by Rabbi Evan Schultz
Yom Kippur 5775/2015
Today, on Yom Kippur, we are like angels. On this Sabbath of Sabbaths together we spiritually ascend, like the ancient High Priest of the Temple, we draw close to Avinu Malkeinu, nearly face to face with God. Like the angels we enter this space as humble beings, our heads bowed, chanting poems of praise. As the ministering angels who are united in peace, today we too are united in peace, having asked forgiveness of one another. We are dressed in white, we have repented and are free of sin. You and I, today we are kadosh, a holy people, linked to eternity, we sing our songs at a higher level of consciousness.
Today we are like angels,we are distanced from our physicality. Like the ministering angels who neither eat nor drink, today we do not eat or drink. We focus not on our physicality and bodily needs, in order to engage fully in spiritual practice.
Like the ministering angels, we stand for much of the day. As we read in our Torah portion, Atem N’tzavim hayom, kulchem lifnei Adonai Eloheichem, you stand today, all of you, directly in the present of Adonai your God. The Jerusalem Talmud teaches that we stand in moments of holiness.
Today we are like angels, we sing loudly the second line of the Shma, “Baruch Shem K’vod Malchuto” the verse of the angels, which the rest of the year we whisper, as we are mere humans the other 364 days.The Midrash relates that during Moses’s 40-day visit to the mountain of God, he overheard and memorized the angels’ secret prayer “Baruch Shem Kevod Malchuto Leolam Vaed” – “blessed is the name of His Glorious Kingdom forever.” When Moses returned to the Jews he taught them the prayer but cautioned them to utter it under their breath so that the angels would not detect the infringement. On Yom Kippur, however, when we most closely resemble angels, we are asked to recite this prayer out loud.
Today we are like angels, akin to the angel of God, who in the story of the binding of Isaac, which we read on Rosh Hashanah, as Abraham took his son upon the mountain, in an act of true faith and devotion to God, lifted the knife, it was the angel that grabbed Abraham’s hand, that saved the boy, that saved one life, that rescued Sarah’s son, that enabled the boy to return home, the saved Abraham from himself, that served as a true messenger of God. Today you and I, we are akin to that angel, that life saving angel of God.
Our Midrash teaches of that story, that on that day that Abraham set out to sacrifice his son, the Ministering Angels stood in rows upon rows, crying and weeping, anticipating Abraham slaughtering his own son. God came to the angels and said to one of them, the angel Michael, why are you standing still? Do not let Abraham go on! (Midrash Rabba 56:8)
Today we stand like those ministering angels, we look at the world, and we sob, we weep. We look out, and we cry for the refugees, we know their story all too well. Just weeks ago we wept for little Aylan Kurdi, the young Syrian toddler, his body discovered upon the shore in Turkey, face down in his sneakers. He was part of a vessel of 23 individuals whose boat capsized while trying to reach the Greek Island of Kos. Like the ministering angels, we cried for him, for his family, and like the ministering angels in the midrash, we stand still.
We stand still while the four million Syrian refugees, forced from their homes due to war and corrupt government, they tarry on. They wait at the borders, the mothers cry for their children, the fathers plead with the guards to let their family through- they seek the angels hand to rescue them like the angel of God rescued Isaac, yet they continue to wait, the angels stand still.
Shma Yisrael, Hear o Israel – today they call out to us. 60 million displaced around the world, they call to us – we, like the angels, stand still.
The 19 million refugees worldwide in search of a place to call home, they cry to us. we, like the angels, stand still.
The four million Syrian refugees seeking safety and freedom plead to us – we, like the angels, stand still.
We have failed. We, like the angels, stand still. Let’s today recognize it. We have missed opportunities.
We have missed the cries of Nur, a nine year old Syrian refugee. He writes,
“There was nothing that they did not use to hurt us with.” I do not play. Why? Because I am not young any more. I go to the bathroom, take a shower and then sleep. That is all. In Syria I was happy, I used to play football and other games. Then the violence started and they started to make us suffer. There was nothing that they did not use to hurt us with. Earlier they used tanks, and then they took it further and started using air strikes, bombings, missiles and every weapon you could think of. They killed us. Today there is nothing left in my home village, and most of the people have left. I was terrified. Us along with my cousins, neighbours, aunts and people we know used to go to the shelter to hide. I used to like hiding. Hiding is better than dying. The camp is better than being in Syria – there they are shooting at us while here there is neither shooting nor shelling. I want it to stop so we can go back, so I can play again with my friends.
We have missed the pleas of Khalid, a fifteen year old, who says,
I left Syria because of the constant bombardment, the constant shelling, and the torture. The children are all terrified, they don’t understand what’s happening. I was arrested. See these marks? My hands were tied with plastic cord. They were tied so tightly. Children were with me in the cell and their hands were tied in the same way. We’d beg them to untie us, but they would tie the cord tighter. Some men came to our village. I tried to escape, but they took me to jail. Except it wasn’t a jail – it was my old school. It’s ironic – they took me there to torture me, in the same place I used to go to school to learn. They had taken over the school and made it into a torture centre. When I realised that was where we were going, I was so sad, I wanted to cry. I was kept there for ten days. I was terrified. More than 100 of us were kept in a room in the school. One boy was only 12. He was kept in prison for five days. His hands were tied behind him, like me. I remember thinking, “What can he have done? He’s a 12-year-old boy.”
As a people, this is also our story.. From the biblical Israelites to those persecuted in the Holocaust, time and time again, when we have been forced from our homes, we have shown gratitude to those who have rescued us from violence and persecution.
At our Passover seders, we gather to tell the stories of our forefathers who, were sent from their homes, victims of oppression, of barbarism, of tyranny. Our foremothers, who escaped in the middle of the night, with their belongings on their backs, with their children by their side, as the angel of death avenged us against our enemy. They ran for their lives, for their safety, chased by Pharoah, they sought refuge, they sought a Promised Land, and God became their angel, with a mighty hand and outstretched arm, delivering us to the Promised Land.
On Yom Hashoah, we not only recall the atrocities committed towards our people, but too the gratitude towards those who risked their lives to save Jews. Like Sir Nicholas Winton, one of the organizers of the kindertransport, a series of convoys that transported thousands of children from Nazi occupied Germany, Czchoslovakia, Poland, and Austria, to safety in the United Kingdom. Winton, often referred to as the British Schindler, managed to save the lives of 650 Czech Jewish children by forging documents and bribing officials. Winton died this past July at the age of 106.
Harvard professor Avishai Margalit writes that these stories serve a constant reminder of our gratitude to those who rescued us. These memories obligates us to establish ourselves as an ethical community of caring, to hear the cries of others who seek refuge and a Promised Land.
Today God says to us, why are you standing still? Do not allow this crisis to go on. We can help them. We are told to care for the stranger 36 times throughout the Torah – to love the stranger, to welcome the stranger, to protect the stranger. We are instructed in the Holiness Code in the book of Leviticus. to take to heart the lessons of our own history by treating aliens in our midst with justice and compassion. “The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great 20th century Jewish thinker, writes that “A person cannot be religious and indifferent to others human beings plight and suffering…The essence of a Jew is his involvement in the plight of other people, as God is involved. This is the secret of our legacy, that God is implied in the the human situation and man must be invovled in it…There is no other people in the world which is so absolutely committed to the sancityt of human rights and equality of all men as our people… What is called for is not a silent sigh but a voice of moral compassion and indignation, the sublime and inspired screaming of a prophet uttered by a whole community.” (213-215) We have a responsibility to respond to today’s refugees.
We acknowledge this crisis, yet like many humanitarian crises of the first order, this can feel overwhelming. I am but one individual, we are just one community. But there are things you and I can do to help those in need.
HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, has taken the lead in guiding us on the Syrian refugee crisis. They are leading an advocacy effort to get the United States to raise its refugee quota, given the urgency and immediacy of the moment. John Kerry just announced that the U.S. would increase the number of refugees admitted to 85,000 in 2016 and 100,000 in 2017. But sadly those numbers are not enough to respond to this global challenge. I encourage you to sign HIAS’ petition, calling on the President to resettle an additional 100,000 Syrian refugees into the United States, to provide considerable aid to the severely underfunded humanitarian efforts abroad, and to make the resolution of the Syrian crisis a top foreign policy priority. For those who are interested, HIAS also has opportunities to volunteer with refugees in our community. Most importantly continue to learn and read about the Syrian refugee crisis, let us keep these stories in our consciousness and conversation. You can visit the HIAS website to sign up to receive HIAS action alerts and updates. You’ll find more information on HIAS’ efforts on the tables as you leave today.
Secondly, just this past Thursday, the Rabbinical Assembly shared a post from Gesa Ederberg, a rabbi at the Orainienburger Strasse Synagogue in Berlin whose community is directly involved with the refugee crisis. She reports that The Oranienburger Strasse Synagogue is cooperating with a refugee shelter housed in the Catholic Hospital just behind their synagogue. A few months ago, they finished building a new wing and decided to offer it as a refugee shelter.
As a side note: The hospital is located on “Grosse Hamburger Strasse”, next to the Jewish High School and the former Jewish Home for the Elderly that was used by the Nazis as a collecting point before deportation to the camps. Some people managed to escape and the nuns at the Catholic Hospital took them in, wrapped them in bandages, put them in beds, simulating intensive care and so saved their lives! And today, they are cooperating for new refugees.
It is so important to add a strong Jewish voice to the chorus of help – as you know, Germany expects 800,000 refugees this year – since it will shape the refugees’ view about how we want to live together in Europe in the future. You can visit the Masorti Olami website to donate to these communal efforts- and don’t worry you do not need to remember all that, on your way out you can pick up an information sheet on how you can help with this refugee crisis.
Today we are like angels, tomorrow we go back to being human beings. Soon we will leave this sanctuary and go out into the world with a new resolve, to practice what we preach, to demonstrate our resolve to save those in need, to provide shelter and refuge to the Syrian refugees.
We return to our food and drink, to our physicality – let us take a moment to be aware of our physicality and the work that it enables us to do. I invite you to join me in asking God to bless our bodies-
Touch your eyes with your hands and say:
God, Bless my eyes …………………………….that we may see clearly
Touch your ears with your hands and say:
God, Bless my ears ……………………………that we might hear with compassion and clarity the cries and pleas of the refugees
Touch your mouth with your hands and say:
God, Bless my mouth ………………………..that we may break the silence of
complacency and speak the truth
Touch your heart with your hands and say:
God, Bless my heart …………………………that we might be open our hearts to those who seek shelter, the victims of violence and oppression
Touch your legs with your hands and say:
God, Bless my legs and my feet ………..so that we might travel each step firmly and with courage, wherever we go.
I conclude with a story that is told of Abraham Joshua Heschel, who as a seven year old boy read the story of the binding of Isaac. He was sitting in class, reading the story of the Genesis, and in that moment when Abraham holds the knife over his son’s throat, Heschel begins to weep. By the time the angel cries out, Abraham, Abraham, lay not your hand on the child! Heschel is sobbing uncontrollably, overcome with terror. Why are you crying, the Rabbi asks him – you know that Isaac was not killed! But rabbi, he says, supposing the angel had come a second too late? The Rabbi comforts him, explaining that an angel cannot come late. Heschel goes on to share decades later, an angel cannot come late, but we, made of flesh and blood, can come too late.
Today we are like angels, tomorrow we return to being human. The voice of God is in our ears, asking us, are you still standing still? Do not let this crisis go on.