Atonement and Action


I just ate a bowl of chicken noodle soup.

In Puerto Rico, millions of people are facing not only devastating conditions, but genocide.

Our president is an evil man. Worse than evil. Less than a man.

The rabbi’s sermon this morning stirred my soul. He spoke to our “rich and haunted” history as a people, and the need to watch for Jewish “erasure.” He also paired this with a powerful and much-needed message to our congregation, in the context of white supremacy and who is its target today: He noted that there is a big difference between bring triggered and being threatened.

As Jews in America, we are not under threat, not in the way that African-Americans are every day. Our great-grandparents came to this country to escape pogroms and worse. They came and built better lives — on land “soaked with the blood of Africans.” Of slaves. Of native people obliterated to make room for our future. These are sins for which we need to be atoning through action for the rest of our lives — whether it was “our” people or not who committed these acts. As people who have benefited in this country, we are — in the words of the rabbi — also perpetrators of oppression.

I’m so thankful for this kind of leadership and eloquence on a subject the Jewish community must grapple with and act on. And while today we prayed, while today we atoned for our inevitable shortcomings as individuals and as a community, tomorrow, he said pointedly, “we march.” It is not an either/or but a both/and; our activism is borne of both a deep identification with oppression, as well as an acute awareness that we are not, currently, an oppressed people. Nobody every pulled over a Jew, saw the name Schwartz or Rosenberg on their license, and shot them dead. It’s crass but it bears saying.

I was grateful for his strong stance. There was nothing neutral about his sermon; he acknowledged both the complexity and simplicity of our role as Jews in white supremacist culture. And later, woven seamlessly into the end of the morning service, came unflinching words about the humanitarian crisis that’s growing by the day in Puerto Rico, where millions of fellow U.S. citizens are facing life-and-death conditions.

Fasting, the rabbi pointed out, does not help us concentrate on our prayers. On the contrary, it heightens our embodied awareness that to be hungry makes it difficult to concentrate on just about anything other than the hunger. This is the texture of Yom Kippur.

There are two equally potent aspects to Jewish tradition. One is to cultivate ritual and sacred refuge, sources of prayer and peace where we can turn for solace during challenging times. Thank goodness for this, for without spaces in which we can restore our inner equilibrium, we risk burnout, self-righteousness, and a loss of connection to the source of our actions. But the other aspect of who we are as a people is also crucial: To pray with our feet, in the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel. To take to the proverbial and literal streets to work tirelessly for social justice — for racial justice, for an end to poverty and hunger, for environmental repair.

There were opportunities to stand on the bimah during the Torah and Haftarah readings, one for those who wished for a blessing, to shore up practices that support inner scaffolding, the second for those seeking fortification for action. An important point here is that according to this rabbi, when faced with the question of which of these branches defines our tradition, the answer is “yes.”

Isaiah’s lesson is that fasting alone is not enough, unless there is a moral and ethical foundation to the ritual behavior. {Source: My Jewish Learning}

As Jews, we hold the epigenetic memory of genocide, expulsion, and trauma. It’s what first woke me to my own Jewish identity as a teenager; dreams of being ripped apart from family, of running through the forest, of hidden identity and of being led into gas chambers haunted my dreams as a senior in high school when I dove into the beginnings of learning my own history for the first time.

Some people will always hate Jews. This is irrefutable.  But as Jews, we are also no longer victims. In fact, we have thrived in this country in ways that are disproportionate to our numbers — a source of both pride and shame. Without forgetting who we are, it’s critical that we also recognize that our whiteness is not separate from the relative prosperity and privileges we’ve come to enjoy, even as there are still plenty who will hold our success up as reason for more hatred.

After services, Mani and I came home and took a rest. I slept for three hours, dreams informed by hunger and the kind of clarity borne of sustained prayer. As the Book of Life closes and the year 5778 commences, I pray that my work in this world be driven by the desire for all people to be free. I pray for humility and inspiration that allow me to be of continued service, holding spaces for others to dive into their own histories and roles as fellow humans to each other on this beautiful, broken planet. I pray that my fellow Jews grapple with the complexity of our moral obligation, while not getting theoretical about things that are urgently tangible.

Also, I plan to ask Rabbi Weiner for a written copy of his Yom Kippur sermon, to read again, to study, and to share.

G’mar chatima tova. May you be sealed in the Book of LIfe. 

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