YOM KIPPUR MORNING 5768

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy

            This morning I want to tell you about some real people whom I have met in recent days. I think of them as “mitzvah heroes.” Some are even seated on our pulpit this morning. They have heard the message of the Prophet that we just read and internalized it. Fasting is good, but it’s not enough. Words and sentiment are good, but it is not enough. What God requires of us are deeds, actions that make a difference in this world.

From our tradition we have the story of the cartman’s horse, which suddenly stumbled and fell dead. This was a catastrophe for the cartman, as he sat in the street in tears, for this was his livelihood. A crowd gathered, observed the poor man’s predicament, shook their heads sympathetically, mumbling, “too bad, too bad.”

A rabbi amongst the observers took out a paper bag, placed ten dollars in it and said, “Friends, I’m sorry for this man too, ten dollars worth. How sorry are you?”

When the crowd followed suit, they moved from observers to doers, from people with feelings to givers of tsedakah. We all can be such people and when we use the term tsedakah, this is not just donating our dollars, but also includes the pursuit of justice in our world.

Our Haftarah began with God telling the prophet: “Cry aloud; do not hold back, let your voice resound as a shofar.” There are a variety of ways we can cry out against injustice. At Jacobs Camp this summer I became reacquainted with Jen Marlowe. She had been a counselor and Unit Head many years ago. Since then her path has taken her around the world, where she has been an activist involved in creating and implementing youth co-existence programs between Israelis and Palestinians, Turkish and Greek Cypriots, Indians and Pakistanis among others. She was working with a theater group in Seattle, when she connected with an old friend in 2004, who was planning to make a film about Darfur.

This was early on in the fighting and Jen like the rest of the world was unaware of the genocide taking place. She collaborated with two others, helped raise funds and journeyed to Darfur and throughout Sudan to make the film, to let the world see and hear the reality. “Darfur Diaries” presents the personal narratives of the people who have been attacked, displaced and are fighting for basic dignity. The only words spoken are by the people of Darfur as they tell their story to the world. Jen and her two co-workers dialogued with dozens of Darfurians either in their villages or in refugee camps in Chad. We learn about their history, hopes and fears, the tragedy and resilience of their everyday lives. By meeting real people with full lives, a rich culture and heritage, their story becomes more than a 30 second sound bite on the nightly news.

Jen screened her film to the older campers and shared how she pursues tikun olam, the betterment of our world. She is continuing her mission and is back in the Sudan making a second film. In addition she is diligently striving to keep a number of individuals who are depicted in the first film from being killed by the Sudanese government. Her movie has been shown around the world, so that no one can say, we did not know. Individuals can make a difference. Walking in the footsteps of the Prophets, Jen is a mitzvah hero.

 

Then we read that part of our prophetic duty is “to unlock the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every cruel chain.”

Let me tell you about Kristine Smith. Kristine initially came to see me to discuss issues of Jewish identity and her family history. Then she began to share one of her great passions. With her baby slung around her, she described how she is a one woman campaign to create a law that would ban the sale of products designed to inflict pain upon children.

I had no idea that there are companies around the country selling whips, rods and paddles, specifically designed to beat children. One in Oklahoma markets “The Rod,” buttressing their advertising with quotes from the Book of Proverbs:

22:15- “Foolishness is bound in the heart of the child; but the rod of correction shall drive it from him.”

23: You shall beat him with the rod and shall deliver his soul from hell.

Their ad goes on to promote their product with bullet points such as:

  • Less likely to cause injury
  • Less confusion to the child
  • Belts are for holding up pants
  • Spoons are for cooking and eating
  • Paddle ball paddles are for games
  • Hands are for loving
  • Rods are for chastening

This last item is written in bold letters, with a little smiley face instead of bullets. It goes on to describe that this is a rod of love and how to effectively beat your child.

Another Arkansas Company sells the “Rod of Correction” a spanking stick with Biblical verses on it. Joey in Pennsylvania of “spare-a-rod.com” began his mission to sell spanking paddles, when he became filled with God’s spirit while praying in his shower.

I’m not going to tell you that this is one of the most pressing issues of our time.

What impressed me so was Kristine’s passion. She had stacks of cards ready to be sent to Rep. Jindal, which she personally stamped with her resources with a goal for him to be one of the supporters of legislation that would ban the sale of these products. Along with similarly minded people around the country, that legislation is now before congress. Individuals can make a difference. Walking in the footsteps of the Prophets, Kristine, who is not Jewish, is still a mitzvah hero.

Earlier we learned “If you remove the chains of oppression, the menacing hand, the malicious word… then shall your light shine in the darkness, and your night become bright as noon.” Ben Kfir is a big strong Israeli, who has had to face great darkness.

His beautiful, bright and artistically talented daughter Yael was killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber. By all rights he could be filled with anger and vengeance. Over dinner in Jerusalem he detailed how initially his reaction was withdrawal. He stayed in bed, rarely leaving his apartment in Ashkelon.

Then a friend told him about a group called the “Parents Circle,” now renamed “Family Forum.” The goal of the organization is to avoid further bereavement as a result of the lack of peace between Israel and the Palestinians. A reconciliation process between the two communities based on the conviction that pain and suffering are common to both peoples is their goal. Using bereavement as a universal experience, they strive to alleviate the hatred between the two communities, while educating toward peace and tolerance.

Specifically they connect Israeli parents who have had children killed in the fighting with Palestinian parents whose children have also died. They commiserate with one another and build bridges to end the demonization of each by the other. In teams of bereaved parents from both sides of the conflict, they create dialogue encounters at colleges, high schools and community centers in Israel and Palestinian territories. In some cases it is the first time that a Palestinian speaks to an Israeli who is not in uniform with a gun or an Israeli meets a Palestinian, who is not seen as a possible terrorist. The hope is for tolerance and reconciliation instead of hatred and revenge.

I asked Ben why he does this, literally risking his life on some occasions to speak in places such as Ramallah, a Fatah stronghold. For Ben it is not a matter of forgiveness, but rather to make his daughter’s death mean something.

Shutafim l’kaev-shutafim l’tikvah- Sharing Pain-Sharing Hope. There are now some 500 families involved in this human effort. Individuals can make a difference. Walking in the footsteps of the Prophets, Ben is a mitzvah hero.

 

There is little more compelling than the exhortation “to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your house or when you see the naked, to clothe them.” We hear these words and cannot help but think of the enormous needs in our community, many related to Katrina, but others that pre-date that catastrophe.

In this regard we have many mitzvah heroes within the congregation already. Matt Tarr, who chanted the Torah blessings headed our Religious Action Committee last year. Working with Marc Beerman, who led our Katrina Response Committee, he went out into the community gutting homes. Carol Asher, who chanted the Haftarah blessings, labors tirelessly for the Tipitina’s Foundation to bring musical instruments and musicians back to New Orleans. She and her husband, Harold, are both active board members for two different Charter Schools, Carol with Lafayette Academy and Harold with Langston Hughes Middle School. Buddy Bart, who read the Haftarah translation, is busy promoting positive developments in our community through a television show on Cox cable. I also salute Mindy Caplan, whose Pajama Program literally puts clothes on the backs of children. Rick Streiffer took a leave from his medical practice in order to help lead the effort to restore primary health care for the State. Gary and Suzy Lazarus have led a number of clean-up and rebuild projects, including one recently on behalf of Federation. And I’m sure others of you are heroes in your own right and I may not be aware of what you are doing. As I learn of you and your activities I will be pleased to share that good news with the congregation through our newsletter.

However, Gates of Prayer became particularly linked to one project to make a difference through the efforts of the Silverman family. Shortly after Katrina, Jeffrey Silverman returned for a visit home for a year and volunteered for Common Ground and their Women’s Shelter; his mother, Jackie, then started helping out, Jackie who does not know how to say “no” when she sees people in need. Her years of experience at Jewish Family Service prepared her. She could see that the shelter was running poorly; the building was dilapidated and ill-equipped and there was little leadership. That’s where her husband Dan entered the scene, to apply his organizational skills honed by years in synagogue leadership, including renovating this building in 2000 and again in 2005.

They mobilized a variety of members of this congregation to provide beds and bedding, carpeting, proper electrical and plumbing, food, clothing, medical care and more for the women and children flowing through the facility. We can be proud how with their initiative, we have risen to meet a need.

That need continues. Recently, what was called the Upper 9th Women’s Shelter linked to Common Ground has been spun off by Jackie and Dan to become an independent operation and will be known as The New Orleans Women’s Shelter. A better and larger house, two doors down from the old, has been rented and will be able to serve more residents. Jackie and Dan, working with a number of people to ensure its quality, are committed to helping one group of underprivileged Katrina victims regain independent living.

The facility now operates as a family-style transitional women and children’s home with a focus on helping women stabilize, obtain proper medical treatment and other locally available social services, enroll children into school and day care, register for job training classes, secure employment, locate affordable permanent housing and move on to successful independent living. Since October of 2005, over 200 different women and children have been served.

This Shelter is a wonderful opportunity for our congregational community to make a difference. We are looking for major donors both here and outside our community, who can help underwrite the basic monthly operational costs for rent, utilities, food, transportation assistance, pharmacy and medical assistance, general housekeeping and facility maintenance. In addition we will be collecting food, cosmetics and toiletry items on a regularly announced basis; Brotherhood and Sisterhood have agreed to periodically cook for the shelter members in our kitchen and then bring the food to the Shelter. At holiday time we will engage in projects to make the season joyous. We can all make a difference. We can all be mitzvah heroes.

On Rosh Hashanah evening I wished you a “Happy New Year,” teaching that real happiness can come by being engaged in worthy projects, doing for others. This is one such opportunity. There are hundreds of other possibilities in our community as well where one person can make a difference.

We truly walk in the footsteps of the prophets. It was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who wrote:

“Daily we should take account and ask:

What have I done today to alleviate the anguish, to mitigate the evil, to prevent humiliation?

Let there be a grain of prophet in every human being!

Our concern must be expressed not symbolically, but literally;

not only publicly, but also privately;

not only occasionally, but regularly.

What we need is restlessness,

a constant awareness of the monstrosity of injustice.”

May we be inspired to respond to the challenge on this Yom Kippur.

AMEN