by Rabbi James Prosnit
Rosh Hashanah Morning 2015/5776
An unnamed woman gives birth to a child after a long period of barrenness, One day after the child grows up he is harvesting in the field when he calls out, “Oh my head, my head!” He is carried to his mother, where he sits on her lap until noon and he dies. The woman seeks out God’s prophet Elisha, the man who had first told her that she would bear a son. Elisha follows her home and sees the dead boy laid out on the couch. According to the text, “He went in, shut the door behind the two of them and prayed to God. Then he mounted the bed and placed himself over the child. He put his mouth to its mouth, his eyes to its eyes and his hand on its hand.” We are then told that, “the body of the child became warm.. and the boy opened his eyes.” 2 Kings 4
I am moved by this story from the Biblical Book of Kings even though my rational mind finds it impossible to believe in the miracle it describes.
I am challenged by another story of a precious child in peril, the one we read earlier, the familiar story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son, Isaac. A son saved from his father’s fanaticism by a call from an angel instructing the old man not to lift his knife to slay his boy bound on the altar.
I am disturbed by the story we find in our new machzor that some of us will read tomorrow. How Abraham conceives a son with his wife’s hand maiden Hagar. Although it was Sarah’s idea for Abraham to gain an heir in this way because of her barrenness, it did not end up well. Jealousy emerged between the two women and Abraham sent Hagar and Ishmael away into the desert. Rather than allow them to perish, however, we’re told – “God heard the cry of the boy, and an angel of God called to Hagar from Heaven and said “Fear not for God has heeded the cry of the boy…….. then she opened her eyes and saw a well of water .. and she let the boy drink.”
I do not believe that any of these stories are history. It is most unlikely that things happened the way they were written down. In real life, Isaac might have died on the altar a victim of his father blind faith; In real life, Ishmael might have died of thirst, the unloved step child. In real life, prophets are not able to revive dead children. Yet the power of these stories remains undiminished. For Scripture is not there to teach us history.
These are moral tales, morality stories. They may not record facts, but they testify to a fundamental truth in Jewish thought, namely that God wants all of God’s children to live. No child should die because of a fanatical belief in a higher cause, no child should die because of jealousies or family dysfunction and no child should die of disease or illness.
Few things stir our empathy or call us to action more than the image of a child in peril. Perhaps that’s why these Bible stories resonate so profoundly and are the ones that tradition tells us to read at this Holiest time of year. Sadly, they have not lost their relevance and poignancy. There are far too many stories of children in jeopardy and at risk. These days, of course, it is sometimes the photographs accompanying the stories that grab us. A simple image of one child can cut to the heart and stir us to action.
The haunting image of three year Aylan Kurdi, drowned on a Turkish beach shook the world’s conscience and opened some doors in response to the humanitarian crises of migrants seeking asylum. His washed up body brought into our homes the pain of those hundreds of thousands of refugees many of whom are children, floating in flimsy rafts, from the Mediterranean to the South China Sea. This photograph took me back a number of years to another searing image. Those of us of a certain age, still remember the photo of then nine year old Kim Phuc burned by napalm fleeing her village. It captured the horror of the Vietnam War as no other and helped change the American conscience.
But war is not the only crises and images like these are not the only calls to action. And “over there” is not the only place where children are at risk and hungry; where they lack proper homes, medical care, loving supervision, intellectual stimulation and a decent education. This morning while there is plenty to talk about and be shocked by around the globe; I’d like to ask you to narrow the focus and consider the children in our own country and in our local community.
Earlier this year the social scientist Robert Putnam published a new book entitled “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crises.”
With research and charts, but most importantly with stories of individual children and families he portrays the dramatic lessening of opportunity and he worries that economic and social mobility is poised to plunge even further in the years ahead. Upward mobility, the idea that all individuals should have the opportunity to succeed on the basis of their own effort, skill, and ingenuity has been a bedrock American principle.” . But, when Putnam poses the question “Do youth today coming from different backgrounds have roughly equal life chances, and has that changed in recent decades” the answer has become all too apparent. Far fewer Americans today, than just ten year ago, believe that a change in social and economic class is possible.
A series of scissor graphs show the divergence between upper and lower class parents and children. From unintended births, single parent families, number of words a child hears in his or her early years and frequency of family dinners to broader topics of education and employment – the gap is wide and widening.
And most of us I dare say are on the up side of that graph. But what disturbs me most is that the gap has gotten so wide, we are having a hard time hearing the voices of those on the other side. We are a country of strangers, divided by race and class and there are few places where we ever talk or for that matter see each other.
Rich Americans and poor Americans are living, learning, and raising children in increasingly separate and unequal worlds, removing the stepping stones to upward mobility for poor Americans. Social scientists like Robert Putnam teach what we know — that our social ties are vital for our life choices.
I’m sure most of us can think of the individuals who went out of their way to help us along in life—who made an introduction, wrote a letter of recommendation, mentored us or simply told us about an opportunity that would be right up our alley? A friend of my sister’s got me my first job out of college as a history teacher and the Methodist minister on my campus planted the seed that the rabbinate might be a meaningful career path and calling. I wonder who comes to your mind. Who helped you, or gave guidance to one of your kids? Who might you have assisted at some point over the years?
But, poor children have few mentors. Their parents have smaller social networks and fewer relationships with neighbors, acquaintances, and family friends with any social capital to assist their children the way middle and upper class families do. If it takes a village to raise a child, the prognosis for American children isn’t good. Putnam concludes, too many “villages” all over America, rich and poor, have deteriorated as we’ve shirked collective responsibility for our kids.
One of the most consistent findings in education research is that student performance in school is far more closely correlated with what kind of home they come from than with anything that goes on in their school. Schools aren’t creating the gap, the gap is already large by the time the child shows up. I remember speaking not long ago with our former congregant and now Bridgeport Superintendent of Schools Fran Rabinowitz who commented that a child who shows up in a Bridgeport Kindergarten with no ECE background can never catch up. Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers takes aim at summertime. Test results he says can show that poor children actually “out-learn” rich ones during the school year. During the summers, however, the poor children fall behind and the more privileged ones surge ahead. The achievement gap stems from what is not happening for poor children when they are not in school. Just think about how we programmed the summer for most of our kids and how that contrasts with children growing up in the city.
The headlines may be about drugs and guns and gangs, and I certainly don’t want to minimize these very real threats in certain neighborhoods, but sometimes the issues and challenges while more banal, still have a huge impact on a child’s opportunity and achievement.
Putnam tells the story of a single mother named Stephanie who working a couple of jobs struggles to cope with all the demands on her time and energy. That affects her style of parenting. “We’re not a sit down and eat family,” she says. ‘You go to the table you ate. .”We ain’t got time for all that talk about our day stuff.”
So what does this have to do with me you may be asking? And the answer lies with the fact that we are Jewish. And we still have something to teach the world. Not only do our sacred texts point the way to moral action, but our history does as well. Each year at Passover we remember our humble origins. And each year at this season we are enjoined to hear the call of the shofar; but while we may listen — do we really hear.
Our new prayer book includes the following reading:
We’re accustomed to the feeling of something wrong Like static in the background, tuned out so we can get on with our day….. But if something were to shock us like a baby’s piercing wail or a fire bell in the night, like a punch in the stomach or a puncture in the eardrum like a savage call to conscience or a frantic cry for help would we scream like a shofar and get mad enough to act?
A Rosh Hashanah sermon of course is more than a litany of the nation’s woes. And like photographs and biblical stories the realities facing real kids today challenge us with a profound and perennial religious message that reminds us that something is wrong and we must not turn aside.
But if we are really honest with ourselves as this season encourages us to be — I don’t think we’ve been hearing the call all that well. Our social conscience has been blunted of late. We hunker down, preoccupied with ourselves and our own problems. We’re quick to rise up in indignation if someone messes with our kids, but pretty slow on the uptake for some else’s. Sometimes the issues seem so huge and our ability to impact any real change so minimal that we use that as an excuse for not bothering to get involved at all.
As a congregation I’m proud of some of the things we do. Our engagement with CONECT Congregations Organized for a New Connecticut has done some good work — on immigrant rights (for those both documented and undocumented), on gun violence and on Black lives mattering with local police. A couple of salt of the earth congregants have taken it upon themselves to expose our soon to be B’nai Mitzvah students about issues of poverty and hunger in Bridgeport and our Confirmation class lobbies our representatives in Washington DC on a host of social justice issues affecting our nation. A cadre of folks have been providing meals at a local soup kitchen for years now and we’re gearing up for a series of monthly Mitzvah mornings – the first one coming up this Sunday. We’re working on mentorship opportunities for us with students at Housatonic Community College and a number of you do important work with the Bridgeport school volunteers association. Next week is the yarhzeit for Jill Tarlow our congregant who died so tragically a year ago. In her years among us, Jill was a voice of conscience like few others. She reminded us – we can do more!
In the coming weeks let’s find ways to reinvigorate our efforts. Help me leave a legacy of commitment and responsibility.
I’ve invited Superintendent Rabinowitz to be with us in November at one of our Sabbaths to save the world conversations. Please be here – so we can talk in earnest about her local challenges and what a largely suburban group can do to be most effective in making a difference. She needs more caring volunteers willing to establish a relationship with one child; to help a family fill out a FAFSA form, to work in the main office and help write an article publicizing some of the positive things that take place in the local schools or to write a grant for some increased funding.
A long time ago it was Rabbi Tarfon who taught, in our life-times we are not required to complete all the tasks necessary to perfect the world, but we are not free to desist from it either.
There is of course an essential point in each of the stories with which I began my remarks. Each child is saved not by God, but through a messenger of God. The angel commands the father not to harm his son. The angel says to the mother open your eyes there is a well nearby and the prophet becomes the healer. God’s intervention in our lives consists of giving us the power to be the angels. God points to the truth, but has no hands, no voice, it is we who must act on it. The message of our sacred tradition, the call to tikkun olam is that moral action must be performed by humans.
Dare I hope that a fresh reading of our biblical stories may awaken our conscience and reinvigorate our commitment. Instead of seeing scripture as the action of some religious fanatic out to serve some wrathful God, let us look at it instead as a timeless message urging us to heed the Divine command and act like God’s messengers to repair a broken world.
The prevention of war, the concern for refugees, the education of children, like the healing of the sick is in human hands. God shows the way and tells us what is right, but we have to do the rest. What is lacking these days is not the message, but the messengers.
I conclude with a poem by Ina Hughes
“We Pray for Children” by Ina Hughes
We pray for children Who put chocolate fingers everywhere,
Who stomp in puddles and ruin their new pants,
Who sneak Popsicles before supper,
Who can never find their shoes in the morning.
And we pray for those
Who stare at photographers from behind barbed wire,
Who have never bound down the street in new sneakers,
Who are born in places we wouldn’t be caught dead and they will be,
We pray for children Who bring us sticky kisses and fistfuls of dandelions,
Who sleep with their dog and bury their goldfish,
Who watch their fathers shave and,
Who forget their lunch money,
And we pray for those Who will never get dessert,
Who have no favorite blanket to drag behind them,
Who watch their fathers suffer;
Whose monsters are real.
We pray for children Who spend all their allowance before Tuesday,
Who throw tantrums in the grocery store and pick at their food,
Who get visits from the tooth fairy,
Who don’t like to be kissed in front of the car pool,
Who squirm during services,
And we pray for those
Whose nightmares occur in the daytime,
Who will eat anything,
Who have never seen a dentist,
Who go to bed hungry and wake up hungry ,
Who live and move, but have no address
We pray for children Who like to be carried
And for those who have to be,
For those we smother.
And for those who will grab the hand of anybody kind
enough to offer it and for those who find no hand to grab.
For all these children Adonai, We pray today for they are all so precious. Amen.
Putnam, Robert, Our Kids, Simon and Schuster, New York, 2015, p.32