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 Yom Kippur Drasha 5761

by Jodi Perelman

The Talmud says, "On three things the world stands: On Justice, on Truth and on Peace." Today I'd like to offer some words on justice, particularly social justice, in the Jewish tradition. Throughout Jewish thought and literature we find a very unique injunction: tikkun olam — to heal, repair and transform the world. And then the questions arise: How do we do that? And which world?

I believe that healing and repairing the world means paying close attention — not only to the world out here, the external — but also to the world in here, the internal. And not only to what’s internal but to what’s external. And on a deep level that there is no separation. Our social, national and ecological relationships are not separate from ourselves. Not separate from our lives as partners, as families, as a community, and as a religious tradition. All these aspects of our lives coexist and intertwine and affect each other. Healing and repairing means attending to them all. It’s about looking deeply at all of who we are, all of our history. And it means looking at how our place in history and our upbringing can inhibit us from seeing places and people who call for justice.

It becomes very complex. But living in this kind of complexity, and becoming more conscious of it, is an act of justice itself.

To my great delight, the Jewish tradition offers a great deal of guidance on how to approach this work. It offers not only intellectual reasoning, but many rituals to help us to embody this work.

A central message of Judaism — if not the most central message — is to the love the stranger. To love that which is unfamiliar to us. And those who are unfamiliar to us. Who don’t share our history or our understanding of the world. It’s about seeing everyone of us b’tzelem elohim — in the image of God. It’s also about loving those parts of ourselves which are strange, hat we think are bad or shameful or undeserving of love. I read an essay recently on subversive prayer and sacred activism. The article says: In Torah we see a parallel between loving God and loving the stranger. And when we find someone or some people who we think deserve our shame or deserve our brutality — looking at that and transforming it, through tikkun olam, through justice work — is the most concrete way of loving God.

So what I would like to offer, most of all, is encouragement. To keep looking and investigating and speaking the truth of our experience, but not at the expense of others doing the same. It really becomes an act of justice to widen our conversations and our consciousness and to pay close attention to other voices. Particularly important when we live in the United States. As citizens of the most powerful, wealthy, and consumptive nation in the world, we bear responsibility to learn how our corporations, political policies, and decision-makers are affecting the lives of people around the world and the life of the environment. As American Jews we bear responsibility to pay attention to the actions of the Israeli government — and how the Jewish state can be very far away from embodying Jewish values. It becomes our responsibility as well as our privilege to learn these legacies, to see how they can sometimes lead us toward not acknowledging other people’s struggles.

The trick — in all of this — is to do it without paralyzing ourselves with guilt. We also find this wisdom in the Jewish tradition. And that’s part of the opportunity we get at Yom Kippur. Given that we have no Temple and no scapegoat to take our misdeeds into the desert, we offer ourselves in prayer. We willingly hold ourselves in check — some traditional ways are through not eating or drinking or washing or wearing leather shoes or having sex. We offer ourselves before God, and we ask for forgiveness. And not that forgiveness blindly washes everything away — the Talmud says that if we transgress against another person, we can receive atonement only by making peace with that person. The Torah says that one can live and create a society in the Holy Land only if one is living a life in accord with the highest values of justice and "loving the stranger."

So Yom Kippur becomes not so much an opportunity to berate ourselves but to search ourselves, in partnership with God, to enable us to do better this year, to become more educated, to take informed action, not to turn away from the complexities and the confusions of life. In Deuteronomy 16 we read, "Tzedek, tzedek tirdof: Justice, justice you will pursue."

Five years ago I had no idea that social justice was such a vital part of Judaism. I’ve since met people and organizations who are inspired by Judaism and act under its name to create incredible tikkun. In New York there’s an organization called the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL). And there happens to be a Bay Area chapter of this organization as well. The national director, Marc Jacobs, recently gave a talk in which he said that for most people, Jewish study and prayer is not leading to action in response to what’s happening in the world around us or even to our own bodies. And he made some statements which I’d like to pose as questions for us to think about:

What would it be like for Jewish institutions to take a leadership role in building multi-racial, multi-class, multi-faith coalitions for urban renewal?

What would it be like for synagogues and Jewish schools to help their congregants resist advertising from a very early age?

What would it be like for synagogues, schools, JCCs, federations, and all Jewish institutions to embody Jewish environmental values: to become models for energy efficiency, low impact facilities, appropriate technology?

What if Jewish individuals and institutions invested one-seventh of their pensions and retirement accounts toward the development of locally-owned sustainable businesses around the world. What if the American Jewish community mobilized the same amount of credit for the world's poorest people that we have traditionally secured in aid for Israel?

Jonathan Omer-man, a rabbi in Los Angeles, writes, "It is not enough that we are aware of the unity of all being, that we davven with the angels.... It is not enough that we see sparks of divinity everywhere. We also have to be activists in the fight against injustice. We cannot, we must not desist."

Someone recently sent me a quote from Abraham Joshua Heschel that bears repeating. Three weeks before he died he was asked, what message do you have for young people? Rabbi Heschel replied: "Let them remember that there is a meaning beyond absurdity. Let them be sure that every deed counts, that every word has power, and that we all can do our share to redeem the world in spite of all absurdities and all frustrations and all disappointments.... And above all, let them remember ... to build a life as if it were a work of art."

Written into the very fabric of our tradition is the idea of midrash — of questioning and revolving and reinterpreting our sacred ideas and texts. An artist named Helene Aylon has done incredible tikkun with her work. In a piece she calls "The Liberation of God," she took the entire Torah, the Five Books of Moses, covered the pages with transparent vellum, and highlighted in pink the words and phrases that contained misogyny, sexism, genocide, and homophobia. She asks, "When Will/ G-d/ Be Rescued From/ Ungodly Projections/ In Order To Be/ G-d?"

Part of our justice work, our tikkun, is to make midrash with the tradition, to use our own voices and experience, to proclaim what we hear as the voice of God, and what we don’t. To at least entertain the idea that peace may come not from agreeing, but from learning to live well with our disagreements.

At this time, I’d like to invite you to close your eyes and begin to turn inward…. Give yourself a few moments to transition…. And notice what’s happening…. Perhaps taking a few deep breaths together…. Noticing how our body feels.

I invite you to imagine that at this moment God is spreading a tallit over our heads — over everyone in this room. And in the safety of this prayer space, with God as our partner, ask. How can we bring about tikkun olam this year? … Where can we love the stranger in ourselves? … What justice in this world most needs attending to? …

Again taking a few deep breaths … noticing what’s happening.

In the next few moments, slowly coming back to room. And opening our eyes to a soft gaze.

I opened by quoting the Talmud as saying that the world stands on three things: on Justice, on Truth and on Peace. The response in the Talmud — and there always is one — is that these three things are really one thing: "Where Justice is done, Truth is done, and Peace is made."

So I bless us all that we find inspiration to pursue tikkun olam. And that it becomes intrinsic to our whole lives and our whole Judaism.

Baruch at yah, eloheinu ruach ha'olam, asher kidshanu b'mitzvotav v'tzivanu lirdof tzedek. Praised are You, Eternal God, Spirit of the Universe, who hallows us with Your mitzvot and enables us to pursue justice.

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