I Can Help

Sermon Sunday Night

Kol Nidre

2009 – 5770

  1. I want to welcome everyone back to our Jewish home tonight. It is good the see all of you here this evening. . Our greeting to each other tonight is Tzom Kal, may we all have an easy Fast.

  1. In the movie version of the book, “Clear and Present Danger” an American anti- drug operation in South America goes terribly wrong. Many of the military personnel involved in the operation are killed. Harrison Ford, plays the acting director of the CIA in Washington who discovers the betrayal of the program and goes down to South America to save whoever may be left of the commando team. He finally saves one soldier from the jungle and as the helicopter lifts him from hostile territory, the soldier turns and screams “Who did this to us? Who is responsible? Before anyone else can try and explain the entire Byzantine plot, Ford looks at the soldier, who has been fighting all week for his very life and replies, “I am” “ I am responsible”.

  1. Everyone on the helicopter is shocked when he says it and frankly we, the audience are shocked too. While the character is responsible for the operations in South America, it was his supervisors and crooked politicians who we know are really to blame. The people in the helicopter are so stunned because Ford’s character is also a victim in this tragedy. He has come, at the risk of his own life, to try and make some good from this disaster. That he should blame himself and take responsibility is the moral force that propels us through the second half of the movie.

  1. Tomorrow we will read a Haphtarah taken from the prophet Isaiah. In the reading, the prophet takes on all the hypocrites among the Israelites who pray as if they want to repent, but by their actions, they show that they have no intention of changing their ways. They fast on Yom Kippur but while fasting they are conducting their business, oppressing their laborers, arguing and even striking each other with clenched fists. Isaiah shouts out against all those who repent insincerely and declares that their fast is no fast and that God will not hear them when they pray.

  1. That is a really extreme sermon from Isaiah. I am not sure that there is a rabbi in the world who would speak that way to his or her congregation. What makes Isaiah speak up? What causes Isaiah to speak so passionately? Why does he feel he needs to remind the worshippers in the Temple that ritual alone will not be enough to erase their sins? At the very beginning of the Book of Isaiah, where Isaiah experiences a vision of the angels praising God in the heavens, Isaiah makes his choice known to God. The text reads:

  1. “Then I heard the voice of my Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?” And I said “Hineni, here I am, send me.” When God asks Isaiah who will be responsible to teach the people God’s word, Isaiah answers, “I will be responsible.” It is this responsibility that drives the prophet to speak out against those who would pervert ritual to accommodate their bad habits.

  1. The prophet who is the opposite of Isaiah is Jonah. Jonah is the prophet who tries to evade his responsibility. He tries to run away to Tarshish but God forces him back to Ninveh to take responsibility for the evil that is in the city. God needs Jonah to speak up. God knows that Jonah’s voice will make a difference to the people of the city, from the beggar in the street to the King himself. God knows that if Jonah were to speak out, it would cause the inhabitants of Ninveh to consider their actions and sincerely repent their deeds. Jonah can only see that if they repent and God will save them, then he might look like a fool. He thinks, “If they are so evil, let God punish them and give them what they deserve”. God must not only teach the citizens of Ninveh to repent, but he has to teach compassion to Jonah as well.

  1. This holy day of Yom Kippur is a day of introspection. It is a day that we take a good look at our life, and what we are making of it. Ever since the beginning of Elul, the last month of last year, we have been looking hard at our lives and seeing where we need to change so that we can live better lives. It has been a personal, private review, a dialogue that runs between us and God. Only now, with the beginning of Yom Kippur, and the message of Isaiah and Jonah, do we begin to assess our place in the wider world. Isaiah teaches us that the hunger we feel is not about our fasting, but about making us sensitive to those who are hungry every day. Jonah teaches us that it is not enough to understand the problems of the world; we need to realize that God expects us to speak out and make a difference.

  1. At the end of World War II, American soldiers, most of them very young men, came home and tried to get on with their lives. They did not like to talk about what they did during the war. If we asked them, they usually replied, “We did what we had to do.” These were American heroes. They had stopped the Nazi war machine. They had liberated Europe. They had liberated the concentration camps and had seen first hand the atrocities committed by the enemy. They were proud of their service to country and to humanity. They did not want to talk about the killing. They only wanted to get on with their lives and try to live that life by the values they had fought to defend.

  1. But imagine, if you can, the life of a former German soldier after the war. What they feared most as their children and grandchildren learned about the abuses of the Nazi government, was the question, “Daddy, What did you do during the war?” What could they say to their children? “We did what we had to do to kill Jews, Gypsies and homosexuals?” “We followed the orders of a megalomaniac dictator?” “Daddy, what did you do during the war? Did you kill Jews or save Jews?” How does one answer such a question? If the truth was revealed, what would their children and grandchildren think of them?

  1. We have taken a vow that never again will there be such genocide in the world. We made a promise on the ashes of those whose lives were destroyed by the Nazis that we would not stand idly by when the poor and forgotten people of the world were executed. That when nobody else cared, we would care. We would be responsible. But our commitment to this vow has already been challenged. From the killing fields of Cambodia, to the slaughter in Rwanda to the victims in Darfur, the world once again seems to only want to look the other way and not have to deal with the death of so many innocent men, women and children. The death toll in Darfur grows every day. What are we to say to our children and grandchildren when they read about the atrocities in school and then ask us, “What did we do to save them?”

  1. We are taught that all human beings are created in the image of God. Feeding Jews is important. But so is feeding the hungry of all nations. The Talmud in Massechet Shabbat teaches us that if we have the ability to protest an injustice and we do not, then God considers us accountable for the crime. Rabbi Harold Shulweiss of Los Angeles asks “Have we become so wounded by the Anti- Semitism in the world that we can no longer feel the pain of the rest of humanity? If we have become so unfeeling, it marks a very serious spiritual defect for our people.”

  1. It is not easy to stand up and say “Hineini.” “I am responsible.” It is much easier to focus on our own problems rather then take on the rest of the world. But we do have that responsibility. We may not be able to change the world, but we do have the responsibility to respond, to do what we can do, to lend our hand, our voice and our strength to those who strength has all but run out. We can’t do everything, but we can do something.

  1. Can we stop global warming? Can we end the corruption and evil that comes when we purchase petroleum from foreign sources? Can we reduce our carbon footprint? Maybe we can’t change geo-politics but we can still make a difference. Did you know that candles are made from a byproduct of petroleum? The Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs has begun selling special “Green” Shabbat candles which are not made from petroleum. There is now a movement to use these soy based candles because they are a renewable resource and do not add to the carbon in the atmosphere. Each of us can further reduce our electrical consumption by replacing incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent lighting. It is not so hard to reduce our carbon footprint. Making a difference is only as far away as Home Depot. When we are asked who is responsible for the environment, will we reply “Hineini” “I am responsible”?

  1. This past week, the major organizations of our Conservative movement, the Rabbinical Assembly and the United Synagogue released for general comment, draft guidelines for the Magen Tzedek seal. Those who eat Kosher try to eat according to the laws set down in the Torah about what is appropriate for food, and what is not. But knowing where the food comes from, in our day and age is not enough. What if the food was processed by people working in unsafe surroundings? What if they are being paid wages which are not much better than slave wages? What if the workers are being abused by their managers and forced to work long hours, to kick back some of their wages in order to keep their jobs or to pay very high rent for an apartment owned by the company who employs them. These conditions were all documented at the Agriprocessor Plant in Postville, IA. Can we say that Rubashkin meat is kosher if it is made on the backs of abused immigrants?

  1. Magen Tzedek is an attempt by Conservative Judaism, to raise the standards of supervision. In these five areas: treatment of employees, animal welfare, consumer issues, corporate integrity and environmental impact; Magen Tzedek gives us a new way to look at our food. The Magen Tzedek seal is not designed to replace regular kashrut supervision; Magen Tzedek can only be given to foods that already are certified Kosher. But the seal certifies that the food we eat, meets a spiritual criteria that goes beyond how an animal is killed and how its lungs are inspected. The meat at the Postville plant was not treyf, but the attitude of the management and the treatment of the workers was far less than kosher. If we had a choice, would we demand Magen Tzedek in addition to regular Kosher supervision? The Magen Tzedek seal will start appearing next year. Are we ready to say “Hineini,” I am responsible for the food that I eat?

  1. Darfur is halfway around the world from Florida. It is unsafe to travel there and the region has been closed to foreigners. Certainly we need to let our Senators and Representatives know that Darfur is a concern for us and that they should not let the humanitarian crisis there be forgotten. But is that all we can do? What do the people of Darfur need that can make their life easier? You might be surprised to learn that the needs are really quite simple.

  1. The most dangerous thing that the people of Darfur need to do is to travel great distances to get the wood needed to cook their meals. Men searching for wood are regularly killed by the Janjaweed and the women who venture out of the settlements are often raped. For a few dollars, a solar stove can be given to each family in the villages, a stove that could heat food and water by solar power so that the need to leave the safety of the village would be lessened. There are some other issues as well: the clinics in the village need basic supplies; water wells need to be dug in the villages; modern latrines are needed to insure basic sanitation. None of this is really expensive, but most government money goes to food relief. A small sum of money can make a great difference. Jewish World Watch (www.jewishworldwatch.org) is an organization of Synagogues that are determined to not let genocide happen in our day and age. They have the connections to the secure stoves and supplies needed by the people of Darfur. Our conscience calls to us to say “Hineini” I will take responsibility.

  1. When we join a synagogue we have a pretty good understanding as to what a synagogue is all about. We know that a synagogue is a Bet Sefer, a school, and that there needs to be educational programs so that we can grow in our understanding of our faith. We know that a synagogue is a Bet Tephilla, a house of prayer, and that we need to provide for the spiritual growth of our members and help them feel near to God when they pray. And we also know that a synagogue is a Bet Knesset, a place where we can get together with friends and neighbors to celebrate the joy in life and to support each other in times of sorrow.

  1. But a synagogue should also be a Bet Tzedek, a place of Justice. Not in the sense of a courthouse, but a place where we gather to do what is right for those who are in need of our help. To reach out to the victims of injustice and to help all people find a way to live in safety and with self respect. We all know what a synagogue is, but we also must look to what our synagogue ought to be.

  1. To be responsible means we first have to ask the question, “What ignites our moral passion?” Is it universal health care? Is it the immoral situation concerning immigration in this country? Is it hunger in a world that has too much food but not the will to distribute it equally? Is it children being pressed to serve as soldiers in West Africa? Is it the genocide in Darfur? Is it the international trade in children for sexual exploitation? Is it the trafficking of modern slavery? What will be the cause that awakens us from our slumber and moves us to make a difference in the world? The cause that moves us to say, “I am responsible”?

  1. One of the projects that I want to introduce to the congregation is a new committee on Social Action/Social Justice. I am calling it the “Hineini Committee”. It is a place where we can gather to reflect on our responsibility to others, our responsibility to our planet and our responsibility as human beings and then to translate that reflection into meaningful action that will make a difference. Our Synagogue needs to be a place that is more than just a house of Prayer, Study and entertainment. Hineini will be a place where we can help to transform the world that is into the world that ought to be. It will help us discover what we can do to change the world and to join with others to plan how we can make a real difference.

  1. How can you say Hineini? It is very easy. Just let me know that you are ready to take responsibility and let me know where you would like to focus your moral passion. I want to create different working groups each one with a focus on just one of the many responsibilities we may have. Some groups will focus on political action, contacting Representatives and Senators on the State and Federal levels. Others may work more locally on regional issues. Still other groups may reach out to those who may be suffering around the world, joining hands with international aid groups who are making a difference. Some may go to Israel to help with issues there relating to immigration and social ills, but others may fight those same ills right here in our own country. Some may decide to speak with students in our local schools and some may join with students from all over the world to lend a hand.

  1. These are projects that do not require a certain age or agility. Everyone has something to offer and we can enlist our friends to help and make new friends along the way. Temple Emeth will provide the resources that will help each group work to make a difference. Who will come forward to lead a group of members to provide meals to a family who has now entered the Land of Cancer? Are there enough drivers in our congregation to help those friends and neighbors who have given up driving get to a doctor or to bring them to synagogue on Shabbat and Holidays? We have shown our commitment to Israel by traveling there and visiting this miracle of the Middle East. If you have not yet gone, are you ready to go? If you have gone, how about traveling to Washington DC and lobbying our representatives there about the direction of our Middle East policy? When this Health Care debate is over, this country will have to confront the next thorny problem of immigration. Who will speak up for those who wish to come to this country and work hard to better their family’s standard of living? Thirty-seven synagogues are already a part of Jewish World Watch, helping to provide the basic necessities for the people of Darfur. Who will help Temple Emeth become number thirty-eight?

  1. Who is responsible for these and many other causes? Who will stand up and say “Hineini, Shelacheni” “Here I am, send me! I will be responsible”? I know that we are very busy with our lives. The great sage Hillel reminds us “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” But then he adds, “But if I am only for myself, what am I?” An important part of our definition of self needs to be our service to others. And finally Hillel reminds us, “If not now, when?” Now is the time, at the beginning of the year, at the time when we are searching our souls to discover just what kind of a person we are deep inside. Now is the time to answer the call to stand up for those who can not stand up for themselves and to lend time and energy to those whom life has left exhausted. We cannot rest on who we are; we have to bring to life the person that we know we “ought” to be. A Jew who understands that a spiritual life must be filled with kindness, caring and compassion. God is asking each one of us today, “Who shall I send? Who will go for us? Will we be like Jonah, who tried to run away from our responsibility or will be like Isaiah, or maybe like Harrison Ford and answer the call “Hineini, I am here. I am responsible!”

  1. May this year be one of joy and gladness for us and for those we will help in the year ahead. May we be the blessing in the lives of others and may that be our blessing as well as we say …


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