Update 10-27-17: The spoken word poetry performed by Mr. Michael "Storm" Miller is NOW included in my sermon (below). It was a bit too long to include directly IN the sermon, but there's a link to the poem, which I've posted separately here on the blog. You can scroll down for that link, or you can click here. Thank you!
Yom Kippur 5778 - Main Sermon
Shanah Tovah! Today I conclude my sermon series for the High Holidays of 5778, for the year 2017. I hope you have found a message or two in them that you can take to heart, a question to debate with a fellow congregant, and a nugget to enrich your year ahead. I also hope I’ve pushed you a little. When I first came to Ohev Shalom, this was hard for me to imagine doing, but I’m not really a rookie anymore. This fall, I’m starting my ninth year as your rabbi, and God willing we’ll be stuck with one another for quite a few years to come. So it’s time to push and prod a little, to embody what I think I’ve conveyed to you is a philosophy of mine, borrowed from the model of our Biblical prophets, though a term more recently coined by a turn-of-the-century journalist, Finley Peter Dunne: “[My job is] to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.” I try to speak words of comfort when we, individually or communally, feel afflicted, hurt, scared, or powerless. But when I think we’re too comfortable, too apathetic or insular, I want to try and afflict a little, to challenge us all to do more, to be a bit better. Well, today I hope I’ve saved the best for last. I think I have, but we’ll see.
My theme, as you know, for this year is “Harmony.” I mentioned that in each of my previous three sermons, but I didn’t explain WHY it was harmony. I hope you’ve given it some thought for yourselves, and I invite you to share your conclusions or musings with me and with one another after services. For my part, I still want to hold off on revealing my reasons for choosing this theme for just a little bit longer. It builds suspense, or so I like to tell myself… For now, I want to say that this final installment in the series is about sadness. There is surely so much I could talk about that elicits sadness in every one of us. It is an emotion that we all, unfortunately, will feel at some point in our lives, and some of us - probably many of us - struggle to be present to that emotion. We try to dull it or joke it away. We cry briefly, but even then often alone or hidden. It’s a sign of weakness, right? I mentioned on Rosh Hashanah that people who have cried in my office have often apologized for it. I try, but it’s hard, to console not just the crying itself, but that tragic judgment of the self, of a perceived weakness. It is not. If, however, we disappear into our tears, drown in our own sorrow and never emerge, THAT is not healthy. That can be terribly destructive, and I’ve seen that too. But absent that, tears can be empowering or cathartic. More importantly, we need to work on not labeling or criticizing our own experience. On this Yom Kippur, we need to forgive ourselves and be kinder towards our emotions. Perhaps especially, our inevitable sadness.
In a little bit, we will also continue with the Yizkor service, in which we remember our loved ones who have died. For many people, that is a moment when tears ARE ok, as long as we wipe them away quickly, before children come back in the room. What would happen if they saw us cry? If they asked us a question or two about pain and grief, and it was hard for us to answer? Because we didn’t know what to say, or their questions induced more tears? Can we sit with that experience, can we stay with those raw, vulnerable emotions? This past Sunday, we held our memorial plaque dedication service here in the Sanctuary, and many people who were dedicating plaques shared beautifully about loved ones who were patriarchs or matriarchs in their families, heroes, pillars of the community, and just best friends. There were lots of tears, and I know that was hard for some people, and would be hard for many more. But it was also so beautiful; SUCH a tribute to the memories of these individuals. Each story was like a glimpse into an entire world. It was sad, of course, but also awe-inspiring and SO filled with love and gratitude. All of these emotions we’ve discussed over the holidays - joy, anger, yearning, and now sadness - they CAN create anxiety in us, and make us want to run as far away as we can. But what I want to say to you here today - central to my message in this, my final sermon of this series - is that you need to do the opposite. When you want to run away, you need to lean in. When you want to mitigate an emotion, you should feel it fully. Our instincts aren’t so great in these instances, and we need to retrain our initial reactions.
Now I need to push you a little more: These emotions, anger, sadness, discomfort, vulnerability, they also come up in our engagement with the world, not just inside ourselves or with personal, family matters. Most of you know that I co-founded a group in our area called FUSE (the Fellowship of Urban-Suburban Engagement). And some of you are perhaps sick of hearing about FUSE. I understand that. In my performance evaluations of the past couple of years, a few frank comments crept in, somewhat timidly and guiltily, that said I spend too much time in Chester, and not enough time taking care of my own congregants. That’s uncomfortable to hear. It makes me sad and, in truth, a little angry. So let me do the opposite of my gut reaction - which is to run away, to sweep this under the proverbial carpet and move on. Instead, let me lean in. Let’s talk about this. I understand the frustration. “What about US?!?” What about this congregation, that has hired me? My first obligation is to THIS community, isn’t it? Of course, the answer is “yes.” Well, first of all, I might respond that our FUSE work just earned us the top award in the nation from our movement, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. Out of more than 180 applications, and only thirteen winners, we won for BOTH our Children of Israel mosaics, here in the Sanctuary, AND their Highest Award for Innovation and Impact - interestingly enough in the category called “Prophetic Voice” - was given to Ohev Shalom for our work with FUSE.
But I want to push beyond just the acclaim. I want to declare to you all that the work we do with FUSE is FOR you. It is for all of us. It is not charity, it is not even selflessness, it is not do-gooder stuff. We need this. We need to expand our fences, open our minds and our perspectives up to see things in new ways, because we are living inside an echo chamber and we don’t even know it! Only a handful of Ohev congregants have been coming to FUSE events, because I think some of you may feel scared of these conversations. Either you’re physically intimidated by the places we go in Chester, or you’re concerned about what will be said and how we - the white, suburban, affluent, privileged - may be viewed and accused. Is the work challenging? Yes, most definitely. Is it also nourishing our souls and making those of us who participate see the world in new ways and reconsider our stereotypes and expectations - 100%, resoundingly “YES.”
But you’re getting tired of hearing this. I’m starting to drone on. I’m at risk of becoming like the Biblical prophets, like Jeremiah and Isaiah, who kept shouting and shouting, and people just tuned them out. Sometimes you need to hear a new shofar, a different ram’s horn. So I’ve invited one to join us here this morning. A few weeks ago, FUSE hosted an event called “A Chester Experience.” Several business owners, including Mr. Mike Miller, spoke to our combined group from the urban and suburban communities about life in Chester. We sat at Mike’s established, called “Open Mike’s Internet Cafe,” and in addition to telling us their stories, a couple of people, Mike in particular, shared with us some incredible spoken word poetry. Mike is actually a military veteran, having served in the Army and the Marine Corps, for a total of 15 years, two tours of duty, in Afghanistan and Kuwait. He has four kids, lived nearly his whole life in Chester, and is a member of Warrior Writers, a group that works with veterans to express themselves through art. Mike was featured on WHYY, has been on local radio and TV, and has performed at the Kimmel Center, and in New York City. I don’t want to say too much more about Mike or what he’s going to share with you. I know this is an unusual thing to do, especially on Yom Kippur. But that’s kind of the point. I hope you’ll hear this shofar call. Mr. Miller, please.
Thank you so much to Michael Miller for your incredible spoken word poetry, and just for being here. As you are still processing Mike's words, I want to mention that his cafe in Chester is across the street from a new and popular performance venue, called MJ Freed. It’s a symbol of things happening in Chester, though not without its own controversies. I mention that location, because its name comes from an old furniture store that used to be there. The new owners kept the old name. Well many of you today are sitting in our Freed Reception Room, right behind our Sanctuary. The MJ Freed Reception Room. We are from Chester; we are OF Chester.
Many people don’t know that Martin Luther King Jr. spent time in Chester, studying at Crozer Theological Seminary, now the site of Crozer-Chester Hospital’s old building. One of Dr. King’s professors at Crozer was Ira Sud, Rabbi Ira Sud, the predecessor to Rabbi Louis Kaplan here at Ohev Shalom. And over the course of his studies, Dr. King received a scholarship that helped him along the way. It was the Pearl Plafker Award, created by the Plafker family - also Ohev congregants. And our FUSE work today only exists because of another fund, the Netzach Fund, established by an anonymous donor, and for which I am eternally grateful. So many connections; our story is intertwined with Chester’s. And engaging with Chester residents like Cory Long, who co-founded FUSE with me, or Mike Miller, isn’t about white guilt or being white saviors. I do this for us. It is our story, and we can’t make our lives better without being in relationship with others; without striving for balance with our community, without harmony.
So let us finally talk about harmony. Certainly one obvious answer why I chose this theme is the notion of being in balance or harmony with our emotions. Anger, sadness, yearning, joy; when we try to mute one emotion, others get ignored as well, and we are worse for it. Striving for harmony, for emodiversity, makes for greater groundedness and ability to deal with challenges and obstacles in life. But more than this, we have an opportunity to examine all aspects of our world and think about our relationship to them. How do we find harmony with our community, especially if we disagree on issues that feel really hard and divisive? How do we achieve harmony with Israel, when we love it so much, but feel our love is unrequited AND struggle with the decisions and actions of her government? How do we acknowledge the lack of harmony we experience with our planet, and how much we are all being damaged by Climate Change and our ignoring the warning signs that are all around us?
And finally, how do we engage with our local community? Harmony, in my opinion, is realizing that we are interdependent. That reaching out to help them IS a way of helping ourselves. Creating a better society raises all our ships TOGETHER. An Ohev member gave me a book a while ago, Paolo Freire’s [Fray-ree] “Pedagogy of the Oppressed.” Now, in his book, Freire makes blanket categorizations of people as “oppressor” and “oppressed.” That isn’t always fair, but it’s a good challenge for us all to think about our own roles and how we can change them. Again, hard to hear, but we can lean in and learn something still. One of the things that Freire emphasizes in his book is the idea that oppressors cannot affect change FOR the oppressed. It has to happen TOGETHER. FUSED together as one, we can make this world better. Freire writes: “For the truly humanist educator and the authentic revolutionary (that’s us!), the object of action is the reality to be transformed by them together WITH other people - not other men and women themselves.” I hope you can appreciate that my work in Chester - OUR work in Chester - is about connecting with our roots, forming real, deep, authentic bonds with our neighbors, and about finding harmony for ourselves as well. To be transformed by our shared work.
We have talked about a lot of difficult things. We have heard from prophetic voices that were stark, evocative, and challenging. We sometimes imagine that the voice of prophecy was an ancient (and possibly fictitious) thing, when really we have prophetic voices all around us today. I told Mike Miller that hearing him perform at his cafe in Chester was like hearing a clarion call of a prophetic voice for me. The prophetic message is critical and prodding, but also compassionate and inclusive. And even when it’s harsh, it is filled with hope. In his book, Freire offers a hopeful message that I want to share with you to end my sermon. It is the perfect response to our concerns about immigration, the environment, Israel, anti-Semitism, inequality, and racism. He prophetically states: “The dehumanization resulting from an unjust order is NOT a cause for despair but for hope, leading to the incessant pursuit of the humanity denied by injustice. Hope, however, does not consist in crossing one’s arms and waiting. As long as I fight, I am moved by hope, and if I fight with hope, then I can wait.”
In this new year, may we all be filled with hope and harmony, and may we be inspired to fight for ourselves, our communities, and our world. In this new year, may we each be grounded, mindful of our emotions and our experiences, and filled with compassion for our inner beings and our fellow human beings. May we feel gratitude for each day, each person who blesses our lives, and the ability to hear and heed prophetic voices all around us. May our year ahead be filled with Shalom, with true and lasting peace, and may it be for us all a Shanah Tovah u’Metukah - a Happy, Healthy, and Sweet New Year. Amen.