Let Justice Well Up as the Waters
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are a gift. They provide us the opportunity to grow and to change, and to learn from the past – even the recent past. In the last few weeks we’ve learned from two different hurricanes. After Katrina we saw contrasting pictures of families fleeing New Orleans, sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic in their air conditioned cars, while others suffered in the Superdome, and at the convention center, left behind to starve, to drown, with no way out. And only a few weeks later, we did learn. Before Rita struck, there were buses lined up collecting the poor and the elderly. Neighbors knocked on doors to ensure that everyone had a ride. We learned. We changed.
After Rita I felt so much better - until two weeks ago. During Religious School break a twelve year old approached me and wanted to talk. She was profoundly moved by the pictures of families sitting on their rooftops desperate for rescue. The pictures of cars packed on the freeway leaving New Orleans behind – leaving hundreds of thousands of poverty stricken families behind, angered and frustrated this young girl. Good human beings left other human beings behind. There was no sense of decency, of caring, of community. Looking over to the many boxes of donated food that you, this generous congregation provided to those in need, she made a deeply perceptive comment: “All this food will help for a short time, but how will we ever create a community that cares enough not to leave all those people behind?”
Her question is echoed in the story of a group of campers by the side of a river. They saw a body floating by. They all ran into the water, pulled the person out, performed CPR and saved the person. As they were packing up their tents, they noticed another body. Again they jumped into the water, and rescued the man. As they were getting into their cars, they saw another body come floating by. As they were saving this person, one guy turned to another and asked: Maybe we better get up river and see if we can solve what’s happening there!
And then it occurred to me: maybe we haven’t really changed. Yes, we’re good at attaining short term goals, but we don't worry about what comes later. Like the campers, we're good in a crisis, at saving people as they float by. When we see pictures of hunger on the T. V. screens at the gym, misery on our televisions at home, destruction on the front pages of our newspapers and magazines, we react. At these moments we’re good at providing food to fill empty stomachs. However, we don't often ask what is happening up the river. We aren’t so good when the pictures disappear, when we return to false reality T.V. When the images are no longer in front of our eyes, we forget that the poor remain stranded - stranded economically, left behind socially. Thus this New Year, which offers us the opportunity to grow and change, challenges us to go beyond short-term change. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur demand that we integrate real change into the core of our souls.
“How will we ever create a community that cares enough not to leave all those people behind?” This Rosh Hashanah that question, posed by a twelve year old, reminds us that our ultimate challenge as Jews is to serve as God’s partners in creating a better world. This is the challenge of Social Justice – to create that better world for our generation and for future generations.
Judaism compels us to open our hearts to the widow, the orphan, the stranger. Why does Torah constantly repeat these three - the widow, the orphan, the stranger? What do they have in common? They are all people with no voice, no power in society. Judaism teaches us that it is our responsibility to be their voice, to transform their lives for the better. Being Jewish is about trying to create a community where widows, orphans and strangers are full participants in the prosperity of our society. That is what Social Justice is all about.
When Torah speaks of the widow, the orphan, the stranger, it teaches us that we have a practical obligation to them. In every harvest each one of us must leave fruit on our trees and grains in our fields for those with no voice, with no power. Our challenge, as modern day Jews, is to transpose this agricultural solution to our modern day economy. As society gets more complex, so too do our problems and the work of Social Justice becomes even more crucial. It is time for us to commit to transform our society so that our community cares and acts…cares and acts for those with no voice or power, ensuring that they do have a voice …transforming our society for them, for us.
Judaism does not allow us to leave this transformative work to social workers or politicians. Each of us is commanded by Torah to leave the corners of our fields, the remainder of our grain. We have to help solve the huge problems that sending a check to the Red Cross or Katrina relief won’t solve. The work of Social Justice is the work of each and every Jew.
In recent years our synagogue community placed Shabbat, Adult Learning and caring for each other at the center of our congregational mission. Katrina compels us to place Social Justice at the center as well. Being a member of Temple Judea will now mean that we need to invest our souls for the better of our community. This is a new definition of community requiring that we take responsibility for bringing about Social Justice.
We have a strategic blueprint for achieving this goal. After Katrina, this new sense of responsibility is taking root in synagogues and churches around our city, and our nation. Our response will be part of a nationwide, well defined blueprint of steps that will lead us to effective action.
The first stage of this blueprint will be when we come to you, to your homes, to meet with you and listen to you, listen to each other. We will ask you: What social challenges directly affect your lives? There may be in our congregation, in our families, in our community, those who are hungry, who cannot afford the prescription drugs that keep them alive, who are caring for their parents while caring for their children. We will challenge you to redefine community –asking you to see social justice challenges at home, around the corner, down the block, and across the country.
The second step in our blueprint to change the world will be to prioritize what each of you has shared with us. There are thousands of problems we face. We would be paralyzed, facing an impossible task if we attempted to solve them all. Together as a congregation we will sort through our issues, prioritize them, choose those that most affect each of us, and those around us.
The work of Social Justice is enormous. Despite our numbers, we will not succeed if we work alone. Our next step, having heard from you what our priorities should be, is to create a grand coalition of those who care about Social Justice. We will join with those in other synagogues and churches around Los Angeles and around the nation, who have had the same conversations, who have prioritized the challenges their communities face.
Once our agenda is clear, once we have created a united religious community committed to Social Justice, we will act over the long-term. With a strong and unified voice we will take our vision to those with the power to make a difference. We will visit politicians, and work with them to bring about changes, large and small, that will further our vision for a better world. Our voice will be heard. We will visit corporations, explain our agenda and work with them to act responsibly for the good of society. Boards of Education, boards of corporations, City Councils, Legislators, Senators, we will meet with those and together we will bring about change. Our voice will be heard. We will benefit – our lives will be better. The widow, the orphan, the stranger – their lives will be better too.
The New Year asks us to change. Our Social Justice work will bring about the change that this New Year calls upon us to create. We will work together as Jews to bring our world closer to the messianic vision of which we dream. We will take the time necessary to understand the issues more clearly, to clarify our agenda, to create consensus, to build a holy community committed to achieving Social Justice.
By next Rosh Hashanah we may not yet have dramatically changed the world. However we will have set our path and we will be walking it together.
“How will we ever create a community that cares enough not to leave all those people behind?” I invite you to join me as we embark on a transformational journey together beginning at an organizing meeting on November 10th, a meeting to clarify the direction we will take. Then you will begin to receive phone calls, one by one, so that we can hear the challenges in your lives, so that the challenges you face can become part of our communal agenda. Join is at our first meeting. Say yes to our phone call – share your concerns with us.
Being a part of the Temple Judea community means taking part in this dynamic course of action dedicated to Social Justice. Community is a gift and an obligation. Being a part of community strengthens each of us – it provides us with a sense of belonging, a sense of connection. Being a part of a community cannot be a passive enterprise. It requires that we engage with others, that we reach out to include others… that we give back. My call this Rosh Hashanah is for you to accept the obligation.
A twelve year old girl is waiting for your answer. “How will we ever create a community that cares enough not to leave all those people behind?” We will do it together, step by step, challenge by challenge. It will be a transformational process, transformational for Temple Judea and transformational for our world.
Let the calls of the Shofar be our guide this Rosh Hashanah and in this coming year.
Tekiah: The Torah teaches us that Tekiah was sounded to gather the Israelites at times of alarm and of joy. It was a call to come together as a community. This Rosh Hashanah, as we hear the call of Tekiah – let us come together as a community to pursue justice, to bring about a more perfect world.
Shevarim: a broken sound is the sound of suffering. It implores us to respond and repair. This Rosh Hashanah as we hear Shevarim, let us respond to the pain in our community and work to repair the damage humanity inflicts on humanity. Shevarim at Temple Judea this year means that we will search deep within ourselves and deep within our tradition, to hear the voice of our conscience, the Jewish voice that leads us to pursue holy work, the work of Social Justice.
Teruah: an ancient signal that it was time to break camp and move forward with vision and with purpose in our journey to the Promised Land. This year, our broad and deep commitment will lead us to address root problems, going beyond programs, beyond projects, beyond Mitzvah Day. This Rosh Hashanah with Teruah let us move beyond the boundaries of our insular community and reach out to others so that together we can move forward toward our messianic vision for all of humanity.
Tekiah Gedolah – a long and uplifting call, the call of ultimate hope and triumph. Tekiah Gedolah will be for us this year a call to Tzedakah – not charity in terms of giving, but a call to Tzedakah, to righteousness, to Social Justice – reminding us that we are compelled to act, and through our actions come closer to the ultimate vision of how our world should be. This year let our Tekiah Gedolah sustain our vision and our faith.
Let the calls of the Shofar that echo on this Rosh Hashanah - this New Year after Hurricane Katrina – be calls that stir our souls, compelling us to recommit to our fundamental holy purpose as individuals and as members of a synagogue community: to work toward Social Justice, to build a more complete world in which no one is left behind, everyone’s voice is heard, a world in which God’s presence is felt by every human being. May the calls of the Shofar motivate us to create a world in which the words of the prophet Isaiah are realized: “Let justice well up as the waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.”
Ken Yihey Ratzon, May that be God’s will. Amen