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Rabbi Steve Schwartz's Yom Kippur (5780) sermon: What We Stand For

The following is a text version of Rabbi Steve Schwartz's Yom Kippur (5780) sermon:

There is a story told of a rabbi who was having trouble with a sleepy congregant. It seems every time the rabbi began to preach, the congregant, within the first couple of minutes of the rabbi speaking, would fall into a sound sleep. It didn't bother the rabbi all that much on a regular Shabbat, because that particular congregant – we'll call him Greenberg – sat towards the back of the shul. But on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur there were tickets and people had assigned seats, and Greenberg's seat was front and center, right in front of the rabbi.

On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the rabbi begins his sermon, he has worked weeks and weeks on it, and within a minute, Mr. Greenberg is out, snoring audibly. The same thing happened on the second day of Rosh Hashanah: two minutes into the sermon, and Greenberg is sound asleep. On Yom Kippur morning, the rabbi steps into the pulpit, and there is Greenberg, and again, almost as soon as the rabbi begins to speak Greenberg is out like a light. But the rabbi is determined, and he starts pounding on the pulpit. Greenberg doesn't stir. Finally the poor rabbi can't take it anymore, and he yells out: "Everyone in the congregation, stand-up!" Everyone stands up, except Greenberg, still sleeping peacefully. Then the rabbi yells: "Everyone sit down!" Then everyone in the congregation sits down at once, which startles Greenberg out of his sleep, and he jumps up to his feet.  

Greenberg looks around, and he is standing right in front of the rabbi, the rabbi standing right in front of him, and everyone else in the congregation sitting down. "Do you know what this sermon is about Mr. Greenberg," yells the rabbi? Greenberg answers back, "I can't rightly say that I do rabbi, but I can see that you and I are the only ones who agree about it."

And that is what I would like to think with you about for a few minutes this morning. What is it that we stand for? What are the Jewish values that should animate our lives? What are the ideals that should guide us each and every day? The moral compass we should follow? What is it that the tradition would like us to emerge from these holy days with a deeper understanding of and commitment to?

There are, of course, many answers to these questions, and many values that guide us, and that I hope we reconnect with during these sacred days. There are personal, traditional values, like honesty and integrity, work ethic and self-sacrifice, kindness, and compassion. In Jewish life, family is a primary value. Education is as well. We might include community in that same list, and charity. Some would say worry is a Jewish value! Certainly honoring our parents. These are the values that we grew up learning about in Hebrew school, from our parents and our grandparents, and each of them is a thread in the fabric that makes up Jewish life. 

But this morning, I would like to suggest three particular values – big picture ideals – that we as Jews should return to during this season of returning. I find them in the Unetaneh Tokef prayer. You all know that prayer. It begins with the idea that we are like sheep, and God is our shepherd. But it is the refrain of the prayer and its conclusion that resonate most powerfully in people's minds. You all know the refrain: בראש השנה יכתבון וביום צום כיפור יחתמון ("On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed"). You know the rest - who shall live, and who shall die. That is the first half of the prayer – it is about the fragility of life.

But then the tone shifts and the prayer's powerful conclusion presents us with three words that encapsulate core Jewish values – ותשובה, ותפילה וצדקה מעבירין את רוע הגזירה – but repentance, prayer, and charity can, in the translation in our Mahzor, "transform the harshness of our destiny." It is up to us, that is what we are saying, it is up to us! There are things we can do, courses of action we can take, that can transform us, the communities in which we live, our families, and even the world that God created for us.

That is the whole idea of teshuvah. How do we normally translate that? Repentance! But repentance, by definition, implies that change is possible and that it comes about through human action.You may have followed in recent weeks the story of Greta Thunberg. She is the young woman from Sweden who has become one of the best-known climate activists in the entire world. She was in the States last month to attend a series of rallies and to speak about climate change at the United Nations General Assembly. She is articulate, bright, and thoughtful, but what she is more than anything else is passionate about her cause. She believes two things: first, that human activity, especially the production of greenhouse gases, is destroying our climate. The second thing she believes is that through her own actions, she can make a difference. That she has the power to literally change the world and make it a better place because she is in it.

That is a core Jewish value! Human action changes the world. Many of you will remember, in the 1960s, that Jews, particularly young Jews, were deeply involved in the civil rights movement, many of them leaders. They came to that cause from their Jewish roots, because they knew the Torah teaches ideals of universal human dignity, freedom, and equality. In the 1960s, in part because of their action and commitment, our country changed for the better! In the 70s, the worldwide Jewish community united around our Russian brothers and sisters, demanding their freedom and rights, because we all felt responsible for one another. And with the help of Jews around the world, Soviet Jews emigrated, and the Jewish world changed. After World War II and the Holocaust, Israel was a common thread through the 1950s, 60s, 70s, 80s, and even the 90s, a cause that animated the Jewish community, and brought Jews together, and we have watched Israel flourish, and because of that, the world itself has changed! 

Those things happened not because God created miracles, but because human beings decided to take a stand. All you have to do today is open the morning paper to know that our world is profoundly troubled and desperately in need of change. Anti-Semitism is rising. Gun violence is out of control. Racial inequality does still exist. The gap continues to grow between those with means and those without. The list could go on and on. Change is desperately needed in our world, and our tradition reminds us that we are the ones who must bring it about. 

The second redemptive value in the Unetaneh Tokef is Tefilah – what does that mean? Prayer! Our tradition teaches us there must be a spiritual dimension to human life. The yearning of our souls cannot be satisfied with materialism, despite what we are always told by the culture around us. We need our Judaism to live full and meaningful lives. You may have seen an article by Bari Weiss, published a month or so ago, on the problem of rising anti-Semitism and how to combat it. She argues that one thing Jews can do to fight against anti-Semitism is to live more fully and authentic Jewish lives. To be more Jewish, to do more Jewish things, to grow Jewishly by studying our traditions, our history, and the wisdom of our people. To make Shabbat at home with our children and grandchildren. To come to services more often! I just said to someone the other day that I love having 4,000 people in the building on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but honestly, I would rather have 300 people here every Shabbat morning.  

You don't have to stop with shul! You can engage in Jewish life through the Associated and its agencies, making a difference every day in people's lives in our community. Get involved in Israel bonds, or AIPAC, or JStreet, or the growing mindfulness movement in Jewish life. But whatever it is, be proud Jews! For 3,000 years, we have been different and distinct; for 3,000 years we have lived by Jewish values which at times seem out of date or unpopular or out of step. But we've done it for 3000 years. We are stubborn, we Jews. Am k' shei oref, the Mahzor calls us - a stiff-necked people. We should not stop living that way now. That is the second value: live more deeply and fully as a Jew in the new year.

The last guiding value from the Unetaneh Tokef is Tzedekah. Normally when we hear that word, we think of charity, and that is, in fact, the way it is translated in our Mahzor. It is the check writing and the Blue JNF boxes and the donations to the Associated and its agencies. It is our annual appeal. We've all been raised on that ideal, those blue boxes and what they represent – giving – that is ingrained in our hearts and our minds. It is part of what defines us as Jews. It is Jewish DNA.

But tzedekah also means doing what is just in God's eyes. The root of the word is the same root that makes the word tzedek – justice. Justice for all people. It may be that the greatest accomplishment of Judaism is that it has enriched the world with the idea that all human beings are equal in the eyes of God. And so they should be in our eyes. That includes all races, all sexual orientations, all gender identities, all faiths. It includes the stranger, the poor, both the immigrant and the native born. It includes those who are marginalized and cannot speak for themselves. If Jews don't speak for those people, who will? If Jews don't stand up for their rights, who will? Who knows better than we do what happens when justice, dignity, and freedom are taken away? That ideal that all people are created in God's image, that every person deserves justice should be at the core of our communal work, and a guiding light in our lives every day.

It is no mistake that the Sages assigned the words of the Prophet Isaiah for our haftarah reading this morning. It is a text that powerfully demonstrates the responsibility we have to care for one another and for our world. Isaiah asks: "What does God want from us?" The answer the prophet provides is as clear as the call of the shofar:

 "To let the oppressed go free, to break off every yoke, to share our bread with the hungry, to take the wretched poor into our home, to cloth the naked…to take away the menacing hand, and evil speech, to offer our compassion to those in need."

In other words, to care for our fellow human beings and not to judge them. To stand up to evil, to speak out for truth. To care for God's world. To live our lives according to God's law.

If we can live our lives in this way in the year that is beginning, and in all the years to come, then, Isaiah tells us, when we call out to God, God will answer us הניני – Here I am. Giving us strength, courage, and hope, to make our world – and God's – the way we know it should be. May we begin that work soon, may we do it well, and, God willing, for many years.

Sat, July 4 2020 12 Tammuz 5780