Oct 9, 2008

Yom Kippur 5769: “Eyes on the Prize”

Yom Kippur 5769: "Eyes on the Prize"
© Rabbi Menachem Creditor

Last night I had a dream about a home that was so bright.
I don't know why it had to be a dream.
Why can't I? Where will I? God help me.  Help me find a home.
Keep your eyes on the prize.  Don't be dismayed, don't be dismayed.
Deep in your heart you must believe everything is gonna be alright someday.

- "Eyes on the Prize", Harry Stewart
from the film Green Card

We have so much work to do.  So much work to do.

And it is easy to become dismayed.  I had been planning, in this Yom Kippur Drasha, to talk about the hope that eludes whose eyes are open to the unfathomable burdens of our world.  I was planning on singing the words of that very powerful song to share how dismayed I've felt, how overwhelmed I feel almost every day by the needs of the world around us.  The world is so much with us, too much with us.  There is just so much to do.  So much that needs to be addressed.

And then I listened this past Sunday to Valentino Achak Deng speak in our shul's sanctuary.  I wept deeper and deeper while hearing of his exile from Southern Sudan with millions of displaced refugees, witnessing horrors beyond comprehension, how he eventually made it to Atlanta where, with Dave Eggers, he launched a book –a movement – to change the world by starting a foundation to educate children, girls in particular, in Murai Bai, his home community.  He shared his own life stories and pictures of the construction of the first secondary school in Sudan that we as a community have begun to fund.  But he also shared mental images from his experience that felt so unquestionably Jewish to me.  "Here was a Sudanese man sounding like I Jew," I thought to myself.

Valentino Achak Deng reminded me this past Sunday of something so precious, so overflowing, so beyond words, that everything changed inside me. 

He shared just this past Sunday with those assembled in our shul that his people - 2.5 million of whom have been murdered, 1 million who have been "eternally displaced", as he termed their persecution by both the Sudanese government and the rebels – he shared that they learned, often scribbling their school notes in the dirt they used as notebooks, about the "Oxudus" as he called it, the Israelite Exodus from oppression to freedom, Yetziat Mitzrayim

But the unleavened bread we carried on our backs through our desert wandering had a particular corollary in his narrative.  Children who attend the limited primary schools in Southern Sudan often carry their own chairs on their backs sometimes 5 miles each way.

The horrors of our sons being drowned in the nile and our families torn asunder in the Umschlagplatz, the Nazi deciding points of life and death throughout Eastern Europe during the Sho'ah were suddenly connected to the current lives and struggles of Southern Sudanese.

He sounded Jewish, I realized, because I knew my own story, our people's narrative, our pain and his teaching felt Jewish to me because I was suddenly unable to escape the universality of the pain. 

Elaine Scarry has written that "… pain does not simply resist language but actively destroys it, bringing about an immediate reversion to a state [before] language, to the sounds and cries a human being makes before language is learned. (The Body in Pain, p.4)"  He knew the pain of Jewish history better than I did because it isn't limited to the Jewish experience of pain.  When a human being suffers, Valentino taught by his very presence, the language is immaterial.

What Mr. Deng shared profoundly changed me.  He said that his goal, and the goal of the foundation which now bears his name, is to make sure more children can smile.  That, he said, gives him hope.

I had been planning, my friends, on sharing how hopeless I've felt recently. 

One story after another.  Gilad Shalit's continuing imprisonment.  The upcoming election.  Our country's, (and therefore the world's) financial upheaval.  The current needs and unequal achievements of different groups of public school students in Berkeley's school system.  The defacing of a peace-promoting poster featuring an Arab Israeli on the Berkeley campus.  Illness in our community.  Contemporary Genocide.  The list just continues…

I had been planning to share how helpless I've felt.  How little I knew, and how much I've learned.

How, I was planning on asking (and hopefully addressing), can we feel hopeful in a world with so much need?

And then Valentino Achack Deng pointed out that, in the face of all he witnessed, all he's experienced, his goal, and the steps he's helping us take, is one that inspires hope in him.  He stood in our sacred sanctuary and told us all that we were family.

I met my brother this past Sunday.

How can I not, how can we not, believe in our worthy dreams when Valentino has shown us that the world can be redeemed?

We must keep our eyes on the prize, my friends.  And this is our prize – a redeemed world.  We can accept - and the world is crying out for - no less.  Judaism is a path to an Olam of Tikkun, a world of healing.  Yes, the need, as Ruth Messinger teaches us all, will always exceed the relief effort.  But, as she is quick to add, that makes the work all the more heroic. 

The world was spiritually reborn ten days ago on Rosh HaShannah.  Each of us will, must, ask ourselves this question right now, ten days late:  What have I done to change the world since then?

The shofar comes closest to the sound my heart made when Valentino taught us that his people have learned about the Holocaust and that they feel "related to us."  I broke when he said this.

He stood before a group of mostly Jewish Berkeley residents who had the luxury of sitting in a beautiful shul on upholstered chairs that we did not need to carry with us, and he was suddenly every survivor I have met.  And he was telling me to hope.  That 28-year-old survivor asked me, asked us all, to help him help children smile.

The task of living in the world is so heavy, I had been thinking.  And then Valentino rewrote a famous line of Pirkei Avot through the wisdom of his life's experience:  The work is not yours to complete, but neither are you free of it.  And so I say to us as a community right now that the work is not ours to complete, but neither are we free of it.

If social justice sounds has been, in your experience, a group of programs here and there that our shul has produced, ones you've either attended or not, I ask you to open your hearts to this message tonight.  It is a demanding one.  It is a commanding call. 

We have, no matter how desperate we believe our financial situations to be, more than we need.  This is a moral question, one the Torah itself demands us to answer.  If you have a field, give 10 percent of it to someone who needs it.  If you have time, sharing it in a purposeful way, in an act of Tzedakkah, of righteousness isn't an option – it's a mandate.  No matter how little we have, we must give.  It's not a choice.

I am struggling, have been struggling for the past year, to feel hopeful.  There is a more dire sense of chaos and fear, of contagious uncertainty than I can remember.  In conversation with friends and teachers, some have remembered crises throughout time, where they were, what they smelled, felt, saw.  It is easy to become dismayed. 


As Reb Chaim of Volozhin teaches in his magisterial Nefesh HaChayiim:

"And this is the Torah of being a person…One should never say in their heart, God forbid, 'For what am I and what is my power to enact anything through my insignificant and and deeds?  Understand, know, and set in your heart that every detail of every deed, word, and thought is not lost.  Every one of them ascends to its own Source to cause an effect in the highest Heavens. (NH 1:4)"

No act is neutral, and we can have a cosmic impact by simply thinking differently.  We choose our destinies. 

This is a difficult concept.  So much happens in the world.  Cyclones and social injustice combine to overwhelm even the prophets among us.  Can we reasonably believe in our power to heal the world?  Is 'Hope' an illusion?  

No! No! No! 

I shared just yesterday with our current Amitim students my thoughts about Valentino and the children suddenly didn't seem as child-like, paying very close attention, knowing that they were being called to something very important, and had the ability to contribute.  I shared with them that the preparation we're sharing towards their Bnei Mitzvah is actually a "key," a way of plugging into their Jewish community whose dreams are about healing the whole world.  They responded so powerfully to this. I was both humbled and inspired.

It is time to open our eyes once more and let in the very light which will allow us to illuminate the world.  As Rabbi Israel Morgenstern of Pilov is quoted as having taught: "One who does not want to see the truth will not see it, even if it demonstrated to him with clarity.  Their eyes are sealed from ever seeing it."

The mysterious power of Yom Kippur is all around us. 

We are holy people in a holy space during a holy time and the world needs us.  It needs us right now.  We are living in a time of many transitions.  The financial market not only has "measurable" impacts; it also impacts our spiritual health.  If we feel strong, we feel ever ready to contribute to the world.  When we are afraid, we question our power.  Remember the impact we each can have on the world, starting with ourselves. 

My dear friends, we are incredibly powerful. 

Every step of our precious community's journey has been a leap of soul, of faith, a demand of the universe to support something important, something holy, something worthy.  We built a home and are 39 families stronger today than we were just over one year ago.  None of this makes any sense unless we are meant to learn that by the sheer force of our spirit we can make miracles real.

Jewish Spirituality and Learning are meant to make a positive, practical difference in our daily lives - in our health, relationships, satisfaction with life, decision making and purpose.  We are committed as a shul to empowering every single member to experiencing a nurtured soul because this, in turn, reminds us of both how powerful we are, and how responsible to the world we share.

Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater shared the following story first told by Rabbi Avi Weiss in the book "Spiritual Activism", with which I'll close for tonight:

Once, in the kingdom of Solomon, there lived a two-headed man. Upon the death of his father, the man became embroiled in a bitter dispute with his brothers and sisters over the inheritance. "Since I have two heads," he claimed, "I deserve twice as much money as the rest of you." His siblings responded, "Perhaps you have two heads, but you only have one body. Therefore you deserve only one share." The case was brought before King Solomon, the wisest of our kings. He said, "Pour boiling water over one of the man's two heads. If the second head screams in pain, then we will know he is one person. If not, it will have been determined that the two-head person is in fact two separate independent individuals."

And so it is with our world. We have many heads, but share the same body, and when one part is in pain, we should all feel it collectively. Each human soul, Jew and non-Jew, is a head on the body of humanity, a body that right now is suffering in so many of its parts that it often seems too overwhelming to start the healing process.

Chevreh, our question is not whether or not we and the world share a body but where to start. Darfur?  Israel? The environment? The global economy?  Hurricanes?  Domestic Violence?  The war? Marriage equality? AIDS? Poverty? Homelessness?  We have work to do.  And we are powerful enough to do it.  We are called to do it.  And to do it today.

Why, with all these concerns, does a shul on University Avenue in Berkeley, CA matter?  Because, as Rabbi Brad Hirschfield has taught, "religious traditions exist not to serve the faithful, but to help the faithful serve the world."  Our shul calls each of us to be a stronger, better part of the world we share.  It is a Jewish imperative to be a global citizen.  It is a sacred task to strengthen our spiritual home which prepares us to spread justice in the world.

We begin tonight with ourselves, owning our mistakes, committing to do better as individuals.  But we are called to this work for a purpose greater than ourselves.

Keep your eyes on the prize.  Don't be dismayed, don't be dismayed.
Deep in your heart you must believe everything is gonna be alright someday.

We share a shul community.  We share a direction.  Our lives are connected.  We share a state, a country.  We share a world.  We have work to do. 

Chevreh, I bless us that we should remember that we are strong enough to change the world by sharing the load, by dreaming with our hands, and by achieving them together, step by step.

May this be a year in which so much good happens that our list of concerns shrinks just a bit.

May it be a year of health, of friendships, and of peace.