What Do We Say To Trayvon and George?
Rosh HaShanah Second Day 5774 – 2013
Rabbi Gary S. Creditor
From the moment that I first heard about the tragedy that enveloped Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, a needless death and a life ruined, families that will perpetually grieve, violence – gun violence - unleashed again on our streets, and our nation torn and tortured along different tangents, besides my personal anguish over watching, listening, I was deeply perplexed.
What could I add?
What could I say that has not yet been said?
Should I rail again against the proliferation of guns? How much more can I say?
Should I rail against gated communities and their implications about our society?
Who is locked in? Who is locked out?
We divide and destroy, when we should unify and build.
Not being a civil lawyer, can I really analyze all elements in the controversial "Stand Your
Ground" law better than all the cable outlet pundits?
Besides crying out against the inhumanity of the specter of the trial and its aftermath, what can
we all of say to ourselves, our neighbors, our children, our grandchildren?
I was deeply and sorely perplexed.
During the summer months, weather permitting, I daven alone in my backyard. There are parts in the very beginning of the tefilot that are the foundation for the rest. Out of the necessity of time, we usually omit them. When I daven alone, I say them all. One Shabbat morning I was struck by the message of these particular tefilot. I realized that if I removed the words particular to us as Jews, there is a universal message radiating from these tefilot.
This is the message that America needs to hear!
These are the beliefs that must resound in our country! And I want to share them.
I am convinced that this tragedy – and so many like it - could have been avoided if people lived according the principles articulated in our prayers.
Perhaps we really need to include them in the order of our tefilot.
We need to teach them to our children.
We need to live them ourselves as exemplars and models for all to see.
As Jews living our Judaism we have a special message for America.
In a style different from my normal preaching, I want us all to look at these tefilot together. Then I will draw out their meaning and message.
Page 35 Second Paragraph: The Body [All pages are Mahzor Lev Shalem]
We learn: Our bodies are delicate and fragile. They operate in mysterious and specific ways. Each organ has a function. There is a perhaps inexplicable rhyme and reason why there are openings and closings. In their unity and perfection, we live. Otherwise, we die. This tefilah recognizes that our bodies are gifts from God. They are beautiful, and yet, "if one of them fails to function" we die. This tefilah compels me/us to be sensitive and take care of our bodies and respect those of others. They break easily: from abuse and misuse; from alcohol, drugs and tobacco; from fists and from words; from knives and from guns.
When our children were young they often ran to me saying: "Abbah, fix this!" I guess that I did it too good and too often. So when they brought me something that I could not fix, they cried out: "but you can fix everything!" But I told them: "No I can't. Even if I am Abbah. Abbah can't fix everything. Some things that are broken can never be fixed." It was very hard lesson for them to learn.
We learn: Be considerate of others. Be gentle with yourself. Be careful with your body. Be kind. Thank God each day that you are blessed to be alive. Respect others so they can live, too. Remember: Guns make holes in our bodies, wrong openings, and we die.
Page 35 Third Paragraph: The Soul
We learn: We are born inherently good and pure. We label the life-force that is within us, that makes each and every human being different from the other with the word "soul." It is good to be different. God wants us that way. I like the use of the translation "Lifeless body." In teaching children I explain that the difference between being awake and being asleep is that when we are awake our soul is active. It is the special, intangible ingredient that is "me". Like our body, our soul is a gift from God. The tefilah recognizes that in the natural course we will die, yet we have the faith that our neshama will live on. How comforting is that faith!
We learn: Each human being is a creature crafted by God. Our faith teaches the respect of each soul, to marvel at the glory that is inherent in each human being. Don't look at the external shell! Look for the internal holiness that God breathed into each of us the moment we were born. Respect and be considerate of each soul.
Page 37 – The Whole Page: The Blessings of Sensitivity to Existence
We learn: If we remove the blessing about being a Jew and the word "Israel" which I do say with heart and soul, these blessings are universal and sensitize us to human existence. Because these are recited every day of the year there is the temptation to "rattle them off." I never do.
I don't ever want to take life for granted.
God wants us to be sensitized to: the wonder of life itself,
the difficulties of life,
the blessings we have,
the needs of others,
that since life isn't fair we need help and we need to give help,
that we can be blinded at birth or be can blind ourselves,
with senseless hatred, - both are wrong!
that we need to take care of the earth and all its creatures,
that we need to live with inner, moral, spiritual strength,
that we need courage to behavior properly,
that we need distinguish between good and bad
and never give up.
We learn: Being sensitive to the full gamut of life is difficult to do on a daily, constant basis. There are many things that distract us, that pull us down, that weigh upon us. It is easy to focus on ourselves and not be considerate of others. It is even easier to look at everyone as "someone else" and fear or hate them. These berachot sensitize us to all existence, the wonder of life, and the difficulties we all share.
God loves all of us.
God cares for all of us.
Not some of us.
We need to love everyone.
We need to care for everyone.
Not some of us, sometimes.
Page 38 Top Paragraph: Wake Me Up!
We learn: We don't have to only wake up physically, we have to make up morally – every day! There are many things that "get in our eyes" and don't allow us to "see" properly. There are many temptations in life. We need strength! We need courage! We need to distinguish between good and bad, right and wrong every day. We have to start when we are young and never stop. It doesn't matter if we are the president, the governor, or the "average Joe."
We must have a sense of shame and disgrace.
We need to keep a firm rein on our impulses so that we control them and not them, us.
We must realize that we can do wrong and want to do that which is right.
That the true and highest values are grace, love, compassion and lovingkindness.
That is how we want God to look at and feel towards us.
That is how we need to look and feel towards others.
These are the supreme values, not power, not control, not clout, not influence.
We learn: Wake up! It isn't easy to be good and do good. We have to work at it. We have to be afraid of being disgraced and shamed. We need to control ourselves. We have to have a deep knowledge of what is really important in life – a good heart, love, mercy, righteousness. Every day. To everyone.
Page 38 Middle Paragraph: Modesty
We learn: Life isn't pretty. Life isn't easy. There are lots of not-nice people out there. Sometimes there is little we can do and so we hope that somehow God will help us. But just because others may not be nice, doesn't mean that we shouldn't be nice, or good, or proper, or loving. We need to maintain a modicum of modesty about ourselves. That refers to the phrase about "protect me from arrogance in myself."
In pre-marriage counseling I suggest to couples that they see life as a "yield sign." No one has the "right of way." We have the right to yield to others, who in turn will yield to us. We will all go forward, but gently, lovingly, in turn. And even when the world does us wrong, we should maintain our posture and position.
We learn: There need be a unity of our thought and our actions, whether in public or private. We are not "king of the mountain" – ever. Whatever height we attain, be it pulpit or presidency, is transient. Compared to God, what are we? Compared to eons, how long are our lives? That must infuse us with modesty and humility about ourselves - thankfulness for what we have, graciousness to others as we share our blessings, kindness to everyone- for that is the epitome of being God's creation.
We learn: We can make a better world. And it begins with each one of us.
Yesterday I said that religion must answer the singular question: What does God want from us?
This is the answer: to live as these tefilot indicate, with a moral backbone, and ethical vision, honorable, principled, decent, and loving. What do we need? That answer is: To remind ourselves of this every day. In Judaism we create our moral compass by reciting these tefilot every day. They direct us to God. They lead us to goodliness.
I wish that I could have shared these remarks with Trayvon and George before that fateful moment. Maybe all the pain and sorrow could have been avoided. But I share, we disseminate this vision to others. Maybe we can make a better world tomorrow, even if we couldn't or didn't do it yesterday.
In this vein of introspection so appropriate to Rosh HaShanah and these day of repentance, I close with a poem that I thought was anonymous as that is what it said, until I "googled it" and discovered that it was written by a Dale Wimbrow in 1934. It is called "The Man in the Glass." It was first shared with me at the funeral for Jay Rostov and I have used a number of times since. There are two versions, the original and the "popular altered." This is the latter.
When you get what you want in your struggle for self
And the world makes you king for a day,
Just go to the mirror and look at yourself,
And see what that man has to say.
For it isn't your father or mother or wife,
Who judgment upon you must pass;
The fellow whose verdict counts most in your life
Is the one starring back from the glass.
He's the fellow to please, never mind all the rest.
For he's with you clear up to the end,
And you've passed the most dangerous, difficult test
If the man in the glass is your friend.
You may be like Jack Horner and "chisel" a plum,
And think you're a wonderful guy,
But the man in the glass says you're only a bum
If you can't look him straight in the eye.
You may fool the whole world down the pathway of years.
And get pats on the back as you pass,
But your final reward will be the heartaches and tears
If you've cheated the man in the glass.
I want to look in the glass and be modest and humble.
I want to look in the glass and be proud of what I see.
I want to look in the glass and believe that behind the glass and far above me, I will have done what God wanted me to do towards Him and towards others.
When you go home today, pause by the mirror and look.
May God be pleased and bless us all. Amen.