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I am a big fan of Game of Thrones.  I love the majesty of the designs and the depth of the dialogue.  In each episode, we are taken deeper into the essence of each character.  I was struck by a conversation earlier this season that seems all too relevant to the frustrations of grappling with truth and moral priorities in our current times.Jon Snow: How do I convince people who don’t know me that an enemy they don’t believe in is coming to kill them all?Tyrion Lannister: Good question.Jon Snow: I know it’s a good question. I’m looking for an answer.Tyrion Lannister: People’s minds aren’t made for problems that large. I continually find myself frustrated and immobilized the major problems we face in the world, whether that be climate change, global terrorism, the rise of violent anti-Semitism. I cannot help but wonder if this statement by Tyrion Lanister is the most realistic political statement of this year to date. Of course, people don’t take seriously what doesn’t affect them personally, what does not touch them emotionally, what does not speak to their lived experience. Of course, people prefer to focus on what is smaller and easier to grasp. Of course, so many people choose to ignore the bigger issues that feel completely out of their control and dismiss that these things are real or relevant to their lives and of course they focus on more “comfortable monsters” that they can not only comprehend but that they feel they can do something about.Perhaps we hope too much when we expect people to believe in the seriousness of big issues when people’s minds are not made to deal with problems that large. Perhaps we try too hard to open peoples’ minds to bigger things when in fact we should find ways of making bigger things smaller and more relatable and thus more relevant to more people’s lives.
Friends, today I speak words of challenge, joining hundreds of my rabbinic colleagues across the nation in fulfillment of our sacred obligation. Over the past few weeks, rabbis all over the country, myself included, have generated the ideas in this sermon and today, hundreds of rabbis will stand on their Bimah’s and share a unified message to our community.   Many of us have chosen to speak out together today on this most sacred day where the call of the shofar reverberates through these walls.  It is our call to action, not prayer.  It rings loud this year.   We, like the prophets before us, draw from the deepest wisdom of our tradition to deliver a stern warning against complacency and an impassioned call for action. We call on you to rise up and say in thousands of ways, every day, as proud Jews and proud Americans and proclaim as we have since the dawn of time:  Every Jew, every Muslim, every gay, transgender, disabled, black, brown, white, woman, man and child is beloved of God and precious in the Holy One’s sight. We the people, all the people, are created b’tzelem elohim, in the image of the Divine. All people are worthy of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Today is Yom Teruah, the Day of sounding the Shofar, whose piercing tones sound an alarm, express our fears and especially in these times compel us to respond with a resounding call for justice.  Our voice is needed in a world where silence is acquiescence and passivity is agreement.  It is time for us, fueled by the prophetic visions of the past, to hear the cries from our land and our people.   Two thousand years ago, 25 people of every 1,000 on earth were Jewish. One hundred and twenty years ago ten people out of every 1,000 on earth were Jewish. Seventy years ago, five out of every 1,000 on earth were Jewish, and 80 years into the future, based on current trends, just a little more than one person out of every 1,000 on earth will be Jewish. From one quarter of a percent of the world’s population to just above one tenth of a percentage in 2,000 years –what a precipitous decline. The number of people who identify Jewishly in this country has dropped from six million 20 years ago to just 5.2 million today.Each one of us is precious and our future is challenged. There are real and perceived threats out there and we must open our eyes and be aware.  We owe that to the generations that preceded us and we must insure the generations who follow.
The shofar blasts: Tekiah [single shofar blast] The Sound of Certainty: As rabbis we are, from sea to shining sea, speaking to our congregations in every accent of America to declare in unison: acts of hatred, intimidation and divisiveness will not be tolerated in these United States. We stand upon the shoulders of the sages, poets and rabbis in every generation who fought for freedom. We speak in memory of every Jew and in memory of all people who tragically and senselessly lost their lives at the hands of evil oppressors.   On this first day of the New Year WE are “Proclaiming liberty throughout all the land” [Lev 25:10].Across North America and around the world, vulnerable populations face profound challenges. We must be dedicated to meeting challenges through moral leadership and congregational and community-based direct action.  Act in solidarity with vulnerable communities Build relationships across lines of difference and respect different viewpoints.Act at all levels to address the root causes of injustice through advocacyFoster a culture of sacred and civil dialogue. If we can’t talk to one another with care, compassion and conscience, then we have lost the one thing (other than opposable thumbs) that separates us from the animals.
The shofar blasts: Shvarim [3 shofar blasts] The Sound of Brokenness: Something crumbled inside us when we watched the televised images of Charlottesville’s beautiful streets filled with hate-spewing marchers. The wound was opened here when in the greater Seattle area, swastikas and anti Jewish messages appeared on walls and cars just a few miles from here. I was deeply troubled when at the University of Washington, protestors from the right and left clashed violently.  How much more vandalism, how many clashes, which other cities? We must not accept or become inured to some warped version of “normal,” of racist and anti-Semitic acts or rallies popping in and out of breaking news cycles. Let us never grow numb to the brokenness, but let our pain fuel our vows to respond – with peaceful protests, and with public calls for healing, by building alliances and by speaking in unison with other minorities and faith communities. Neither silence nor complacency nor waiting anxiously and fearfully for the next wounding event are options. Not for us. Elie Wiesel, of blessed memory, possessed a rare understanding of unfathomable brokenness. His memorable words sound a warning to us today, “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere.” May we never be neutral, never silent in the face of threats or of discrimination toward any. Let us become as [rofei lishvurei lev] healers of the broken[hearted], and [u’mchabaysh l’atzvotahm], binders of their wounds. PS 143:3
The shofar blasts: Truah [9 short blasts] The Sound of Urgency:The events of these simmering months are a wake-up call to our Jewish community. Racism is wrong whether it seeps into explicit anti-Semitism or not. Judaism teaches repeatedly that all lives matter … back, brown or white, Jew or not, wealthy or poor.  The Talmud teaches that God created us all from the first Adam so that no human being could ever say, “my lineage is greater than yours.” But just in case we thought the white supremacists were after someone else, or that the Confederate flag has nothing to do with modern day Nazi sympathizers, or that we were somehow safe in the fact that most – but certainly not all – Jews in America are white, those fiery torches illuminated another truth, one we learn and forget only to learn again this day: if one minority group’s rights are threatened, we are all threatened. As Martin Luther King taught us, “We are all tied together in a single garment of destiny,” whether we are the least powerful or the most powerful person in our world.
The shofar blasts: Tekiah G’dolah [lengthy single blast] The Endless Pursuit of Justice:Tzedek tzedek tirdof the Torah admonishes: “Justice, justice you shall pursue, so that you may live and inherit the land which I, God, give to you.” Our sacred text reminds us that for a community truly to inherit its place in the world, thoughtful leaders at every level must be dedicated to equality and to unity. Every community relies on passionate and engaged citizens; it relies on you to be insistent advocates for tolerance and enduring kindness between the diverse peoples of our nation. To pursue justice is to create a society that protects and enlivens every citizen. Let us be relentless, tireless builders of that society in our city and in our country – in this New Year.We are here today we possess the radical freedom to be better.  It is the freedom that rejects the tyranny of the status quo, the freedom that in a quiet moment in the sanctuary pushes back gently against our fear of being different than we are.  True, our freedom is neither absolute nor unbounded.  It exists in the context of our own mortality, of physical limitation, of the reality of the different strengths implanted within different human beings.  Tifkach eyneynu, adonai eloheinu – open our eyes, dear God, even when the world seems a living hell – when the smoke is blinding and real screams compete with the angel’s voice – when bombs land in Israel, when soldiers come home in caskets, when people starve to death on our city streets, when racial strife marches down main streets, wherever terror strikes.  Especially then, help us to see the power of one human deed, of one humane act.  Help us to spend less time lamenting what we lack.  Help us to use what we have for good.    Open our eyes to our own humble possibilities for holiness.  Help us see the mountain that rises before our eyes.  Help us see the sacrifice that we must make and the hope-filled lives that it creates.
Tifkach eyneynu, adonai elohienu – in this new year 5778, open our eyes, dear God – to all the cries, to all the potential, to the urgency of our promise and the greatness of our responsibility.  We are children of the Holy One.  Bless us as You blessed Abraham and Isaac – with courage and with vision and with hope.  In a new year bright with Your goodness and blessing – give us Your blessing!Amen.