This is the third installment in the “All of This Belongs to You” High Holiday sermon series. You may want to read the first two:
Have you seen the TV show, “The Good Place”? It is a sharp and witty comedy about the afterlife, and conceptions of “heaven” (i.e. the Good Place) and “hell” (the Bad Place). [MILD SPOILER ALERT!] In the most recent season, the characters on the show discovered a flaw in the algorithm that determines to which place people go when they die. What they found is that life today is so complicated that none of our decisions can be completely, decisively good or bad.
Buying an organic tomato, for example, is better for the Earth in some respects and maybe better for you. But if it was picked by underpaid migrant workers, shipped on a diesel truck from California, sold in a store where there is no gender parity in their pay-scale, placed in a single-use plastic bag, and then driven home in a large gas-guzzling vehicle, then you’ve racked up exponentially more negative points. And so they determined that nobody was getting into the Good Place anymore, because life has become so perpetually fraught.
(It’s worth noting here that Judaism is not so hung up on the afterlife – we are more about the here and now than about what comes after. Our reward for doing the right thing is found in the quality of our personal and communal relationships. But although that is an excellent sermon for Yom Kippur, that is not the direction we are going this evening.)
Let’s face it: we are all overwhelmed. Overwhelmed with all that needs fixing in our world. Overwhelmed with emails, texts and notifications. Overwhelmed with the pace and complexity of contemporary life. Overwhelmed by so many choices, and so little reliable guidance. We have difficulty prioritizing our time, particularly because it seems that there is just not enough of it. And who has any time left over for volunteering, let alone doing things that are good for your soul, like daily tefillah / prayer?
Given the above, how can we possibly be the best versions of ourselves? If the demands on our attention continue to grow, how can we hope to ensure a just society, one in which everybody gets a fair shake?
As many of you already know, the theme of this year’s High Holidays is, “All of this belongs to you.” My plea for you for the 80s, the 5780s, is to acknowledge that the great project of assimilation into American society is done, and that we now need to consider how we can reclaim our tradition.
Too many of us have taken Judaism for granted for too long; we have reduced it to a day or two per year in synagogue, a few home-based rituals, and lifecycle events. But if that is the extent of your Jewish engagement, you are missing most of the richness and value of our heritage, of our customs and rituals, of our ancient wisdom.
To that end, I am going to address this evening an essential message that Judaism offers us and our world, a message that our texts return to over and over. (Get ready – I’m about to do some text, then follow that with a story that drives the point home.)
The Torah teaches us that all of us are responsible for members of society that are less fortunate than ourselves. Here is just one example (Deut. 15:11):
כִּ֛י לֹֽא־יֶחְדַּ֥ל אֶבְי֖וֹן מִקֶּ֣רֶב הָאָ֑רֶץ עַל־כֵּ֞ן אָֽנֹכִ֤י מְצַוְּךָ֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר פָּ֠תֹחַ תִּפְתַּ֨ח אֶת־יָֽדְךָ֜ לְאָחִ֧יךָ לַֽעֲנִיֶּ֛ךָ וּלְאֶבְיֹֽנְךָ֖ בְּאַרְצֶֽךָ׃
For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land.
God expects us to take care of the poor, and the Torah refers more than thirty times to all those in ancient Israelite society who were likely to be destitute: the widow, the orphan, the foreigner, the Levites (who in ancient Israel did not own land, and were therefore among the poor). The reasons for doing so may be obvious, but just for good measure, and also in multiple places, the Torah gives us a justification based on our national history (Exodus 23:9):
וְגֵ֖ר לֹ֣א תִלְחָ֑ץ וְאַתֶּ֗ם יְדַעְתֶּם֙ אֶת־נֶ֣פֶשׁ הַגֵּ֔ר כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃
Do not oppress the stranger, for you know the soul of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
As Jews, we must have compassion for others in difficult situations, because we know, as a people, what that feels like. This is so important that we commemorate our slavery in Egypt for eight days out of every year by retelling the story and eating the “bread of poverty,” the matzah of Pesah. And to some extent, that is also the message of Sukkot, when we are commanded to leave our comfortable, climate-controlled homes to live in ramshackle huts.
Thank God, most of us have never known true hardship. But our tradition urges us to at least consider it.
In the 19th century, there was an intellectual movement among Lithuanian Jewish thinkers called mussar, meaning “moral conduct.” An important figure in the mussar movement was Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, leader of the famed Slabodka Yeshivah in Lithuania. He took that verse about not oppressing strangers a little further. Rabbi Finkel reads it as requiring us not only to sympathize with others, but to make an effort to feel their joy and their suffering. Referring to our obligation not to oppress gerim, strangers, he writes:
Please do not explain these words according to their plain meaning, that we are forbidden to oppress a stranger because we too have been strangers and have been oppressed, and thus know the taste of oppression.
Rather, the reasoning behind it is that a person is obligated to feel and to participate in the happiness of his/her fellow, and also their troubles, as if they had afflicted him as well. ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ (Leviticus 19:18) – truly just like yourself. One’s relationships to others are not found to be complete unless one can feel oneself and one’s fellow person as being in the same situation, without any separation.
If we feel neither the joy nor the suffering of our neighbors, says Rabbi Finkel, we ourselves are not complete.
It is all too easy to ignore the plight of others around us, particularly people we do not personally know. And yet, says the Torah, for our own welfare, we cannot afford to ignore others in need. A few weeks ago, in Parashat Ki Tetze, we read about returning lost items to your neighbor (Deut. 22:3):
וְכֵן תַּעֲשֶׂה לַחֲמֹרוֹ, וְכֵן תַּעֲשֶׂה לְשִׂמְלָתוֹ, וְכֵן תַּעֲשֶׂה לְכָל-אֲבֵדַת אָחִיךָ אֲשֶׁר-תֹּאבַד מִמֶּנּוּ, וּמְצָאתָהּ, לֹא תוּכַל לְהִתְעַלֵּם
You shall [also return your neighbor’s] donkey; you shall do the same with his clothes; and so too shall you do with anything that your fellow loses and you find: you must not remain indifferent.
Rashi, writing in 11th-century France, tells us that “lehit’alem,” to remain indifferent, means “To conquer your eye, as if you do not see it.” That is, to actively choose to overlook human loss or suffering that is directly in front of you.
Ladies and gentlemen, we are exposed to poverty, suffering, and the needs of others every day, and we usually do not see it. Yes, these are complex, multi-faceted issues, and it is easy to be indifferent, particularly in the face of intractable problems. However, it is incumbent upon us as Jews not to allow ourselves to “conquer our eyes.” We cannot ignore others in need, whoever they are.
The following is a true story that appeared in the New York Times Magazine eight years ago. It speaks volumes about the positions of Rabbi Finkel and Rashi. It’s called, The Tire Iron and the Tamale, by Justin Horner, a graphic designer from Portland, Oregon.
During this past year I’ve had three instances of car trouble: a blowout on a freeway, a bunch of blown fuses and an out-of-gas situation. They all happened while I was driving other people’s cars, which for some reason makes it worse on an emotional level. And on a practical level as well, what with the fact that I carry things like a jack and extra fuses in my own car, and know enough not to park on a steep incline with less than a gallon of fuel.
Each time, when these things happened, I was disgusted with the way people didn’t bother to help. I was stuck on the side of the freeway hoping my friend’s roadside service would show, just watching tow trucks cruise past me. The people at the gas stations where I asked for a gas can told me that they couldn’t lend them out “for safety reasons,” but that I could buy a really crappy one-gallon can, with no cap, for $15. It was enough to make me say stuff like “this country is going to hell in a handbasket,” which I actually said.
But you know who came to my rescue all three times? Immigrants. Mexican immigrants. None of them spoke any English.
One of those guys stopped to help me with the blowout even though he had his whole family of four in tow. I was on the side of the road for close to three hours with my friend’s big Jeep. I put signs in the windows, big signs that said, “NEED A JACK,” and offered money. Nothing. Right as I was about to give up and start hitching, a van pulled over, and the guy bounded out.
He sized up the situation and called for his daughter, who spoke English. He conveyed through her that he had a jack but that it was too small for the Jeep, so we would need to brace it. Then he got a saw from the van and cut a section out of a big log on the side of the road. We rolled it over, put his jack on top and we were in business.
I started taking the wheel off, and then, if you can believe it, I broke his tire iron. It was one of those collapsible ones, and I wasn’t careful, and I snapped the head clean off. Damn.
No worries: he ran to the van and handed it to his wife, and she was gone in a flash down the road to buy a new tire iron. She was back in 15 minutes. We finished the job with a little sweat and cussing (the log started to give), and I was a very happy man.
The two of us were filthy and sweaty. His wife produced a large water jug for us to wash our hands in. I tried to put a 20 in the man’s hand, but he wouldn’t take it, so instead I went up to the van and gave it to his wife as quietly as I could. I thanked them up one side and down the other. I asked the little girl where they lived, thinking maybe I’d send them a gift for being so awesome. She said they lived in Mexico. They were in Oregon so Mommy and Daddy could pick cherries for the next few weeks. Then they were going to pick peaches, then go back home.
After I said my goodbyes and started walking back to the Jeep, the girl called out and asked if I’d had lunch. When I told her no, she ran up and handed me a tamale.
This family, undoubtedly poorer than just about everyone else on that stretch of highway, working on a seasonal basis where time is money, took a couple of hours out of their day to help a strange guy on the side of the road while people in tow trucks were just passing him by.
But we weren’t done yet. I thanked them again and walked back to my car and opened the foil on the tamale (I was starving by this point), and what did I find inside? My $20 bill! I whirled around and ran to the van and the guy rolled down his window. He saw the $20 in my hand and just started shaking his head no. All I could think to say was, “Por favor, por favor, por favor,” with my hands out. The guy just smiled and, with what looked like great concentration, said in English: “Today you, tomorrow me.”
Then he rolled up his window and drove away, with his daughter waving to me from the back. I sat in my car eating the best tamale I’ve ever had, and I just started to cry. It had been a rough year; nothing seemed to break my way. This was so out of left field I just couldn’t handle it.
In the several months since then I’ve changed a couple of tires, given a few rides to gas stations and once drove 50 miles out of my way to get a girl to an airport. I won’t accept money. But every time I’m able to help, I feel as if I’m putting something in the bank.
What an inspiring story! Would that we all could have such heart-warming interactions! Better yet, may we all be blessed with finding opportunities to create them. When Mr. Horner was in need, he was helped by those who clearly understood what it means to need help. He learned to appreciate those who are willing to help others, and translated that into his own willingness to reach out to strangers in their time of need. And when the family returned his $20 in the tamale, he surely learned that acts of kindness are, in fact, their own reward, a particularly Jewish concept.
These are the principles that the Torah is trying to teach us. As a people, we must not remain indifferent to the needs of others, because we, the children of Israel, not only know what it’s like to be strangers in a strange land, but that our tradition requires us to participate in their joy and in their suffering. And we also understand the value that action for the benefit of others brings us in the here and now.
Ladies and gentlemen, the essential message of the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, the Ten Days of Repentance that include Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, is that we have the power to change ourselves for the better. We can become more compassionate, more understanding, more forthcoming in our outward relationships.
Fasting and afflicting our souls through abstention from physical pleasures on this day is not for its own sake. Yom Kippur is not some kind of macho endurance test, or an opportunity to lose weight. It is to remind us that we have obligations to everybody else, that the hunger we experience today is the hunger that too many experience every day, that we may not remain indifferent in the face of suffering.
Although some have the custom, before Yom Kippur to greet others with, “Tzom qal,” “Have an easy fast,” I do not say this. It is more appropriate to say, “Have a meaningful fast.” But here is another suggestion: Have a challenging fast.” This day should be, in fact, a challenge to our values, a challenge to our daily routine, to our modes of comfort. To face the challenge of fasting for 25 hours, and yet remain unchanged by that challenge, that would be an embarrassment before God.
Tomorrow morning, we will read the words of Isaiah in the haftarah (58:6-7):
This is the fast I desire: to unlock fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe them, and do not ignore your own flesh.
We cannot ignore the hungry, the poor, or the naked, says Isaiah. I would extrapolate Isaiah’s line of thinking to include the homeless, the neglected, the abused, the emotionally and physically wounded.
Just a few quick statistics:
Did you know that more black children in Pittsburgh grow up in poverty than black children in 95% of similar American cities? That black infant mortality puts Pittsburgh in the 6th percentile? That’s not compared to white people – that’s only compared to black people.
Did you know that the food insecurity rate in Allegheny County is 14.2% overall, but for children it is 17.8%? That means that nearly 1 in 5 kids go hungry regularly.
Did you know that at any given time, there are a couple of thousand homeless people in Allegheny County? Some of them can even be found in our own neighborhood.
We are surrounded by people in need, and we cannot remain indifferent.
Why are we here this evening? On this, the holiest night of the year, a night on which we focus on improving ourselves, a night on which we pre-emptively invalidate frivolous vows (that is the purpose of the Kol Nidrei prayer), we should consider making some vows that we will strive to keep:
- To be aware of those around us who are in need
- To reach out to them, whether directly, in person, or through all the various charitable organizations that do so
- To think pro-actively about how we can make a difference in the lives of others
And you can turn that awareness into actual deeds right now: you can fill up those bags for the Squirrel Hill Food Pantry. You can donate to any number of organizations that help those in need. You can volunteer to work in a shelter or soup kitchen.
And, as with Justin Horner and his flat tire, you do not even have to look very far to find somebody in need of help. The point, ladies and gentlemen, is to be aware of others, to think beyond yourself, and to stop and give aid.
On this day of teshuvah / repentance, of self-denial and self-judgment, our task is to challenge ourselves not to succumb to information overload, not to tune out the ever-present challenges of poverty, of suffering, of those who have less than we do.
Rather, this is the essential message of our tradition: we must surmount our indifference and to turn it into action. This is a fundamental value of Judaism. All of this belongs to you. Now go out there and make 5780 a year that counts.
Gemar hatimah tovah. Have not an easy fast, but a challenging fast.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, evening of Yom Kippur 5780, October 8, 2019.)
Continue reading the final installment in the “All of This Belongs to You” series: All of This Belongs to You: Finding Resilience in Jewish Tradition – Yom Kippur Day 5780