever say, “my lineage is greater than yours.”
But just in case we thought the white supremacists were after someone else, or that the Confederate flag has nothing to do with modern day Nazi sympathizers, or that we were somehow safe in the fact that most – but certainly not all – Jews in America are white, those fiery torches illuminated another truth, one we learn and forget only to learn again this day: if one minority group’s rights are threatened, we are all threatened. As Martin Luther King taught us, “We are all tied together in a single garment of destiny,” whether we are the least powerful or the most powerful person in our world.
“Tzedek tzedek tirdof,” the Torah admonishes: “Justice, justice you shall pursue, so that you may live and inherit the land which I, God, give to you.” Our sacred text reminds us that for a community to truly inherit its place in the world, thoughtful leaders at every level must be dedicated to equality and to unity. Every community relies on passionate and engaged citizens; it relies on you to be insistent advocates for tolerance and enduring kindness between the diverse peoples of our nation. To pursue justice is to create a society that protects and enlivens every citizen.
With one voice, we say to you that in this New Year our prayer is that each of us, that all of us, will be relentless, tireless builders of that kind of society in our towns and in our country.
Ken Yehe Ratzon. We pray that this is God’s will. We act because it is our will.
One year ago, I stood on this bimah in our beautiful sanctuary, and I used my sermon to celebrate both the strength of Reform Judaism’s dedication to the future and the beauty of the belief that the world is getting better as we learn more about ourselves and the world around us.
Tonight, I stand on this bimah and use my sermon to link my voice with the voices of Reform rabbis all around this country because my experiences and my studies have taught me that there is great power in standing with one another and raising our voices together.
I would like to conclude with a story of one of my rabbinic heroes, Rabbi James Wax. Rabbi Wax served Temple Israel in Memphis, Tennessee for thirty-two years. He was a man and a rabbi who refused to be silenced and who was not afraid to use his voice to lift up the voices of others. In the late 1960’s, Rabbi Wax was the only Jewish member of the Memphis Ministers’ Association, but his status as an extreme minority in the group did not stop his Christian colleagues from electing him as the organization’s president.
In 1968, the Memphis Ministers’ Association attempted to intervene in the escalating crisis that surrounded the strike of the city’s sanitation employees. Rabbi Wax and his colleagues, who were both African American and Caucasian men, went to the mayor of Memphis and worked to move him toward compromise. Despite their efforts, the mayor refused to bend, the violence continued to escalate, and on April 4th, Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated while he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.
While so much of his career is laudable and worthy of being admired and honored, it is what Rabbi Wax did on April 5th that I would like to highlight. Dr. King had been silenced only the day before. And, even though I am sure that they were devastated and afraid, hundreds of local clergy gathered at a downtown cathedral and then marched to City Hall. They walked past the National Guard and entered the mayor’s office where Rabbi Wax, as the president of the Ministers’ Association, was meant to present a spiritual argument that would convince Mayor Loeb to do something about what was happening in the city.
Instead, Rabbi Wax walked up to the Mayor and declared:
“We come here with a great deal of sadness and frankly also with a great deal of anger. What has happened in this city is the result of oppression and injustice, the inhumanity of man to man, and we have come to appeal to you for leadership in ending the situation.
There are laws greater than the laws of Memphis and Tennessee and these are the laws of God.
We fervently ask you not to hide any longer behind legal technicalities and slogans but to speak out at last in favor of human dignity.”
It is with the words of Rabbi Wax ringing in my ears and with the knowledge that I am standing with colleagues serving congregations all over this country, that I offer this prayer for all of us as we enter this new year.
I pray that each of us finds the strength and the will to lift our voices and to speak out against injustice and oppression.
I pray that all of us embrace the power that exists within our voices and commit to using that power to build up rather than to tear down.
I pray that we take as our goal the beauty of harmony rather than the safety of uniformity.
I pray that where one voice might feel threatened, two voices will feel a strength only surpassed by the power that comes from a third and fourth voice.
I pray that we remember that being silent is just as much of a statement as choosing to speak.
I pray that when we gather again to celebrate the next Rosh Hashanah, we will be able to raise our voices and praise one another and the good work we have done.