Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Yom Kippur Day Sermon

 YK Sermon II 2020

Rabbi Charles L. Arian

Kehilat Shalom

On Sept. 23, 2001, a most unusual event took place in Yankee Stadium in New York City. There was a five hour long memorial service with Oprah Winfrey and James Earl Jones serving as co-hosts, with the participation of rabbis, ministers, the Roman Catholic Cardinal Archbishop, the Imam of the Malcolm Shabazz Mosque in Harlem, as well as Buddhist and Hindu religious leaders. New York’s then-mayor, Rudy Giuliani, spoke, as did the then-Governor George Pataki. Placido Domingo, Bette Midler, and Lee Greenwood sang. The service was broadcast in its entirety on what were then considered the “four major TV networks”: CBS, NBC, ABC, and CNN. It was originally planned to be held in Central Park but so soon after 9/11, the security implications of an event that might be attended by a million or more people quickly led to the service being moved to the more-controlled environs of Yankee Stadium, and tickets were given primarily to the families of those who were killed or missing. Contemporaneous news coverage of the service refers to the 6,000 people presumed dead or missing, which was what was believed to be the number at the time; it was not until much later that we learned that the true number of those killed was actually just under 3,000, including those who died at the Pentagon and in Shanksville, PA.

Today we are in the midst of a pandemic that has killed over 200,000 people in the United States so far with no end in sight. To put this in terms of the 9/11 death toll, this is 67 9/11s and we add another 9/11 every four days. When the death toll reached 100,000 many newspapers ran feature sections with the stories of some of those who had died, but the 200,000 milestone which was reached this week received much less attention. There are many reasons for this, of course; the presidential election, the passing of Justice Ginsburg, tropical storms, and other stories competed for attention. There is also a large element of fatigue -- we are all tired of the virus, but unfortunately the virus is not tired of us. 

When I went back to read the coverage of the interfaith memorial service at Yankee Stadium, it was jarring to read the estimates of 6,000 dead in the 9/11 attacks. Some of those who were assumed dead were later found elsewhere; others had not come to work that day, were waiting for elevators in the lobbies of the Twin Towers when the first plane struck, or were otherwise not present and didn’t even realize that they were among those assumed to be killed. Why was there a rush to hold a memorial service before the number of dead was even known and while rescue and recovery work continued at Ground Zero?

But the need to ritualize mourning is, I think, if not quite universal then almost so. When my mother died three years ago, she wanted no funeral or memorial service of any kind. But neither my brother, who is an active Unitarian, nor I, found ourselves able to fully comply with her wishes. I said Kaddish for 11 months and held a shiva minyan at the synagogue. My brother arranged for a memorial service at his Unitarian congregation after scattering her ashes at the New Jersey shore. I am sure that in specifying that there be no services, my mother was trying to relieve us from the burden of arranging them. But she unwittingly left us with a different type of burden; a circle of grief that was not fully closed.

We are of course all aware of the terrible toll of this pandemic. Not only 200,000 plus lives lost but millions of jobs, trillions of dollars in economic activity, businesses closed, lifecycle events cancelled, and years of education lost. And many of the millions who have been sickened by the virus but did not die from it have had and will continue to have all kinds of medical issues known and unknown.

We can calculate losses in numbers of deaths and in dollars but there are other losses, less tangible but no less real. For many of us, the fear of dying alone is one of the greatest fears we have. And yet, because of coronavirus restrictions which are quite necessary and proper, thousands of people have died alone, without their loved ones nearby to hold their hand and just be with them as they face the unknown.

Because of the pandemic, travel is restricted -- sometimes by law, other times by the precautions that people quite naturally take in the face of a highly contagious and deadly disease. In our mobile society, many of us have relatives all over the country if not the globe. When a parent dies and is going to be buried several hundred miles away, should their adult child risk their own health and that of the rest of their family to fly there for the funeral? Do they stay home and participate at a distance on Zoom? Will there even be a Zoom? I officiated at a Zoom funeral towards the beginning of the pandemic, and the spotty data coverage at the cemetery combined with the high winds that created background noise, made the Zoom feed almost useless for the friends and family who were not permitted to be at the cemetery.

One of the virtues of traditional Jewish mourning rituals is that they give us a roadmap and a schedule. From the time the death occurs until the funeral you are exempt from all ritual requirements and don’t even count for a minyan -- which means you don’t yet say Kaddish, for example. From the time of the funeral for seven days you don’t leave your house, you don’t go to work, the minyan comes to you. But what do you do if the funeral is delayed for several days, a week, or even longer -- as was quite common at the beginning of the pandemic? What significance does it have to stay in your house for seven days when you haven’t left your house for months? What does it mean for the minyan to come to you when it’s been coming to you over Zoom since mid-March?

Our individual mourning has become so complicated because much of what we would normally do either cannot be done, or ironically enough, is precisely what we are doing already as part of our day-to-day lives in this time period. Our national mourning is even more complicated.

While I was struck by the fact that we had what was to all intents and purposes a national memorial service for 9/11 even before all the victims were found and the number of dead known, 9/11 was a discrete event. It happened, it was over, and we knew who was responsible. We had a president who understood that one of their most important roles is to serve as “consoler in chief,” to bring our country together and unify us in times of trouble.  We do not have unity today. Everything about this pandemic has become politicized and partisan-- whether to wear a mask or not, whether to observe physical distancing or not, whether children get the disease and spread it to others, whether we can trust that the vaccine which does not yet exist will be safe and effective once it is distributed. 

The same Jewish tradition that provides us a roadmap for mourning also recognizes that sometimes that roadmap needs to be adjusted due to circumstances we can’t control. If a funeral has to be delayed, we begin shiva when the body is given over to the custody of those who will perform the burial. If we did not learn of a death until 30 days or more has passed, we sit shiva for only one hour. While at times I have given congregants advice based on these specific rulings, the point is, the tradition recognizes that we do what we can and that is sufficient in the eyes of God and in the eyes of those we have lost. 

God asks us on Yom Kippur  what we are going to do now. How will we move forward? We are left mourning national losses to COVID, and left mourning the life we had before COVID. Mourning  a life of social interaction, travel, and interpersonal supports. Yom Kippur gives us the opportunity to acknowledge those losses, as well as associated personal regrets, by refraining from such activities as bathing, eating or drinking. Just like with the restrictions we face during COVID, our body is uncomfortable during Yom Kippur; by feeling pain one can feel how others feel when they are in pain. And we can seek comfort in the fact that God has faith in us that we can indeed move forward through tragedies such as 9/11 and the Pandemic.

May the memory of those we have lost inspire us to live always by our highest ideals.

Yom Kippur Evening Sermon

 YK Sermon I 2020

Rabbi Charles L. Arian

Kehilat Shalom

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who passed away Erev Rosh Hashanah, once said “so often in life, things that you regard as an impediment turn out to be a great good fortune.” She was talking about the fact that when she was fresh out of law school, no major law firm would give a job as a permanent associate to a woman. If she had been hired by one of the firms where she applied, she said in an interview, she probably would have followed the typical career trajectory and ascended up the ladder of corporate law. Instead she turned to academics and legal advocacy, and we all know the rest of the story.

On Rosh Hashanah I briefly discussed what may be one of the most difficult prayers of the High Holiday liturgy, Unetaneh Tokef, which says that on Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, who shall live and who shall die, who by fire and who by water and who by plague . . . but teshuvah, prayer, and acts of charity and justice can transform the harshness of our destiny.

It seems almost contradictory; if it is written and sealed, how can we do anything about it?

But I believe that this seeming contradiction contains the seeds of a powerful lesson. Accepting that we are not always in control can help us to judge others more favorably. It can also help us to judge ourselves more favorably; and one of the great sources of suffering that I have seen in 34 years as a rabbi, is people being extremely and unfairly critical of themselves as well as of others.

But accepting that certain things are beyond our control could also lead us to passivity. While we need to accept that not everything is within our control, that doesn’t mean that it’s the case that nothing is in our control. While we often don’t control what happens to us, we do have the ability to choose how we respond. 

On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, instead of a sermon, I taught a text from Avot D’rabbi Natan about a conversation between Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai and Rabbi Joshua as they were gazing on the ruins of the Temple.  The Temple was destroyed in 70 CE and Rabban Yohanan died twenty years later so while we don’t know exactly when this conversation took place, it was no further away from the destruction of the Temple than 9/11 is for us today. A very recent memory, a wound that was still open.

Rabbi Joshua lamented the destruction of the Temple because, in keeping with explicit Torahitic teaching, he believed that only through the Temple rituals of animal sacrifice could Jews gain atonement. But Rabban Yohanan told him not to grieve, that we have another means of atonement which is just as efficacious -- gemilut hasadim, acts of lovingkindness. How does Rabban Yohanan know that this is so? Because it says in Hosea 6:6 -- “I desire hesed and not sacrifices.”

The text doesn’t tell us how Rabbi Joshua responded but he would have been biblically correct to disagree. What gave Rabban Yohanan the right to change the rules? And what gave him the right to bring a quote from Hosea -- in the Bible, sure, but not part of the Torah and thus not legally authoritative -- in order to do so?

In establishing that acts of lovingkindness were spiritually and legally the equivalent of Temple sacrifices, Rabban Yohanan is responsible for the fact that Judaism still exists today. He knew that there was no possibility of rebuilding the Temple; it was he who had been smuggled out of the besieged Jerusalem shortly before the Romans destroyed the Temple and cut a deal with them to establish a yeshiva in Yavne, on the coast. 

Leonard Cohen wrote: 

Ring the bells that still can ring 

Forget your perfect offering 

There is a crack, a crack in everything 

That's how the light gets in. 

Under the leadership of Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, our ancestors forgot their perfect offerings sacrificed in the Temple and let the lights in through the cracks to create the Judaism we practice today; rabbis instead of priests, prayer instead of sacrifices, and Torah study and acts of lovingkindness as our holiest actions.

Last year on Yom Kippur in one of my sermons I said the following:

The Hebrew term for a synagogue is “Bet Knesset” which means “House of Assembly.” But when we pray in Hebrew for the welfare of the congregation and its members, we do not use the term “Bet Knesset” but rather “Kehila” or “Kehila Kedosha” -- congregation or holy congregation -- the same word as in the name of our congregation. We are Kehilat Shalom; we are not Beit Knesset Shalom. Our beautiful building is the place we study, the place we pray, the place we gather with each other for friendship and fellowship. But the building is not the congregation; the people are the wonderful congregation we have today.

I did not know then that for six months and more, our building would not even be the place where we study, pray, and gather for friendship and fellowship. Zoom has been that place, as have to a lesser extent the telephone, emails, and text messages. And yet we have not skipped a beat. We have had a minyan and more for every Friday night and Saturday morning service and for all but one or two weekday evening minyans. We had a beautiful Bat Mitzvah which was written up in Bethesda Magazine. We added a weekly Havdalah service and virtual social events. We have had an educational musical performance, cooking lessons, classes and lectures. We had a meeting with the CEO of the Jewish Federation and next month will have a meeting with our Member of Congress. We’ve had a drive-thru kosher barbecue and a pick-up Break Fast and a drive-in Shofar Service. And I participated over Zoom in the Bet Din for a conversion candidate in Iowa City, sponsored by the rabbi there who usually has to bring candidates to Chicago to meet with a Bet Din.

Just like with our pandemic, when the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, some Jews believed that it would be rebuilt soon and the old ways of worship would be restored. Rabban Yohanan understood that this was not to be and laid the groundwork for a type of Judaism that no longer depended on a particular building or a particular piece of ground; the Bible became, in the words of the poet Heinrich Heine, our “portable homeland.” While we certainly mourn the loss of lives during the Jewish Revolt against Rome and the loss of independence, few of us, I think, really mourn the fact that we no longer have a Temple where Levitical priests offer animal sacrifices to the Lord.

Jewish sovereignty was not reestablished until 1948 and the Temple has not been rebuilt. We can be pretty confident that we will not have to wait nearly 2000 years until we can once again hold services in the synagogue building without taking unacceptable risks. But social distancing and COVID precautions do not come with an on/off switch. Even under the more relaxed Montgomery County regulations which were announced literally as I was writing this sermon, we would have been able to legally accommodate only about a third of our typical High Holiday attendance today.

In having our services online we discovered that there are a lot of people in our community who have not participated in some of our in-person activities because of various pre pandemic health concerns or because it didn’t make sense to drive half an hour in each direction for a fifteen minute minyan service. We have congregants who suffer from both visible and invisible disabilities and health conditions that make it unlikely that they will feel comfortable at indoor in-person activities until there is a safe and effective coronavirus vaccine. We have had participants join us for services and classes from a number of different states, from the UK and Taiwan and Canada and the Bahamas.

If we treat the six or eight or however many months of COVID precautions as a blip and simply go back to doing everything precisely as we did before, we will leave out many members of our community no matter how we define community. Is it ethical to have services which exclude some congregants? Should we continue to do Zoom services only? A hybrid model with some people at the synagogue and others online? What would that look like?

There are no easy answers to these questions. As we consider all the alternatives and discuss them, it is clear that we will not be able to go back to what we had done before, and our new reality will be deeply uncomfortable for a lot of people -- including, at times, me. But precisely 1950 years ago our ancestors faced a similar crisis as the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and the main form of worship that they had was now impossible. They responded creatively with Torah study, acts of lovingkindness, and prayer replacing the Temple service. We too will figure this out and emerge stronger than before.

Ring the bells that still can ring 

Forget your perfect offering 

There is a crack, a crack in everything 

That's how the light gets in. 

Monday, September 21, 2020

The Power of God in the Human Heart -- Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5781

 High Holiday Sermon I 2020

Kehilat Shalom

Rabbi Charles L. Arian

Since mid-March my colleagues and I have faced a lot of situations that are so unprecedented that they  fall under the general rubric of “they didn’t teach this stuff in rabbinical school.” Although I was in fact the first student in my rabbinical school to own a personal computer, it had no hard drive and no modem, two 5.25 inch floppy disk drives and a 64k memory, and it cost $2500 in 1983, equivalent to $6500 today. The Internet had not yet been invented, let alone webcams or Zoom.

The unprecedented use of technology is only matched by the unprecedented times we are living in. I’ve been asked more than once over the last several months, where is God in the midst of all this suffering? While our ancestors saw God’s power directly at the Red Sea and at Sinai, today God works through the power of love in the human heart. We know what we need to do to get through this.

If you have not watched the series “Regular Heroes” on Amazon Prime you really ought to do so. The series tells the stories of ordinary Americans who have done extraordinary things, sometimes by just living their lives, during the pandemic. Doctors and nurses but also a hospital supply clerk and an ambulance driver. A young girl who puts together art kits to distribute to classes in poor neighborhoods. A woman in our area who raises money to obtain and distribute sanitary supplies to homeless women. A father and his young daughter who match health care workers who need to remain isolated from their families with unused RVs. 

Burnell Cotlon is 53 years old and a veteran of the US Army. He lives in the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city and the one which was most devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Five years ago, ten years after Katrina, there was still no grocery store in the Lower Ninth Ward and in order to buy fresh fruits and vegetables or anything that wasn’t junk food, residents had to take three buses to the nearest Walmart. Or they could subsist on snacks and junk food from the local gas station.

So Burnell took his life savings from jobs working at fast food restaurants and dollar stores to buy a dilapidated building on an empty block to open the first grocery store in the Lower Ninth Ward since Katrina.

When the pandemic hit New Orleans the role of Burnell’s grocery store changed. He began letting his customers run tabs and even gave away groceries for free.  In April he told the Washington Post: “Last week, I caught a lady in the back of the store stuffing things into her purse. We don’t really have shoplifters here. This whole store is two aisles. I can see everything from my seat up front. So I walked over to her real calm and put my hand on her shoulder. I took her purse and opened it up. Inside she had a carton of eggs, a six-pack of wieners, and two or three candy bars. She started crying. She said she had three kids, and her man had lost his job, and they had nothing to eat and no place to go. Maybe it was a lie. I don’t know. But who’s making up stories for seven or eight dollars of groceries? She was telling me, “Please, please, I’m begging you,” and I stood there and thought about it, and what am I supposed to do?

I said: “That’s okay. You’re all right.” I let her take it. I like to help. I always want to say yes. But I’m starting to get more desperate myself, so it’s getting harder.

“This guy, he was hurting. He needed something to eat. He picked up four cans of tuna, a Sno-Ball, and laundry detergent. He told me he was good for it as soon he gets his unemployment check, and I trust him. I rang it up for eleven dollars. I took out a notebook that I usually keep near the register and started a little tab.

That notebook kept coming back out. Next it was Ms. Richmond. She did housekeeping at a hotel and lost that. Her tab was $48. Then it was a lady who shucks oysters downtown. She’s got a big family to take care of, so she’s at $155. Then there’s another guy who I deliver to, since he’s bedridden, and I showed up with two bags and he had nothing to give me. So he’s at $54.80.

This has gone from a grocery store to a food pantry. That’s how I’m feeling.”

Because “Regular Heroes” is a feel-good television reality show, the producers of the show have a celebrity place a call at the end of the segment to thank them and tell them what gifts the producers are giving them. In this case, it was Alicia Keys who called and presented Burnell with all kinds of equipment to make his store function more efficiently as well as a bunch of staple foodstuffs so he could continue to give food away to the most needy people in the community. And so Burnell’s Market remains in business and Mr. Cotlon continues to serve his community.

“Regular Heroes” presents the kind of country we would like to see ourselves as. I watched it every Friday afternoon for eight weeks as new episodes came out and I cried and cried through each episode. It renewed my faith in humanity -- that most people are good, that most people care, that most people will go above and beyond and place their wealth and their health at risk for the good of the community.

And we are that country but we are sadly not only that country. There is a reason that the United States has 4 percent of the world’s population but 22 percent of the world’s coronavirus deaths.

Burnell Cotlon loves his community and his community reciprocates that love, and they take care of each other. And here at Kehilat Shalom, we also do a pretty good job of caring for each other.

Did anyone imagine back in March when we first started holding our services over Zoom that in September we would still be doing so? That kids would still be doing distance learning and many people would still be working from home or worse yet, not working at all? That close to 200,000 people in this country would die of COVID-19?

This country is filled with people like Burnell Cotlon, like Roman Grandinetti who kept his Manhattan deli open to feed first responders, like Athena Hayley who was once homeless and now feeds and clothes homeless people in Los Angeles. Sadly it is also filled with people who assault store employees who are fulfilling their job responsibilities by trying to make sure that anyone who enters wears a mask, and people who insist on holding large events without masks and without social distancing despite the dangers that these events cause.

Rabbi Akiva said that “you shall love your neighbor as you love yourself” is the general principle on which all of the Torah stands.As we recall the miracles of the Red Sea and Sinai, we can and we will overcome this pandemic. We can and we will meet again in our sanctuary. We can and we will rebuild our economy and see our kids back in their school buildings, safely. In order to do so, we need to love our neighbors. Not only the neighbor who looks like me and votes like me and prays like me and speaks my language. Like it or not, we are all in this together. As we begin the New Year, may our country be blessed with the power of love so that together we can build a better future.