Monday, September 29, 2008

Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon

Clothing The Naked

In the movie Fiddler on the Roof, the beggar Nachum asks the character Lazar Wolf for alms. Lazar Wolf hands him a coin and says, “Here is a kopek, Nachum.”
Nachum responds, “One Kopek? Last week you gave me two!”
“I had a bad week, Nachum.”
“So?!? If YOU had a bad week, why should I suffer!?!”

Things are tough right now for Americans. And while we have bad weeks, bad months, or even a bad year, Carlos and Juan have had it worse.

Carlos grew up in Arkansas, where his middle class parents gave him everything they could, which wasn’t much. In his teens he developed a rebellious streak. He began fighting with his parents, mostly about his desire for freedom and independence, or rather his desire for what he believed freedom and independence were. When the fighting came to a head, Carlos fell into a deep depression and ran away from home. He was 16 years old.

Carlos fell in with a bad crowd. He joined a gang, got into drugs, and began stealing. His depression continued, and he decided to run even farther. He soon found himself here in Miami. But he again found solace in drugs and alcohol. This time he became an addict, living on the streets, sleeping in parks and under overpasses, and trying to avoid any police contact.

One night Carlos was attacked by two young men who stabbed him 47 times and left him for dead. He went into a coma, and contrary to doctors’ predictions, he came out of it after three months.

When he was released from the hospital, he found himself at Camillus House, a non-profit organization that works to keep people off the streets and in a safe haven. Camillus House took him in, gave him a room, hot meals, health care, doctors to talk to, and most importantly: support.

Today he is 24 years old. Thanks to Camillus House, Carlos got back on his feet, stopped using drugs, and even went to school. He even rekindled a relationship with his parents thanks to their guidance. He lives in Miami in a studio apartment that his parents helped him secure. He splits his free time between studying for his culinary school exams and volunteering at Camillus House. Carlos wants to make sure that he can prevent as many people as possible from going down the path that nearly killed him. He knows from experience that Camillus House provides that kind of help to people like he was.

Juan is eight years old, and the middle child out of seven. He lives in San Ramon, Nicaragua, a little ways north of Managua. San Ramon is a small city, with a population of 23,000 spread over about 300 square miles. The local hang out is a small pharmacy that sells different tea leaves for every medical ailment from skin rash to TB. San Ramon is known as the location of La Chureca, the largest landfill in Nicaragua.

La Chureca is the dump where Managua sends its garbage and it is the site of Juan’s family’s home. Juan, his parents, and his six brothers and sisters live in a two-room home on the landfill. All nine of them sleep in the same room. The parents and two youngest children share a bed, and the other five sleep on the rock floor. When it rains, the floor gets wet where they sleep. The bathroom is separated only by a curtain, affording little privacy. The kitchen is a wood stove, which must be watched carefully lest the cardboard walls ignite from a spark. This is not an unusual case, it is just the way many people live in La Chureca.

Like the other 1500 residents of La Chureca landfill, Juan goes to work with his father and older siblings every day. To them, work means collecting scrap metal, glass, and anything else they can sell to recycling centers. Juan offers a heartwarming smile when he finds what he calls tresoro, “a treasure.” He displays the kind of grin that makes you sad to see it because you know how infrequent his smiles must be. Today it is a jar of baby food with only a bite or two missing.

Navigating the workplace means walking over broken glass, metal shards, splintered wood, used syringes, and biomedical waste. Every now and then pockets of gas from decomposing waste below the surface will ignite causing an explosion, hurdling loose trash like shrapnel through the air. The children of La Chureca are known as los ninos de la basurera, or “Children of the Garbage.” They grow up with no clothing, no shoes, and their skin is extremely dark due to overexposure to the sun and lack of exposure to water for getting clean. These conditions lead to many incidents of cancer and physical and mental disabilities.

Recently Juan received help from caring individuals who donate their time, supplies, and money to the people of La Chureca. You see, Juan had a tumor in his brain. With no access to medical care and no ability to pay for care if there was access, Juan’s cancer spread into his eye and jaw. The treatment for his cancer happened in Managua, where doctors were able to operate and remove the tumor successfully. While Juan was in surgery and recovery, his mother had to stay at a shelter nearby, not unlike a Ronald McDonald House.

San Ramon is trying to build housing to keep los ninos de la basurera out of La Chureca and in safe living conditions with their families. Despite the deplorable living conditions, the people living in the landfill still have a will to survive, a strong sense of community, and a tremendous work ethic. But they need help.

The Torah says, “The poor will always be with us” (Deut 15:11). Judaism is grounded in a realistic view of the world. We know that while we may have lofty ideals of healing the world, and bringing peace and prosperity to the four corners of the earth, we are far from that goal today. Whether we look to Miami, Managua, or beyond, the poor are always with us.

In ten days we will fast for a day. Some people are lucky to fast only once a week. On Yom Kippur we will pray and study, asking God for forgiveness for what we may have done this past year that has missed the mark. We will read the words of Isaiah, who will ask if such a fast is enough. Isaiah describes exactly what kind of fast God wants for us:

To unlock fetters of wickedness, And untie the cords of the yoke; To let the oppressed go free; To break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, And to take the wretched poor into your home; When you see the naked, to clothe him, And not to ignore your own kin (Isa 58:6-7).
According to Isaiah, if we behave as such, God will look favorably upon the people. If we feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, and clothe the naked we will gain God’s goodwill. As a prophet, that was Isaiah’s job. Prophets spoke out against societal norms in favor of reconciling humanity and God. In the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “The prophet was an individual who said ‘No’ to his society, condemning its habits and assumptions, its complacency, waywardness, and syncretism.” He adds, “The prophet is a person…who suffers harms done to others.” More than others, the prophet is able to understand the will of God and to translate that understanding to his fellow human beings.

This is more than an intellectual understanding. The prophet is touched by God to the core of his being and is able to know better than others the will of God and how that will should be manifest in our world. The prophet offers God’s words to the people with emotion and anguish. Although standing apart from the people, the prophet is one with the people, so words which condemn them condemn him as well.

Like the prophets of old, we hear the stories of Carlos and Juan and we feel their pain. We watch the You Tube videos and Dateline stories and tear up while sitting on the couch or at the computer. We do not want the world to be so full of anguish.

Victor Frankl, Holocaust survivor and noted psychiatrist, wrote “being human means being conscious and being responsible.” In other words, we are obligated to observe the world around us, and to react to injustices when we have the power to lessen their impact. When we hear of the suffering of the widow, the orphan, and the poor, it is our responsibility as human beings to do what we can to ease their suffering.

The Talmud tells a story of Roman governor Turnusrufus challenging Rabbi Akiva: If God loves the poor, why doesn’t God feed and clothe them? Rabbi Akiva responds that it is our duty to care for them. In order to be partners with God, we must be responsible for the well-being of all God’s creation.

We understand today that dire situations are not always the result of bad behavior. Some people make mistakes that cause their situations, but not all. Some people are born into poverty. Some people’s lives are destroyed by hurricanes or other natural disasters. Some find themselves too old to compete with their colleagues, then too old to be hired in their trained profession. Whatever the case, it is our duty to lift up the downtrodden, to work as God’s earthly partners, to heal the sick, feed the hungry, and clothe the naked.

How do we do this? How do we make a difference?

By cleaning out our closets.

At the end of the school year this past May, Ivania and Rodney Max called to talk to me about an idea they had. Ivania travels occasionally to her native Nicaragua, and she told me about los ninos de la basurera like Juan. She showed pictures and videos, told stories, and helped make me conscious of their story. She asked what we could do to help them. Could we ask our congregation for clothes, toiletries, and medicine? Could we go even further?

We added another dimension to the Maxes’ suggestions. We are already conscious of the struggles of people like Carlos who rely on Camillus House for food, shelter, and care. Miamians know about the work they have been doing in our community since 1960. Just in case, Camillus House offers free meals, showers, medical care, and addiction treatment for Miami’s needy. They become the brethren of the broken, giving creature comforts, rehabilitation, and hope. Now we Miamians are also conscious of La Chureca and their struggles. We know we are responsible for our local community, and our global community. The Maxes thought we should find a way to help both at the same time.

So that is exactly what we did. We put boxes in the lobbies—the main entrances to the synagogue. Big wardrobe boxes with little signs that said, “Please drop your clothing to give to the people of Managua and Miami.” With very little advertising, almost completely word-of-mouth, the response was tremendous. In one month, we collected piles of clothes that we split between Camillus House here in Miami, and La Chureca in San Ramon. When Camillus House picked up their portion, we knew there was a lot, but the shock came when we weighed the boxes to ship to San Ramon. Temple Sinai sent the Maxes to La Chureca with 800 pounds of clothes and supplies. 800 pounds!

That’s amazing!

And we can do better.

Two years ago, I watched with great pride as Temple Sinai filled a mock apartment ten times over with living needs over the High Holy Days. I knew I had found a congregation of justice pursuers who are conscious of the plights of others, and who act responsibly toward them.

Tonight I ask that you act again. I believe that we, as a congregation, will be able to fill the stage behind you with one ton—2000 pounds of clothing by Yom Kippur this year. One ton of clothes for the needy in Miami and San Ramon. For a congregation of nurturers like you, this should be an easy task.

With your program tonight you were given a list of five simple steps to help you find clothing you do not need.

Step One: sort through your closets and drawers. When was the last time you cleaned your closet? Pesach? …of 1984? We could all use a cleaner bedroom, and having clean closets always makes me feel like I have so much more space when getting dressed in the morning. So open your closets and drawers and see what you have forgotten is in there.

Step Two: Make a pile of the clothes you no longer want. Err on the side of donating it. As a rule, if you have not worn something in over a year, get rid of it. And please remember, the 80s are not coming back. Someone will be thankful for your gold lamay pants matching jacket.

Step Three: Sort through the pile. Something tells me this step is more for the men. If it looks like something that would look better as a dishrag, cut it into squares and leave it in the shmata drawer.

Step Four: Fold your donations. Wash them if necessary. Make your donation presentable.

Step Five: Bring your donation in to Temple Sinai! Put your folded clothes on the stage in the Social Hall, and we will update you throughout the High Holy Days as to how much we have collected. I look forward to seeing us reach our goal of a ton of clothes in ten days.

The boxes in our lobby have been decorated by the 5th grade class with the help of our art teacher, Tina Ohayon. In the boxes and on the stage, we will be collecting clothes, toiletries, and toys. Please try to bring in neatly folded clothing, as it will make them much easier to donate.

In the main office we will be collecting monetary donations. The money we collect will be used to defray the cost of shipping to San Ramon, and to buy medical supplies in Nicaragua.

There is a hidden sixth step as well. For anyone who has the desire, the Maxes are offering an opportunity to travel with Ivania to San Ramon to hand our gifts to the people of La Chureca. If you are interested in joining the Maxes on this mission, all you need is a plane ticket, and they will take care of the rest. Please let me know, and I will make the connection between you and the Maxes.

We are in the middle of a financial crisis in America that has the media screaming about the Hoover administration and another Depression. Like Nachum said, if WE had a bad week, why should Carlos and Juan suffer?

Give what you can, and clean out your closets to help clothe the naked.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Parashat Ki Teitze

Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt -- how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when the LORD your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the LORD your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!
Deuteronomy 25:17-19

We are halfway through Elul, the month during which we are supposed to be preparing for the High Holy Days. We are immersed in our self-contemplation, searching our souls to determine how we can be better people in the next year. It is a time of asking for and giving forgiveness. Not only is it incumbent upon us to seek to reconcile with those we have wronged, it is our duty to forgive those who have wronged us.
So how do we deal with this passage of Torah right in the middle of our preparations? How do we handle the command to blot out an entire people? Surely the next generation of Amalekites had nothing to do with the attack in the desert on our way to Mount Sinai. Are we to understand that some wrongs are unforgivable?

Amalek’s “big sin” is often cited as taking advantage of the weak, slow, and overburdened Israelites. The real issue is that they were “undeterred by fear of God.” The Amalekites had no respect for the humans they were fighting, hence their dishonorable tactics. No thought toward the human beings in a battle is equated with no acknowledgement of the Divine spark within them. The Israelites are commanded, conversely, that God requires of them “Only this: to fear Adonai you God…” (Deut 10:12). Without fear of God, we lose our humanity because we do not acknowledge the godliness within ourselves.

We have ruach elohim within us, and we have Amalek at times. During Elul it is our responsibility to seek that Divine spark within, recognize the times we have behaved like Amalekites, and wipe out those aspects of our behavior. Then we must seek the times when we behave with reverence and awe in our hearts, and strive to live the way we know we can.

Do not forget!

Friday, September 19, 2008

Parashat Shoftim

If, after you have entered the land that the LORD your God has assigned to you, and taken possession of it and settled in it, you decide, "I will set a king over me, as do all the nations about me," you shall be free to set a king over yourself, one chosen by the LORD your God. Be sure to set as king over yourself one of your own people; you must not set a foreigner over you, one who is not your kinsman. Moreover, he shall not keep many horses or send people back to Egypt to add to his horses, since the LORD has warned you, "You must not go back that way again." And he shall not have many wives, lest his heart go astray; nor shall he amass silver and gold to excess.
Deuteronomy 17:14-17
After wandering through the desert and witnessing God’s miracles and fighting for the Holy Land, we still will be exposed to the other people and the way they govern themselves. So of course we might want a king of our own. How nice of God to be understanding and allow us to learn from their examples. After all, without a ruler there is chaos, and we need to have order to be able to follow God’s laws. Remember, God’s punishments are to the third and fourth generation, not necessarily to the current one. A king punishes immediately, and only those who are judged to have done wrong. R. Shmuel says that the role of the king was to physically protect the Jewish people. So the implication is that God’s rule over us is a spiritual one.

But if the king is chosen by God, why do we need the rest of the criteria? Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels explains that these limitations are set to prevent an abuse of power, and to keep the kingship from becoming and exploitative institution (from his D’var Torah for AJWS). But perhaps the most important limitation is just after our pericope: When he is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Teaching written for him on a scroll milifnei hakohanim halevi’im, “[by] the Levite priests” (Deut 17:18).

The translation of milifnei as “by” by JPS leaves a little to be desired, but “from before the Levite priests” makes no sense. It should be understood as, “according to the interpretation of the Levite priests,” which would require the king to have Levite advisors around him constantly in order to live and rule according to Torah law. This interpretation brings to light what a brilliant piece of legislature the Torah is. The writer says to the reader, “You can have someone in power in addition to me, as long as my representatives are right there, making sure you don’t get too powerful. It seems like the origin of checks and balances. I wonder if it worked as well then as it does today….

Thanks to Bob Sugarman for your help with this week’s D’var Torah.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Parashat Re'eh

If your brother, your own mother's son, or your son or daughter, or the wife of your bosom, or your closest friend entices you in secret, saying, "Come let us worship other gods" -- whom neither you nor your fathers have experienced -- from among the gods of the peoples around you, either near to you or distant, anywhere from one end of the earth to the other: do not assent or give heed to him. Show him no pity or compassion, and do not shield him; but take his life. Let your hand be the first against him to put him to death, and the hand of the rest of the people thereafter.
Deuteronomy 13:7-10

Throughout Jewish tradition the danger of worshipping other gods has taken many forms. The Midrash of Abram smashing his father’s idols is one of the first, giving us a demonstration of how we should behave around idols. Moses gives us another demonstration, reacting with such anger at the idolatrous Israelites dancing around the golden calf that he smashes the tablets given to him by God. The third of the Ten Commandments, “You shall not make a sculpted image,” is arguably the first commandment that actually is a command, illustrating its high priority in monotheistic worship of God. The poetry of Isaiah denounces “non-gods” and decries illegitimate devotion, so that even the idea of anything other than God is as condemnable as praying to other gods.

Earlier in Parashat Re’eh we read that God will choose a place for us to worship so that we will not be tempted by the profane locations of other religions (Deuteronomy 12:5), but never before have we heard such a harsh punishment for idolatry. Should they attempt to lead us astray, we must pursue even our closest friends and family members. Not just destroy their work like Abram or get angry at them like Moses, but seek to kill them.

I cannot imagine an example of when this commandment may have been followed through. At the same time, it serves as a declaration of just how serious this “no other gods thing” is. Monotheism was an innovative religious practice when the Israelites were learning their religion. Harsh punishments declared for ignoring the most important practices strengthen the magnitude of the law. We never intend to do harm to our loved ones. The purpose of the text is to show them that there is very little if anything in this world more important than devotion to God and God alone.