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Yom Kippur Morning 5781 - "Tzedakah Tatzil Mimavet"

Ivdu et-YHVH b’simcha.  The words of the Psalmist: “Serve God with joy.”[1]

Last night we talked about the Salanter Rebbe, the master of mussar, who publicly defied of the laws of Yom Kippur.  If you weren’t with us — or my words gave you an opportunity to take a well-deserved nap — here’s a quick recap.

In 1848, a plague of cholera had gripped the town of Vilna, the legendary center of Jewish life and learning in Lithuania.

And the Salanter, defying the teachings of the leading rabbinic authorities of his day, stood up and declared that, if the instructions of the physicians and medical authorities deemed nourishment necessary to preserve our bodies, Jews should not — could not — fast on Yom Kippur.

To eat on Yom Kippur went against every impulse of the Salanter, every impulse of his community, but it would be what they would do if it meant saving life. 

Of course it was disappointing.  As, of course, we are disappointed today.  It would be silly to deny it.  Being apart from each other on this highest of high holy days — we are just plain sad.

But, perhaps foreseeing our predicament, the Salanter warned his people against giving in to despair.  In a letter he wrote some years later, during another wave of cholera, he taught that, even at such a time, “one should not be excessively bitter on the holidays.”

Rather, the Salanter rebbe insisted, “this is the time to observe and serve God in joy, and this will be our strength.”[2]

I’ve said all my sermons this year are about Jewish choices.  So, in the name of the Salanter, on Yom Kippur of 5781, Yom Kippur 2020, in the midst of this epidemic, teetering on the edge of uncertainty and anxiety, I invite you — as a Jewish choice —

Be joyous! 

Though you are not in the room with me, I think I can hear some of you now.

Have you met any Jews?  Choosing to be happy?  And these days?  Is he feeling OK?

Honestly?  I’m not feeling fantastic.  I mean physically, thank God, I’m feeling just fine.  But emotionally, the last few months have been excruciating.  For me as well as for so many of you.

The number of Covid cases in our congregation is in the double digits.  Some of us have buried loved ones who suffered, alone, with this unsparing virus.  And too many of us, regardless of our loved ones’ cause of death, have grieved via screen rather than in comforting embrace.

And for those of us who have been untouched physically, the emotional toll is obvious.  We have been kept away from the people and things that we love.  Grandchildren, cousins, friends.  Cafes, concerts, games, sporting events.  Births.  B’nai Mitzvah celebrations.  Weddings.

And the pandemic has left so many people out of sorts.

Anxious.  Volatile.  Short-tempered.

The Salanter urges his people to avoid bitterness, to embrace joy.  But in recent months, so many of you have told me that joy feels, quite simply, out of reach.  We are in a time of heartbreak and brutishness, our screens and radios bringing news, day after day, of callousness and cruelty and — sometimes — just jarring incoherence.

The pandemic that we’re enduring is new.  Covid-19 emerged suddenly.  With a vaccine, may God help bring it soon, it should be conquered just as quickly. 

But there are other pandemics that we’ve lived with for decades, centuries even.  There is a pandemic of poverty that’s infected this country, the richest country in the world, a pandemic which will lead to 1 out of 4 kids going to bed hungry at some point this year.  There’s a pandemic of hate spreading in our country, with outbreaks popping up in our schools and sidewalks, infecting Americans from Twitter to the White House, leaving victims in synagogues and mosques, armed militants roving the land in a disfigured pursuit of self-styled “law-and-order.”  And there’s a pandemic of White Supremacy that’s poisoned our land, a four-hundred-year pandemic that’s left people of color poorer and sicker, over-policed and under-employed, less prosperous and less safe and less free.

For some of us, forced to confront the daily reality of these truths, just getting out of bed and getting through the day, trying to be decent and kind, is a major accomplishment. 

If that is where you are, I deeply admire you for that accomplishment.  It is truly honorable.

And so, in such a time, you may ask: how can I stand up here and talk about joy?  To that question, I say — if you have the energy, if you can find even a bit of strength — in our moment of American crisis, you will find meaning and connection and joy in doing something about it. 

Not out of guilt.  Or shame.  Do something about it, because answering this hour of callousness with compassion, responding to injustice by investing in repair of that injustice, is our passage to joy.  It is our pathway to hope. 

In a world seemingly steeped in meaningless cruelty, forging a path of principled action revives meaning.  Stepping out of paralysis and into the fight for justice renews our purpose.  Standing with companions who have chosen to do the same reveals our power.

Staring helplessness square in the face, rolling up our sleeves and getting involved anyway — this is the antidote to despair.

There’s a teaching in the book of Proverbs: tzedakah tatzil mimavet — “tzedakah saves from death.”[3]  Seems pretty straightforward.  For a person in danger of starvation, at risk of drowning in a sea of medical or housing debt, receiving tzedakah can save their physical life.

But for those of us who give tzedakah, who strive to build tzedek, justice, there is spiritual rescue.  For those of us who work for tzedek, for justice, there is uplift — not just a fleeting, “feel-good” moment.  But, in an enervating and exhausting world, a sense of purpose and place and resolve.

It’s one of the reasons I am such a proponent of Jewish communities like ours engaging in social justice work.  Yes, of course, because it is a Jewish imperative.  But also because it is good for us, in the way that responding to brokenness with the commitment to repair that brokenness can only be good for us.

But if my time at CBE has taught me anything, it’s how many of you know this already — and show evidence of that knowledge by the work you do.   I have continually seen this community show up, in large numbers, to confront what is wrong in the world, and make it right.

You see it in those of you who worked for months on end to address climate change by bringing to CBE the largest solar installation, not of any synagogue in Massachusetts — any house of worship in Massachusetts. 

You see it in the teens who, given a choice what to study with me, chose racial justice.

You see it in the Sisterhood’s work in hand crafting blankets — blankets, I’m sure you will agree, are true works of art — for adults without shelter.

You see it in the number of people who show up for Na’aseh meetings, in the hundreds of people who receive our Na’aseh News.

You see it in the Cor Unum and monthly community suppers you provide for the hungry.

You see it in the five-figure amount you collected in the face of Covid for our Zeh baZeh and Darchei Shalom funds.

You see it in our people that continue to write and advocate on behalf of refugees and immigrants, those of you who went to vigils at the ICE office in Burlington and at the detention center in South Bay.

You see it in those of you who took shifts, hours at a time, accompanying our family in sanctuary.

You see it in the dozens and dozens of people who showed up, on sunny summer days and lazy summer nights, to wrestle with our role as Jews in the struggle for racial justice.  You see it in the CBE families who showed up at the Black Lives Matter demonstrations on Kelley’s Corner.  You see it in the work of those of you who wrote the Select Board, demanding that they put Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion on the top of their list of priorities.

You see it in the work of those of you in education who spent the summer trying not only to make learning safe, but also to make it fair.

“There is clearly an impulse to serve among Jews.”

These are the words of Sheila Decter.  Before handing off the leadership to the amazing Cindy Rowe, Sheila founded JALSA, Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action.  I sat in Sheila’s backyard in Newton, eating her remarkable zucchini bread — yes, at a safe distance — while she described why JALSA has become such a force for change in the commonwealth of Massachusetts.

“While there’s Jewish leadership in every movement we can point to,” Sheila said that she has witnessed for decades those Jews “who want to serve Jewishly.”  She continued, “When they talk about housing and healthcare they find it so much more compelling when they can talk about it from the POV of talking about [the Jewish] obligation to help the elderly and the poor, [to provide the] basic requirements of life.”[4]

The Covid crisis has revealed to those of us that didn’t already see it that we live in an economic system in which those basic requirements are distributed irregularly and unfairly — a system that funnels more wealth to fewer of us, while leaving more and more people without proper food, housing, and healthcare.

Immigrants we’ve tormented, neighbors we’ve threatened with deportation for being a “public charge,” have been afraid to seek medical help, making them sicker.  Making us sicker.

African-American neighborhoods have been packed with smokestacks and incinerators, and inferior schools and housing and healthcare.  And workers of every color, in red states and blue states, are paid insulting, demeaning, life-threatening wages.

Like I said last night, death is all around us.  And it all feels so daunting.

And here comes our Jewish tradition, instructing us that that these are all Jewish issues.  Jewish religious issues.

Like when Moses tells us, on the verge of his own death that, if we oppress a worker and withhold their wages — whether native-born or immigrant — they will cry to God about us.  He says clearly, v’haya l’cha cheit.  “The sin is in you.”[5]

Yes, cheit.  The same word we say in the al cheit, when we pound our chest in remorse.  If we abide the exploitation and oppression of our neighbors, then the sin is in us.  When we allow those realities to exist, we are in soul danger.

Tzedakah tatzil mimavet — justice saves from death.

It saves those threatened by an unjust system from physical death.

And it also saves us from consenting to a deadly system which estimates some lives as valuable, others as worthless.  It saves us from emotional death, from deadly disconnection, the isolation that leaves us in solitary helplessness.  It saves us from spiritual death, a suffocation of hope and possibility in the midst of anxiety and exhaustion.

It gives our lives meaning.  Purpose.

In the words of the Salanter rebbe, it is “our strength."

You might ask: How does this work?  Beats me.  File that under: Above my paygrade.

But the neurologists and behavioral scientists among us are increasingly finding that it does, indeed, work — and not just for Jews.  Our neighbor at the Harvard School of Public Health, Dr. David R. Williams, has found that the chronic stress of racism leads to “increased incidence of high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, diabetes and other health problems” for African Americans.[6]

But, according to Professor Williams, one of the best personal strategies for dealing with the tragedy of American racism is working against it.

“Fighting racism, engaging in protests, taking actions to support the rights and well-being of your community actually leads to improved health,” reports Williams, a case study of tzedakah tatzil mimavet — justice literally saving from death.

Fighting for justice in a religious context, adds Williams, provides another level of benefit.  “For stress in general and for the stress of discrimination as well,” continues Williams, “higher levels of religious engagement [represent a] powerful force [in reducing] the negative effects of stress…”[7]

Williams is, of course, talking about the stress of racism.  For the Black and Brown members of our community, living in fear and vigilance is itself a health risk factor.  But, to some degree, the constant barrage of disturbing news in the last four years has been a racial leveling agent: who among us, regardless of our ethnicity, isn’t feeling a daily sense of exhaustion and stress and dread? 

Of course, we’re not the first people to feel this way.  Turn of the century Blues musician Charley Patton, often considered to be the “father of the Delta Blues,” performing in Jim Crow Mississippi, wrote a song titled, simply, “Lord I’m Discouraged.”  It could be our new national anthem.

“Sometimes I have no religion,” Patton sings.  “feel a-hopeless and despair.” 

Patton’s musical solace comes in the promise of an afterlife with his god, rescued from death by Jesus.  “I’ll soon reside with God's army,” he sings plaintively, “with the Saints of God up there.”

Contrary to popular belief, Jewish tradition does include a belief in the afterlife.  But it’s not usually our prime motivator.  None other than Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg — may the memory of the righteous be for a blessing — summarized the matter succinctly.  Speaking at Sixth & I Synagogue on Rosh haShanah of 2017, she reminded her audience that Jews “are taught to do right, to love mercy, do justice, not because there’s gonna be any reward in heaven or punishment in hell… [but] because that’s how people should live.”[8]

That is how we find meaning. That is how we fight the death of spirit — not fixated on our existence in the hereafter, but focused on how our deeds, here, now, can resurrect our withered spirits, revive our endanged nation.

Like Justice Ginsburg, Jewish history is replete with inspirational Jews who saw a fracture in the world — and made meaning by stepping into the space between the broken pieces.

Like Samuel Gompers, who founded the American Federation of Labor.  Like Betty Friedman, whose work sparked the second wave of feminism.  Like Larry Kramer, who wrote passionately on behalf of AIDS patients.  Like Ruth Messinger, whose American Jewish World Service brings millions of dollars of assistance to human rights workers all over the world.

This legacy of action stretches back to our sacred texts.  Like the book of Exodus, in which the midwives Shifrah and Puah refuse Pharaoh’s decree to kill Hebrew boy babies.  And Nachshon, whom our midrash identifies as the first Israelite to step into the Red Sea, refusing the death promised by approaching Egyptian horse and rider.

I talked a few weeks ago to Ruth Messenger about this heritage of holy activism.  “Nachshon and Esther stepped forward when other people would have done something different,” she said to me.  “Could they say why they did what they did?  The point is not that they could explain it.  The point is that they did it.”[9]

Yes Ruth.  The point is to step forward and do

We are all hurting right now.  Just to be in this world takes courage.  I honor your bravery in just making it through the day.  But there is purpose and — yes — joy to be found, even now, if we can muster up the strength.

No, we can’t wish away the virus.  We can’t make the news more encouraging or even coherent.  But we can take up the teaching of the Salanter.  We can note where life is on the line, we can see the preservation of each precious life in all of our communities as holy, and act accordingly. 

To know that where we always have agency and strength is in our work making the world better.  Serving God by fixing what’s broken.  Regardless of whether we did the breaking or we, regrettably, spent too much time ignoring those who did.  What we can do now is walk the path to blessing, rocky as it is, on flagstones of fairness, shoulder to shoulder, fighting for the welfare of our neighbors, fighting for what is right.

“Everyone must know that within them burns a candle,” wrote Rav Kook, the first Ashkanazi chief rabbi of Mandatory Palestine in the land of Israel.  “There is no human being without a candle.”  Not just the Jew, but every single soul, wrote Rav Kook, is assigned with the sacred task of “reveal[ing] the light of one’s candle in the public realm, for the benefit of the many.”  And, further: “to ignite one’s candle and make of it a great torch to enlighten the whole world.”

Tzedakah tatzil mimavet.  Rightousness saves from Death.  Action saves from Despair.  In this hour of cynicism, it is our courage to stay in the struggle that gives our lives meaning.

I have a candle.  As do you.  I’ll let you walk in my light, if I can walk in yours.

And, together, may we light our way out of grief and melancholy, glimpsing a dream of what can be, a shimmering vision of a joyous land where all life is sacred.

Because we did the work, instructed by the Holy One, inspired by our ancestors, to make it so.

[1] Psalm 100:2
[2] Ohr Yisrael 22:5
[3] Proverbs 10:2, 11:4
[4] Personal interview
[5] Deuteronomy 24:14-15
[6] Washington Post, May 13, 2020
[7] CNN, June 1, 2020
[8] The Jewish World, September 27, 2017
[9] Personal interview
Sun, May 29 2022 28 Iyyar 5782