Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Yom Kippur - Cheshbon haNefesh shel Olam and Prison Reform

          We are here today to fast, to cleanse our souls in self-affliction, and to finish our cycle of teshuvah we began on Rosh HaShanah or perhaps at Selichot. Our reading from the Prophets this morning has Isaiah telling us that God does not care for our fasts. Fasting alone does not make for atonement. We afflict ourselves so that we might feel the pains of hunger that the poor, the orphaned, the strangers yearning for a new life, feel every day. We practice self-denial so that we can turn our hearts and minds toward God with no distractions of our base desires. We oppress our bodies to think about the oppression we are complicit in toward our neighbors. We allow ourselves this pain so that we do not allow our hearts to harden, our souls to callous, our compassion to atrophy. A meaningless fast that does not change us, does not help us make true teshuvah, does not cause us to help others, does not allow us to pray more deeply, is not a fast that God desires, and it is not worth hurting yourself over. These outcomes are the real meaning for the holiday, and if you are unable to fast, you can still achieve a deeply meaningful Yom Kippur of teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah.
          Meanwhile, there are those who go hungry without choice, or those who choose hunger for a greater cause. I mentioned on Rosh HaShanah that on that day we began our cycle of teshuvah thinking about ourselves and our personal sins. Once we threw those away at Tashlich, we turned to thinking about our community and its missteps. Now, more than halfway through our 25 hour fast day, it is time to turn our thoughts outward, to the wrongs we are complicit in even if we feel no connection to them. Let’s turn our prayers for return and transformation toward those we don’t ever think about, a population we don’t consider ourselves a part of, a community we may have even turned our own backs on completely: those who hunger for justice and their own right to life. For example, back in New York, where I most recently lived, activist Ramsey Orta is starving at Riker’s Island, because a previous time he was there, rat poison was found in his food. He is fearful for his life, certain that the poison was retaliation for his filming of the death of Eric Garner in 2014, and starving himself may be his only chance to survive. 
          On a much grander scale, all around the country right now, there is a coordinated effort by prison inmates everywhere to strike until conditions improve, and in some prisons this has included a hunger strike. Each prison has a different set of demands on issues ranging from a lack of educational services to lethal medical neglect, but the one issue that has unified all approximately 20,000 strikers across 24 states and 45 prisons is the issue of prison labor. I could list statistics about the school to prison pipeline, trumped up charges, retaliation against activists, and the criminalization of poor neighborhoods and people of color in an effort to make you feel sympathetic to these strikers. Not all criminals in prison are violent or dangerous and many are there for things people we know have done and gotten away with. But ultimately, that doesn’t matter. This country abolished slavery about 150 years ago, and as Jews we know that every single human is made in the image of God and deserves basic human rights. So why, as American Jews, did we not already know or talk about the issue of prison labor until now? Our legal system allows for involuntary servitude as a punishment for crimes whereof the party in question has duly convicted, and if the servitude in question was tantamount to thieves working off the debt of what the stole, it may be understandable. But the prison industrial complex is a $2 Billion dollar a year industry, and the prison laborers of all stripes make mere pennies an hour, if anything at all. That does not sound to me like a fair repayment of labor; that sounds more like a country profiting off the disenfranchised rather than justice, which is expressly what Isaiah warns us not to do in this morning’s haftarah.
          In the Torah reading this afternoon, we will read the Holiness Code from Leviticus. It will include a reiteration of the Ten Commandments, and it will also warn us to not exploit the disenfranchised, not to withhold a worker’s wages, not to place a stumbling block before the blind or speak curses of the deaf, and not to stand idly by the blood of our neighbors; it tells us to judge with justice, to be honest in all our dealings, to hold no grudge, to love our neighbors as ourselves. If we want to stand with God and the Jewish people, as this morning’s Torah reading commands, we must do these holy things and stand with the Eternal God of all creation and all humanity, including, as Isaiah warns us, the most vulnerable of society.
          In an essay on Jonah, this afternoon’s haftarah, Rabbi Ed Feld writes, “We are a people who can catalogue the forms of human mistreatment. We have been victims of torture and abuse. We know what it means to be accused of all sorts of sins and have no defense. We know what it is to be captured, imprisoned, forced to confess to sins we have not committed. We know what it is to submit to arbitrary authority. In its place we have preached the rule of law – and have been accused by our enemies of being legalistic; we have preached the dignity of every human being, and have been persecuted for it.”
Jonah was an unwilling prophet. He is told to go tell the people of Nineveh to repent or they will be destroyed, and instead, he tries to run away. The people of Nineveh aren’t even Jewish, so why should Jonah help them, why does God care if they repent? After three days inside the belly of the fish, Jonah makes his own teshuvah and goes to do as God commanded, seemingly having learned a lesson in compassion. However, after the people of Nineveh do indeed repent and God does not destroy them, Jonah is angry that God has let them off the hook so easily, his compassion instantly gone again. He leaves the city of Nineveh and makes camp elsewhere, and God causes a gourd rises up from the ground to give Jonah shade and shelter. The next day, it disappears and Jonah is furious. The Book of Jonah ends with a lingering question posed to Jonah the angry prophet by God: “You pitied the gourd for which you neither worked for grew… Should I, then, not have compassion for the great city of Nineveh?”
          We, too, flee from God’s demands of compassion and care more for that which is close and useful to us than that which seems far away and unrelated to us, regardless of our own investment in either. We, too, call for harsher judgement than we ourselves are willing to face down. We claim to learn lessons of compassion, to make teshuvah, and try to be better people, but continue to turn a blind eye to great injustices in this country. We are a people who should know better than any to be wary of certain institutions of authority, to demand transparency and true justice, to know that torture and wrongful imprisonment happens regularly to marginalized people or those who threaten the status quo. Jewish people have experienced these things time and again throughout all the inhabited continents of the world and across generations for millennia. And I know it’s comforting to think that it couldn’t happen here. This is the land of the free and the home of the brave. This is the one country we’ve lived in that hasn’t tried to cut off our rights to be Jewish, that hasn’t tried to ethnically cleanse or deport us en masse. America has, for the most part, been good to Jewish people. But when people who live below the poverty line, people of color, queer and trans people, and other marginalized identities (including those among those demographics who are also Jewish!) tell us that this is not a free land for them, that they face the kind of state violence our cultural memories and intimately familiar with, we need to listen. When those who hunger for justice feel compelled to starve themselves to maintain their own health and safety, we need to listen. When those who have been incarcerated are also being enslaved rather than rehabilitated, we need to listen. Only when we listen to those most vulnerable in our country, can we truly do the kind of cheshbon hanefesh shel olam that Rabbi Brous spoke of in her 2010 interview with Krista Tippet, the accounting of the soul of the world which I shared with you on Rosh HaShanah morning.
          As we feel the hunger pains stab throughout this day, let us allow them to remind us of those throughout our country who are hungry every day, by circumstance or by compulsion, for food and for justice. As the day goes on, and we hope that our teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah earn us a good year in 5777, let us hope it encourages within us true change and lasting compassion, sincere prayer and heartfelt honesty, and let that tzedakah go to worthy causes that truly fight for justice and righteousness. And may we see in 5777 a world a little more repaired, a little more compassionate, a little more peaceful. Amen and g’mar chatimah tovah.

Erev Yom Kippur - Forgiveness

"I forgive you, as you have asked," (Numbers 14:20).
Forgiveness, according to Rabbi Ellen Lewis, changes our past. This season of teshuvah is not just about our own repentance, but also about forgiving others who've wrong us, whether or not they atone for that. The sages of the Mishnah said, "For sins against God or self, the acts of repentance on Yom Kippur atones. But for sins between people, Yom Kippur does not atone until those people reconcile with each other." While that must be the case for proper teshuvah and any hope for reparations in the relationship, sometimes people will wrong us and they won't apologize. Sometimes they don't know and sometimes they don't care. 
In the case that they don't know, we can risk expressing our feelings to them, and depending on the offense and the relationship, I would argue this is generally the best option. However, there are cases where this confrontation will cause more dissension and is simply not worth the hassle. In the case that they simply don't care, there is literally nothing you can do. If they know they've hurt you and they refuse to understand why or how to reform, if they really don't feel sorry that they've hurt you, there's no sense in pushing the issue and beating a dead horse. In any case, the best thing you can do is let go. 
Our great sage Maimonides told us in his codified Jewish law on teshuvah, "When the person who wronged you asks for forgiveness, you should forgive him with a complete heart and a willing spirit. Even if he aggravated and wronged you severely, you should not seek revenge or bear a grudge." Modern day psychologists agree: forgiveness is good for your soul. There's a story from one of the books I read for my pastoral counseling coursework in rabbinical school, the details of which are now fuzzy for me. There was a parent, let's say a mother, though I don't remember exactly. Her young adult child was killed, by a drunk driver if my memory serves, but I’ve already told you, it doesn't. For a long time there was no justice on the case. The mother fought tirelessly to ensure that her child's killer was put behind bars, and when that person was, the parent was shocked to discover that justice did not appease her as she thought it would. It did not bring her child back and it did not bring her peace. She came to realize that her passion for imprisoning the manslaughterer was not really one for justice but for revenge, and obtaining it did not kill her grudge. She developed some kind of relationship with the killer, not close or friendly, but she gave the person a chance to apologize for their mistakes and she forgave them. Only then was she able to let go of her grudge and grieve properly for her child, and move on with her own life. 
I cannot imagine the strength of character that must have taken. I know that there have been times in my life where I resolved to forgive someone, knowing it was the best course of action and that would be good for me, as well as for the other person and our relationship, but found that I had to keep forgiving them several times before I could actually let go of my resentment toward them. To look into the eyes of the person who took a loved one from you and forgive them is beyond my experience and empathy. As good as it may be for us and as much as it is rooted in our tradition, true forgiveness is hard work. It taps so deeply into our psyches, into the parts of ourselves that are the hardest to control or change. That is precisely why it is such an intrinsic part of our teshuvah. As I said on Rosh HaShanah, true teshuvah is transformation. It's making a lasting change in yourself and your behavior. In order to do that, we have to do the hard work of forgiveness. Of accepting the fact that others miss the mark, just as we do, and this whole repentance thing is a give and take. 
May this Yom Kippur be one of true teshuvah, of repentance, atonement, and forgiveness. May we learn from our mistakes, let go of others', and truly transform into the people we want to be. Amen and g'mar chatimah tovah, may you be inscribed in the Book of Life.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Parashat Vayeilech: Shabbat Shuvah 5777

          Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Vayeilech, in which Moses announces his death and begins to close his whole Deuteronomy-long lecture on commandments and covenant and prepare the People of Israel to follow Joshua into the Promised Land instead. He warns the people that whenever Israel comes before the Lord, they should read and speak, hear and listen, the words of Torah that Moses has given them. By doing so, they will know the commandments and follow them. But God warns Moses that the people will not always actually do this. God knows that in a future time, the people of Israel will violate the mitzvot and the covenant, and will be destroyed by greater armies. Call it Divine Omniscience, but it also seems pretty obvious that such a thing is likely, considering what a stiff-necked people the Israelites already are. The Torah is full of problematic characters who act against God or in ways that confuse our own moral sensibilities, so it’s no surprise that in the Haftarah for this week, that is indeed what’s happening.
          In Haftarat Vayeilech, the prophet Hosea addresss the Israelites. In Chapter 5, he references the wars with the Assyrians which would eventually lead to the destruction of the Northern Kingdom, but Chapter 14, this week’s Haftarah, is written as prophecy: in the future, Samaria shall be destroyed, and Judea shortly thereafter, because of the guilt of the Israelites. They relied on human kings and false prophets, they assimilated to other traditions of the Ancient Near East, prayed to Ashterot and Ba’al, and turned their backs on God and Jewish traditions. Still, God wants their teshuvah. It is no accident that this is the Haftarah chosen for Shabbat Shuvah. The first word read of the Haftarah portion, Hosea 14:2-10, is “Shuvah” – Return. Return, and turn, ask for forgiveness for all your iniquity, request that God treat us graciously and that God accepts the words of our lips. In this time of destruction of the Israelite Kingdoms, Hosea hopes that our lack of access to the Temples and our inability to offer Hatat sacrifices will not impede our ability to make restitution with God.
          Of course, now we live in post-destruction time, when the idea of a Temple and making sacrifices is so far removed from our personal experience, that we don’t even think to worry about God’s potential preference for it. But we might still worry about our ability to make restitution. We might still worry that our prayer is pure enough, that our actions reflect our words, that we are truly turning and returning to Judaism. During this season of Teshuvah, we are especially aware of these concerns, and turn inward to find the atonements in our hearts. Throughout the High Holy Day liturgy, we read “The 13 Attributes of God,” which let us know that God might be compassionate and forgiving, slow to anger, and lovingly merciful. Or God might be judgemental, a harsh ruler who punishes the children for the sins of the parent. At Selichot, God hovers above two thrones: The Throne of Mercy and the Throne of Judgement. As we pray for forgiveness through the holy days up until the Gates of Forgiveness close at Neilah, we hope that we can persuade God to settle on the Throne of Mercy and inscribe us for blessing in the Book of Life. On Haftarat Vayeilech, the prophet Hosea tells the Israelites, Return to Adonai your God. Rabbi Meir, a second century sage who lived in Roman-occupied Israel, commented on this that the Israelites should make teshuvah while God is still Adonai, our compassionate and loving God of the Jewish people. Otherwise, God is Elohei, the God of Justice and Judgement.
Although we say that the Gates of Forgiveness close with Neilah, and we emphasize the importance of using this time to persuade God to rest on the Throne of Mercy, that does not necessarily mean that once God settles on the Throne of Judgement, we’re goners. Our liturgy also makes clear that God does not want to condemn us. God wants us to make teshuvah, whenever we are ready. But as we know from our own interpersonal conflicts, the longer we wait to make amends for something, the harder it becomes to talk about and greater the hurt it causes. So, let’s not delay. Yom Kippur is nearly upon us. Although we know we can confront our mistakes at any time, let’s use this time to make sure we’re starting off the new year right. May we embark on 5777 with clean slates, open hearts, and walking humbly with a merciful God. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.