High Holiday Sermon I 2020
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.