Yom Kippur day 2015
There once was a rabbi who was distressed at the lack of generosity among her congregants. So she prayed that the rich should give more charity to the poor.
When she was done with her prayers, her husband asked her, “Nu? Has your prayer been answered?” “Half of it was,” replied the rabbi. “The poor are willing to accept.”
Giving a sermon on tzedakah is a risky business. There are so many causes, so much sorrow and suffering in the world, how could I choose one cause? And our own shul, as you heard last night, needs your funds to grow and thrive. Won’t I be sabotaging the shul’s own needs if I ask you today to support something else?
During the Avinu Malkenu prayer we sing Ki ain banu maasim: “athough we have no deeds, be kind to us.” It is easy in our world to feel that we have no deeds to our names.
I too feel overwhelmed. People email me practically every week with worthy causes that the shul should support, worthy groups the shul should get involved with, worthy projects the shul should undertake. A few summers ago I spent 4 days in Jerusalem with a person I call the "mitzvah maniac”— Danny Siegel— who tirelessly spends every summer in Israel searching out small, grassroots, underfunded tzedakah projects to bring back to the Diaspora. He shlepped me from one amazing tzedakah project to another. I was overwhelmed by the need and overwhelmed by the possibilities and overwhelmed by the depth of those who give their all to a cause. By the woman who gives free massages to victims of trauma. By the woman who collects wedding gowns for needy brides. By the workshops for kids with Down syndrone, by the soup kitchen, by the balloon animals for kids with cancer. I rode for cancer this past June, but I did not walk for cancer in September, or bike from Barrie to Baycrest, or clean up the Don, or build a school in Africa. I cannot do it all, so why bother doing anything?
Because, as Pirkei Avot teaches: "Lo alekha ha'melakhah ligmor, v'lo atah ben horin l'hibatel mimenah”: it is not our duty to finish the work, but neither are we free to desist from starting it.
We have to start, friends. We don’t have to finish the work, but we have to start.
For generations, the question of where to direct limited funds and where to place limited resources when the need is so overwhelming has been endlessly debated by the Rabbis. Should we reach out to Jews first and foremost? To our own family, our own community first, and only then to those in the wider circles around us? Or should we start with the global community, with the biggest and most immediate need, and only after tackling that move inward?
The answer is in a remarkable story in the Talmud of Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach, whose disciples bought a horse from a heathen—and a pearl was found hidden in the horse’s saddle. "Does the heathen owner know of the pearl?" he asked. "No." "Then give the pearl back to him." “But you need not return the pearl, because he is a heathen!” the disciples cried. The Rabbi responded, "Do you think that I am a barbarian? I would prefer to hear the heathen say, 'Blessed be the G-d of the Jews,' than to possess all the pearls in the world!”
According to Rav Aharon Soloveichik, the 20th century’s greatest Orthodox thinker, Shimon Ben Shetach in the above story gives a remarkable definition of a barbarian. He writes, “Anyone who fails to apply a uniform standard of mishpat (justice) and tzedek (righteousness) to all human beings, regardless of origin, color, or creed, is deemed barbaric.”
Let’s be honest: giving Jewish tzedakah to non-Jews unveils a complex web of old wounds and ancient divides. In Christianity, giving to the poor was historically bound up with missionary work—and that scared us. But now that we are willing participants in globalization, the question of giving tzedakah beyond the shtetl gates has become critical. We have clear halachic justification which many Jews today choose to ignore. The Talmud in Masechet Gittin says: “Support the non-Jewish poor with the Jewish poor... visit the non-Jewish sick with the Jewish sick, and bury the non-Jewish dead with the Jewish dead all because of darchei shalom, ways of peace.”
The concept of minpnei darchei shalom, do it because it increases peace in the world, had profound meaning to our ancient sages. It signified a willingness to go beyond the bounds of Torah law in order to achieve a more civil society for everyone. It was not just a means to keep Judaism safe from non-Jewish hatred, but, said the former chief Rabbi of Israel Yehudah Underman, “it flows from the core ethical teachings of the Torah.”
I’d rather hear “Blessed be the G-d of the Jews” than be insulated in my own Jewish middle-class world where everything is alright.
I grew up in New York in the turbulent 60’s, but whatever else we did, one thing was clear: Jews got involved in the world. We marched against the war in Vietnam in our Jewish youth groups. My mother took a whole busload of people from our synagogue to Washington to rally for reproductive rights. There was no bifurcation between being religious and being socially active in causes that were not Jewish. Integration was a Jewish issue. The environment was a Jewish issue. Fair housing was a Jewish issue.
What happened to make us so much more insular? How many times have I been told that child poverty and illiteracy are not “Jewish issues”? I remember being told that domestic violence wasn’t a “Jewish issue.” I’m not gay so gay rights aren’t my issue. I’m not black or Asian so minority rights aren’t my issue.
For me, I am animated by Pastor Martin Niemoller’s famous poem:
They came first for the Communists,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Catholics,
and I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant.
Then they came for me,
and by that time no one was left to speak up.
Friends: everything we do is Torah, and we show Torah to the world by everything we do.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his book To Heal The World, suggests that Judaism is a religion of sacred discontent. Abraham, Moses, Amos, Isaiah are messengers of dissatisfaction with the status quo. He writes, “In Judaism, faith is not acceptance but protest, against the world that is, in the name of the world that is not yet but ought to be...Judaism is not peace of mind. I remain in awe at the challenge G-d has set us: to build, to change, to ‘mend’ the world until it becomes a place worthy of the divine presence because we have learned to honour the image of G-d that is humankind.”
I’d rather Jews be known for sacred discontent than be known for upholding the status quo.
Last night I introduced the phrase Tikkun Middot—repairing our inner world. Today, I want to talk about Tikkun Olam—repairing our outer world. Tikkun olam has come to refer to social action programs, and is a catch-phrase of the Reform movement. So much so, that at one Reform convention someone raised their hand and asked “How do you say Tikkun Olam in Hebrew”? But the phrase is originally from the kabbalah, and has a much deeper theological meaning. The Kabbalists ask “how can the world contain G-d, who is the world?” The answer: when G-d created the world, ten vessels contained the overpowering amount of “G-dliness” present. It was too much. The vessels broke, and “sparks” of G-dliness were released into the darkness. Thus in our broken, dark, shattered world, sparks of G-dliness can still be found. The gathering of those sparks is, according to Kabbalah, called tikkun olam, repairing those broken vessels of creation. In Kabbalah, when the world is repaired, it is as if G-d’s overwhelming Presence can return to us from its exile.
That is the deeper meaning of Tikkun Olam: we can—no, we must— repair the broken vessels in all of creation. It’s not just a nice thing to do, a feel-good moment in a soup kitchen. Tikkun Olam is sacred discontent which forces us to remake the world, to advance history, to cause a fundamental shift in the universe.
Tikkun olam is the Jewish responsibility for fixing what is wrong with the whole wide world. In Pirke Avot, Hillel says it: “If I am not for me, who will be for me? But when I am only for myself, what am I?” The Torah says it: “Thou halt not stand idly by while thy neigbour bleeds.” The Mishnah says it: “One person was created to teach us the importance of the actions of every individual.” The midrash says it: “One person (Adam) was created as the common ancestor of all people, for the sake of the peace of the human race, so that one should not be able to say to a neighbour, ‘My ancestor was better than yours.’” The Book of Ruth says it: through kindness to others who are not us, who are the Moabites gleaning in our fields, the Messiah will one day come.
I’d rather hear “Blessed be the G-d of the Jews” than have the next generation ask me, “where were you?”
As a shul, we need to balances the Torah’s call for tradition with the prophet’s calls for justice. Today’s haftarah makes it crystal clear when Isaiah cries out in the name of G-d:
Is this the fast I desire,
A day for people to starve their bodies?
Is it bowing the head like a bulrush and lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Do you call that a fast, a day which the Lord calls favourable?
No! This is the fast I desire:
To unlock the fetters of wickedness,
And untie the cords of the yoke
To let the oppressed go free;
To break off every yoke.
To share your bread with the hungry,
And to take the poor into your home;
When you see the naked, to clothe him,
And not to ignore your kin.
Rabbi Avi Olitzky wrote in Tablet magazine: “There has to be harmony between the synagogue’s mission and its agenda. A synagogue cannot just be in the business of being in business.” That is why our synagogue needs to put Tikkun Olam in the centre of its mission this year. Pirke Avot teaches, and this is in our mission statement on our website: “On three things the world stands: on Torah, on worship, and on deeds of goodness.” We are good on Torah, having commissioned one and using it Shabbat after Shabbat to teach and to guide us. Learning is already a core value that we demonstrate our commitment to through our many opportunities for learning throughout the year. I spoke on prayer on Rosh Hashanah, and we are already engaged with prayer, and will continue as we embark on finding or creating a new prayerbook. But we are not in business just to study Torah, and just to pray. If those two don’t lead us to acts of goodness, we aren’t in the right business at all. The Talmud says clearly, in Masechet Avodah 17b, the tractate focusing on worship and study: “One who engages in Torah study and does not practice doing deeds of kindness is like one who has no God.”
Let me say it in this very provocative way, the way the Talmud would say it in our faces: a shul with no constant, predictable, worthwhile Tikkun Olam, is a shul without God. Because how can we proclaim “Blessed be the G-d of the Jews” if we aren’t out in the world doing holy work, as Jews, in G-d’s name?
So while we beat our breasts on Yom Kippur with our own personal sins, we will have an opportunity to manifest our vision for a better world as soon as the shofar is blown tonight.
I’m going to get specific. I’d like to see City Shul take on three projects this year to make Tikkun Olam not just in a phrase in our mission statement, but practiced.
I’m going to move from the inside out; from the most local to the most global. We can do all three because there are hundreds of adults in this room today and if a handful take one project and another handful take another project and a third handful take the third project, we’ll still have hundreds of people left over.
So lets start. First: local. Our shul is in downtown Toronto. Surrounding us is illiteracy and hunger, street people and drug addiction, lonely seniors, women fleeing abuse, folks in all sorts of halfway houses, newly paroled ex-cons. We pray in the thick of it all. We get requests for volunteers all the time, most specifically and most recently: first to visit and assist with Jewish events at Castleview Wychwood long-term care facility on Christie Street, where just about everyone is fighting loneliness and boredom and they all come, regardless of their religion, to whatever Jewish events there are; we can animate that space by our presence, with our kids and with our energy. Second, to help local newly paroled women through the Elizabeth Fry Society to get back on their feet with furnishings for their apts. I’m looking for a group of people to make these mitzvahs happen. And if other ideas to be locally active come our way or need to be found, we need people to take it on themselves through the Tikkun Olam Task Force. Can I ask Anne Milchberg, Chair of the Tikkun Olam Task Force, to stand up? Please sign up on the sheet outside if you will be in the group to be a local volunteer and Anne will find you after the holidays. (Or: if you are reading this, click here to volunteer.)
Second, Israel. I didn’t speak about Israel this morning, which has been my Yom Kippur sermon theme for almost every Yom Kippur for years. Even when last year I talked about not talking about Israel, I talked about Israel! So here is my only Israel moment: my heart broke into a thousand pieces this summer when I heard two pieces of horrible news: first, the cold-blooded murder of 16 year old Shira Banki and the wounding of six others at the Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade, by an ultra-Orthodox man who had been previously imprisoned for 10 years for stabbing three people at the 2005 Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade. And second, the burning death of a one-and-a-half year-old Palestinian infant and the later death of his parents from their wounds, after their house was set on fire in the West Bank village of Douma, near Nablus by settlers who sprayed painted graffiti reading "revenge" and "long live the Messiah" in Hebrew. Now we could sit back and say “oh you can’t blame all of Israel for such craziness” but there is something wrong in a democratic, modern and liberal Israel when Jewish religious fanatics can sabotage and control so much of the country we are trying to love. Anat Hoffman, Executive Director of the Israel Religious Action Center, and a director of Women of the Wall, says, “we can throw up our hands when confronted with the many serious issues and complexities; or we can roll up our sleeves and take them on. But we can’t do both at the same time.” We may want to throw up our hands but we need to roll up our sleeves or we will not have any deeds to our names when it comes to an Israel we can be proud of. I’ll make it easy: $18 gets you a membership to ARZA Canada, the Reform Zionist organization that does unending work desegregating buses, establishing preschools and kindergartens with liberal Jewish values, promoting shared society between Jews and Arabs, and tirelessly working for women’s and minority rights. We will send out the link in the next shul newsletter to everyone here, and anyone, shul member or not, can join. You’ll get on their mailing list and be kept abreast of their work and your dollars will go to Israeli causes which reflect your own values. On November 15th, you can meet and hear Rabbi Gilad Kariv, the dynamic Executive Director of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism who ran for Knesset, speak to us at City Shul about the kind of sleeve-rolling we can do in the Diaspora to help cure Israel—and I mean cure her—of this scourge of violent Jewish religious fanaticism. Making peace from the inside. 9If you are reading this: Click here to register.) Can I ask Penny Fine, Chair of the Israel Engagement Task Force to stand up? Please sign up on the sheet outside if you will be part of the group to make a thoughtful, insightful and liberal Israeli programming happen for our shul, and Penny will find you after the holidays. (OR: if you are reading this, click here to volunteer.)
Last, and probably most obvious and most pressing and most global: the Syrian refuge crisis. Rabbi Jonathan Sack wrote recently in the Guardian: “I used to think that the most important line in the Bible was “Love your neighbour as yourself”. Then I realized that it is easy to love your neighbour because he or she is usually quite like yourself. What is hard is to love the stranger, one whose colour, culture or creed is different from yours. That is why the command, “Love the stranger because you were once strangers”, resonates so often throughout the Bible. It is summoning us now.”
We were strangers in the land of Egypt; and— we were strangers in the land of Canada. How many of you, if you’re not aboriginal, can say you are “old-stock Canadian?” We should remember the days when “none was too many” for us.
“Who by water?” A little boy washes up on a Turkish beach like so much driftwood. What has been going on in Syria these past few years has risen to a level of desperation that propels people to cross the Mediterranean in the sort of boat we’d never take out onto Lake Ontario. Over 100,000 thousand civilians have died and over 11 million people have been displaced so far in Syria’s civil war. This is the greatest and most immediate humanitarian crisis of our age.
Let the world say “Blessed be the G-d of the Jews” and not “where were the Jews, once so oppressed and so dispersed and so homeless and so friendless, when the world experienced once again a cataclysm from which so many, like them, could not escape?”
I am proud to announce that City Shul will be sponsoring a refugee family through the aegis of JIAS, the Jewish Immigrant Aid Society, the only Jewish organization to have the status of an SAH—a Sponsorship Agreement Holder with the government of Canada. This partnership allows us to combine the universalism of sponsoring a refugee of whatever religion with the value of working with a historic Jewish refugee organization, now working with many other synagogues who have decided as we have to take on this mitzvah. Friends, this is serious business.This sponsorship will take time, money, and effort. We will need a lot of helping hands to make this happen. And frankly, we will need a lot of funds to make this happen. The paperwork is ready to be signed and the family ready to be assigned to us once we have the funds. I will be blunt: we need $27,600 to sponsor a family of four. I know you dug into your pockets yesterday for the shul and that is also critical. However, If there are just 27 people or families here who can give $1,000; or 54 people who can give $500, or 100 people who give $270, or we find 1,000 people who give $27, it doesn't matter, as long as we get $27,600 in as short a time as humanly possible. These funds will be collected through the shul and by the shul and you will be tax receipted by the shul, and we in turn will transfer the full funds to JIAS. Here’s how to do it: go online and give to The Syrian Refugee Fund, but remember if you donate online we lose 3 percent so I’m asking you in full chutzpah to give 3 percent more than your calculated final amount so we can collect the full amount as directly as possible. Or you can mail a cheque made out to City Shul with the memo line Syrian Refugee Fund to the shul’s post office address which you can find on our website.
Once we have the funds we will need people; people to greet our family, to secure an apartment and furnish it for our family; to help them find work and get their health cards and, of course, to make them feel welcome. The ushers will be giving out a sign-up sheet right after this sermon to see if we have the people to accomplish this and the funders to make it happen. You can sign up right here and now to fund or to volunteer or both, even though its Yom Kippur and we don’t normally write on the holiday this is what is called in Hebrew “pikuach nefesh”—the direct saving of a life—which supersedes all prohibitions and all commandments. There are little pencils in front of you in the pews. We will keep you informed all along the way as we progress getting both the funding and the volunteers we need.
I want to close with this beautiful story by poet Loren Eiseley: “While wandering a deserted beach at dawn, I saw a man in the distance bending and throwing as he walked the endless stretch toward me. As he came near, I could see that he was throwing starfish, abandoned on the sand by the tide, back into the sea. When he was close enough I asked him why he was working so hard at this strange task. He said that the sun would dry the starfish and they would die. I said to him that I thought he was foolish. There were thousands of starfish on miles and miles of beach. One man alone could never make a difference. He smiled as he picked up the next starfish. Hurling it far into the sea he said, "It makes a difference to this one.”
We cannot do it all. But we cannot do nothing. Just pick up one starfish this year. A local one, an Israeli one, or a global one. Let just one person exclaim "Blessed be the G-d of the Jews” this year, and that will be the first half of the prayer—for generosity— answered.