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 Yom Kippur Drasha 5762

Risa Wallach and Brad Shapiro

Shalom and Blessings on this holiest day of the year. We are deeply honored to be addressing you today. What a blessing it is for all of us to be gathered here today to stand closer to G-d than we do at any other time of the year. We would like to remind you and to remind ourselves that Yom Kippur is not only a solemn day, but also a time to celebrate the great joy of being with the Holy One. In fact, the spiritual release and energy of Yom Kippur is so great that in the ancient days of the Temple, the afternoon following Yom Kippur was a traditional time for dancing and wedding engagements.

We have struggled to find the words for the momentous emotional and spiritual turmoil that comes with the Days of Awe, especially this year with the painful events in New York and Washington. We hope that our words today will offer something to each of you as the process of Tshuva in which you have been engaged moves to its climax.

You may have noticed that there are two of us up here to speak to you. The main reason for that is that we were each too afraid to do it by ourselves. But, we also both share common interests in working with people who struggle with poverty and violence, Brad as a physician, and me as a social worker. And we both are interested in the larger movement for peace and justice in the world, and specifically in the teachings of peace, compassion, and love at the heart of Jewish practice.

The subject of today's talk is the subject of our last 10 days-Tshuva. Repentant return, turning to a new course, returning to the source.

Let's begin with some words from today's Haftorah. In these verses from the prophet Isaiah, the Jewish people cry out to G-d saying:

        Wherefore have we fasted, and Thou seest not?
        Wherefore have we afflicted our soul, and Thou takest no knowledge?

G-d responds:

        Is such the fast that I have chosen?
        The day for a man to afflict his soul?
        Is it to bow down his head like a bulrush,
        And to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?
        Wilt thou call this a fast,
        And an acceptable day to the Lord?

        Is not this the fast that I have chosen?
        To loose the fetters of wickedness
        To undo the bands of the yoke,
        And to let the oppressed go free
        Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry,
        and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house?

And if you choose a true fast, then you will be

        Like a spring of water, whose water fails not
        Thou shalt be called the repairer of the breech
        The restorer of paths to dwell in

And this is our holy work today-to move deeper into Yom Kippur and to make a real Tshuva. We must make a real turning, into a deeper, more challenging, and more radically holy vision of life so that we too can be a spring of water, a repairer of the breech, and a restorer of the path.

Self-examination and clarity of vision, accompanied always with loving-kindness and compassion bring us closer to holiness and justice. This is Tshuvah according to Isaiah.

As we near the end of our time in collective prayer, fasting and moving closer to God, we each have particular areas that stand out. My thoughts turn toward, among many other things, where I can improve my knowledge of the political reality of this time and place, and of engaging more in social justice.

As a Jew, as an American, of course terrorism and war are issues that are at the front of my mind right now. Chaos and violence and suffering fill the pages of the news. Even under normal circumstances, the messages we get from our media are filled with violence and heartache. Taking it all in can be overwhelming to say the least. Sometimes it's too much for my mind and heart to even absorb, or digest. I notice that I and the people I know sometimes become numb to the repetition of horror that we hear and see in the news. Brad and I see a lot of human suffering at work as well. It's easy to feel helpless in the face of all of this terrifying stuff. So what can we do? I can tell you that when I don't know what else to do in response to all of these things, I do what many of us do, which is to pray for peace. I don't pray as often as I could however. I forget that prayer is something that I can do, that it is powerful, whether I always believe that or not. I could pray that the best human impulses of our leaders and ourselves will bring us to find the political solutions that result in the least suffering. I could pray that that which connects us to the divine and to each other, our essential humanness and our essential hearts, our capacity for compassion and forgiveness will somehow overcome the desire for vengeance. And I could pray that the love we have for each other and our planet can sustain us for years into the future.

And also, what I could do more, when I don't know what else to do to resist complacency, and feeling helpless and powerless, is to get involved in political work. As a way of taking action, I have been thinking about making some commitments as part of my Teshuvah this year. In light of the last 2 week's events, I want to commit to acting with courage during this time, as a Jew in particular, by standing in solidarity with Arab Americans, Muslims and South Asians. A wave of hatred and acts of bigotry have been committed since the attacks in New York and Washington D.C. on Tuesday September 11th against Arabs and Arab Americans, and even Latinos in many American cities. There have been murders. I heard the state attorney general on the radio say that hate crimes increased by four times in one week in California. Sikhs in particular have been singled out, simply because of the way they look. As a member of the Jewish people, a people who are seen by the world as being in opposition to Palestinians, Arab and Muslim peoples, and who ourselves have for centuries been targets of hatred and xenophobia, it is essential for me to speak loudly against these acts and against this hatred, and to let it be known that they are absolutely intolerable. There are many communities in the Bay Area mobilizing in response to these attacks. I want to commit to getting involved in these efforts, especially at this time of reflection, when we ask ourselves where we have fallen short in the past year. I ask myself, have I acted with courage in the face of injustice? When Jews were persecuted and unfairly targeted, who stood by us, who protected us, and who took risks for us? In current times, have I allowed others to speak for me in a way that made me feel misrepresented? As I make these commitments, and consider making prayers for peace, I think of the words of a rabbi who is well known in the Jewish Renewal community, a long-time activist for peace, Arthur Waskow. He explains why we say the prayer, "Ufros aleinu, sukkat shalomecha." Spread over us your sukkah, or shelter of peace. He asks, why is it a sukkah, a structure that lets in starlight and rain, not a palace, not even a tent, but a sukkah. He writes,

Americans have felt invulnerable. The oceans, our wealth, our military power have made up what seemed an invulnerable shield. We may have begun feeling uncomfortable in the nuclear age, but no harm came to us. Yet yesterday the ancient truth came home: We all live in a sukkah. Not only the targets of attack but also the instruments of attack were among our proudest possessions: the sleek transcontinental airliners. They availed us nothing. Worse than nothing. Even the greatest oceans do not shield us; even the mightiest buildings do not shield us; even the wealthiest balance sheets and the most powerful weapons do not shield us. There are only wispy walls and leaky roofs between us. The planet is in fact one interwoven web of life. I MUST love my neighbor as I do myself, because my neighbor and myself are interwoven. If I hate my neighbor, the hatred will recoil upon me.

Al Chet

The Al Chet is the prayer which we say on both Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur in which we enumerate the ways in which we have gone wrong in the past year. More than a catalog of errors, it is also a source of hope for change in the year to come and of compassion for our mistakes.

We would like to end today by sharing our version of the Al Chet, infused with our struggles and our hopes for change in ourselves and the world. We would like to emphasize that this is our personal Tshuva, shared in the hope that it will help you in your process and in our collective process as a community.

In my work as a physician at San Francisco General Hospital and in Risa's work as a social worker at a women's clinic, we deal with suffering on an everyday basis. We have the opportunity to be with people living with poverty, homelessness, racism, violence and mental illness. This year I have also tried to care for victims of war and torture from Central America and Eastern Europe. We are challenged on Yom Kippur to rethink our approach to this work, to seek out the places where we have hardened ourselves, and to breakthrough the oppressive and racist systems and ways of looking at things in which we are all trapped. Risa and I also confront the challenges of being Jews and peace activists, not always a comfortable combination. Nor is being a Jew in a largely secular country.

Some of these issues we all share, and some we don't, so please take what you can use, and in the spirit of forgiveness, let go of those things that you don't need or want.

We ask for forgiveness, compassion, and the power to make change for the following things:

For not trusting our instincts
For not taking enough space for spiritual nourishment
For not seeing others as created in the image of G-d
For being ashamed of being a person of faith
For being afraid to be visible as a Jew
For using distractions like TV and computers to avoid difficult feelings
For living in our heads and not in our bodies
For trying to fix things single-handedly
For agreeing to take on impossible tasks
For not demanding reasonable work hours and making too many compromises for work
For not recognizing our limits
For being prisoners of pride
For not being compassionate with ourselves
For not studying racism and not calling racism racism
For not loving the stranger, the refugee and the immigrant as ourselves
For trying to heal homelessness and poverty with prozac
For treating loneliness and desperation with pills and platitudes
For not fighting harder to change our oppressive and racist prison system
For handing out crumbs, and not even having enough to go around
For not calling torture torture and refusing to treat it as a medical problem
For trying to treat torture victims with motrin
For not expanding the dialogue and construction of the problems of suffering, mental illness, poverty and torture
For not wanting to see the legacy of racial inequality and economic deprivation
For not talking loudly about the complicity of the wealthy and powerful in the suffering of others
For seeing people's stories as individual tragedies rather than a larger systemic failure
For being a cog in a machine
For going along with the madness because it is easier than shouting "no"
For not making my voice heard especially when I was afraid
For keeping myself in chains when I could be free

May we have the wisdom and courage to make real change in the year to come. And may we have compassion on ourselves and others, connecting with the Compassionate One who moves the universe.

What you undertake on Yom Kippur will carry forward to the rest of your life, moving outward like ripples on a pond to all people and the earth itself. Let us bless ourselves that we can become in the words of Isaiah a spring of water whose water fails not, a repairer of the breach, and a restorer of paths. May this be a true fast for you in every sense of the word . . . and let us say amen!



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