“Please stand up ma’am. I’m placing you under arrest.” I usually go by rabbi, but this was not the time. I stood up silently. It was not a surprise. It was what I was there to do. This past summer was also the first time I was arrested, and I could feel my heart pounding as I put my hands behind my back. The officer tightened a plastic zip tie around my wrists, did the same to my friends and colleagues, and walked us to a white van. The crowd of 1,000 Jews on the street outside were singing the words of Eicha, from the Book of Lamentations.
We were there to lament, and demand, that this administration close the detention camps on our southern border, end family separation for immigrants, and stop the horrific treatment of children who have come to our country to seek asylum. Whatever each of our particular views are when it comes to creating fair and just immigration policy—which is a real challenge and is not an uncomplicated question—leaving children, even babies, alone, cold, hungry, sick, and afraid is unacceptable. We wanted to make it clear that we will not look away.
When we arrived at One Police plaza, we were processed and taken to jail cells. About ten rabbis and 50 other Jewish leaders, led by Union Temple’s own Rachel McCullough, of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, spent the next many hours singing, getting fingerprinted, and strategizing our next steps.
As I leaned against the wall of the small cell, I saw that someone had scratched words into the paint. It read: This is what democracy looks like. A common chant, but also a powerful, even hopeful, statement about our country at its best. We had exercised many freedoms on this day. We had the right to choose civil disobedience—to break the law, put our bodies in the way of injustice, and be given due process.
And then I noticed another set of words scratched into the wall, painted over many more times, so that I couldn’t make out the first word at all, it was so faint.
It said: Someone, a name…was here. That’s all it said. Easy to dismiss, maybe. But then I thought, oh these are holy words. Even more important than the first. A person was here. A human being who had spoken out was here. “Someone” saw people suffering and said: absolutely not and so was here. Someone stood up and attached their name, obscured as it was, to their actions. And in these words etched in the paint, echoed the ancient response to a deep and eternal Jewish call, Hineini. I am here.
Hineini is the Torah’s answer to a divine roll call. When God calls to Moses and charges him to go and demand from Pharaoh our freedom, Moses answers “hineini,” I am here. Our Biblical ancestors utter the word “hineini” when they wanted to say—yes, I’m showing up for you.
And tomorrow morning, Yom Kippur morning of all days (!!!), we will hear even God say hineini to us. In the morning Haftarah, The Prophet Isaiah is going to call us out for hypocritically fasting while ignoring the hungry and the poor and the stranger. He does it every year. He’ll say—our teshuvah, our repentance, is not just about looking inward, but we had better start looking outward at how our actions are crushing other people. Isaiah will call us out, and then God, lovingly, calls us in. God says—I’ll wait. Not long, but I’ll wait. If you will clothe the naked, if you invite the hungry into your homes. If you can help the oppressed stand upright again—if you can say hineini—I am here—when you see a person suffering, then God will say hineini to you. And, in drawing near to God, Isaiah says, we will become goder peretz, Repairers of the Breach, menders of the deep and jagged pits in our country into which we and our neighbors are falling. This is teshuvah, too.
And we will feel uplifted and assured with Isaiah’s words. Because they are inspiring and paint a clear path toward healing suffering and responding to injustice—just who we know we want to be. But quickly our hearts will fall again.
We want to say hineini, but how? Our news cycles are a torrent of chaos—policies are passed, laws are ignored, the weak are made weaker, the poor poorer. The problems we are facing today seem so incredibly intractable, so enormous, so systemic and historic in nature. How do we keep showing up, when too often, it feels like nothing is changing? I know that this is a community that would very much like to etch our names in this metaphorical wall – and many of you do in your everyday life, working unceasingly to make a difference—and yet the categories of suffering and injustice hit us like a tidal wave, daily knocking us back.
We know now that there is a ten year window to cut carbon emissions so we don’t surpass a global temperature rise of more than 1.5 degrees Celsius and that if we succeed in this heroic act—which is not a given—then the effects of climate change may still be catastrophic for our children to whom we are leaving this planet. White supremacy has been unleashed and amplified in recent years so insidiously that Nazis have stopped hiding their faces when they march. Jews of Brooklyn and Poway and Pittsburgh have been targeted as Anti-Semitism is measurably on the rise. We continue to face the bitter truths of our country’s history and present of an enduring racism. Three and four-year-old toddlers of color are being expelled from their Pre-K classrooms at the same rate as teenagers of color are being incarcerated in our unrelenting school to prison pipeline.
We can trace how endemic racism is to our society on the backs of our children alone. Our criminal justice system is punitive and driven by profit for private companies, a fact that is destroying families, hopes, and futures. Our country recently cut the number of refugees to whom we’ll offer safe haven to the lowest amount ever. And those children in the camps on our border? They are still there in the thousands.
Last month, my wife, Jocelyn, and I went to a meeting at our daughter’s school. She’s two and half. And we were advised that they will have active shooter drills. She will be told that they have to practice in case there is something dangerous outside or inside her school. She will be taken to another classroom, the lights will be turned off. (She’s afraid of the dark). She will be told to crouch down, get close to her little friends and to be silent until the danger is gone. My baby, though she won’t know it, is going to practice hiding from a bullet because we have not been able to pass common sense gun laws, even knowing that other parents in our country have already suffered the unimaginable. How have we gotten here?
We’d like to carve our name here on this wall and say I will make a difference, I will help make this world a fairer and gentler and safer place. Isaiah, we hear you. But how? What do we do when we don’t know what to do?
There are three threads in our tradition that, together, light a path for us. Three biblical answers to this question which echo to us through time. The Psalmist. The Prophet. And the People.
The Psalmist weeps. These were our poets. They witnessed the destruction of our Temples, the exile of our people, broken bodies and broken hearts of those beaten by armies and starvation and loneliness. And their response—their contribution to how we can be and what we can do…The Psalmist weeps.
As’cheh b’chol laila mitati, b’dimati arsi amseh—I drench my bed every night with tears. In the face of pain, the Psalmist’s heart breaks. Ad anah, Adonai, ad anah—how long O God, how long? How long will I have grief in my heart all day?
Ancient tears roll down ancient cheeks; We can feel them hot on our own faces. And they break through our numbness. Yet we are often taught to tamp this down—we self-chastise—it’s a waste of time, or it’s weak, or let’s not get so emotional. But crying is both healing and it honors the urgency of this moment. This pain we witness or experience is not theoretical, it is so real we can feel it in our bodies.
The National Eye Institute explains that crying actually improves our vision. It’s good when modern science aligns with ancient wisdom.
Letting our tears flow in response to suffering indeed improves our vision, bringing into focus what is profoundly wrong in our world, and healing our souls just enough to let us access the strength the change it.
But how could we live like that? So raw to the world, so vulnerable? Won’t we just become walking puddles of tears? Recent studies say that crying draws people toward one another. Which they call “a social benefit,” but we call “community.” And that shores us up. So we will cry together here at Union Temple. In this sacred community, we will make space for heart break. We will ritualize it. We will hold each other through it. We will honor tears in this place. Because the Psalmist has taught us that to cry upon witnessing pain is a holy response, a fundamental part of saying hineini to a broken world. When a father washes up on the shore with his baby tucked into his shirt—cry. Weep. Let our hearts be stirred and broken again and again.
The Psalmist weeps.
And the Prophet? The prophet shouts! The prophets of the Hebrew Bible had an unenviable job from which most of them tried to wiggle out. Theirs was to call out the injustice in the world. They shouted across the countryside demanding that the people take collective responsibility for the greed and callousness, for the hate that had welled up in society.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote in his book, The Prophets, that the prophet sees the world on fire. Comparing the regular people (us), with the prophet, he writes: “To us, a single act of injustice—cheating in business, exploitation of the poor—is slight; to the prophets, it is a disaster. To us, injustice is injurious to the welfare of the people. To the prophets, it is a deathblow to existence.” He says: “The prophet is a person who feels fiercely…The prophet’s ear perceives the silent sigh.” Where most of us might see some greed here, some lamentable actions there—the Prophet’s eyes are wide with alarm.
Isaiah’s very first words to us—from the first chapter of the book of Isaiah – are from a prophet on fire: “This city that used to be filled with justice is now filled with murderers,” he shouts. “The case of the orphan is never taken up, the cause of the widow is never heard! Your hands are full of blood!” The prophet Amos shouts: “You turn justice into wormwood and hurl righteousness to the ground. You subvert the cause of the needy!” He speaks on behalf of God, saying: “I don’t want your sacrifices or your songs, instead, let justice well up like water and righteousness like an unfailing stream!”
It’s wild, right? To the prophet, nothing can be business as usual when there is suffering. But maybe for us today, when we are living the dissonance of carrying on with our days knowing that all around us, injustice has run amok—maybe it’s instructive.
To learn from the prophet, we will need to adjust our eyes that have grown too used to it all. So that hurt does not become habit, and cruelty does not become codified. To shake ourselves awake by not letting the end of a news cycle also be the end of our attention.
This is not easy. We don’t want to be “that guy” who raves and rages endlessly, we don’t want to sound— or worse—be self-righteous. Or just talk about things until we are blue in the face. I’m with you. I don’t want to be those things. And I also don’t want the pain of the world to fade into the background.
So what shall we do? We will shout it out together. As we weep in sacred community, so we will do our best to call out suffering with vigilance. Together ask the hard questions, educate ourselves, declare our values, mark time on our calendars, in our prayer spaces, to keep the suffering plaguing our world at the forefront of our thoughts and to know that this is part of what it means to be a Jewish community.
The Psalmist weeps. And the Prophet shouts. And the People? The People act.
In the story of Purim, we find our people facing annihilation at the hands of the evil Haman. Mordechai, a Jew about town (the town being Shushan), comes to Esther, his niece, who has married the King without revealing her Jewish identity. And he tells her of Haman’s plot to kill the Jews. Like us, Esther is not sure what to do in the face of such an enormous challenge, but Mordechai needs her and so Esther reveals for us the third thread of ancient wisdom. She is neither Psalmist nor Prophet. She is a leader of the people. So she takes action. Having decided to protect her people, her first words to Mordechai are: “lech k’nos et kol hayehudim.” “Go and gather all of the Jews.” Because she know it is time to rise up.
Nice story, we might say. Convenient happy ending, too, as we know. And it’s true, this story probably never happened. BUT. We learn that in the face of suffering, the people take action.
Now, looking at the intractability and enormity of the problems before us, we could easily scoff at this and say—what impact could I possibly have that would make any difference? The cynic in us is strong. But we note—Esther never said she was going to do this by herself. In fact, the very first thing she does—is gather her people. The action of the people is collective.
About three years ago, my leadership team and I at Central Synagogue in Manhattan, were trying to figure out how to make a difference. Based on personal stories from our own people, we were focused specifically on the criminal justice system and how we could play a role in dismantling systemic racism in our society – no small order. Through meeting with many experts in the field, including those most affected, we learned that 16 and 17 year old children were being treated as adults in our state criminal justice system. This means children were being housed in jails and prisons with adults, without programs, supports, resources, education, or hope. One person shared with us that his baby brother, age 16, had been placed in solitary confinement for months on end and had been beaten regularly by adult guards and inmates. And it had shattered him and his family.
So we did what Esther has taught us. Lech k’nos et kol hayehudim – we gathered up our Jewish community, we joined in partnership with expert coalitions across lines of race and faith, and we took action. Not alone, not just one of us, but all of us together. Near the end of our work, we brought Governor Cuomo to our bima in front of 1,000 people of faith, the press, and quite a few 16 and 17 year old teenagers, of many backgrounds. We prayed, we heard stories from those personally affected,
We demonstrated that the power of the people was behind this and we asked the Governor to make this change—to raise the age of criminal responsibility in the state of NY and to protect these children who are all of our children. And he did. So like Esther, and Mordechai, and the Jews of Shushan, we also celebrated victory for so many children who would be given a second chance to get on a new path.
Now, I want to be clear. Esther’s ancient wisdom has absolutely nothing to do with being a Republican or a Democrat or a Libertarian. Esther didn’t say: lech k’nos sha’r ha’am—go and gather a fragment of the people. This isn’t about party platforms and partisan politics. This is about responding to suffering. And we are so much smarter, so much more creative in our solutions, so much stronger when we transcend even our political differences to do so.
So how can we act when the picture seems so bleak? Together. As a congregation. We will figure out which issues are breaking our hearts and how to take action in ways that bring us together and do not divide us. This is also part of being in sacred community.
To look at a news cycle today, it is a wonder we don’t all crawl under the covers and refuse to come out. But we have inherited a legacy for what to do when we don’t know what to do. Union Temple, we will do this together. We will weep together. We will shout out injustice together. We will bring our power to bear and take action together.
Our liturgy describes an image of God on this day of Yom Kippur, writing our names in the Book of Life—signing us up for another year. Perhaps on this day, we will borrow that divine pen, and we will decide to etch our names on the wall. Write our names in history, in jail cells, on petitions, on ballots, on banners in elected officials’ offices. Hineini. I am here, we will write. With my tears, with my tongue, and with my team. We will etch our names for life—ours and the lives of the most vulnerable. Hineini. I was here. Hineinu, we are here. We are the Psalmist, hearts broken. We are the Prophet, hearts on fire. We are the People, hearts gathered in action. And we are here. G’mar Chatimah Tovah.
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