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Yom Kippur 5779

YK Day Sermon, 5779: Lost in America: Finding Our Moral Compass

Early this summer -- a few days after seeing Noa off to Camp Ramah in the Poconos, after months of interviewing, agonizing, de-cluttering, packing, and tearful parting -- I got into the car with Adin and Jeff for a one-way road trip to Denver.

If you’re like me, there’s one thing you always take with you on a road trip. Not a stack of CDs or cassettes. Not a bag of snacks (though we were equipped by a loving Philadelphian with a bag of Tasty Cakes and soft pretzels). Not even a good book to read. When I hit the road, I always take a smartphone, and I let Waze do the navigation.

I typed in “Rodef Shalom, Denver” and from there on out I knew that Waze would get us here, through the minimum of traffic and road construction. We had major stops planned -- relatives and friends along the way, including Shabbat in Chicago. And then some minor detours — Adin wanted a quick hop over the bridge to Canada, Jeff wanted to see the railroad yard in North Platte, and I wanted to stop off and visit an isolated rabbi friend in Iowa City. Apart from those detours, though, we just followed the voice from the box. And it was an efficient trip. No map. No compass. Just the voice.

But if you’ve used Waze for a while, you know that the Waze way has...peculiarities.

Sometimes “turn left at the next intersection” is a five-minute wait for traffic to clear in both directions on a four-lane highway with no stop sign.

Sometimes “turn around when possible” sends you looping in front of the police station just under a “no U-turn” sign.

Sometimes the route with less traffic has less traffic for a reason - like potholes or dangerous curves or just a gloomy view.

And please God do not let my battery run out, or my phone service fail. Because then not only don’t I know where I am, but I don’t have a map and I don’t have a compass, and I am definitely lost.

Waze life is about the path of least resistance. Until that is, you look up. You look up and you are lost. And you don’t have your map. Or a compass. And you don’t know where you are.

Make no mistake; For many of us Americans, when we look up today, we are lost. Fear is gaining momentum, and angst and struggle fill our news stream. We struggle to figure out where to turn.

In the Garden of Eden, after Adam and Eve have eaten from the tree of knowledge, they suddenly look up and find that they are naked and afraid. God asks them the fundamental question: "Ayeka? Where are you?" Yet an all-seeing God should know exactly where they are. If Adam and Even had answered, “we’re just here, under the tree of knowledge.” God might have simply asked again: “No, really, Ayeka?”

So we must understand this question more deeply: It’s not about where are you physically.

It’s Ayeka? – Where are you emotionally? 
Ayeka? – Where are you spiritually? 
Ayeka? -- Where are your moral map and compass?

Fortunately, we have our Torah -- a 3500-year-old map that has been studied and annotated and updated by generations of our forebears. And we have an up-to-date moving compass: our mindful Jewish souls, nurtured in our strong and relevant Jewish communities.

Today, I want to speak about our country, the revelations that I believe are needed, and the map and compass that our Judaism provides for us. Like God in the Garden of Eden, today we ask Ayeka? – "Where are we as a nation? What s our role as Jews and what do we reveal on this journey if we use our Jewish souls as our compass?”

I know. Speaking about our country and what we might call politics in a synagogue can scare us. Especially on Yom Kippur. Waze would be saying to me — you are a brand new Colorado rabbi, freshly moved cross country: “make a U-turn when possible.” Get back onto some safe ground, at least for your first year. Stop making your father nervous.

Yet, What we do here would be worthless — praying and learning, and struggling to live life with compassion and earnest intent and perhaps even righteousness — it would be worthless if it were not applied to our real-life experiences, our views on policy, and our decisions on how we treat one another communally and nationally. We need to care so much about what is going on out there in the world that we want to discuss it here. Here in our sacred place. We need to apply our Torah to what is on our streets. In our offices. In our government. This has been our prophetic tradition — the tradition of our prophets has been to address real issues. Our Torah is relevant because it speaks to the moral challenges of our time, just as it has done for 3500 years. And friends, we are in a time of deep moral challenge.

So, let’s take a deep breath. Let’s look at where we are.

A recent Pew study showed that 7 out of 10 Americans are worn out from daily news.

Worn out from truths that we don’t want to believe to questions of truth, to half-truths and outright falsehoods. Worn out from threats to the equality of LGBTQ citizens and the rescindance of governmental memos and guidelines that protected transgender children in schools and transgender people in the workplace. Worn out from fear of terrorism. Worn out from threats to the future of a women’s right to choose, and the reality that nearly 30 million people in America still do not have health insurance and fear that those with pre-existing conditions will not be insured in the future. Worn out by the fact that every day, 96 Americans are killed by guns. Worn out from the continued revelation that men in major positions throughout the business, media, and even Religious worlds have used their power to abuse and harass women.

We are worn out.

It feels like a landslide, a crumbling of the foundation that makes us proud American Jews. But we cannot afford to turn away fatigued. Especially not we Jews: anti-semitic acts were up by 57% between 2016 and 2017 according to the ADL. The Alt-Right has marched and published and gained a following, speaking publicly without any shame, showing their faces, proud to let their anti-Jewish voices be heard. The growing hatred and intolerance of “the other” surely threatens us directly as well as threatening Americans of color and the LGBTQ community.

Because all this hatred and bigotry is so deeply interconnected.

Emma Green -- discussing white supremacists in The Atlantic -- explains that hatred becomes universalized through common archetypes. “In the minds of white supremacists like David Duke, there is a straight line form anti-blackness to anti-Judaism. [This is] a chilling reminder that all hatreds of our time rhyme with history and are easily channeled through timeless anti-semitic canards.”

There are many issues we may disagree on — Democrat, Republican, Independent, Libertarian. We are a diverse community, and that is a good thing. We may disagree on how to solve the enormous refugee crisis in our world. We may disagree about how to combine a true free press with limits on hate speech. But outright racism and a culture that demonizes immigrants simply because they are strangers are matters where Judaism takes a very clear stance.

Racism remains rife in our land, even if most of us here do not experience it directly. Kate Riffle Roper, a white mother who has both black children and white children, wrote the following remarks:

Racism exists. It is real and tangible. And it is everywhere, all the time. Let me ask you these questions: Do store personnel follow your children when they are picking out Gatorade flavors? They don’t follow my white children. Do coffee shop employees interrogate your children about the credit card they are using to pay while you are in the bathroom? They don't interrogate my white kids. When your kids go for trick-or-treat, [...], do they get asked who they are with and where they live, door-after-door? My white kids don't get asked. Do shoe salespeople ask if your kids' feet are clean before sizing them for shoes? No one ask my white kids that. Have you had to tell your children that the objective of any encounter with the police, or security in any form, is to stay alive?”

Ayeka? Where are we?

Racism is a systemic problem in our country. In our justice system, in our schools, on our streets, in the fabric of our society.

While our leaders are talking about unregistered and ineligible voters, the objective data shows that stricter voter ID laws coming into force around the country decrease diversity at the polls and discriminate against African Americans. Voting is routinely harder for people of color than for their white counterparts. This is a problem.

And to top it off, ballots across our country now carry the names of candidates who are avowed racists and anti-Semitic Holocaust deniers. Russell Walker, a nominee for the NC State house says “what is wrong with being a white supremacist? God is racist and a white supremacist.”

Not my God. Not our God. Our God is a God of human dignity.

Not only does Torah teach us this — our foundational American documents are equally unequivocal, as President Ronald Reagan noted when honoring the memory of Martin Luther King. He said, “[Dr. King] made it possible for all of us to move closer to the ideals set forth in our Declaration of Independence: that ‘all men are created equal,’ equal because our Creator—not the state—has endowed us all ‘with certain unalienable rights,’ and it is the duty of the state to secure and protect those rights.”

And so we ask ourselves, Ayeka? Where are we?

We Jews know what it means to live with systemic oppression. To be judged differently. To be “the other.” Yet, many of us Jews can take our kippot off. We can blend in when the environment might feel hostile. We can pass in a way that our brothers and sisters with black or brown skin cannot.

When we join in our communal “al chet” today, we should add that we have sinned by failing to acknowledge the results of widespread oppression, and how it impacts African Americans and Latinos.

Ayeka? Where are we?

We look up and we find ourselves lost in a country that is now demonizing and tormenting refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants, and encouraging Americans to be fearful of those who want to cross our borders. We watch as this fear becomes contagious.

We find ourselves in a country where our government systematically ripped children from the arms of their asylum-seeking parents at the border, and placed these young ones in makeshift holding camps. Now, months after the court forced the government to return these children to their parents, over 500 have not yet been reunited. Professionals in child psychology know that these separations will scar tiny hearts and minds. The National Association of Pediatrics has called it “government sanctioned child abuse.” That’s our government they’re talking about.

We find ourselves in a country where people who have been residents for 20 years, establishing families and working honest jobs--including as employees of Conservative synagogues, for God’s sake--we find ourselves in a country where these good neighbors of ours go to CVS to fill a prescription and are picked up by the authorities and deported.

Rabbi Aaron Bruso, from Congregation Bet Torah, a conservative shul in Westchester wrote about one of his shul employees who was deported. This also happens to be the shul that Rabbi Robert Fine, one of our new members who is here today, led for much of his career. Rabbi Bruso writes:

“After a member of our Bet Torah staff, Armando, was deported, we traveled down to Mexico to escort him to the border so he could seek asylum.

In the background of our trip were news reports of a caravan of asylum seekers traveling from Central America. As the caravan neared the Tijauna border the members were referred to as “dangerous,” Americans who had compassion for them were referred to as “naive,” and the whole situation was labeled by some as a “disgrace.” “If we let them in,” some said, “everyone will take advantage of us.”

Rabbi Brusso continues :

“On the ground, in the dirt, at the foot of the U.S. border door was a group of about 15 people mostly moms and kids passing around food that had been brought to them by volunteers. The kids brought food to their mouths with dirty hands. Their clothes were dusty. One mother was doing her best to cheer up her child.”

Rabbi Brusso then shares:

“These people were not dangerous or predatory or entitled. They were desperate. Desperate enough to travel miles in order to sleep in the dirt in front of a doorway through which they had every reason to believe, there had to be a life better than the one they knew.”

Ayeka? Where are we?

Today, a growing number of Americans with Latino origin who live along the Texas-Mexico border and have birth records showing they were born in the United States are being denied US passports, held in immigration detention centers, and entered into deportation.

And when Gwynth Barbara of Kansas, whose family has been in the United States since the early 1700s, applied for a passport with her birth certificate, it was rejected — the passport office questioned whether she was really an American because she had been born at home. They asked for more evidence of citizenship, including a family bible or “early religious records.” What is a family bible going to prove? She has a birth certificate. With a raised seal. What are we Americans so scared of?

I know what many are afraid of. Because there is our president, on video, sharing a rhyming allegory called “the snake,” in which he describes a snake, and how a woman embraces the snake, which has coyly slithered into her home, only to be bitten by that snake once it is in her arms. One of the scariest things I have seen all year. And to drive the point home, in case we missed it, our president says that “the snake is the immigrant.”

Ayeka? Where are we?

Experienced hikers tell me that the moment you become aware that you are lost is a very dangerous moment. It is the moment you are afraid, and you act irrationally out of fear.

It is fear that drives antisemitism and racism and an anti-immigrant culture. Fear of the other. And it is fear that leads us to neglect to speak up.

The alternative for us is to take out our map and compass. To allow Torah to be our guide.

We are told over and over and over again in the Torah — Lo Tirah! Do not be afraid. President Trump has said that “Real power is fear.” But I say No — fear is what divides us and will shatter us. Fear suggests that we should build walls to keep others out, and fear tells us that the only way to be safe is to be with those who look and sound exactly like we do.

HAIS reports that there are “65 million people today who have fled their homelands due to persecution,” How lucky we are that we were born into these bodies in this place. Because in the past, we Jews were those people. Whether fleeing Egypt and crossing the sea; fleeing a conquered Jerusalem after the destruction of the Temple; fleeing Spain; fleeing England; fleeing Russia, and Poland and Nazi Germany. Fleeing the Soviet Union or Morocco or Libya or Afghanistan, Yemen or Ethiopia. We were and are those people. And yet, our administration just announced that the US will only accept 30,000 refugees this year. The lowest number since the Refugee Act became law in 1980.

Our Torah is clear: it is wrong for us to take off our kippot and blend in, leaving “the others” to fend for themselves in this climate of fear and hatred. According to the Talmud in Masechet Baba Metzia, "the Torah warns 36 times, and some say 46 times, not to oppress the stranger"We must support the widow and the orphan. We must pay our workers on time. We must love our neighbor and the stranger as we love ourselves.

We know that our country is as good as it is today not in spite of immigrants and refugees, but because of their energy, intelligence, creativity, inspiration, and unique cultural contributions. America is not a melting pot, as we may have have been taught in grade school. America is more like a salad bowl – filled with many beautiful colors and flavors, that come together to create a diverse society. The beauty of America is that we do not need to assimilate in order to love and improve our country.

Take the story of Marisela:

“My mother, father, siblings, and I had been living in a poor part of town in Guadalajara, Mexico. My father worked as a ranchero and my mother used to waitress at a local pub and restaurant. I was the oldest of all my siblings and therefore, the leader. I had to set an example for the younger ones and had to take care of them from the dangers of the world. One day, I was at home when I found out my father had been killed. It was a tragic day and my mother, devastated from the loss, wanted to move to America, speaking of being safer there and how America could help us all. We moved the following week, wanting to leave Guadalajara and the crime of the small town. My siblings and I went to school and had good grades, my mother working as a waitress, yet again. I grew up to be a police officer, wanting to be able to prevent crimes in my city, New York, like what happened to my father. I thank America for the opportunities that it has given me and will be forever grateful.”

That is the America I love.

So let me tell you a bit about my story. I am an American citizen. Born and raised in the United States. And yet, my great grandparents were born a world away.

My Polish-born Jewish great-grandfather feared being turned back at Ellis Island because of his poor eyesight. He thought the immigration officers might reject him because they We turning back people with eye diseases and although he didn’t have an eye disease, he didn’t want to take any chances. So instead he entered undocumented via Canada--only later regularizing his status in New York.

One of my other great grandfathers lied about his age at Ellis Island, so that he would be allowed to enter the country and work when he landed. His lie, of course, would be grounds for deportation. Later he gained his citizenship the hard way, by being drafted into World War I -- even though he was actually too young to fight. So his lie brought him into the workforce, the service to his country, and then citizenship, but all in violation of immigration laws.

My great grandparents, with their dubious immigrant status, were poor and uneducated — just like the people that this administration is not interested in welcoming. Yet they produced children and grandchildren who have contributed greatly to this beautiful country.

Today, my great grandparents would be the focus of the fear and senseless hatred that is driving American politics and policy. Senseless hatred. Sinat chinam in Hebrew. We are told that it was because of this that the Temple was destroyed. The Jewish tradition tells us that in the face of senseless hatred, just before the destruction of the Temple, our rabbis could not figure out how to respond. They were paralyzed, afraid to take a stand. Today, as we begin 5779, we cannot be paralyzed.

During the civil rights movement, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched with Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. from Selma to Montgomery. When he returned to New York, he was asked by a fellow Jew, “Did you find time to pray while you were in Selma?” I think you all know how rabbi Heschel responded – “I prayed with my feet.” He prayed by standing up for what he believed, for what his Torah told him: “You shall not oppress the stranger, for you know what it felt like to be a stranger, having been strangers in the land of Egypt.”

We Jews made our voices heard during the first civil rights movement in the 1960s, but we did not permanently solve the problems. Now, in 2018 we need another civil rights movement. We need to raise our voices and pray with our feet once again -- together with fellow Jews, and together with our fellow “gerim” -- strangers -- from every community threatened by hate.

Monotheism is built on the idea of oneness. Togetherness. Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad. God is One. We are one. Unity is of primary importance. Holy in Hebrew is kadosh -- the opposite of holy is the profane, which in Hebrew is chol. Chol is also the word for sand. Separate particles that simply slip through your fingers.

Our gift as Jews is to remember that we are not chol -- we are not separate, individual, falling particles. We are Kaddosh. We are echad. Interconnected with God and thereby connected to all humanity. And it is our responsibility to turn that unity and interconnection into concerted human action. We are bound up in one another because we are human, and we therefore must respond.

Ayeka? Where are we?

We are here, now, praying on the holiest day of our year. Praying our Yom Kippur Confessionals. We say these in the plural -- We have sinned against you. We have transgressed. Praying in the plural because we live in the plural – we live in community and we hold each other up and are responsible for one another. We must not be afraid.

We are also praying before the open ark for God to be “compassionate, gracious, and slow to anger.” Adonai Adonai El Rachum V’chanun. Our rabbis teach that we declare these qualities of God in order that we can find them within ourselves.

Ayeka? Where will we be tomorrow, and the day after?

When you leave today, you will see small compasses outside of the sanctuary inscribed with the word "Ayeka." We invite you to take one, attach it to your keychain, and use it as a visual reminder this year of the moral compass that exists in our hearts and in Torah.

In Hebrew, the word for compass is matzpen. The word matzpen comes from the word tzafan, which means “to hide.” A compass helps us to reveal a path, helps us to uncover what is hidden. May this compass remind each of us this year to remain open to the revelation of our inner truth. The revelation of our vulnerabilities to one another, as I spoke about last night. And the revelation of the difficult realities that exist in our nation as I have addressed today, and the revelation of the Jewish imperative to act.

May this compass inspire us to ask every day: Ayeka? Where am I? Am I doing my part to reveal the realities and the pain that exist? Am I doing my part by responding with my moral compass? Am I helping to create a map for my community, and a nation for our children and their children to inherit? Am I praying with my feet?

When we are guided by our moral compass, we will know how to answer.

Ayeka? Where are you?

Henini. Here I am.

Fri, August 19 2022 22 Av 5782