On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
Yom Kippur falls curiously in the first days of each new year. In a way, it seems odd that our Day of Atonement comes after Rosh Hashanah. If Yom Kippur were essentially a time for reflection on the past 365 days, we would expect it to come before the New Year. In that way, we could atone for our transgressions, our omissions, our violations and then move into the coming year renewed, refreshed, unfettered by past misdeeds. Instead, we do not atone as the people Israel until after the New Year. On Rosh Hashanah, we are renewed but we are not unfettered. We are expected to learn from our past mistakes and to use the lessons to transform us in the future.
In the first words of the Torah portion for Yom Kippur, every person is called to stand before G-d: from the most exalted leader to the most humble worker, every woman, child, man, neighbor and stranger alike is called to be present–to enter the covenant with G-d anew. Not just our ancestors who encountered G-d in the wilderness were called to the covenant, but all of us: “And not with you alone will I make this covenant and this oath, but with those who stand here with us this day before G-d and also with those who are not here with us this day.” Each of us, from all times, is called to the covenant, and each of us holds a piece of the revelation granted at Sinai.
On Yom Kippur, set before us is life and good, and death and evil. We are commanded to choose life: to love mercy, seek justice and walk humbly with G-d. And so, Yom Kippur is a day for looking forward as much as looking back, a time for preparing for what is to come as much as a time for repairing what has been done. Atonement is the ritual preparation for how we will act, how we will engage, how we will participate in covenant in the year ahead.
In our tradition, during the Days of Awe, we peer forward into the new year and ask,
Who shall see ripe age and who shall not;
who shall perish by fire and who by water;
who by sword and who by beast;
who by hunger and who by thirst;
who by earthquake and who by plague;
who by strangling and who by stoning;
who shall be secure and who shall be driven;
who shall be tranquil and who troubled;
who shall be poor and who shall be rich;
who shall be humbled and who exalted.
And we are answered that repentance and prayer appeal to G-d’s mercy and temper judgment’s severe decree. In our time, and perhaps for all times, this conversation is unsettling . . . maybe even unconscionable. The premise of G-d’s “severe decree”– that our fate this year is sealed today–seems to deny free will, to blame those who are victims, even to recast those who cause harm to others as simply carrying out the edict of the book of death. It seems to say that those who survive are worthy and those who do not are not–to perpetuate a myth of meritocracy in the grimmest order.
And yet, I have always felt awe when reading these words. I have read them, imagining my ancestors: people who lived so much closer to the reality of death than I. Even my grandparents raised the animals that they would eat, both grandfathers worked in dangerous conditions in mineshafts and on combines, both grandmothers rocked babies as they died from fevers that could be easily healed today. For them, death came fiercely, frequently, randomly, confoundingly.
It seems that death was both more familiar and more terrifying to them than it is to me now. And so, each year, as I read these words, I would feel a deep compassion for the well of human frailty and human endurance that used the simple liturgical device of such a devastating, humbling list to struggle to make sense of the deaths that were sure to come in the year ahead. Something poignant, ancient, remembered.
But on Rosh Hashanah morning, Rabbi Michael told us simply and profoundly that through his struggle in recent years with this prayer –the Unetanneh Tokef – he had decided he could not in good conscience lead the congregation through the passage. As I read the prayer silently, I found myself experiencing it differently. This Rosh Hashanah I could only think of Hurricane Katrina, the Gulf and New Orleans. As the images unfolded the week after Labor Day, the answer to those questions– who shall perish by fire and who by water, who by hunger and who by thirst; who shall be secure and who shall be driven; who shall be poor and who shall be rich?–was laid plain before us.
In the face of the unparalleled wealth of the richest country in the history of the world– Poverty determined who would be left behind as Katrina bore down upon the Gulf. And in the face of the unrealized promise of the freest society in the history of the world–Racism deter- mined who would be poor. It was not random, it was predictable. In fact, it was predicted. It is true that nature chose the venue. But our collective actions: our policies, privileges and inequities of power–chose the victims.
And so the violence and hunger and confusion progressed, much as it had been anticipated.
Alongside the footage of the devastation, we had the equally compelling images of people manifesting gemilut chasadim, acts of loving kindness–people sharing meager water rations, people risking their lives to help others, people calling upon the most sacred skills of our shared humanity to affirm life in harrowing contexts. At times like this, I ask myself: Could I do it? Would I be able to act unselfishly? To see my humanity in the other, the stranger? Would I be able to choose to affirm life? The power to act selflessly seems remote: more the stuff of heaven than of earth.
It turns out that for many of us, the opportunities to act heroically come infrequently. Sometimes, when they do come, we are not prepared. We may not act cravenly, we may not act hatefully or greedily, but we often don’t act heroically, not because we don’t have the miraculous human potential to act that way but because we haven’t developed the skills to fulfill this potential. Right acting, by one person or by a people, is a skill. Covenant is a practice we have to internalize. In order to make real the truly miraculous human potential to live in covenant–to radically affirm life–we have to learn how, and we have to apply those skills daily.
Rosa Parks is one of the great heroes of our nation. But the story of her heroism is often distorted and obscures the necessity of the radical practice of love and justice that is needed to act heroically. The story is that Rosa Parks was tired from a hard day at work and so she refused to stand in the back of the bus. In a spark of revelation and righteous anger, she sat down and ignited the bus boycotts that would change the course of legal segregation in our country forever.
But that is not the whole story. When Rosa Parks sat down, it may be true that she was tired, but it is not true that one December evening she headed home from work, got fed up and–just like that–history was made. Rosa Parks wanted change for herself, for her people and for our world. She wanted injustice to be rooted out and for the grievous racism that shaped our nation to be transformed. As she says, she was not just tired but “tired of giving in.”
So Rosa Parks prepared. She worked with the NAACP and trained at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. She learned about the principles of non-violent civil disobedience, she practiced and she organized…so when the opportunity presented itself, she was ready to act, heroically and historically.
“At Highlander,” she said, “I found out for the first time in my adult life that this could be a unified society . . . I gained there the strength to persevere in my work for freedom not just for Blacks, but for all oppressed people.”
Most of us were taught that Rosa Parks was an incredibly brave woman who sat down, but many of us were not taught how she prepared to make her historic destiny manifest. And many of us where not taught how the people in her community were also preparing, organizing alongside her so that when she refused to give up her seat to a white man–a single, heroic gesture–her community was ready, prepared, to amplify that single gesture into a movement that transformed the nation.
Every day, we are preparing ourselves for something. Our consciousness is created by what we do. Often, we think that we do things because we believe them. In fact, we believe things because we do them. Just try it. Take something that you don’t have a strong conviction for and do it.
Start recycling religiously. It will not take long for you to believe that recycling is critically important. Start acting generously and you will quickly come to believe that generosity is a central component of right living. Cheat on your taxes, and soon you will believe that cheating makes sense. What we do, how we act, prepares us for what we will do, for how we will act. This is a profoundly Jewish understanding of the relationship between right acting and right thinking.
What we do every day is creating what we believe, and what we believe informs what we can perceive. So, what we do: how we act, how we speak, the way we treat our neighbor, the way we treat the stranger– all of these actions are creating our understanding of the world. These actions are preparing our minds to believe in loving kindness or to believe in looking out for self. These actions are creating a consciousness of covenant or preparing us to dismiss with indifference. This past Labor Day, Our nation could not act outside of how it had prepared. Every day the fate of the people left unrescued in the Superdome and on rooftops was written and rewritten by the small cruelties of exploitation and oppression that ensured the poverty of the 9th Ward for many years before.
In the aftermath, when Haliburton and Bechtel were awarded lucrative no-bid contracts while simultaneously worker protections and prevailing pay scales were suspended, poverty and racism were the first social institutions to be restored. Their foundations reset, the edifice of disparity promised to rise again, a vicious Phoenix, preparing the future.
Meanwhile, in the wake of the hurricane, people across the country, from all walks of life, from every community were deeply moved by the plight of the evacuees and the people (overwhelmingly poor, overwhelmingly black) left behind. The evidence of the endemic poverty and institutionalized racism of our nation was discussed plainly, for the first time in a long time, by everyone from Jon Stewart (Jewish) to the folks on Fox News (not so Jewish).
People across the world poured out their compassion, their assistance, and contributed resources, time, money. People opened up their homes to evacuees, people flew across the country to help in relief and rescue efforts. Members of Kol HaNeshamah contributed generously to relief funds. I don’t think I know anyone who wasn’t deeply moved, who hasn’t contributed in an attempt to alleviate suffering.
I have no doubt in our human capacity to care, to respond in our inner selves with compassion, to grieve at the evidence of human suffering when it is unavoidably made plain before us. But I ask: how are we preparing to create a different outcome in the future? How are we acting to transform a society where racism and poverty are so devastatingly entrenched?
How are we divesting of the benefits of a system that requires deep poverty in order to maintain inordinate wealth and privilege? Some may wish to downplay the role of the human created and human enforced poverty and racism that authored so much of the human suffering evidenced in the days after the hurricane. Some would ask G-d: Who shall see a ripe age and who shall not? Hoping that G-d can be implicated and G-d responsible for the deaths, the rapes, the inhumanities.
But what if, instead, we return to Unetanneh Tokef to find the speakers in the prayer reversed? What if, now, we are not intended to ask G-d the troubling, harrowing questions of this liturgy? Instead, what if G-d is asking these questions of us? What if G-d is asking us? Calling us to account for how we act, and by those actions who we choose: who we choose to perish and who we choose to live. What if it is each of us who must acknowledge that by changing our behavior, by right acting, we can redeem the world?
Would we use the resources of the world differently so that the earth’s atmosphere stopped warming, so that the waters stopped rising and the storms quieted, so that fewer will die by fire, fewer by water?
Would each of us reduce our use of fossil fuels so that we were less reliant on oil and less inclined to send (mostly poor, mostly young, mostly people of color) to die and kill by the sword to secure oil abroad? Would each of us insist on a radical transformation of a prison system: abolishing the death penalty that puts people of color to death at an alarmingly disproportionate rate than white people, so that fewer will die by stoning?
Would each of us learn to advocate for the self-determination and safety of a person being battered in their home, so that fewer will die by strangling? Would we change the disparities of housing, healthcare, education, and opportunity so that more will be secure and more tranquil?
Would each of us use our ingenuity, our talents and gifts to act heroically, to save one life? To save a thousand? To save them all?
The times for reflection, for repentance, for change afforded in the wisdom of the Days of Awe are an amazing gift. We had forty years in the presence of Shekinah in the wilderness to prepare for living as free people. And each year we have a season of repentance, a time set aside to return us to the sanctity of our encounter with covenant. Each year we return to Sinai, standing together again to refine our skills and increase our capacity to affirm life.
The Torah tells us today that the ability to radically choose life is not hidden from us; it is not far off. We do not have to ascend to heaven, to be divinely enlightened. We don’t have to search it out beyond the sea. We are told that it is very near to us. It is, in fact, in our mouths and in our hearts. The capacity is in us, we have to develop it, but in the end, it is the practice of our humanity that sanctifies life.
So I ask you: What if it is us, not G-d, who holds the pen to the book of life. What if it is you? What if it is me? What would we do to inscribe as many names as we possibly could there? Such a task may seem daunting; we may experience long moments of overwhelm. But what a sweet, joyous responsibility! We have so much in our tradition to turn to and so much in the congregation we share together to gird our strength and to encourage us. So, perhaps this year we will not finish the task, but neither shall we turn from it.
On Yom Kippur, the content of the covenant between Israel and G-d is laid out in no uncertain terms. It is written: Set before Israel this day are life or death, blessing or cursing: therefore choose life. This year, every day each of us could act as if our choices, individually and collectively, placed the seal upon the book. Every day, each of us could act as if our choices had the power to move another name from the book of death to the book of life. This year, every day, each of us, with each of our actions could choose life.
I have been an anti-violence activist since I was 19 years old. Over the years, I have worked most closely with three organizations: on staff at both Women’s Transitional Care Services in Lawrence, Kansas and The Northwest Network of Bisexual, Trans, Lesbian and Gay Survivors of Abuse in Seattle, WA; and on the board of the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
My sermon is informed by the understanding of our anti-violence movement developed through my work with those organizations. The survivors, advocates and community members I have worked beside have taught me that we are part of a broad liberation movement and, therefore, we unapologetically oppose state and corporate abuses. No family is “free from violence” while its members are exploited economically, or targeted for racist discrimination or sent off to wars justified by misinformation. We cannot sustain the conditions necessary to support loving and equitable relationships between intimate partners in a country where deep disparity in health care access, housing, education, economic opportunity, public safety and community infrastructure go unchecked. And, most importantly, that Teshuvah and Tikkun Olam are possible for survivors of violence and for our communities and that each of us can choose to be active agents in real transformation.