Lifting Our Hearts in Our Hands
Rabbi Shoshana Meira Friedman, Yom Kippur 5777
On the eve of the battle of Yorktown, General George Washington sings to his protege Colonel Alexander Hamilton, "Let me tell you what I wish I'd known, when I was young and dreamed of glory: You have no control who lives, who dies, who tells your story."
The musical Hamilton is genius, and anyone who wants to geek out about it with me at any time- or to help me and Yotam get tickets is more than welcome - after the holidays. But in the meantime, let's take a moment to appreciate that Washington's words to Hamilton summarize of a main theme of the High Holidays. We have no control who lives, who dies, or who is around to tell our story and how they will tell it.
What are we to do with that vulnerability? How do we live in a way that is meaningful, such that we feel supported and safe enough to live full-hearted, buoyant, and spirited lives even though we are mortal - and everyone we love is too?
Our High Holiday liturgy asks the same question in the Unetane Tokef prayer which we recite on both Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur:
"On Rosh HaShanah it is written, and on the fast of Yom Kippur it is sealed: How many will pass away from this world, and how many will be born into it; who will live and whowill die; who will reach the ripeness of age, and who will be taken before their time."
It is tough stuff, every year.
The power of the prayer is its blunt acknowledgement of mortality. It then begs the question - How do we live well even though we can lose our lives or those we love, and we have no control?
While this isn't the whole truth, I do have a valid perspective to share on this question. It begins with the fact that the Unetane tokef is liturgy for community. It is not recited at home alone, but rather in a large space of gathered people, on days specially set aside for communal contemplation of our lives. In other words, we are not alone with this scary question and truth, we are not meant to be.
The continuation of the answer is in the next lines of the Unetane Tokef: "ותשובה, ותפילה, תצדקה – but return and repentance, prayer, and acts of justice and righteous giving can transcend the harshness of the decree."
Now, the original language to this prayer was that repentance, prayer, and righteous giving would m'vatlinor nullify the decree -- that is to say, if we just did the right penitential practices, God would change God's mind and cancel whatever punishment was in store for us. We would be able to move our names from the Book of Death to the Book of Life by our ritual actions.
This is hard for most of us to swallow.
And indeed, the liturgy handed down to us by the rabbis was changed. It now reads that repentance, prayer, and righteous giving will ma'avirin, or transcend, the harshness of the decree. Bad things will befall us, but these practices of teshuva, tefila, tzedaka, repentance, prayer, and righteous giving, can help us withstand the bad things, can somehow mitigate their badness.
I'd like to offer yet another interpretation of these words, ro'a hag'zerah, the harshness of the decree. Instead of understanding decree as referring to the specific trials and tragedies of our individual lives, what happens if we understand it to refer to the human condition, the inescapable truth that we have no control who lives, who dies, or who tells our story - that we are mortal and so is everyone we love?
How can we mitigate the harshness of that decree? What can help the us bear the mystery such that our mortality and vulnerability become assets that increase our gratitude, awe, and meaning?
Our liturgy answers us from the depths of Jewish history, all too familiar with the frailty of human life and the resilience of the human spirit: teshuva, tefila and tzedakah - which I want to translate as: connection to God through prayer and authentic self expression; connection to other people through forgiveness and mutual responsibility; and connection to the wider world through generosity and working for justice. This connection is in our control. And it is taught that human beings can endure almost anything as long as we are not alone. Connection is what gets us through.
One could preach an entire sermon on each of these practices of connection, so to offer some more depth, I will focus on tzedakah, and how -- as Brené Brown would put it -- it can help us live wholehearted lives in the midst of our vulnerability.
Tzedakah comes from the Hebrew root צ.ד.ק. Its closest English translation is righteousness. The noun tzedakah is righteous giving, usually referring to money or material goods. But the word is inextricably linked to tzaddik, a righteous person -- who in Jewish mysticism, is a pillar between Earth and Heaven -- and also to tzedek, justice. Ultimately the root צ.ד.ק is about being in right relationship with the wider world and with those in need. It is a root whose fruit is our conscience and moral compass. It asks us to lead our lives in a way that is a blessing, that brings forth more peace and justice. At Temple Sinai, we encompass צדק under our core value of g'milut chasadim, acts of loving kindness.
So, how does tzedakah, or pursuing tzedek, help us transcend the harshness of the decree of the human condition? Not how does it somehow metaphysically change our individual fate, but how does acting for justice support us in opening our hearts without knowing our fate?
My reflections start two Hebrew months ago on Tisha B'Av, the day when we Jews commemorate the tragedies of our history. On this day we read Eicha or Lamentations, the devastating account of the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians in 586 BCE. It is a biblical text that has come to express Jewish communal sorrow of all kinds.
In the middle of reading this year, my breath caught at a verse: "Let us deeply search and probe our ways, and let us turn back to God. Lift up our hearts in our hands to God in Heaven." נִשָא לְבָבֵנוּ אֶל־כַּפָּיִם אֶל־אֵל בַּשָמָיִם. Lift up our hearts in our hands to God in Heaven.
The verse struck me because it comes in the context of the Israelite people being surrounded by their own suffering and by their beloved Jerusalem destroyed. Yet they respond by holding their own broken hearts up in their hands. This verse conjures all three of the Unetane Tokef's answers: Turning back through teshuva. Lifting our consciousness toward God through tefila/prayer. But the words struck me most of all as a beautiful description of the work of tzedek: to participate in social justice as a practicing Jew or person of faith is to act with our hands, and hold up our own broken hearts as an offering to God. And it is verse that reminds us that Teshuva, tefila, and tzedakah are most powerful when we practice all three at one - when our work for justice is a form of prayer, when our prayer brings us closer to others, when our relationships with others inspire our work for justice.
Many of you have heard my story - I told a version of it right here on Yom Kippur a year ago -that for almost 20 years I could not do meaningful activism for the issues I cared deeply about because my heart felt so broken, too broken to act. What changed me was meeting a community of other people whose hearts were broken by the same injustices, and who understood organizing for a better world as a form of worship, a way to witness God's love, and a way to demonstrate their own love for it.
We lift up our broken hearts in our hands to God. And we do so together.
Tzedek@Sinai, which translates to Justice at Sinai, is Temple Sinai's Congregation-Based Community Organizing group. Congregation-Based Community Organizing is a method of social change that rests on the foundation of building relationships with others whose hearts are broken like ours, who are kept up at night by the same injustices, and with whom we can research and discern a path forward to build people power and have a measurable impact.
There are many ways to respond to a broken heart. The lamenter of Eicha, Lamentations, could have written, "We hide our hearts in our hands, and bury our grief." Isolation and retreat are natural responses to fear and loss. But what the lamenter knew, and what Congregation-Based Community Organizing teaches us as well, is that the balm for our mortality and our broken hearts is not to hide our pain. The balm is to reach out, to meet other people, to hear their stories, to build a resilient web of loving human connection. The love and relationships hold us and buoy our spirits and hearts. The web builds people-power to take concrete action. At a time in our country when our hearts are broken over the egregious misogyny, racism, and hatred that has been unearthed in this presidential election, we must come together to act on our values in the public sphere.
This fall we at Temple Sinai are part of a stunning example of Congregation-Based Community Organizing at its best. The Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO) works to develop local leadership and build organized people-power to fight for social justice issues that affect its members. Temple Sinai, I am proud to say, is one of 18 Jewish member congregations, out of a 42 member coalition.
A few years ago, GBIO discovered through a series of house meetings that affordable housing and gentrification were matters of grave concern to its members. Whether you yourself have been impacted by rising rents or home prices, or you know a family member, friend, or neighbor who has been - my guess is we all have some experience with this problem. At a GBIO action last May, we heard directly from a mom who cannot afford to live in the neighborhood she grew up in and where she wants to raise her children. At an action at the statehouse this September, I heard from a man working full time in fast food who is homeless in Boston. For many complex reasons, than a fifth of Boston neighborhoods have become gentrified since 2000. Gentrification is breaking up communities and families, keeping grandparents from grandchildren, and adults from their communities of support.
There were those in the GBIO affordable housing research group who, looking at the facts on the ground, thought that it was too late to make an impact on gentrification in Boston. But some others, including Felice Mendell of Temple Sinai, responded to that concern by saying simply, "We don't care. It is only too late if we give up and decide it is too late. We have to do something."
Felice and others on the team didn't care that the facts on the ground looked dismal. They didn't care that the way forward wasn't clear. Their hearts were broken, and instead of hiding their hearts away they lifted them in their hands toward the Sacred and said, we will try anyway.
Two years later, years full of research and relationship-building, that affordable housing team is organizing the entirety of GBIO behind Boston Ballot Question 5, a provision called the Community Preservation Act, which if passed would raise 20 million dollars per year for affordable housing in the City of Boston, as well as for open space and historic preservation. If you are a Boston voter, you can help make our city more livable by voting yes on 5. If you don't live in Boston, you can ask your friends and family who do to vote Yes. (And yes, clergy are take public stands on ballot measures - just not candidates - from the pulpit.)
Together with the rest of GBIO, Temple Sinai is part of mobilizing friends and family to cast thousands of votes for affordable housing in Boston, and to build the capacity of GBIO to do more justice work going forward. To get involved or learn more about CPA, you can talk toTzedek@Sinai members Felice Mendel, Janet Sanders, or Deb Nam-Krane - or reach out to me and I'll put them in touch with you.
So let's zoom out again: This specific campaign wouldn't have happened without the affordable housing research team at GBIO; that team wouldn't exist without the caring relationships between its members; and those relationships would not have formed if people hadn't lifted their broken hearts in their hands and said, "I don't care that it will be hard or even impossible. I want to be part of the solution." Tzedek@Sinai is here at Temple Sinai to support you in getting involved with congregation-based community organizing, and in taking the action and leadership you need to do for the sake of your heart and the world.
Here is the interesting secret I have found to be true: we work for justice to make the world more in line with our highest prophetic vision. But we also do it to care for our own hearts and our own humanity in a time of suffering. Of course many particular issues cry out - the refugee crisis, criminal justice reform, climate change, access to healthy and sustainable food, racism, gun violence, animal welfare, immigration, healthcare access -- all these and more are specific issues that touch us each in different ways. In order to practice tzedek, to be in right relationship to the wider world, we each need not tackle them all, or work in one specific way, for there are many ways to work for justice.
But neither can we stand idly by. As Rabbi Tarfon famously said 2,000 years ago, it is not up to us to finish the task, but neither are we free to desist from it. We can understand ourselves as cells in an immune system of love in this world. Each cell alone does not fight the disease of injustice, but each cell plays a part. It is our job to listen to our tender and broken hearts, lift them up to God, and discern what part is for us to play.
I cannot promise that if we do that we will win our campaigns.
I cannot promise that if we do that we will win the broader fight of our movements.
But I can promise that if we do that we will be in integrity with ourselves, and be better able to face the unknown. And I can promise that we will be in deep, loving relationships with others, and that those relationships will help us, our neighborhoods, and our broader society be more loving and resilient. As my friend and colleague Rabbi Margie Klein writes, community organizing is a self fulfilling prophecy. In other words, it is a method that aims to make the external world better, but by connecting people through stories and relationships, the method itself makes the world better. And even though anyone who has worked for more than a week on a justice issue will tell you that some of the hardest challenges are with other allies -- making decisions, structuring groups, navigating interpersonal conflict -- even though this is true and unavoidable, still the movements themselves are the beloved community, tzedakah and tzedek in action.
At a wedding last summer, a friend, knowing my involvement in the climate movement, asked me, "So, given the climate crisis and the catastrophes that are coming, what should I be doing to protect my family? Where should we buy property? Where should we be ready to flee to? What skills should I learn?"
I looked at him and realized three things at once. First, that he was right to be afraid, because climate disruption is real and scary. Second, that I had great compassion for his desire to protect his family. And third, that the premise of his question made no sense to me anymore.
I have spent the past two years helping to build and strengthen the climate movement, nurturing and helping to grow an interconnected web of people whose hearts are broken by what is happening to our common home. While I am absolutely not naive about the real dangers of climate disruption, especially living in a coastal city, my strategy for resilience is not to buy property far away and have a place to which I can flee and insulate myself. My strategy is to love deeply and fiercely here, to be loved in return, and to trust that we will be here for each other no matter what floods, storms, or rising temperatures come. We cannot protect ourselves from tragedy. The decree is harsh. The injustices are real. And yet the blessings of love and human connection are sustaining.
Today we are reading two powerful passages from the Torah. In the story of Cain and Abel, we read how Cain kills Abel out of jealousy. It is the first violent disconnection between brothers, the first human injustice on the Earth. At the other end of the book of Genesis, which we will read this afternoon at Mincha, we hear how Joseph and his eleven brothers reconcile despite them having sold Joseph into slavery, despite the fear and hardship of the famine that is wracking the land of Canaan.
We have the seeds of both these paradigmatic families of brothers within us -- violence and love, isolation and community, distance and deep connection.
We have no control who lives, who dies, or how we will be remembered. But we have control over HOW we live and the connections we form. As Rabbi Victor Reinstein says, our vulnerability is also our grandeur. Let us live with our hearts lifted in our hands so we can truly live whole hearted, sacred lives.
Gamar Chatima Tova.