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.

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