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For the Good We Have Done

Tomorrow evening, we will gather as the Jewish community of Brownstone Brooklyn for Selichot, as we have done each year now for some six years. It is a most moving experience, as all the rabbis and cantors join together, our shinshinim this year from Israel, along with our various congregants and neighbors, in prayers of introspection in search of teshuva—repentance (Saturday night, 9:30PM, Park Slope Jewish Center, 14th Street/8th Avenue). At the service last year, I offered the following reading from our High Holy Day Machzor, Mishkan HaNefesh – Sanctuary of the Soul. It is a different take on the traditional litany of “Al Cheyt Shechatanu…” “For the sin we have committed against You…” It is on page 313 of our Yom Kippur volume in the Vidui and S’lichot – Confession and Seeking Forgiveness – segment at the end of the Morning Service. Our Torah portion for this Shabbat, Nitzavim-Vayeilech, begins with the same declaration as that which we read on the morning of Yom Kippur: You stand this day, all of you, before the Eternal your God – from the elders and judges to all of your families, to the choppers of wood and the drawers of water (Deuteronomy 29.9-10). As we read the original Al Cheyt and also this alternative interpretation, we do it together, as we stand before the Creator of us all. May our teshuva during this Holy Day season be sincere, and may the coming year be a good year for all of us and those we love.

For Every Act of Goodness
Let us affirm the good we have done;
let us acknowledge our acts of healing and repair…

For the good we have done
by acting with self-restraint and self-control;

For the good we have done
through acts of generosity and compassion;

For the good we have done
by offering children our love and support;

For the good we have done
by honoring our parents with care and respect;

For the good we have done
through acts of friendship and hospitality;

For the good we have done
through acts of forgiveness and reconciliation;

For the good we have done
by keeping promises and honoring commitments’

For the good we have done
by caring for the earth and sustaining its creatures;

For the good we have done
by housing the homeless, feeding the hungry, and welcoming the stranger;

For the good we have done
by acting with integrity and honesty;

For the good we have done
through thoughtful and encouraging words;

For the good we have done
by caring for our health and that of our loved ones;

For the good we have done
by strengthening our Jewish community;

For the good we have done
through acts of civic engagement and tikkun olam;

All these have brought light and healing into the world.
May these acts inspire us to renew our efforts in the year to come.

DACA and the Torah

During the past few weeks, as we have been reading the Book of Deuteronomy, we have rehearsed a number of times one of the core values of Jewish tradition: You shall not oppress the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. In this very week’s sidra as well we read, Cursed be the one who subverts the rights of the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow. (Deuteronomy 27.19). No fewer than 36 times does this admonition appear throughout our Torah. Again, and again, and yet again, we are taught never to forget what it was like for us; in Egypt, yes, but also in virtually every generation of our people’s life until and including this very moment. Could there be any doubt that we of all people must remember the plight of the stranger?

How bitterly ironic, that of all weeks, we are studying this teaching now, as our most fundamental values as Jews, and as Americans, are under brazen and unconscionable attack.The people of DACA—people who were brought here as children by their families, who went to school and grew up here, and who now are working and many raising families by now—are, for all practical purposes, our fellow Americans. They know and love this country as their own, because in fact, it is their own. And now, Mr. Trump wants to ruin their lives.

My great-grandfather Philip Posner came to New York from Germany in the mid-19th century. He wanted to avoid being forcibly interned into the Kaiser’s army. But in fact, he also simply wanted a better life. He wanted to breathe the air of freedom, and make a good life for his family. My grandfather Isidore Abrams came to New York as he fled from a Russian pogrom, in the early 20th century. He wanted to breathe the air of freedom, and look forward to a good life for the family he would build.

I am the beneficiary of the hopes and dreams of both these men, because America had the heart to take them in. All of you as well are the beneficiaries of your ancestors’ dreams, and the America that took them in. And, indeed, every one of us has friends or relatives who themselves came to these shores from elsewhere, some of them, our fellow congregants, looking for a better life in America.

Every one of us—every single one of us—has our own story to tell. Some of those stories involve children, who crossed the seas on those ships, holding tightly to their parents’ hands. Those children, many of them our own ancestors, were just like the people whom Trump is gunning for now. If Trump had his way back then, none of us would be here, and America itself would be immeasurably weakened.

The destruction of DACA is morally reprehensible, and contrary to everything we love and believe about this nation. For the life of me, I can’t imagine who among these people trying to kill DACA believe themselves to be anything other than sons and daughters of immigrants!

Now we must stand up and say, “No! You will not do this with impunity!”

This Tuesday I attended a rally in the lobby of City Hall. Mayor Di Blasio and his wife, Chirlene McCray, spoke with great determination. So did City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, followed by Cardinal Timothy Dolan and Rev. Al Sharpton, with Rabbi Joseph Potasnik at their side. So did a representative from the NYC Police Department. All these people assured New Yorkers that nothing will change here in New York. No one will be asked to produce immigration papers. No one will be deported. No one will be thrown out of school. New York City’s administration is determined to fight and resist this attack on immigrants—particularly the DACA dreamers—and will work with the state government as well, which is also committed to their protection. The speakers on Tuesday were surrounded by teachers, union leaders, clergy, and DACA kids and adults, all of whom have internalized one of the most fundamental precepts of Biblical teaching: You shall love the stranger—for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. It is a core value for Jews, and a core value for all Americans. That is what we’re about as a nation, and we will not allow it to be taken away.

In the Wake of Hurricane Harvey

Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt – how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when the Eternal your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Eternal your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget! (Deuteronomy 25.17-19)

So concludes Parashat Ki Teitzei for this Shabbat. We know this passage not only as the end of this week’s Torah portion, but also as the extra reading for Shabbat Zachor—the Sabbath of Remembrance—immediately preceding the Festival of Purim. The evil Haman, whose name we “blot out” on Purim, is said to be a descendant of Amalek, whose army’s most heinous act as they attacked our ancestors in the Wilderness was to attack from behind, cutting down those in the rear. Of course, who is it that generally ends up at the rear of a large group of people? The stragglers; the weak; the children; the elderly; those with disabilities; those who are most vulnerable. This was the real crime of the Amalakites.
Please allow me a midrashic stretch, if you will. This week we have witnessed an attack upon some of the weakest and most vulnerable of our fellow Americans; not by an army, but by Nature herself. Twelve years ago, just this week, we had to confront the same reality. When a hurricane is barreling toward a city, the residents are warned to evacuate. But the reality we confronted in Katrina is the same one we are dealing with now, as the unprecedented horror of Harvey has devastated Houston, Beaumont, and many of the surrounding areas in Texas, and on into Louisiana, Alabama, and now Tennessee. Yes, obviously evacuation is essential, to save life and limb first and foremost. But there are those among us who simply have nowhere to go, and no means to get there. This does not apply to everyone caught in this storm, many of whom were indeed caught by surprise as the flood waters invaded their homes and rose several feet high. But for many, evacuation was just not possible. We have heard and seen the reports of children and elderly people, those in wheelchairs and hospitals, being hoisted into helicopters and pulled onto boats. Many now have run out of medication. Hot food is at a premium. The standing water will soon become a health hazard. While Nature knows no bounds and is unaware of class distinctions, disasters like these remind us that those who are often affected the most seriously are those who are the most vulnerable in the first place.
As it has done time and time again, the Union for Reform Judaism has stepped up to the plate as a clearing house for contributions. We need not remain powerless in the face of destruction. Please access the link to the URJ site and contribute to the efforts of our movement: Donate to the victims of Hurricane Harvey. Or, if you prefer, the American Red Cross is also working round the clock to help, and they could use your help as well.
After this week of destruction and turbulence, it is my hope that our fellow Americans in the South will begin to experience some relief. And for us, I wish you a Shabbat Shalom, and a pleasant and peaceful Labor Day Weekend.