"The Burdens of Memory"
Yom Kippur 5775/2014
© Rabbi Menachem Creditor
there is just too much to share for one moment, even this moment. Yes, I
say that every year, but this year I really do mean it more. So many
have gathered tonight, across the world, some because they feel an
irrational tribal pull, some because they fervently believe, some
despite what they fervently believe. We are holy and non-conforming
people in a holy and unconventional Jewish community. We are women and
men, gay, bisexual, transgender and straight, republican, democrat,
independent (and other), we are single, we are married, we are old, we
are young, our skin comes in many shades, we struggle with mental
illness and we are caregivers, we are divorced, we are single parents,
we do not have children, we are Jewish and we are not. We are all this
and more. And in this crowded room we are all equal, all family, and all
are here. And this solemn moment, when we stand for the strange words
and haunting melody of Kol Nidrei, we tremble with a world that feels so
out of sync, so off-kilter. We stand and sit and bow and weep and pray
for the strength to pray, for hope despite a world writhing all around
us. Thank God for the gift of unplugging from incessant status updates
and screaming headlines, just for these 25 hours. Yes, that's all still
happening "out there" as we are "in here," but just for a moment - let
it be. Breathe. Hope. Live.
A year ago, someone sat with me in the days after Yom Kippur and said,
you've been here for 7 years, so I feel like I can share this with you
now. On each Yom Kippur you've been here, you share hard things with us
in your Drasha (sermon). You tell us we have to do more. But isn't Yom
Kippur about looking inside ourselves and doing teshuvah, repenting? It
feels so uncomfortable to me when you use this moment as a call to
action and not as a moment of Jewish introspection.
was a powerful conversation, one in which I hope I listened as much as I
responded. It has stayed with me, and what I aim to do in these short
moments is both perpetuate the discomfort this person felt by sounding a
call to action and also amplify to our community this person's call to
ongoing Jewish introspection.
past summer has been a particularly bad one. We have witnessed around
the world war and poverty, terrorism and climate change, injustice and
genocide. And for the Global Jewish community, it has been worse than
Jewish community in Ukraine has been under constant threat, including
beatings and Molotov cocktails. Three weeks ago a popular Turkish
columnist called for a special tax on Turkey's Jews in order to pay for
the reconstruction of Gaza. In Davos, Switzerland just a month ago, a
Jew was attacked by an assailant who was shouting "Jews out." In Spain,
Tunisia, Sweden, South Africa, Morocco, Mexico and Italy, there were
numerous Anti-Semitic incidents reported. In Ireland, a shul's windows
were shattered on consecutive days, and in France a shul was firebombed
and the Jews inside almost lynched by an angry mob. 2014. (And, to be
honest, I only chose a few of a much longer list to include.)
And while AntiSemitic attacks here in the United States did decrease 19% in 2013, they have been back with a vengeance in 2014.
you think I'm "only" referring to the Anti-Israel protests on campuses
nation-wide and a clear Anti-Israel bias in our national media, where
Anti-Israel sentiment consistently slips into Anti-Semitism;
you think I am "only" referring to the illegal Anti-Israel action at
Oakland's port (where no public official nor police presence maintained
the law, leading the Israeli ships to dock in Los Angeles instead, a
protest whose posters in local businesses spurred hate-speech against
Jews in Arizmendi's and Trader Joe's, again blurring the not-so-clear
line between Anti-Israel activism and Anti-Semitism);
you think I am "only" pointing to the hateful vitriol against Israel
poured out by many activists in Berkeley and the larger Bay Area, which
is well-rehearsed and "only" about "the occupiers" and somehow "not"
about "the Jews";
you think I am "only" referring to chants of "from the river to the
Sea, Palestine will be free" which are somehow "not" about making the
Middle East Judenrein, 'cleansed of Jews,';
you think this is far away and not about a Brooklyn, New York Coffee
Shop owner saying this week that Jewish people 'function via greed and
you think this is far away and not about the rabbi in Mississippi who
was asked last week if he wanted his food "full size or Jewish size,"
who was then told, "['Jewish size' is] small. Jews are cheap and small.
Everybody knows that," and who, after identifying himself as a Jew was
then told to leave the restaurant;
you think this is far away, I am here to remind you that it is not far
away. It is not in the Heavens. It is not limited to the news "out
there." It is all-too-near to us, even in the beautiful, thriving,
protective bubble of our sacred home here in Berkeley. More than a few
Netivot Shalom members have quietly, nervously shared with me their
sense that something big has changed for Jews in the world.
[A Post Yom Kippur Addition:
I learned during Yom Kippur of two demonstrative Anti-Semitic incidents
which occurred to members of our synagogue community: On the eve of Yom
Kippur, a member was crossing the street in Oakland when a car pulled
up, the driver lowered the window, and shouted: 'Watch it, Jew-boy.'
As we were preparing for the Ne'ilah Service across the street at The
Way, a car paused next to the Netivot Shalom members gathered outside,
the passenger lowered their window, and shouted at the group "Kill the Jews!']
am here to affirm with an aching heart that something big is happening
for Jews in the world. Our aching hearts, awash in these recent Jewish
memories, would do well to hear again the Talmud's teaching:
was once] a man traveling on the road when he encountered a wolf and
escaped from it, and he went along telling the story of the wolf. He
then encountered a lion and escaped from it, and went along telling the
story of the lion. He then encountered a snake and escaped from it,
whereupon he forgot the two previous incidents and went along telling
the story of the snake. So it is with the Jewish People: later troubles
make them forget the earlier ones. (Talmud Bavli, Berachot 13a)
something big has happened. But it isn't a change. The exception to the
rule for the Jews is when something big is not happening.
this is my eighth Yom Kippur as rabbi of Netivot Shalom, and it will be
my first time discussing Israel on Yom Kippur. Yes, that has been a
conscious decision every year. Yes, it has been easier for some in the
community who would rather avoid the topic. And yes, it has been a
mistake. Et Chata'ai Ani Mazkir Hayom - I acknowledge my failings today.
Let's begin with a few observations, based in our own precious shul community:
march, as a Jewish community, in the SF Gay Pride Parade. Our board,
years ago, signed onto the amicus brief for marriage equality in
California, before Prop 8 reared its ugly and hateful head. Our Jewish
commitment to equality, deep and real in our programing and ritual
lives, demands that we act. So we march.
stand up for justice with our Muslim and Christian sisters and
brothers, hosting Ramadan's holy call to prayer and Easter's sacraments
in our sanctuary, infusing our synagogue with more of God each time. So
we stand. We march. We pray. We love.
preach and march and advocate when it comes to the systemic racism in
the American justice and legal systems, calling upon our community to be
aware of upcoming ballot initiatives (like prop 47)
that might just "bend the arc" of history a bit closer to justice for
our African American sisters and brothers. We help lead CeaseFire
initiative to protect our children and our streets from the ravages of
Gun Violence, more present in black neighborhoods than white. We preach
on Rosh haShannah for justice for Mike Brown and peace and dignity in
Ferguson and beyond. So we march. We stand. We preach. We act.
these cases, just three of many, we were and remain willing to stand
with those who need our support, whose suffering feels like our
suffering, whose pain demands our participation. We are not the same and
do not always agree with our allies. At the Pride Parade, the Jewish
value of tzni'ut (modesty) is not the norm. Many of our Christian and
Muslim sisters and brothers have theologies that, when applied, offend
and marginalize Jews and others. Our African American organizational
allies don't always line up with us on domestic and international
That doesn't stop us from marching, preaching, and standing in solidarity.
But when the topic of Israel comes up, I
have found that many in our Jewish community are unwilling to stand in
solidarity because of something they'd be willing to overlook elsewhere.
This is because we have developed, I believe, excellent coping skills
in a world that has never been kind to Jews. Those skills?
Compartmentalization and a weak long-term memory.
how I believe some of that has happened. Many of us have newly returned
to traditional Judaism and are re-exploring deep Jewish living. Many of
us have chosen Judaism, a profound blessing to the Jewish family lucky
enough to call each of us sister and brother. But along with these
blessings comes a deep challenge. Given the newness of Judaism in so
many of our lives, chosen and rediscovered, to what can we stand witness
when it comes to the travails of Jewish history? How far back do our
Jewish memories really go?
How willing have we been to forget what it is to be a Jew in the world?
simply: Have we forgotten that Jews are family, everywhere around the
world, and that our family history is a difficult one? Or, perhaps are
we only ready to defend those with whom we agree? If that's the case,
then every board of every Jewish community is in trouble. And if the
boards of Jewish communities would be in trouble, what about THE Jewish
community, who has one pulsing heart, known to the world by the name
isn't a sermon that will point to the terrorism of Hamas, the
instability and extremism of ISIS or Syria or Egypt, nor the obvious
nuclear ambitions of Iran. I am also not going to spend these precious
moments apologizing for Israel's actions this summer, which I believe
would be un-necessary. I'm "done" with that, as perhaps has become
clear. Instead, at this holy hour, I'm calling upon each of you here
(and those of you reading these words elswhere) to do one very difficult
thing: please, look deep inside and remember.
the pain. Let it in. It's awful, but it is also the only authentic
Jewish way. Our prayers on the High Holy Days are tinged, pervaded by
vulnerability. It isn't only the martyrology service of Yom Kippur
afternoon. There are deep wounds buried in the recesses of the Jewish
psyche. They are witness to Jewish history, even when we'd rather not
are as active as we are - as JEWS - for universal justice because we
were slaves in Egypt, exiled from our land in 586 BCE, exiled again from
our land in 70 CE. Our holy books were burned in France in 1240, we
were expelled from England in 1290, expelled from Spain in 1492, reviled
on the Lower East Side of New York in 1902, massacred in Hebron in
1929, and butchered by the millions in such places as Auschwitz, Minsk,
and Babi Yar in the 1940's. The 1940's!
is a partial list, but it should be enough to explain one simple thing:
The Jewish commitment to justice is borne of Jewish suffering.
Woe to us if we allow ourselves the delusion that Jewish suffering is a thing of the past.
If that wasn't heavy enough, here's a little more.
The power of having a state of our own has complicated all things Jewish.
have denied that anything has changed, but I know that when I visited
the Israeli Navy Battleship "Cherev", I felt a feeling of fear Jews have
always known mixed with a feeling of resilience and protection Jews
throughout time have not. If I need that boat, it's coming for me.
Something has definitely changed.
I stood outside the Israeli Foreign Ministry this summer and witnessed,
right above my head, the US-funded Iron Dome missile knocking out a
mortar fired from Gaza, I felt an overwhelming mix of trauma and
resolve. But we dare not take for granted the support of the United
States for Israel. After all, America could have bombed Auschwitz's
train tracks and America would have allowed Neo-Nazi's to march in
Skokie, Illinois in the 1970's had it not been for our friend and hero, Ben Stern.
We are committed to advocating on behalf of our family in Israel - and
must, because, to paraphrase Hillel, "If we are not for ourselves, who
ago, a student of Elie Wiesel's asked "Professor, there is a march in
Solidarity with Soviet Jewry and a March against South African Apartheid
at the same time this Sunday. Which one should I attend?" Wiesel
famously answered, "You should go to both, of course. But let me ask
you: If you go to the Anti-Apartheid rally, will anyone else march on
behalf of Soviet Jewry?"
What has changed? We have a voice in determining our own destiny, however vulnerable we remain.
there are other things, darker things, which have changed as well.
These, even I would rather not remember. Because they aren't about
someone else. They're about our own family.
history as a People without a home has also led us to be deeply afraid
of engagement with others. Peace with the Arab nations that sought to
destroy us, just "the wandering Aramean sought to destroy our ancestor,"
is hard to believe possible. When Jews have pursued peace with our Arab
neighbors, hatred and extremism has not only emerged from the outside.
A personal story:
my trip to Israel this past summer with fellow progressive American
rabbis, we visited the National Archive of Israel. I'm not allowed to
divulge precisely where this building is located. Suffice it to say, it
is hidden well. This geniza, this hidden place of our People's memory,
seemed to stretch out endlessly. I took photos of a few boxes and of
some of the documents we were allowed to photograph. (Here is a link to the photos.)
I thought this was the entire tour, which already had my heart racing
with its implications. But then we were granted access to the rare book
room of the National Archives, the holy of holies of our People's
walked into the room, rabbis representing different movements and
streams, all bound together in what Rabbi Joseph Soleveitchik z"l
famously termed the "covenant of fate" and the "covenant of destiny."
We could barely breathe, it was that intense. The documents laid out
before us each represented pivotal moments of our story.
We reached for them with tears in our eyes.
held in my hands a census of the Jews in British Mandate Palestine in
1925. I held in my hands original poetry by Rachel haMeshoretet, Rachel
the Poet, written in her own hand.
held the United Nations' voting sheet from November 29, 1947, tallying
the countries that voted for or against the formation of the State of
Israel. At the bottom of this page were the signatures of Abba Eban,
Golda Meir, David Ben Gurion, and other founding mothers and fathers of
the State of Israel.
held in my hands the signed letter from President Harry Truman,
recognizing the State of Israel, the first Head of State to do so.
I held in my hands the Hebrew news daily "Yom haMedinah" from May 14, 1948 whose headline read "Ha'Am Machriz al Medinat Yisrael
- The Nation Declares the State of Israel" with a picture on the top
right of the page of Theodore Herzl, arms enfolded, witness to the
realization of the dream he has galvanized the Jewish People to pursue.
We will weren't done with the table.
As I orbited this holy table of history, I came to a page written in elegant handwriting. It wasn't
Hebrew. I looked closer, realizing that it was in German, and then
held, trembling in my own hands, a handwritten manuscript by Adolph
Eichman, yemach shemo vezichro - may his name and memory be blotted out, from his trial in the State of Israel.
from this evil was an ornate box, containing one of six original,
signed copies of the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt, signed
by Anwar Sadat, Menachem Begin, and Jimmy Carter on March 26, 1979.
But the roller coaster that was this room wasn't over. There was one final box.
stood next to our guide, a historian who saw in this room of rabbis an
appreciation for Jewish history that even many modern Jews, in Israel
and in the diaspora, don't feel as deeply. He knew that, though we were
in Israel to meet with elected officials and peacemakers, human rights
activists and security experts, though we were enmeshed in the trauma of
Hamas' mortars being fired into Israel from the moment we arrived, he
knew, saw from within our eyes, that this was a sacred place to us.
saw we were steeped enough in Jewish history to step into it
effortlessly, because, as the great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote
in 1967, "I felt that my soul and history were one."
guide then reached into the last box, took out a gun, and placed it
into my unexpecting hands. It was the gun that killed Prime Minister
Yitzchak Rabin z"l. And time stopped.
This is what I wrote minutes after that horrifying experience:
held a gun, and it wasn't just any gun, and I don't want to hold any
gun, and it was this gun that killed Yitzhak Rabin z"l, and I held it in
my trembling hands, and I couldn't hold it and I couldn't put it down
and I couldn't see it and I couldn't close my eyes.
was suddenly back at Bar Ilan University when I was in class with Yigal
Amir, the man who killed Rabin, and I was back davening mincha in
Washington DC being told that the Prime Minister had been shot and I was
back on the streets of Oakland on the bloodied pavement where boys get
shot and I was back being held in my mother's arms and I was back in the
White House screaming to power from the psychic pain and then I was
back in that room, holding that gun, that awful, wretched thing that
tore a hole in the world that we haven't yet been able to fill, that
even God can't fill.
damned gun that destroyed the world was in my helpless, trembling
hands. I couldn't remember how to move my hands to put it down.
I was, and am, and now always will be holding its cold dead history, its pain.
Jew must always remember her own history, seeing the beauty and the
ugliness of our family doing its best in a beleaguered world. Yes, in
every generation people have arisen to destroy us. Yes, we have
ugliness, not just imperfection, within our own People. Any other
"narrative" is willful ignorance.
these truths absolve us from the command to defy history by using our
hard-earned power ethically? Should we ignore how trauma has affected
our ability to see the world through another's eyes? No. But these
truths have hard edges, ones we, as mostly-comfortable American Jews,
would rather deny: that without power, accursed power, corrupting power,
the terrible and necessary power of our own state, Jews would soon
return to the never-ending cycle of suffering and assault. Not that
having a state ends Anti-Semitism or our own extremism, but it wields
power on a global stage and grants our People its one refuge, our one
dreadful moment holding that tool of death, a moment I haven't been
able to forget, one that robs me of sleep many a night, is a source of
deep pain. It's the worst kind of pain because we caused to ourselves,
fearful that we would be vulnerable again, dependent upon someone else
for our own safety. We can't trust "them!" But then, after that moment,
can we trust "us?"
from without. Pain from within. Why am I bringing this to you all
tonight? Maybe the feedback I got last Yom Kippur is correct. There's
enough discomfort out there. Why bring more in here?
My friends, I bring all this because we are not allowed to forget. This is who we are. We are, deep down, "am seridei charev - a People who survives the sword. (Jer. 31:1)" We have always been this.
I believe we cannot know God or one another if we do not know ourselves. We cannot daven as Jews if we are not praying from a place of Jewish experience. The way to perform tikkun olam,
healing the world, is to begin deep within and heal ourselves and our
family. For a Jew, that family has a heart. And our heart is thousands
of miles to the East, though we here in Berkeley are at the ends of the
And so, here are four hard truths, truths I ask you to hold, to sit with tonight, to learn from for tomorrow.
Jews need each other. The world hasn't yet been kind to the Jews, and
that's likely not going to change. If your heart has been closed to
Israel because of the painful mistakes the Jewish State has made and
continues to make, remember that that pain is also a part of you. Make
the difficult decision to heal our family from within. There are many
ways. Join our shul's Mission to Israel this June. Go on your own. Open
your heart. Get involved. Your family needs you, and we aren't going to
be a better family if we don't talk, if we don't connect heart to heart.
Your Jewish heart might be the one to tip the scales of justice and
love and goodness our People's needs. We'll probably make plenty of
mistakes even with your gifts, and I imagine we're not done with the
pain, but wouldn't it feel different to be the change you want to see in
imperfection of our homeland, the most ambitious project-in-process of
the Jewish People, is a reflection of our own imperfections. And perhaps
that's why so many Jews are more interested in looking somewhere else.
But let's confess right here, and right now. We are imperfect. We will
never not be. And when we gather as a community, gevalt, we're even less
perfect. So when many, many of us are in one place, and that place is a
country, it's even further from perfect. But we also know "berov ha'am
hadrat melech - when a nation gathers, more of God is revealed. (Pr.
time to stand together, blemishes and all. It's holier, it's better,
it's even possibly corrective for a family when it stands together. Now
is the time to stand together.
We are commanded to hope, despite it all. Give each other (and our
precious children) the hope our national anthem Hatikvah declares we
haven't lost yet. "Od lo avdah tikvateinu - we STILL haven't given up
hope." What kind of a national anthem is that, anyway? We still haven't
lost our hope? Why would we say such a thing, inscribe it on the doors
of our hearts, commit it to memory? The absurd and holy answer is that
Jewish hope isn't logical, and that that hasn't stopped us yet. Somehow
we're here, somehow our shul community is bursting at the seams, somehow
we are still doing good in the world, somehow we're doing better than
just making it. It doesn't make sense. A Jew hopes anyway. Now is the
time for hope.
We are a tribe and we are global citizens. Jews know how to love the
world precisely because we've known what it is to be despised. As Elie
Wiesel has taught, based on his own Jewish experience, "human suffering
anywhere concerns men and women everywhere."
Yes, we will march for marriage equality and universal dignity.
we will march to end The New Jim Crow in America, uneven sentencing,
profiling, mass incarceration, and a racist "war on drugs." We will
march to end the scourge of Gun Violence our politicians have yet to
demonstrate the courage to face.
And yes, we will march for the State of Israel. We will march for our People, for our family. We will march for our home. We stand with Israel and seek her peace.
stand before you tonight in a room with more pain than we'd wish for,
in a community with more than enough love to share, a room full of
people who are hopeful and nervous and anxious and determined and
confused and beautiful and each a vessel of the divine - we are a Jewish
community in service of the world with the potential to change
And so I close tonight with a prayer that I ask you to join me in offering:
May the Jewish People be safe tonight. And tomorrow. And the day after that.
May the Jewish People look inward and fulfill the prophetic mandate continue building a society that embodies justice.
May the Jewish People look outward as well. May this morning's call of Chief
Ashkenazi Rabbi of Israel David Lau and the founder of the Islamic
Movement Sheikh Abdullah Nimar Darwish to leaders of both Abrahamic
faiths to hold meetings aimed at reducing inter-religious tensions in
Israel be a model for peacemakers around the world.
May every person know peace, dear God. We really need it, and we could use some help.
May this beautiful, fragile world of ours be lifted "L'aylah U'laylah - higher and higher." Beyond logic, beyond headlines, beyond loneliness and hurt.
May this year be one in which our world - and every inhabitant - be judged for life, and for peace.
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