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Yom Kippur Morning 5781

09/28/2020 08:22:45 AM

Sep28

Rabbi Jeffrey Brown

Kol Nidre 5781: A Sermon on Racial Justice

09/27/2020 07:00:57 PM

Sep27

Rabbi Jeffrey Brown

Shanah Tovah.

In spring 1963, 25 years after being rescued from Germany, Abraham Joshua Heschel left his office at Jewish Theological Seminary. He walked south toward Columbia’s campus, to send a telegram.

He was scheduled, the next day, to meet with President Kennedy to discuss racism and civil rights.

Heschel was enraged about poverty, and the vicious cycle that kept African Americans from economic advancement. And Heschel was concerned that the meeting with Kennedy would be an empty dialogue, without producing action.

So, with chutzpah, Heschel used his telegram to proactively set the agenda for their conversation:

“Dear Mr. President. I look forward to our meeting [...] tomorrow. The likelihood exists that [...] racism [...] will be like the weather. Everybody talks about it but no one does anything about it. Please demand of religious leaders personal involvement, not just solemn declaration. We forfeit the right to worship God as long as we continue to humiliate those of color. Churches and synagogues have failed. They must repent. Ask [...] religious leaders to call for national repentance and personal sacrifice. [...] I propose that you, Mr. President, declare a state of moral emergency. A Marshall Plan for aid to those of color is becoming a necessity. The hour calls for moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.”1

57 years later, and our country continues to find itself in a moral emergency.

The results of our systemic racism are plain to see.

The median wealth of white American families is $171,000 as compared to $17,000 among Black Americans. Blacks are twice as likely to live in poverty, and Black children are three times more likely to live in poverty as white children.2 Equally frightening is that the average white American is oblivious. Polls indicate that white people vastly underestimate the racial wealth divide.

Inequality persists in education too. The nonpartisan Government Accountability Office reaffirmed in June that students of color are more likely to attend schools in high poverty neighborhoods, where access to high quality education is more limited.3

And, I do not have to tell you about the racial inequality that is apparent in our criminal justice system. The heart-breaking losses of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and so many other innocents over these last few years at the hands of law enforcement authorities raises difficult questions. Why is a Black person five times more likely to be stopped by a police officer without just cause than a white person? And why is it that 65% of Black adults have felt targeted by law enforcement because of their race?4

Yes: racism is a civic issue, and our local, state, and federal government must address it. But it’s also a Jewish issue.

It’s a Jewish issue because it gets to the very heart of how we are meant to treat one another.

At the core of our faith is the conviction that every person is created b’tzelem Elohim – in the image of God. Every one of us deserves a life of dignity, regardless of the color of our skin. And when one of us is mistreated, it is as if God’s Own Self has been affronted.

Two millenia ago, the rabbis understood how racism could tear society apart. They specifically read the creation narrative as an antidote to bias and hate. Regarding the Torah’s assertion that every person is descended from Adam, the rabbis insisted that God did this, so that diversity could be celebrated, and so that no group of people could claim that they were superior to another.5

As a survivor of Naziism, Heschel understood that our experience with antisemitism must inform our obligation toward racial justice. We ourselves recall the sting of discrimination. And so, we are called to stand up for others who are navigating similar irrational hatred.

The Torah speaks to this in our Yom Kippur afternoon Torah reading, from Leviticus 19:16: לא ַת ֲע ֹ֖מד ַעל־ ַ ַּ֣דם ֵר ֶ֑עךָֹ֥ . Do not stand idly by while your neighbor’s blood is being shed.

In 2004, Elie Wiesel observed about this verse:

“The word is not achi’cha, [your] Jewish brother, but re’echa, [your] fellow human being, [whether they’re] Jewish or not. All are entitled to live with dignity and hope. All are entitled to live without fear and pain.”

We can’t undo four centuries of bias and violence in America. But on this Yom Kippur – and in the year ahead - we can follow Heschel’s advice from the telegram and repent, by changing ourselves, and inspiring the same in others.

For those of us that are fasting: we can start right now.

If you’re fasting half-heartedly, newsflash: God is not interested in an empty gesture.

Our fast is one in which we’re expected to devote ourselves anew to justice in this world, such that when we break our fast, we’ll find newfound empathy and compassion for those who suffer. And we will be left with no choice, but to stand up and act. By having our voice heard. By serving the marginalized. By making a difference.

So says the prophet Isaiah: “this is the fast I desire: To unlock fetters of wickedness, And untie the cords of the yoke To let the oppressed go free. [...] It is to share your bread with the hungry, And to take the wretched poor into your home...”6

The second step we can take is to foster greater self awareness. Let’s begin by acknowledging the diversity of our synagogue community. There are people of color in our midst. But by and large, most of us are white. And for the white members of our community, there is urgency (what Dr. King called “the fierce urgency of now”) to acknowledging the privilege we experience daily, beginning right here in our own synagogue. In a few days, I’ll be emailing a brief checklist we can use to assess privilege as a white Jew. It has statements on it like “I find experiences and images that I can relate to and faces look similar to my family in Jewish newspapers and magazines.” Do this work with someone you trust. Have them take the assessment also. Afterwards, discuss each other’s results, and give thought to how these learnings might change the way I navigate the world?

The third step is to link our voices with Reform Jews around the country, in partnership with our movement’s Religious Action Center.

The RAC has been a voice for racial justice since the early 1960s, and continues today.

In December 2019, the RAC and our movement’s leadership boldly urged Congress to seriously study slavery reparations as part of a national teshuvah process. We ought to become more informed about that proposal, as we seek to contribute to the constructive healing of our nation’s racial wounds.

The RAC is also leading a Civic Engagement Campaign tied to non- partisan voter registration around the country. It’s not too late to join our synagogue contingent in getting involved. As the late Congressman John Lewis reminded us, now is time to get in trouble. Good Trouble. Necessary trouble.

Heschel, who marched with Lewis and Dr. King in Selma, famously wrote: “What we need is a total mobilization of heart, intelligence and wealth for the purpose of love and justice. God is in search of man, waiting, hoping [we will] do His will.”

God is in search of us. Desperately hoping that we will make things right in the world. By treating each other with love and respect and equality and dignity – so that black lives and brown lives, and all lives, matter.

We have our work cut out for us. May we dedicate ourselves, in this year ahead, to doing this most sacred work.
Shanah Tovah.1
https://jwa.org/sites/default/files/mediaobjects/Heschel_Telegram.jpg
2 https://bit.ly/3mqs2UU
3 https://bit.ly/2E42KdV
4 https://www.naacp.org/criminal-justice-fact-sheet/
5 M. Sanhedrin 4:5
6 Isa 58

Rosh Hashanah Day 2 5781:  Forgiving Ourselves

09/20/2020 06:31:59 PM

Sep20

Rabbi Jeffrey Brown

Psalms 51:4-5

(4) Wash me thoroughly of my iniquity, and purify me of my sin; (5) for I recognize my transgressions, and am ever conscious of my sin.

תהילים נ״א:ד׳-ה׳

)ד( הרבה ]֭ ֶה ֶרב[ ַכּ ְבּ ֵ֣סנִי ֵמ ֲעוֺ ִ֑ני ֽוּ ֵמ ַח ָטּא ִ֥תי ַטֲהֵֽרנִי׃)ה(ִכּֽי־ְ֭פָשַׁעי ֲאִ֣ני ֵאָ֑דעְוַחָטּאִ֖תי נֶגְ ִ֣דּי ָת ִמֽיד׃

Forgiving Ourselves

Source Sheet by Jeff Brown Moreinfo

But isn’t it taught in a baraita: Seven phenomena were created before the world was created, and they are: Torah, and repentance, the Garden of Eden, and Gehenna, the Throne of Glory, and the Temple, and the name of the Messiah. The Gemara provides sources for each of these phenomena. Torah was created before the world was created, as it is written: “The Lord made me as the beginning of His way, the first of His works of old” (Proverbs 8:22). Based on the subsequent verses, this is referring to the Torah. Repentance was created before the world was created, as it is written: “Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever You had formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God” (Psalms 90:2), and it is written immediately afterward: “You return man to contrition; and You say: Repent, children of man” (Psalms 90:3). Babylonian Talmud, Nedarim 39b

The Sages taught in the Tosefta: With regard to transgressions that one confessed on this Yom Kippur, he should not confess them on another Yom Kippur, since he has already been forgiven. But if he repeated those same transgressions during the year, he must confess them again on another Yom Kippur. And if he did not repeat them but did confess them again, about him the verse states: “As a dog that returns to its vomit, so is a fool who repeats his folly” (Proverbs 26:11), since it is inappropriate to go back and mention one’s earlier sins. Rabbi Eliezer ben Ya’akov says: If one confesses in subsequent years, all the more so is he praiseworthy, as he remembers his earlier sins and is thereby humbled, as it is stated: “For I know my transgressions; and my sin is ever before me” (Psalms 51:5). Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 86b

ויקרא י״ט:י״ח 19:18 Leviticus)יח( ֽא־ ִת ֤קּ ֹם ְו ֽא־ ִתטּ ֹ ֙ר ֶאת־ ְבּ ֵ ֣ני ַע ֔ ֶמּ You shall not take vengeance or bear a )18(grudge against your countrymen. Love your fellow as yourself: I am the LORD.

ְוָאֽ ַה ְבָ֥תּ ְלֵר ֲע֖ ָכּ֑מוֹ ֲאִ֖נייְהָוֽה׃

The verse You shall love your neighbor as yourself, which Rabbi Akiba declared to be a cardinal precept of the Torah [...] commands a caring concern for our fellow man. This social responsiveness is derived from one's healthy self-regard, namely as [you love] yourself. Individual importance is emphasized, but for goals beyond self- indulgence; personal fulfillment is valued, but for sublime purposes. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, Man of Faith in the Modern World: Reflections of the Rav (Vol. 2)We cannot change the past, but we can change our attitude toward it. Uproot guilt and plant forgiveness. Tear out arrogance and seed humility. Exchange love for hate — thereby, making the present comfortable and the future promising. Maya Angelou

Rosh Hashanah Day 1 5781:  A Sermon Reflecting on Hope, in the Shadow of the Pandemic

09/19/2020 06:50:54 PM

Sep19

Rabbi Jefrey Brown

 

Shanah Tovah.

I want to begin this morning by just asking you to pause and catch your breath.

I don’t know if this is true for you – but for me...when I’m harried, and my thoughts are scattered...I just try to slow down. Before organizing my thoughts, I concentrate on my feelings.

In this pandemic, I’m concerned for the health of my family, friends, and each of you.

I’ve grieved for my, and our, losses.

I’m frustrated and angry because our government can’t bring order to the pandemic’s chaos.

I’m awfully anxious.

It’s an anxiety that grows from the unknowable. How long will all of this – the virus, the masks, the no hugging, the empty trains and the empty sanctuary - how long will it all persist? I’m anxious about that.

And I’m broken-hearted and appalled as I witness this most recent round of systemic racism that is so poisonously embedded in the fabric of our country. I’ll have much more to say about this on Kol Nidrei. For now, we name this plague, and recommit ourselves to a teshuvah-turning. We must strive for a more equal, and justice-filled future year ahead.

We teach our students that Judaism has a blessing for everything. But the rabbis of old never coined a blessing that could be recited precisely when the world is overcome with pandemic and racism.

What would be the blessing of this moment?

For me, it’s the blessing we say after learning of a death. Baruch Dayan HaEmet.

Blessed is the True Judge.

It’s a paradox. At the very moment we’ve learned of a heart-rending death - we are supposed to bless God for the reasonable order and justice of the universe. Praised are You O God, the True Judge.

At the string of funerals I officiated at during the month of Passover – when our congregation lost 15 people, I stumbled over this blessing every time. What is praiseworthy about the almost 200,000 who have died in this country from COVID-19, and the 950,000 who have died around the world. More to the point: how can we make sense of that which does not make sense?

Abraham – whose story we read every Rosh HaShanah – offers one answer to that question. He blessed God, because he realized that God was testing him. 

In Pirkei Avot, the rabbis chronicle...not just the test of the Binding of Isaac... but also nine prior tests in his relationship with God. Those tests took a toll on Abraham, just as our test is taking its toll on us.

We can see it at the beginning of the Binding of Isaac, at Gen 22:4, which notes that Abraham looked up at Mt. Moriah mei’ra’chok – from a distance. A distance that is not just geographic – but also emotional. Abraham felt alienated, marginalized, and distanced from the God that had been an earlier comfort and strength.

That emotional and social distancing defines our present moment. We are looking out mei’ra’chok - lonely and distant – from God and one another – right now. We are praying virtually, instead of in person. And Bat Mitzvahs, weddings, baby namings, and funerals –when we yearn most to be close to God and each other...have all been re-written. Because of social distance. We now live our life, like Abraham, suffering and broken: mei’ra’chok.

But all is not lost.

My teacher, Professor Avivah Zornberg, points out that the Hebrew word for brokenness, which is shever, is linguistically linked to the Hebrew word sever, meaning hope. It is as if the DNA of the Hebrew language is speaking to us, saying: that hope, which overcomes loneliness, emerges from the depths of our being distanced. She writes: “When things fall apart, [...hope] arises. Before a crisis, [...] hope is irrelevant. After it, [...] reconstruction of the [broken] shards becomes essential.”

Being hopeful is all well and good...but how do I do that, given all the death that has afflicted us, the health crisis that threatens us, the hate that runs rampant – all while wildfires and hurricanes of Biblical proportions threaten. And how can we be hopeful when none of us knows precisely when these terrible things will end.

Theologian Michael Fishbane suggests one answer in Exodus 10, at the very heart of our Passover story.

Moses pleads with Pharaoh to initially let them go to worship God temporarily. Pharaoh asks Moses how they intend to pray when they meet God.

Moses answers: "We won’t know, until we get there." (Exod. 10:26)

Fishbane adds: “It is the task of [Judaism, and Jewish

living] to prepare a person to live with such unknowing, and to live [with...] spiritual resolve.”1

In that sense, we have had 5781 years to prepare for the current crisis. We build spiritual resolve when we break glass at the end of a wedding, and when we eat horseradish and salt water at seders. These rituals are sobering. Just at the moment when we joyfully celebrate: we pause and remember the tragedies of Jewish history. These rituals realistically remind us that suffering is a part of life.

Yes, we are overwhelmed in this moment. But it won’t be forever. This too shall pass. In the meantime, we seize hold of hope, and affirm our belief that a new year, filled with healing and peace and justice, begins today.

Even in the midst of past year’s darkness, our congregation has been a source of light and hope to others.

When most of the country thought primarily of themselves as they rushed into quarantine, our members started by asking how they could serve others...by volunteering to grocery shop. By delivering meals to the homebound. By making phone calls to those who were alone. And by teaching those who were tech- challenged how to use Zoom.

We inspire hope when we show up, together – exactly like we do this morning – when we are present for one another. Do more of that in the year ahead. Join us more frequently. Join us for the Zoom Shabbats that happen every single Friday night, filled with hope when we see one another’s faces, and gain newfound strength for the week ahead. Join us for the different support groups that we facilitate online as we strengthen each other. And join us in learning online, as we joyfully affirm that the study of Torah is always a source of hope, whether you’re 9 or 90. When we gather together, there is always hope. New ways of being in the world give birth to new resilience and new possibilities and we have already begun to feel it right here in our community.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote that “A morality of hope lives in the belief that we can change the world for the better.”2 My friends, you have already begun to do it, by serving and inspiring each other. And we will continue to do so, in the months to come.

As we proclaim, with hope, each time we finish reading from a book of the Torah: be strong, be strong, and together – we will be strengthened. So may it be in this new year.

Shanah Tovah.

1 Sacred Attunement p. 1702 To Heal a Fractured World, p. 166

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5781: Reflections on creating a Mikdash Ma'at (mini sanctuary) in our Homes

09/18/2020 07:54:46 PM

Sep18

Rabbi Jeffrey Brown

Shanah Tovah, friends. And welcome.
These holidays are all about...transformation.

We saw it a moment ago, with our candlelighting. By kindling flame, and reciting blessings, we brought change into the universe, transforming an otherwise mundane Friday into Shabbat and Rosh Hashanah.

This season isn’t just about the transformation of time. It’s about the transformation of souls.

These next ten days are our moment...to change....to do teshuvah by turning and transforming: away from the desires and influences of our yetzer ha-ra, our inclination to do wrong, and to passionately embrace, instead, our yetzer ha-tov - the inner voice of God and Conscience, of Justice and Compassion, that will make us, and our world, less broken, and more whole.

This year: we are particularly reaching for the transformation that moves us from sickness to health. We pray for health and strength this season, for ourselves, and for the brave front line workers and caregivers who look after us - like we have never prayed before, yearning and hoping and demanding that COVID be transformed from that which is feared, to that which is vaccinated against.

How my heart wishes that we could gather safely in our Sanctuary to offer those prayers. Instead, each of us is alone, in the quiet of our respective homes.

Two thousand years ago, the first generations of rabbis distinguished between the Temple in Jerusalem, and the sacred spaces that are our homes. They coined the term mikdash m’at - A miniature sanctuary. And they ardently believed that we have the capacity to elevate and transform our individual home into a sacred mikdash m’at: by dressing a bit more formally or festively than usual; by paying attention just a little more closely than you might typically do on another Zoom call. And you can do it by mimicking the practices of our ancient Israelite priests. Before they entered into the sacred space of the Temple in Jerusalem, they made a point of washing their hands. For them, it was less about ridding themselves of germs or grime. It was about marking a moment of transition. This moment. And this space. Are about to be different. Tonight, and over these next ten days, Time and space will change and shift and transform. And the innermost parts of our selves will shift in the process.Just as in the days of old, we too are ready to begin, with the washing of our hands....

Tue, October 27 2020 9 Cheshvan 5781