Rosh Hashanah 5784 / 2023
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While you might not recognize the name Martin Niemöller, I know that you’ve all heard his most famous quote. He included these words which analyze his complicity in the Nazi regime in the speeches that he delivered all around the world in the wake of the Holocaust.
On dais after dais, he said:
“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”
This quote is inextricably tied to Holocaust education and memorials. In fact, if you’ve ever been to the United States’ Holocaust Memorial Museum, you’ve seen these words written across the wall at the conclusion of the exhibit space. Reverend Niemöller’s quote is used and often rewritten by people across the political and social spectrums as they argue that we should protect others in order to better protect ourselves.
I have heard and used this quote a million times, but it wasn’t until this year that I realized how Niemöller’s words conflicted with my understanding of our Reform Jewish values.
Niemöller makes us imagine that the world exists in a series of concentric circles where we and the people we claim as ours are at the center of the universe while other groups orbit around us. In Niemöller’s argument, as an encroaching threat comes closer, the threat encounters group after group that’s not us. Niemöller’s words tell us that the reason to protect those other groups is that if they fall, then that means the threat has come closer to us.
The more I’ve learned about Niemöller’s life, the more I am convinced that he intended his words to be interpreted in exactly this way. He was a passionate and public right wing nationalist. He supported the Nazis as they targeted group after group, people after people. He only began objecting to the Nazis’ rule when it began to impact his ability to lead his life. And even then, his objections were specifically related to the threats to his own religious liberty and authority.
There’s no denying that Niemöller’s words are powerful, but this morning, I would like to tell you how Niemöller’s vision of the world is different than what I see as the Jewish way of understanding our responsibility to one another.
Judaism teaches us that no one is the center of any universe and that other peoples are not territories that must be defended in order to further protect ourselves.
In Leviticus chapter 19, verse 18, we are commanded,
וְאָֽהַבְתָּ֥ לְרֵעֲךָ֖ כָּמ֑וֹךָ אֲנִ֖י יְהֹוָֽה
“And you shall love your neighbor as you love yourself, I am Adonai.”
The rabbis identified this as the central teaching of the Torah, and each generation of Jewish thinkers has derived meaning from these words.
The 19th century Jewish movement known as the Mussar movement crafted a number of middot, or Jewish character traits or values, that I believe connect directly to this verse in Leviticus and articulate exactly how Jewish people are meant to understand the world and our responsibilities to one another.
The first middah is Ma'amido al HaShalom which means, “Setting others on the path of Shalom.” Shalom, as many of us know, can be translated in multiple ways. It can mean safety, wholeness, prosperity, completion, and peace of mind and heart. Bradley Artson wrote in his book, It’s A Mitzvah, that “in English, ‘peace’ is often understood to be the absence of… conflict. [While in] Hebrew, Shalom is understood to be the presence of a sense of well-being and fulfillment.” We can understand this middah to mean that Jewish people are meant to seek out opportunities to allow our friends, neighbors, and strangers to find and live lives defined by wholeness and fulfillment. There is no reward offered in this proposition, just the understanding that we are meant to care deeply about other people’s Shalom.
The second middah I’d like to lift up is Nosay B’ol Im Chavayro which means, “to share the burden with one’s friend.”
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explained this middah by saying, “that one who wishes to acquire Torah must seek to ease [their] neighbor of the burden of daily living…
A 16th commentary called “Tiferet Yisrael” explained the middah in this way, "The one who wishes to acquire Torah helps others in any way [they] can, whether the help entails physical strain, financial expense, or emotional strain. [They feel] the friend's pain and [do] whatever is possible to help."
This second middah tells us that any community member bearing any kind of burden is a problem that the community must address. It tells us that loving our neighbor as ourselves means that we take pains to understand what burdens our neighbors are carrying and that we take action in order to lessen their struggles.
Judaism is a religion of community. We are meant to care about whether all people are able to live their lives fully because belonging to a community means working to ensure that each member is safe and whole and able to live truthfully and fully.
We are meant to care about one another because being a Kehillah Kedoshah, a holy community, means that we see the reflection of God in every person and that we are invested in them… not as means to an end… not as protective fences… not as abstract ideas… but as people whose minds and hearts and souls and bodies are of critical importance in and of themselves.
From these middot, I learn that there is no Torah, no Judaism, if I am not sharing the burdens of my friends. And that there is no Shalom for me while others are denied theirs.
There are, unfortunately, far too many opportunities for us as a Reform Jewish community, to take action with these values in mind. This morning, I want to highlight that these values, and the worldview that they reinforce, are absolutely needed in our local community.
In Missouri, our government recently passed two laws which directly target trans and nonbinary children and that are intended to take away these children’s ability to live fully, safely, and wholly as themselves. These laws masquerade as attempts to protect children but they fly in the face of the wisdom of our religious tradition and others, the medical knowledge of national and international boards of doctors, and most importantly the voices of trans and nonbinary folks themselves.
Denying children the ability to access necessary and life-affirming medical care or to play on their own gender’s sports team is a threat to these children's lives, safety, and futures.
The Williams Institute of the UCLA School of Law estimates that .2% of Missouri’s adult population and .75% of Missouri’s youth population is transgender. Their numbers say that there about 12,500 people- which less than 1% of our state’s population- are transgender.
Yet, despite these small numbers, members of our legislature spent a large amount of this past legislative session pushing through bills that add to the burdens already imposed on this minority group and that keep transgender people from living lives of fulfillment.
I know that some of you might be wondering why I would dedicate one of our High Holy Day sermons to the topic of transgender rights. You might be thinking that if less than 1 percent of people in Missouri are transgender, then logically the vast majority of people in this sanctuary and watching over streaming are not trans and are probably living lives not directly impacted by these most recent attacks on transgender people.
But friends, this is not a sermon for the less than 1% of our congregation and state who are transgender. This is not a sermon about how for 2,000 years Judaism has recognized a spectrum of biological sex and gender. This isn’t even a sermon about how everyone in a community benefits when diverse voices are celebrated and honored.
This is a sermon about how Judaism teaches us that the 99% of us who are not transgender are commanded to share the burdens of our friends and to ensure that all people are able to access their paths to wholeness and peace.
This is a sermon about how the safety of the bodies, minds, and spirits of our community members is our responsibility. This is a sermon about what Judaism can tell us about how to be in relationship with one another.
Right now, Jewish and non Jewish transgender people are being denied access to gender affirming care because whole systems of hospitals have stopped offering this kind of treatment. Doctors within these systems are unable to provide the care that they know will drastically improve if not save their patients’ lives because their hospital systems are unable or unwilling to take the financial risk that this new law creates.
Right now, Jewish and non Jewish transgender people are living with the fear of what new persecution our government will unleash upon them- what new indignity will be added to the burden society is already making them carry- what new piece of their Shalom, their wholeness, will be stripped away.
In her beautiful and sometimes heartbreaking memoir, Tomorrow Will Be Different, Delaware State Senator Sarah McBride describes her experience as a transgender woman. She writes about telling her family that she is transgender, about working at the White House as the first openly transgender intern, about advocating for the LGBTQ+ community through her activism in Delaware and DC, and about falling in love with Andrew McCray, a transgender man and a passionate activist for the LGTBQ+ community who died tragically young after a battle with cancer.
Sarah writes that after losing her husband, Andy, she was so angry, an emotion that wasn’t typical for her. She wasn’t mad at Andy, or at his doctors, or at his disease. She was mad at society.
This is how she explained her anger:
“Andy had the courage to come out to a hateful world at a relatively young age. He was supposed to live three-quarters of his life as his authentic self. Instead, because cancer cut his life short, he had less than a quarter. Some people have even less time than that.
Even with a supportive, progressive family, hate had kept Andy inside himself for what turned out to be the majority of his life. None of us know how long we have, but we do have a choice in whether we love or hate. And every day that we rob people of the ability to live their lives to the fullest, we are undermining the most precious gift we are given as humans.
…each time we ask anyone—whether they are transgender, Black, an immigrant, Muslim, Native American, gay, or a woman—to sit by and let an extended conversation take place about whether they deserve to be respected and affirmed in who they are, we are asking people to watch their one life pass by without dignity or fairness. That is too much to ask of anyone.”
While Sarah uses different words, what I think she’s saying is that any effort to ask trans and other people to sacrifice their Shalom, their wholeness and peace, is unacceptable. What I take from her message is that there are no expendable groups of people, and that it is cruel to ask anyone to wait to receive all of the rights they deserve. What I see in Sarah’s argument is the absolute truth that the only thing human beings have for sure is this moment, and that it is our responsibility to do all that we can to ensure that all people can live wholly, truthfully, and safely as themselves.
Sarah writes that when she told her parents that she was trans, they asked her how she knew for sure. She told them, “The best way I can describe it for myself… is a constant feeling of homesickness. An unwavering ache in the pit of my stomach that only goes away when I can be seen and affirmed in the gender I’ve always felt myself to be. And unlike homesickness with location, which eventually diminishes as you get used to the new home, this homesickness only grows with time and separation.”
For those of us who are not transgender, our Jewish values compel us to do the work to make sure that no child, no person, bears the burden of being homesick within themselves and that no one is denied the chance to find their own unique path to a life where they can feel complete and whole and joyful. Not because their fulfillment will protect ours, but only because we care about them. Full stop.
Ma'amido al HaShalom- Putting others on the path to Shalom- and Nosay B’ol Im Chavayro- sharing the burden with one’s friend- these are our calls to action.
Each of us gets to decide what that action looks like for us.
It might mean donating to organizations that are fighting for the rights of trans people or that support trans folks who are struggling under society’s burden.
It might mean using our voices to tell our representatives that we refuse to let any people be sacrificed in the pursuit of their legislative aims.
It might mean using our positions on boards to ask questions about who feels safe and seen our communities.
It might mean standing up when we hear our family, our neighbors, or our friends make dismissive or disparaging remarks.
We are commanded to care about everyone. That is a huge task, and a necessary one.
On this Rosh Hashanah, I offer this prayer for our community:
I pray that we will reject the idea that we are the center of any universe and that we will put aside the notion that we should care about others only if doing so protects ourselves.
I pray that we will embrace the Jewish imperatives to ease whatever strain our community members experience in their daily lives and to do all that we can to set every person on the path to wholeness and Shalom.
I pray that we will understand that a threat to the body, mind, or spirit of any member of our community is an immediate threat to the entire community.
I pray that we will move forward in the knowledge that we are not protected because we stand behind other people. We are protected because we stand together.
Chazak ve'ematz. May we be strong and have courage.