Sermon: Yom Kippur 5773 by Rabbi Joe Blair

Praying with our feet

Rabbi Joe Blair

Temple House of Israel, Staunton, VA
Temple Beth El, Harrisonburg, VA
10 Tishrei 5773
25/26 September 2012

Ten days ago, Jews around the world were preparing to celebrate Rosh HaShana. Many had spent hours in their kitchens preparing special dishes to welcome the New Year. Some had spent time readying the synagogue: preparing for a special oneg, changing the Torah covers to High Holy day “whites,” polishing the Torah breastplate and rimonim. Others were enjoying the presence of friends and family, telling stories of the year that has passed and remembering those with whom we shared precious days.

Some members of this community rearranged their Rosh HaShana eve to stand in solidarity with the members of the Islamic Association of the Shenandoah Valley at their modest center in Harrisonburg. As many of you know, just before our holiday, vandals defaced the IASV center, as well as a local church and a school. Rabbi Blair wrote a strong letter of support to the mosque leadership, and several of you, because of your connections with community members from your shared work serving the homeless, joined the hundreds of members of the larger Shenandoah Valley community with a clear message: we say no to hate.

We come here tonight, on this solemn Kol Nidre eve, to look within. Over the years, I have learned, from many of your examples, as well as from others, that the self reflection of these Days of Awe does not end when we conclude our prayers tomorrow evening. Rather, the work of our high holiday season, most powerfully articulated in the liturgy of Yom Kippur, this work begins within and then takes us into the world. We strengthen ourselves by repeating the prayers of our ancestors, and by adding the words of our hearts. And we are fortified to go from this sanctuary and into the world, taking the messages of this day and this season into our lives.

Those of you who pushed back—or forward—your Rosh HaShana plans so that you could stand with the IASV folks and others were, in the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, praying with your feet.i

For centuries, rabbis have used the High Holidays to encourage Jews to pray with their feet. Some rabbis have taught their faithful the details of Jewish law, halacha, to show the path that they should “walk.” (The words halacha, the way, and halicha, walking, are a favorite pun of our tradition.) In the last century, American Reform rabbis have urged their congregants to rescue European Jews, to engage in the epic civil rights struggle, to protest war and stand up for peace, to mobilize for the rescue and freedom of Soviet Jewry, to march for reproductive rights, and to recognize and welcome home LGBT Jews.

On this night, I would like us to turn our attention to a challenge that faces every contemporary American, a challenge that I believe we Jews must embrace as our own. We are living in a culture where fear is our first response to difference. For too many of us, natural curiosity and wonder about those who are different from us has been replaced by aversion, distance, anxiety or disinterest. The other is demonized, mocked, ridiculed or ignored. Too many Americans have lost our sense of decency, civility, and a sense of shared destiny.

And we are Jews! We are the people of the Book whose book, the Torah, tells us no less than 36 times that we must not oppress the stranger. Why? You can finish this sentence:
Because we were strangers in the land of Egypt.

We have been strangers in many lands. And so we should know the heart of the stranger. Every one of us in this sanctuary tonight came from somewhere else. We may have been, like Bruce Springsteen, born in the USA. But where were our parents or our grandparents or our great-grandparents born? Some of us might have to go back three or four or five or maybe even six generations, but unless our families can trace their history to the First People/Native Americans, all of us came to America from somewhere else. And that is, of course, true for most Jews across the world. In fact, being a stranger is what our foundational Jewish story is ABOUT. Adam and Eve left Gan Eden, Cain became a wanderer, Noah left his land, and Abraham and Sarah started over in a new place. And we Jews have been wandering ever since.

When we actually settle down, we are challenged by our tradition to be mindful of others whose arrival may be more recent than ours, whose assimilation may be more challenging than ours, whose acculturation may be different than ours.

As we stood at the beginning of this twenty-first century, we Jews could look back at a successful century of becoming Americans, over one hundred years of becoming settled and then taking our place as leaders in welcoming and insuring democracy for others. Many of us gathered here tonight continue this essential social justice work.

Yet tonight we remember the wisdom found in Pirkei Avot: “It is not up to you to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.” Tonight we are reminded of the urgency of the work of welcoming the stranger. No other commandment is repeated so many times in the Torah.

How many of us really know “the heart of the stranger”? How many of us are engaged, in a serious way, with someone who is different than we are? How many of us have been in the home of or shared a meal with or visited a place of worship where we were the stranger? And how have we considered, thought through, and shared that experience with others, reflecting on what we have learned, and how we have grown?

Five years ago, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, was invited to address ISNA, the Islamic Society of North America. Yoffie realized, as he prepared for that meeting, that few in his community, our community, are either knowable about or comfortable with our Muslims neighbors. Yoffie reached out to Ingrid Mattson, ISNA’s president, and together they initiated a educational project to bring Muslims and Jews together to learn about one another’s history and stories. And Rabbi Yoffie invited Dr. Mattson to address the URJ Biennial later that year.

Our URJ convention delegates passed a resolution that read, in part:
“We recognize that there exists in our community a profound ignorance about Islam, along with a real desire to learn about what moves and motivates Muslims today.” The resolution then urged the 900 congregations of our movement to engage in a project entitled “Children of Abraham: Jews and Muslims in Conversation.”ii

Many congregations embarked on this study program. Other congregations continued programs they had previously initiated with Muslim or Christian communities with whom they shared a neighborhood, or a social justice commitment, or a dream.

I have learned from many of you that real connections, real relationships change us. And when we are able to get out of our own way and make connections with others who may initially seem very different than we are, we may be surprised and delighted to discover that what binds us together as human beings, as Americans, as the children of a gracious and loving Source—that our common humanity is always, finally, much more powerful than our differences.

But such learning takes time and care and persistence and patience. And laughter and often many shared meals.

We are now ten days into our new year. Next Rosh HaShana, the 1st of Tishrei 5774, falls on September 5, 2013. What this means is that —we have three hundred and thirty-six days until next Rosh Hashana. Here is my modest proposal.

If we are to know the heart of the stranger, let us begin tonight. Are you, in the next 336 days, willing to take some concrete action to reduce the distance between yourself and an other? Our tradition is built on the power of stories. Begin with a book, fiction or non-fiction, that opens a world of difference. And then seek out an individual whose story may have touched your heart, both because of and in spite of what seems to divide you. Make a connection, by email or snail mail or in person. Then expand that connection, sharing more, eating together, learning about one another’s families, and choices, and lives. Working on a project together, sharing a book, joining in one another’s celebrations.

Stand in the place of the stranger, and perhaps you will make a friend.

I am suggesting that each of us takes one small step and meets an “other.” Rabbi Yoffie and Dr. Mattson suggested that we begin with communities of Muslims and Jews. I suggest that we begin with individuals. Because as all of us knows, we are changed by the individuals we are privileged to come to know. Relationships happen one by one by one.

Last week, I attended a gathering of feminist scholar in Boston. As I spoke with Aysha, a young Muslim professor of religion, she shared this part of her story. “I was moving into apartment about to begin my doctoral studies when 9/11 happened. I realized then,” she said, “ that I would have to change my field of study.” She explained that she had devoted her subsequent scholarly work to interpreting Islamic texts. She is an American and a Muslim. She feels it is her responsibility to help those with whom she lives to better understand her and her community. Aysha’s words entered my heart. The next day, another professor, Zayn, also a Muslim, asked those of us who gathered to learn from her research, “Do you realize what it is like to be always on the defensive for being a Muslim woman?”

Zayn’s words reminded me of a Talmudic dictum that we must know not only what causes us pain, but what causes our neighbor’s pain.iii Zayn’s words jolted me into the realization that I do not know how hard it is to be a Muslim living in America after 9/11. My meeting with Aysha and Zayn challenged me. How can I begin to listen to their stories, and to the stories of others whose lives are very different from mine?

We begin by opening our hearts to ourselves. And then, with work, we can open our hearts to one another. In this modest way, one of us at a time, we work towards improving the world. Seeking out another and hearing another into speech, is, I believe, what Rabbi Heschel was referring to when he speaks about praying with our feet. When we reach out our hands, when we open our minds and hearts, our feet will follow. Each of us can take our place on a journey to understanding. And this New Year is a propitious time to begin.

Avinu Malkenu, hanenu v’anenu, ki ain banu ma’asim.
Aseh imanu tzedakah v’hesed v’hoshieinu.

This sentence concludes each collection of requests that we repeat throughout these days. Yet it may be so familiar that we may fail to truly listen to the words. This sentence serves as a summation of the cascade of requests that we place before the Holy One. Here’s the translation in our Gates of Repentence:

Avinu Malkenu, be gracious and answer us, for we have little merit. Treat us generously and with kindness, and be our help.

Another translation: Avinu Malkenu, have mercy on us, answer us, for our deeds are insufficient; deal with us charitably and lovingly, and redeem us.iv

Even though we come before you empty-handed. with “little merit,” with “insufficient deeds,” even so, “treat us generously and with kindness, deal with us charitably and lovingly, and be our help, redeem us.”

Each year, we come before God as if empty-handed. On this Yom Kippur eve, I propose that we commit ourselves to a modest effort in this coming year: to meet and to get to know another, one who is different, one whose story will help us see our own with new perspective. Come to know another, and each of us will return stronger to our own families, and our own communities. One by one by one, we can work towards changing our fearful, embattled, divisive world. We may still feel, a year from now, that our deeds are insufficient. But we will have made an effort “in good faith,” because of our faith. And one year from now, when we gather again in this sacred space, perhaps we’ll share our stories of what we have learned, and how we have grown. And perhaps we’ll share part of our celebration of the new year with one of our new friends.

Join me in reaching beyond the confines of our lives and discovering the heart of the stranger. Join me in praying with our feet. Together we can forge paths of greater understanding, deepen our appreciation for others’ gifts, and work towards building a world for our children and our children’s children where our hopes and dreams of true justice and peace will be realized.

Ken y’hi ratzon. May this be so.