Yom Kippur 5773/2012: "Burning Castles"
Yom Kippur 5773/2012:
(c) Rabbi Menachem Creditor
I've been having a hard time expressing what's inside of me recently. Mostly, it's been coming out during the last few months as crying. I've been finding that a glance from even a stranger can reduce me to tears. And I don't want this to change.
Two months ago I traveled to Ghana, West Africa as part of a Rabbinic delegation on behalf of American Jewish World Service. I was there for only 10 days. It was enough to change me forever.
But my intent tonight isn't to tell you about my trip. It's rather to suggest that the world needs more than we've been giving, and that the blessing of plenty most of us have on a daily basis is only rightfully ours if we see it as the gift of having enough to share.
What I plan to share with you tonight is a series of images, of stories, of memories, that do not remain in this room and do not exist only tonight. And it is my deepest hope, above all, that we will each find ourselves looking more people in the eye more often - especially strangers.
First, a Midrash:
Our father Abram walked the earth for many years before being renamed Abraham by God, called to begin the intense journey that has coursed through millennia to lead each one of us here tonight. What must that call have felt like? Was he aware of the life-changing impact an encounter with God would cause? And if he was ready, what was it that prepared him?
A story is told that, one day, Abram went for a walk, when something caught his eye. He turned from his well-worn path to explore, and he found, sitting by the banks of a stream, someone he'd never seen before, someone much older than he, sun reflecting on their wrinkled face. The elder looked up and beckoned Abram.
"I have something to tell you, young man." Abram leaned forward to listen well.
The sage continued, "I was walking this earth many years ago, somewhere near here, and saw something I will never forget. Seeing something flicker off my regular path I came upon a Bira Doleket, a Castle in Flames. I said to myself 'Can this castle possibly be without an owner?' Immediately, the master of the castle looked out, caught my glance in his, and said, 'I am the owner of this castle.' Suddenly the image of the castle and the castle's owner vanished from my sight. I have long wondered what this meant and have been trying to find both once again."
The man closed his eyes and settled into silence. Eventually it became clear to Abram that the man had drifted off to sleep. And after a time, Abram rose up and continued on his way. But the story he heard never left him. Each day he would imagine the Bira Doleket, the Burning Castle. Eventually it was all he could see. Each time he would encounter an elder, every time he noticed the sun shining, every time he passed a stream. He sought out the mysterious elder but could not locate him again, catching only fleeting similarities of the elder in the faces of those Abram did encounter.
Abram began to wonder to himself, "I cannot help but see the Bira Doleket in everything, burning and untended. The world itself, for me, has become a Burning Castle. Can this world possibly be without an owner?" The Kadosh Baruch Hu, the Holy One of Blessing, looked out from Heaven at Abram and said, "I am the One you seek. You have noticed Me by looking deeply into my world. I have work for you and for your descendants. Lech Lecha. Go. There is much to do and little time."
(inspired by Genesis Rabbah 39)
Back to Ghana.
The setting for our journey was the village of Sankor in the Winneba district, up the coast from Accra, the capital of Ghana. We were sent to help with some projects at Challenging Heights, a child-centered organization dedicated to promoting children's rights to education and freedom from forced labor, in order to end child poverty. I knew all that before I left.
We met with the founder of Challenging Heights, James Kofi Annan, to hear his story. James is the last and the only educated out of twelve children. He worked as a child fisherman from the age of 6 to 13, before he finally liberated himself. In April 2007, James founded Challenging Heights, providing education for formerly enslaved and vulnerable children. To this date, 400 child-slaves have been liberated and thousands of children have been part of the Challenging Heights program.
We were assigned a few projects: leveling a dirt soccer field, mixing cement for the foundation of a home, adding layers to a brick fence, and building a latrine. It became clear that the work would have gone much better and quicker if it weren't rabbis doing it. It reminded me of a teaching I learned years ago from the president of AJWS, my teacher Ruth Messinger. Speaking after the South-East Asian Tsunami in 2004, she told a group in Boston:
"What makes relief work so heroic is that we know we'll never be able to truly answer the need. But that won't stop us from trying."
I'd heard a message like this before: "You are not obligated to complete the task, but neither are you exempt from starting." Pirkei Avot. I'd taught this text many, many times. But I taught it with my head, thinking I could fulfill it with my mind. I never paid attention to how it was supposed to manifest in my body, and through my body into the world.
I had had surgery a few days before the trip, and so was unable to physically participate in the labor. I have never before ached to lift and pour and mix cement - to do anything - to be part of building this world in one of the many places that need it so badly. But my limitation from physical labor brought into sharp focus my work as witness. Watching my colleagues sweat and give of their bodies - watching our worksite supervisor, Aloo, gently instruct and support us - made me even more aware of this holy work and this holy place.
I had thought I came to help change things. But instead I have become changed. I have learned how little I know, and I will not - cannot - forget what I saw.
Three specific memories have defined every day for me since:
A first memory:
Sankor is on the coast of Africa, and so one day we walked to the Ocean. I saw an array of colors before me, in people's clothes, and on dozens of fishing boats. I turned to my teacher, Adina Mermelstein Konikoff, senior program officer of AJWS, and was about to remark about the beautiful vision before us. But the instant I turned to Adina I caught a glimpse of her eyes. And I couldn't breathe. I forgot what I was looking at. Her eyes were such a shock to me, and as they pulled me out of forgetting, I saw what was before us. Slaves. Many children staffing these boats have been sold by their parents, not because of crushing poverty but in the context of it. That's the human tragedy Challenging Heights was established to end, the very reason I came.
And once my eyes were opened, I couldn't see the beauty of those boats. I couldn't see the water anymore. It's still very hard. Adina's eyes, brimming with God's sadness and anger, have opened mine. I see these boats now, no matter where I look.
A second memory:
Because of my surgery, I ended up spending considerable time with the children of Sankor, blessed to sing and play and share stories.
One day, a circle of a few rabbis and children taking turns telling each other stories: During one story, the girl on my right, Gladys, rested her head on my arm, obviously glad for human contact, something we were told would likely occur, as every experience of affirmation was part of the healing process for these children saved from slavery. I truly can't remember the stories we were telling, but I can feel the warmth of Gladys' head on my arm right now.
Gladys looked at me and asked if I had eaten. I told I would eat later. She nodded, and said "I hope you eat tomorrow too." I nodded, accepting her blessing, wishing it back to her a million fold.
A third memory:
One spectacular moment was when I taught a group of Ghanaian children theKrakover Niggun by Shlomo Carlebach, and they began singing it, dancing, and drumming. An American Rabbi traveled to Africa to sing with redeemed slaves a melody composed in Cracow, Poland after the Holocaust. As Paul Simon wrote, "my soul rose unexpectedly, looking back down at me, smiling assuringly."
I have written before of certain moments when I believe my ancestors have been watching from Heaven. But in that moment, tears running down my eyes, I had a vision of these children's ancestors, dancing with mine.
I can't stop seeing these images.
These experiences: the fishing boats, Glady's blessing, the joyous rapture of singing a Polish niggun with Ghanaian children - these have become my Bira Doleket, my ever-present Burning Castle. I see those children in the eyes of my children, in the eyes of every child, in the eyes of every person. I see the face of a homeless woman in downtown Berkeley and am suddenly transported to our meeting in Ghana with the traditional elders of Winneba. I see the fishing boats when I cross the Bay Bridge.
One thing surprised me more than anything else. I had no idea how hard it would be to come home. I re-entered my world of iPhones and Costco, of air-conditioning and indoor plumbing, and wished I were back in Ghana.
I had thought it would be a relief to come home, and that's certainly true in many ways. But my notion of home changed profoundly on this trip. I learned that that's what it means to be a Global Jewish Citizen. It means that every ounce of strength we put into building our precious shul had better be attuned to the higher purpose of building the world. It means that I must deepen my involvement in United States politics because the influence of this nation on the Global Economy can mean the difference between life and death for millions of others. Our country's track record on Relief and Aid is not as beautiful as we wish, and it is not enough for us to react to politicians in a Presidential election year.
This is not about guilt - it's about our obligation as Jews in the world.
We must, as a community, learn to see beyond sustaining our community - our mission is not to protect the walls of a building or the ledgers of our budget. The Jewish mission began when Abraham and Sarah left what they knew to live holy lives, and we have no right to see our own individual and communal callings as any less than that. We each have purposes in the world, Netivot Shalom has a purpose in the world, and there is much to do and little time.
Just this past Friday afternoon, as I sat with the precious children of the Netivot Shalom Preschool for our 'Pretend Shabbat,' I started crying again. While in Ghana, I came across a sweet book, "Crocodile Bread," by Kathy Knowles, a Canadian author who visits Ghana twice a year. It tells a beautiful story:
"On most days my grandmother and aunties shape the dough to make bread and rolls. Today is a special day. My grandmother is also making crocodile bread! To make the body of the crocodile, she takes a piece of dough and rolls it on her long wooden table. My grandmother makes the crocodile's feet from four small pieces of dough. She places the feet in the pan. Then she puts the body on top."
I bought the book because it means something. Its images are full of color; it is full of multi-generational tradition. It represents a vision of life deserving of as much attention as the poverty that leaps into our minds when we hear the word "Ghana." But I also bought it because it is an image of childhood that is instantly recognizable despite the likely distance between reader and subject.
I started crying because, without me having known in advance, one of our teachers and a few students baked Crocodile Bread as the Challah for our Preschool Shabbat Circle. Suddenly, the rush of the entire journey came pounding into my heart, and all I could do was cry.
I cry for the blessing of having experienced Shabbes Joy from a Ghanaian child, thanks to a Canadian author. I cry because I saw many children during my journey who do not eat well and who are subjected to heavy labor, sometimes as slaves, who cannot yet taste the bread and cannot read the story and do not smile nearly enough.
I cry tonight because Isaiah was right: God wants, more than anything else, for us to
"unlock the fetters of wickedness, untie the cords of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, to break off every yoke. ...to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into our homes; When you see the naked, clothe him, And do not ignore your own brother. (Isaiah 58:6-7)"
I cry because I know what I am supposed to do. I am supposed to stop ignoring my sister and brother and I am supposed to break every yoke.
As Joanna Weinberg taught this past Shabbat, "Whatever they are, in whatever culture, there are sounds that call people together, that unite communities." There are sounds within our community that we have not heard. We don't need to go to Ghana to see hunger or violence. Ruth Messinger, in her travels, gets asked all the time, "It is a good thing you are doing on behalf of the Jewish People around the world. But we have problems here too! What are you doing right here?" To which she typically answers, "You're right. There are problems here. What are you doing about them?"
So let's start right here. Not across the world. Let's begin the process in this room, right now, so that the next time we see someone or hear of a need we can remember that both we and they are worthy of dignity, and that we are obligated to share the strength we have by coming to know someone else, hearing and seeing them well.
I am asking each of you, members of our precious community, to help each other hear better, to see more clearly, to work together toward an awesome, incredible, daunting, sacred vision, to be students of Abraham and Sarah, and Gladys and James, and of each other.
Before I close, I'd like to ask you each to something specific right now. Just this past Sunday I was invited to teach about one of the Ten Commandments in the Church Without Walls in Berkeley and invited them to do the same thing I'm about to ask you to do.
I spoke about the prohibition of worshipping idols, which some commentators believe refers specifically to seeing human beings as objects. We are not objects. We are full of Divine Potential, created in the Image of God. I'm going to ask you to experience this right now, by doing what Emmanuel Levinas taught was the hardest commandment, and the most important, to fulfill: Looking into each other's eyes.
I'd like to ask you each, for one minute, look at the person next to you. Not at their hair, not at their shoulders, but straight into their eyes, letting them really look into yours too. You and they are Divine Images. For one minute, I won't say anything either. Please, look at each other.
I don't know what just happened to you. But I do know that something has happened, and something must continue to happen. This world of ours requires a whole lot more of this than it currently experiences. Gladys' blessing, Adina's eyes, James' story - each has changed me from the inside out. Every time I've eaten since then I am overcome with profound gratitude, an overwhelming realization of the bounty with which I am blessed.
What does all this mean for us?
It means that will are called to sing and teach and cry - and look, to really look - at this world, and all who inhabit it, through God's eyes. The world IS a Bira Doleket, a Burning Castle. It is not the point whether or not you believe in any definition of God. Jewish tradition teaches at its core that every human being is created in the Image of the Divine. At its most basic level, that means that I love my wife and I love my daughters and I love my son and I have no right to ignore anyone else's or love you any less.
God, may every person in this world be free.
God, may we own our obligation to free them.
God, help us learn to see every human being as a reflection of You.
God, may this world know no more pain.