Friday, September 25, 2015

Yom Kippur 5776-2015 – Feeling Abandoned and Afraid

On Yom Kippur Day, the traditional focus is on sinfulness and transgressions. This emphasis recalls the story of Noah and the Flood. We read in Genesis 6, “Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people in his time. Noah walked faithfully with God.” Then the Torah tells us that because the rest of the world was corrupt, God was bringing a flood to cover the whole earth. That is certainly divine punishment for sinfulness.

While on Yom Kippur day, our focus tends to be on individual sinfulness and repentance, we cannot forget the larger theme of human sinfulness. The story of Jonah, which we will read this afternoon, certainly brings up that idea as well. Yet the story of Noah and the flood is the prime of example of a time when God turned away, when blessings were removed and curses were all too present.

This morning, I would will talk about times when we feel abandoned and afraid. I will begin by going back to the story of the Flood and our relationship with God in the Jewish tradition. Then I will address times when we, as Jews, have been abandoned by other people in our time of distress. Finally, I will talk about times when we are left alone as individuals and how our tradition guides us in overcoming our fears at those times.

It is hard for us in the modern world and, particularly, as Reform Jews who emphasize reason in our understanding of Jewish texts to connect to a story as miraculous as the Flood narrative. We are more likely to joke about it. This is my version of one of my favorite flood jokes.

A New Flood is Coming

God reaches out to all of the major religious and political leaders in the world. The Eternal One has had it with how humanity is behaving. Promise or no promise, God is again going to bring a flood. People have a year to prepare for the deluge which will cover the whole face of the earth for 40 days and 40 nights.

Most of the world’s leaders simply panic, especially those who were surprised to find out that the Jews had it more or less right all along. They prayed for salvation and no few begin evangelizing in the hope that by getting others to believe in God and follow more religious laws and rituals, that God’s wrath might be turned.

“Repent! For the end is nigh!” signs begin to appear everywhere.

Jewish leaders, rabbis, politicians, businessmen, engineers and scientists all get together in Jerusalem at the invitation of the Prime Minister. The meeting begins with prayers of repentance.

After a few days of deliberations, the leaders emerge and hold a press conference. A huge crowd has gathered and people from all around the world watch on television, listen on the radio, and access the live feed via the internet.

“Surely the Jews will know how to respond to God!”

One of the scientists from the Technion in Haifa, an engineering professor, had been elected the leader of the group they were calling YaM, which was an abbreviation for Yehudim al HaMabul, “Jews about the Flood,” and came forward to address the media.

“We understand that there are calls for to build a new Ark or even several that would float upon the coming floodwaters, much like Noah’s Ark, except much bigger. Others call for a great space going vessel to take people and animals to colonize Mars or the moon. We know that other peoples are pursuing such efforts. But we Jews are unwilling to choose who shall live and who shall die. That is God’s work. There will be no Ark for us.”

There was a great rumbling of distress among the gathered media. Were the Jewish leaders simply giving up?

“Some have suggested that we should do our best to make God feel guilty about breaking the promise to Noah, that we should copy the argument used by Abraham avinu, ‘Adonai, what if there are 50 righteous souls among us? 40? 30? 20? 10?’ Perhaps, then God would relent? But who is truly righteous? Are we not all imperfect? Have we not all sinned? Such is the lesson of the Day of Atonement. How can we dispute it?”

“So you’re just giving up???” one of the members of the assembled press asked in no bit of distress.

“No, not at all!” replied the scientist.

“We’re all going to learn—how to live—underwater!”

The joke is, of course, about how we would deal with the fear of destruction on a large scale today. Yet in our people’s history, we have faced no few disasters and no little strife. We have had to learn to live underwater, to survive in the face of persecutions, invading armies, exiles and genocide.

We have certainly felt abandoned and afraid. But the reassuring words of Isaiah chapter 54 resonate through the generations.

Isaiah 54: 7-10

“For a brief moment I abandoned you,
    but with deep compassion I will bring you back.
In a surge of anger
    I hid my face from you for a moment,
but with everlasting kindness
    I will have compassion on you,”
    says the Lord your Redeemer.
“To me this is like the days of Noah,
    when I swore that the waters of Noah would never again cover the earth.
So now I have sworn not to be angry with you,
    never to rebuke you again.
10 Though the mountains be shaken
    and the hills be removed,
yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken
    nor my covenant of peace be removed,”
    says the Lord, who has compassion on you.

We see these words in the Rosh Hashanah Shofar service, reminding us that even though seemingly eternally stable things like mountains and hills may be shaken and moved, neither God’s love for the people Israel, nor God’s covenant with the survivors of the flood, the Covenant of Peace, will end. God has compassion for us. God cares about us.

The rabbinic tradition argues that God’s presence is blessing and God’s absence is curse. For God to show us mercy and compassion, God must bless us with God’s presence first. This passage in Isaiah is the likely origin of this tradition. In essence, Isaiah informs us that God, who had abandoned us out of anger, hiding God’s face from us, and therefore allowing curses to happen to us, has decided to have compassion on us and bless us with God’s presence once again.

The concept that presence, that paying attention, can make a positive difference and bring blessings is not one limited our relationship with God. This summer, many of my rabbinical colleagues participated in a march from Selma, Alabama to Washington D.C. that was organized by the NAACP and supported by many other organizations including the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. They called the march, “America’s Journey for Justice” and it was part of the NAACP’s “Justice Summer.” The goal was to raise awareness about issues of race and justice in America and in particular to raise awareness about attempts to limit voting rights.

Torah scrolls were carried by rabbis along the route and the idea of “praying with one’s feet,” recalling the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, was stated time and again by rabbis discussing their participation in the journey. Those engaged in Tikkun Olam and particularly those engaged in ongoing advocacy for Civil Rights often recall the image of Rabbi Heschel participating in a similar march with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

However, few remember that another Rabbi, Joakim Prinz, spoke in Washington D.C. immediately before Dr. King at the March on Washington in 1963. Rabbi Prinz had been a rabbi in Berlin during the 1930s and could not but place the discrimination that he saw in America into the context of that which he had seen in Nazi Germany. He felt obligated to speak out about prejudice and inequality. Serving as President of the American Jewish Congress, he represented the Jewish community as one of the organizers of the 1963 March. Rabbi Prinz’s words have not been quite as well remembered as those spoken by Dr. King that day, but they were quite poignant and should not be forgotten. Rabbi Prinz said:
When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.
A great people which had created a great civilization had become a nation of silent onlookers. They remained silent in the face of hate, in the face of brutality and in the face of mass murder.
To use the language of blessing and curse, Rabbi Prinz might have said that they hid their faces.

Among the things we learn in our tradition is that God acts through us. When we speak of God uplifting the fallen, feeding the hungry, and clothing the naked, it is we who do that. We reach out our arms and do the lifting. We provide food for the hungry. We donate clothing for those who do not have it. We do that. We pay attention. We bring blessings into their lives.

But we can also hide our faces. We can abandon those in need. We can become frustrated and hopeless and angry. We can give up. We can silently ignore with the best of them.

The question for us today is “will we?” Will we hide our faces and turn them to watch and act upon what we see? Will we help those who are alone?

Andrew Ferguson, in the last chapter of his book, Land of Lincoln, tells the story of a Holocaust survivor who visited Springfield, Illinois. This story was relayed by the manager of guest relations at the Hilton Hotel there. It seems that the man, whose name was Henri Dubin, who was quite elderly and frail at the time of his visit, was from Czechoslovakia. Evidently, he was having trouble entering his room.

Henri spoke broken English and the front desk attendant was having difficulty understanding him. So the manager came to help. That is what people in helping professions and hospitality services do, they pay attention. They help. When the manager, whose name was Frank, helped Henri into his room, Henri invited him in and showed him a letter from the mayor of Springfield.

The mayor had sent a letter to Henri thanking him for his interest in Abraham Lincoln and inviting him to Springfield as his guest. It said, “When you come here and see the home and the tomb and the Lincoln shrines as our guest, we’ll give you the key to the city.” The letter had been written in 1965. 40 years later, in 2005, the man was able to make the journey.

Frank said that the man suddenly stood up straight and said, he’d been in a concentration camp. Henri pulled up his sleeve several times to show the number on his arm. The man said he knew about Abraham Lincoln and George Washington when he learned about them as a child in school. And he told Frank that when he was in the concentration camp, without mentioning which one, he was all alone in his cell or perhaps feeling abandoned and afraid among others feeling the same, it was the worst time in his life and he didn’t think he could go on anymore. Then, Mr. Dubin said, Abraham Lincoln came to him.

Mr. Lincoln stood right in front of him, the man told Frank, and said:

You never forget: All men are created equal. This is true for all men for all times. And these men who would do this thing to you, who put you here, they’re no better than you. You are their equal, because all men are created equal. You keep remembering this, and you persevere, you’ll be all right.

Henri Dubin said that from that point onward, he knew he would be. And he vowed that if he ever got out of that concentration camp, he would come to Springfield to thank Mr. Lincoln, because he was so grateful. And he’d written a poem that he needed to recite for him. He needed to go to Lincoln’s Tomb to bring him flowers and to recite the poem.

Learning all of this, Frank went straight downstairs and called the mayor’s office and then the visitor’s bureau. Alicia from the bureau whose specialty was helping foreign tour groups reached out to Henri who was insistent that he visit the tomb that day, because he had to fly back home the next day.

Alicia responded right away. She came to the hotel and took him to the tomb in her own car. There, having looked at each of the statues and busts in the shrine, when he reached the tomb itself, Henri got down on his knees, placed the flowers there, and then stood up straight and recited his poem.

The next morning, he was taken to the airport, where he boarded a plane for his journey home.

Hope. When things are really bleak, we need hope. We need to know that others stand with us, that they will not be silent onlookers to our suffering, that we will not be abandoned and left alone. We need people not to hide their faces from us.

Being left alone is a primal fear. Our world, especially, in ancient times, was not a place in which being alone was safe, especially not as a child. While that feeling may attenuate as we grow older and stronger and become more independent, it returns at times of difficulty in our lives.

All of us would be afraid in the situation in which Henri Dobin found himself. While Mr. Dobin came to believe that the presence of Abraham Lincoln visited him to bring him hope, it is not difficult to imagine that others in similar situations might have believed that God’s presence came to be with them in different forms and different ways.

In our tradition, we often refer to God as a parent, as father, or in the form of the Shechinah, the embracing presence of God, as mother. When someone dies, we offer the prayer El Malei Rachamim, which asks that God receive the soul of our loved one into God’s parental grasp.

In the Jewish tradition, we regularly remind ourselves of God’s eternality in part because if God is eternal, we will always have a parent to watch over us; we will never be truly alone.

Bad things happen. How we respond demonstrates our character. In the words of Psalm 23, when we walk through our darkest valleys, we shall fear no evil, for you are with us.

At the end of the day today, as we stand before the open ark, before the presence, let us remember that whether we believe that presence to be real or symbolic, we have the ability to make our own presence felt in the lives of others.

In the coming year, if a flood should come into our lives, may we strive to live underwater, if we cannot find a way to swim or float.

And when we see that others live in fear, let us not turn our faces away or remain silent, but instead march beside them and speak out. That is what our tradition and our history teach us.

This Yom Kippur day, may we be reminded of the caring and compassionate people who have made themselves present in our lives and brought us hope, inspiration, guidance and blessings: our fathers and mothers, our friends and family members, our teachers and leaders and maybe even President Abraham Lincoln.

G’mar Chatimah Tovah!

May we all be inscribed and sealed in the book of life for a good, sweet, and healthy new year!

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