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Yom Kippur 5779 - "The Man Who Never Returned"

September 19, 2018

One thing we can say for certain.  Massachusetts — it’s a proud place.

It’s proud of its history.  It’s proud of its politics.  It’s proud of its Dunkin Donuts.  It’s certainly proud of its sports teams. 

The pride is well-earned.  But there’s one area where, to be honest, I’ve found the state to be a little lacking. 

There aren’t a lot of songs about Massachusetts.

Before moving here, we lived in New York and California.  No shortage of songs about either. 

New York, New York.  New York State of Mind.  Empire State of Mind.  Jungleland.  On Broadway.  Nights on Broadway.  California Dreamin.  California Girls.  LA Woman.  Hollywood Nights.  I Left My Heart in San Francisco.  Little Old Lady from Pasadena.

Massachusetts?  Well… Hmm… There’s uh… “Please Come to Boston.”  And uhh… that dirty water song they play at Fenway.  Oh, and there’s that one James Taylor song that mentions the Mass Pike.  After that?

But recently I heard an old song about Boston that I had never heard before.  It’s by the Kingston Trio.

(I will briefly note, and then ignore, that — of course — Kingston is in New York.)

You may have heard this song.  It’s called “MTA,” but it’s also known as “The MTA Song” or “Charlie on the MTA.”

Wrtten in 1949, the song criticized high transit costs, specifically what’s known as an “exit fare” — if riders were charged a fare to get on the train, it was unfair for them to be charged again to get off.

And so the song envisions our friend, poor Charlie, paying a dime to get on the train at Kendall Square.  But when He gets to Jamaica Plain, he can’t produce the nickel to get off.

As a result, Charlie just rides around and around.  And around.

You may know the lyrics:

But did he ever return?
No he never returned and his fate is still unlearned

He may ride forever 'neath the streets of Boston
He's the man who never returned

Like I said, I had never heard this song before.  But, apparently, Charlie is such a popular guy in Boston lore that the MTA Charlie Card?  It’s named after him.

(See, come to shul and learn things!)

Well, I have fallen in love with this song.  First of all, the message of the song is just as urgent today as it was in 1949.  Poor people find it harder and harder to live in urban areas, whether Boston or San Francisco.  Rents go up, health insurance goes up, and yes transit fares go up, and in more and more cities across America, wages in real terms stay the same. 

The average two-bedroom apartment in Madrid rents for $1148 a month.  In Berlin it’s $1160 a month.  In Tokyo, $1740.

In Boston?  $2750.  In San Francisco?  $3754.

You may say – “well, that’s just the market.”

But Jewish text is not shy about putting limits on market forces. In the Talmud, for instance, Rabbi Nachman objects to indiscriminate rent increases, and he does not mince words. Squeezing more money out of a poor tenant — say, for example, by raising his monthly rent without notice — “is like holding him by the ‘clusters’ to force him to give up his cloak.”[1]

Only he doesn’t say “clusters.”

The Talmud further insists, “this [ability to raise the rent] applies only in the case of obvious loss” to the landlord.

As we heard last night, the prophet Amos rips into his people for “trampling the heads of the poor into the dust of the ground, and making the lowly walk an obstacle course”[2]

Jewish texts are consistently clear: if I have more economic or social power, the more the moral burden is upon me. Owning property does not mean favoring the wealthy newcomer over the longtime resident, or jacking up rents, or getting rich and getting out. It means honoring a holy responsibility to help foster a holy community, for all residents, for all neighborhoods.

It’s no wonder that the Charlies of today sometimes live on the subway.  Not because they can’t afford to get off — but because they can’t afford to live anywhere else.

But, besides the economic justice angle, there’s another reason I love “Charlie on the MTA.”

To me, there’s a message underneath the message.

Imagine… Charlie riding around on his train, day after day, going in circles, over and over again, in a subterranean Groundhog Day.  He keeps slowing down at those same stations, and just when you think he might get off… chug, chug, chug.  Off he goes again.

I’ve said that this High Holidays I want to talk about stories.  Yom Kippur is a day that we both look back at our past stories, and — simultaneously — pray that we come out the other end able to write better stories than we did before.

But of course we prayed that last year.

What kept us from becoming who we wanted to be?  Could it be that there’s a force inside of us that we couldn’t quite get under control. 

Children’s author Jennifer Anzin has written an adorable little book.  It’s called The Anger Train.

The book starts:

Sometimes a little anger train wakes up inside of me.

If I don’t take control of him, my boss he’ll try to be.

Are you like me?  Have you ridden this train?

Anzin describes it as a train with “red hot wheels and large, angry eyes.”

You may have seen me when I’m riding those red-hot wheels.

I've spent a lot of hours working with our leadership trying to make CBE a better, fairer, more efficient place, a place that serves its members and community as well as possible.  I’m proud of the job we’re doing together.  I’m grateful for the countless volunteer and staff hours that go into making this community run.

But, as in any project worth doing, there are setbacks.  Mistakes.  Frustrations. 

This morning, before this community, I want to acknowledge — sometimes, when this happens, my anger gets the best of me.

So if you have been on the receiving end of my angry eyes, I humbly ask for your forgiveness. 

You see, anger is a tricky thing.  It’s volatile.  It can flame up and consume its targets.

I can tell, you first-hand, it can even consume the angry person.

The Talmud is clear in its criticism of a rageful person.  If a person loses their temper, the Talmud tells us, "If they’re a wise person, they lose their wisdom, and if they’re a prophet, they lose their prophecy.”[3]

The Rambam goes further.  "If a person goes into rage,” he writes, “it is as if they worshiped idols."[4]

Round and round.  Like a man stuck on a train, following the idol of his own rage, anger begets more anger.

But these powerful emotions, as destructive as they can be, can also serve us.  And even our community.

A Midrash teaches, “were it not for the evil inclination, a person would not build houses, would not marry, and would not bear children.”[5]

Meaning that our egotistical, gut-level urges – like jealously, greed and, yes, anger — can actually serve a purpose.

Unchecked anger can result in cruelty and abuse.  Those red-hot wheels sometimes chew up more than tracks.

But it can also motivate us.  Without anger at the world’s injustices, we may have no incentive to make them better.  Anger can fuel us. 

After all, that crazy train Charlie’s riding certainly moves him. Propels him.

But the question is — to where?  To a circle of rage, threatening to run off the rails?  Or to a new place, a new station?

Of course, these days — clearly — there’s plenty to be angry about.

And high transit costs are just the tip of the iceberg.

High rents, low wages, lost jobs.  Racial profiling, discrimination, the cheapening of language.  Rising rates of anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, Trans and homophobia.  The separation of parents from children and children from parents, the jailing of toddlers.  Defiance of court orders, disrespect for women and girls, legalized bias, the normalization of cruelty. 

It’s enough to make the calmest of people furious.

But what do we do with that fury?  Watch another news story?  Angrily scroll down our Facebook feed?

Or do we let our anger propel us to do something, to work for justice, to find our voice, and use it?

Too often, again I admit — I find myself in the first category. 

That’s why I’m so grateful for the people I’ve met who help me get off the train.

People like the leaders of our Na’aseh committee, who you’ve heard from this morning, who do accompaniment work for immigrants hounded by ICE, who return to protest in Burlington month after month.

People like Marcia Martin, who’s turned frustration and heartache over mass incarceration into holy work for prisoners here in Acton.

People like Sue Abrams, who does remarkable work with an NGO in Africa.

People like Matt Liebman and Jenny Fialkoff and my awesome bar mitzvah student, Nathan Kushner, who’re turning their concern about the environment into a recycling and compost program here.

People like Barbara Hirsch, who’s channeled her anger at the national gun violence epidemic into her work with “Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.”

People like Ellen Valade and Bob and Deena Ferrara and Ben Bloomenthal, who channel their frustration into electoral politics.

People like Sal Lopes, who’s channeled his anger at racial injustice in the United States into a lifetime of work toward love and compassion, who brings us together every year for our annual Martin Luther King breakfast.

People like our Light for Light Committee, who turned their anger over the abandonment of Puerto Rico into a $36,000 donation.

You are all my teachers.  Thank you.

Outside of this community, too, I’ve other amazing teachers in this work — people who’ve focused their anger into advocacy.  Some of you know, back in July, that I traveled with HIAS and T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Right down to the US-Mexico border.  In Tijuana, we visited two migrant shelters, that used to provide shelter and safety for workers crossing from Latin America into California to do the work Americans refuse to do. 

But as of late, those shelters have been overrun not with workers, but with deportees.

Gilberto Martinez, the remarkable man who oversees Casa del Migrante, told me that over 90% of his residents are now men who have been expelled from the United States.

Men who have children they most likely will never see again.  Men who bear the scars — physical and spiritual — of American fields and construction sites.   Men who turned themselves into ICE when they ran out of water.   Men who’ve been on the receiving end of bellows to “learn English, motherf**er,” but who have now lived so long outside a Spanish-speaking country that they don’t speak Spanish. 

I met men in their sixties and seventies who, after Americanizing themselves for decades, have the dimmest of job prospects — one, whose eyes I will have trouble forgetting, bound to a wheelchair.

Gilberto is angry of course.  But his anger feeds his mercy — which is his life’s work.

“We have to deal [with this new reality,]” he told me.  “But we have faith.  We really believe that things are gonna change.”

I asked Gilberto what we should do, here.  His advice wasn’t to rage or rant.  He said simply, “Do the right thing.  People are not just labor, or a dollar sign.”

He concluded: “Quiet the evil voices.”

If you want to help Gilberto, there’s more information on Casa del Migrante in the Community Court.

In this country, too, I’ve met other heroes — people whose anger fuels sacred work.

Through my connection to Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice, I was blessed to meet a man named Bryan Stevenson.  You may know him as the author of the remarkable book, Just Mercy.  Stevenson is a lawyer from Alabama, a state that doesn’t provide legal assistance to people on death row.

Stevenson was furious when Congress eliminated funding for his low-income death penalty defendants — people who face Unetaneh Tokef moments every day — “who shall live, and who shall die.”  He channeled his anger into founding the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, an organization that guarantees a defense of anyone in Alabama sentenced to the death penalty.  Dozens of innocents have been saved from certain death.

But Stevenson didn’t stop there.  Noting the countless historic markers and monuments related to Confederate history, he looked in vain for an acknowledgement of the history of slavery, which built the wealth of the white South, or any memorial to the 4000 black people lynched in this country — lynchings which all occurred after the end of the Civil War.

And again, he channeled that emotion into action.

Inspired by the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, Stevenson created the Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery.

Like I mentioned on Rosh haShanah, I’ve been invited by T’ruah to join a trip next month for Jewish clergy to visit the museum and memorial.

We will be touring the site and hearing from leaders of the Equal Justice Initiative.  My hope is that, when I return, we can discuss ways to bring CBE congregants and students to visit the museum — and turn our anger into action.

Because if we don’t, we ensure that the source of our anger will go unchecked.  After the rage spiral, there’s depression, or apathy.  Like Jonah inside the big fish, we risk sinking into the grimy abyss of despair. 

Or, perhaps, even worse — we run the risk that our anger will rage out of control and consume others. 

In an interview, Stevenson noted the complicated politics of the south and, by extension, our country:

The masses benefited from slavery, but they weren't the property owners. They weren't the slave owners. And yet they were the men and women who died on those battlefields. They paid the cost.

While poor whites are less likely to be stopped, and frisked, and convicted, and sentenced, and are more likely to get approved for loans and housing — that doesn’t make them less poor.

It doesn’t mean their communities aren’t flooded with Opioids.

It doesn’t mean they don’t suffer.

Which opens the door to what Stevenson calls the “politics of fear and anger.”  This kind of politics, he continues, “distract[s] people, with the race problem here or the immigration problem there.”

We are seeing, now, where that politics gets us.

Instead of getting mad at my boss for changing my shift a dozen times, or the ultra-wealthy CEO I’ll never meet, this kind of politics channels that anger toward the black kid kneeling on the high school’s football team, or toward the Latina woman who down at the poultry processing plant.  Toward the people who build my society.  

Toward my neighbors.

“Fear and anger are a threat to justice,” Stevenson argues.  “They can infect a community, a state, or a nation, and make us blind, irrational, and dangerous.”

You too may be feeling that kind of anger.

In fact, you may be feeling that anger at me right now.

Maybe you wish I were talking about something else this morning.

And so here, I ask you — use that anger for good.  Come talk to me about what you think I should be doing.  What you think this synagogue should be doing.  Let’s work together.

Or maybe you’re upset about something else in the synagogue.  Maybe you’re angry about how we run things, about services, about how we do or don’t study or pray or do outreach or fundraise or study Torah or educate ourselves and our children.

Do something with that anger.  We have numerous committees that need your energy, your wisdom, your knowledge.  Let’s not just talk about what I should be doing.  Or the board should be doing.  Let’s talk about what you could be doing.  We need you.

Or maybe your anger is even closer to home.  Maybe there is a friend or a family member that has ticked you off.  Maybe more than ticked you off.  Maybe it was last year.  Maybe it was 30 years ago.

Even if you don’t believe that there’s an actual Book of Life and a Book of Death, use this time, this day, as an opportunity to let that anger move you toward reconciliation.  If there’s any chance the person might hear you, you owe it to them — to yourself — to help them make teshuvah.

Because anger unexpressed can curdle into resentment, weighing down our souls into depression and misery.

And believe me — when those plagues find us, it doesn’t matter if we believe in a real Book of Death, because we consent to killing part of ourselves.  The part that believes that there is love, holiness, meaning in this world.

God forbid.  God forbid we refuse ourselves a life of sweetness and uplift.  God forbid we don’t grasp this opportunity, right now, to step into a life of God’s blessing.

And speaking of God — upon further consideration, you may find that the One you’re really mad at is, actually, God.

Which, in Jewish tradition, as I said last year, is totally appropriate.

And if that’s where your anger is raging, I say — you’ve come to the right place.  We’ve got a lot of praying left.  Pour out your wrath, here.

This space can hold it.  We can hold you.

Now I’ve spent a lot of time talking about anger.  But maybe you’re not a rage kind of person.  Maybe it’s possible you’re riding the Guilt Train.

Guilt is a particularly popular emotion this time of year — Number One with a bullet, in fact.  We look at the list of sins in the vidui, in the al Chet, and start making a mental checklist.

“That one, yeah.  That one too.  Not so much that one.  Oh, that one big time.”

Like anger, guilt threatens to flood our circuitry.  The friend we didn’t make time for, the stupid comment we regret, the shady business deal we too easily justified.  And now we feel awful.

Some of us have been riding that train for years.

Like the anger train, it brings us right back to where we started.

But also like the anger train, it can motivate us to change, to grow, to get off at a new station.

In a sense, anger and guilt are inversions of each other, mirror images of obsession.  In anger, I obsess about someone’s failures.  In guilt, I obsess about my own.

But neither obsession does much to change the world.

Let’s change the world.

In the words of the prophet Isaiah, “Cease to do evil.  Learn to do good.”

Or, in Gilberto’s words — “Quiet the evil voices.”

One caveat.  We’re asked to reconcile, to let go, to move forward, to forgive, this time of year.  But it’s not always that simple.

In his Laws of Teshuvah, the Rambam says that one who injures another must pay damages and ask for forgiveness.  “Even if one teased someone else just verbally,” he says, they have to “appease the other person.”[6]

Some of the injuries we’ve suffered have been worse than teasing.  In some cases, much worse. 

And if the perpetrator refuses to acknowledge their crimes, we may be stuck on a train of not just anger, but shame and trauma. 

To those of you experiencing that, I say — take your time.  It might take longer to get off the train.  It’s OK. 

In the words of Rabbi Jill Zimmerman:

This year,

love yourself enough

to trust

your own timing.

Be patient enough to

stay in the place of

“not yet.”

Trust that you will find your way,

that you will come to a time

where holding on

hurts more than letting go.

Forgive yourself for not being ready – yet.

For the rest of us, it’s time to disembark.  This is our station. 

And let’s support each other, in doing that work together.

One final note.  One of the writers of “Charlie on the MTA” was a woman named Bess Lomax Hawes.  In addition to be a songwriter and folklorist, I found out that she pioneered a method of guitar instruction that helped catalyze the folk music revival of the 1950s and 1960s.

It depended on large groups of people learning simultaneously.

"Students learning guitar individually can get intimidated because they can hear their own mistakes,” Hawes explained.  “In a group, the students feel bolder about playing, take more risks, enjoy it more, and feel part of something bigger —

“which,” she said, “sounds better, anyway."

This year, may we all support each other in letting go of old mistakes, taking risks, going bold, using our passions to make our community and our world better.

May we feel part of something bigger, a song that starts in Massachusetts but whose holy harmony fills our hearts, fills our country, fills the whole world.  May it start here.

I can’t wait to hear what it sounds like.


[1] Bava Metzia 101b

[2] Amos 2:7

[3] Pesachim 66b

[4] Rambam, Hilchot De’ot 2:2

[5] Bereshit Rabbah 9:7


[6] Rambam, Hilchot Teshuvah 2:9


Sun, May 29 2022 28 Iyyar 5782