Yom Kippur Sermon 2020 / 5781
Rabbi Caryn Broitman
Shortly after Yom Kippur, our year-long annual reading of the Torah will reach its conclusion, and there is actually something very surprising hidden in the ending.
The last verse of the Torah eulogizes Moses as having been singled out by God for displays of awesome power. What was the nature of this power? Here is what is surprising. According to classical rabbinic commentary, Moses’ singular strength was that he was bold enough to risk smashing the tablets he received from God on Mt. Sinai. You may remember that Moses threw down the tablets when he saw the Israelites had created an idol in his absence—the Golden Calf. In Moses’s mind, if the people could make an idol of a Calf, perhaps they could make an idol of the Tablets, or of Moses himself. So Moses’s power, alluded to in the last verse in the Torah, was that he had the courage to break idols—both those of the Egyptian Empire, and those of his own people. And just at the point when have completed our year-long reading of Torah, we are encouraged to “smash” our own idols, our own certainty of what we just read.
The commandment against idolatry is the second of the Ten Commandments: “You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image…You shall not bow down to them or serve them.” Judaism was founded, according to midrash, by Abraham’s act of breaking his father’s idols, an act that is encouraged in each generation. The commandment against idolatry is so central that it cautions us against making our own holy objects, idols. It is better to smash our own tablets, our own traditions, our own certainties, than to idolize them.
There has been a lot of attention lately to the statues we live with. Sometimes they are toppled. Sometimes they are removed after discussion and a vote—such as the plaque to a confederate soldier in Oak Bluffs. Sometimes they are removed by a daring act of courage and faith, such as that of Bree Newsome Bass who after the massacre at Mother Emanuel Church, scaled the 30-foot flagpole outside the South Carolina State House to take down the confederate flag. “You come against me with hatred, oppression and violence,” she told police who ordered her down. “I come against you in the name of God. This flag comes down today.” She descended while reciting the 23rd Psalm, and was arrested.
What statues of ours need to come down? What flagpoles need to be courageously scaled. What graven images of our blamelessness regarding injustice in our society must be broken? This is exactly what we are wrestling with in our country at this moment.
Rabbi Arthur Waskow suggests that idolatry is “any carved-out piece of the Unity, [that is] worshipped as if it were the Whole, the One.” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in his speech on “Race and Religion” in 1963 offered a similar definition: “What is an idol,” he asked? “Any god who is mine but not yours. Any god concerned with me but not with you, is an idol.”
In the past few years social movements such as the environmental movement, Black Lives Matter, “Me Too”, and Occupy Wall Street have been both challenging and effective because they have asked us all to look at our own idols, and dare, like Abraham and Moses, to break them. Violence to other human beings that comes from racial injustice, sexism, or economic inequality are fed by idols both in the public square but also in our ways of thinking, in our own narrow assumptions, in our own beliefs worship the piece as if it were the Whole.
We have a lot of idolatry to do teshuvah for in our society, and many idols to take down. And if there is any day in the year when we must take the time for honest self-reflection and acknowledgement of the idols we have been carrying around with us, it is today. This day is about teshuvah, Hebrew for repentance, change or “return.” Sometimes teshuvah is primarily personal and individual. But teshuvah, as the prophet Isaiah argued in the Haftarah moments ago, must also be a collective reckoning of the injustices that reside in the fabric of our society, and in its policies and practices. It is the urgent call of collective Teshuvah that I want to address today because the turmoil and the suffering and the tear to our social fabric that we see around us has resulted from decades of inattention to the need for collective reckoning and collective teshuvah, and these injustices will tear us apart if we don’t courageously address them.
There is much to appreciate and be grateful for in this moment. But there is also a sense that I feel and hear from others, of the potential for catastrophe that is coming from years of human injustice. Fires and floods, inattention to public health, violence caused by racial injustice, desperation caused by poverty and gross economic inequality. I find myself looking for the ancient wisdom of our tradition to come to some understanding of how to respond, when so much is so wrong.
Beginning with the story of Noah, the Torah says that God sees that the earth was filled with corruption and violence. Some traditional commentary imagines that violence to be dramatic acts of brutality, and others imagine it to be small acts of selfishness of a wealthy society that gradually add up to pervasive wrong.
Noah, the Torah says, was righteous in his generation. But the rabbis are uncomfortable with the idea of a man being righteous all unto himself. Righteousness, they argue, is a social concept. Social sin requires collective teshuvah, collective righteousness. Noah, they say, was what is called in Yiddish, a Tzadik in Peltz, a Tzadik in a fur coat. Why a fur coat? The Kotzker Rebbe explains, “when one is cold at home, there are two ways to become warm—heat the home so everyone in it is warm, or get dressed up in a fur coat or other warm clothes” to make sure you yourself are warm. Perhaps that is why catastrophe could not be averted. There were too many zaddikim in Petz.
Other commentators, however, suggest Noah did try to warn his fellows. In fact, the reason that God told Noah to build an ark of huge proportions that took 120 years to construct, was so that people in multiple generations would be able to ask Noah what he was doing, hear the warnings, and see a constant reminder of an impending climate catastrophe. The hope that was that in this long time of building, people would have ample opportunity do teshuvah, change the structures of injustice and avert the disaster. Not only was there no collective teshuvah, however, but midrash describes the people of Noah’s time as ridiculing him and his warnings.
In this understanding, the Noah story is about generations of missed opportunities regarding impending human-caused climate catastrophe that impacts not only humans but all life. This is indeed a modern story of idolatry. People sometimes ask me why God punished the animals who were innocent. But it was human choices that caused the climate catastrophe in the Noah story, putting themselves and their own needs over all creation. We too practice idolatry, worshipping the part over the whole, when we take something that has its place in the whole, like human ingenuity and technology, but separate and elevate that above all else, so it becomes an idol of human power, an idol of human privilege, an idol of profit making that lifts the needs of human beings over the planet and the needs of some humans over others. As Bree Newsome said, “in the name of God, [of the Whole], that flag must come down.”
The second story of catastrophe and teshuvah takes place in the Torah 10 generations after Noah-- Sodom and Gomorrah. God tells Abraham that the “outrage of Sodom and Gomorrah is so great . . . (Gen. 18:20-21). What was the sin? In the Torah, the sin was the brutal treatment of immigrants, strangers and those of economic oppression and poverty. What was the outcry? Midrash suggests it was the cry of a woman in Sodom who felt compassion for the poor and hungry of the city and would feed them. But Sodom and Gomorrah had laws against feeding the hungry, and put to death the woman who dared to “break the law.” In other words, they criminalized compassion. And one righteous woman could not by herself avert the catastrophe. The sin in Sodom was in its laws, policies and very social fabric. Saving the city required collective action.
You can visit the harsh desert terrain of Sodom and Gomorrah today. You can also visit a similarly difficult terrain in the Arizona borderlands where thousands of migrants have died of dehydration. There is a local humanitarian group called “No More Deaths” whose members leave food and water for these migrants. But in the last few years, through the unprecedented expansion of the legal definition of “harboring,” one can be arrested for such acts of kindness. Scott Walker for example, a member of the humanitarian group, left food and water and spoke to some of these migrants, and as a result was charged with 3 felonies. Similarly, in West Texas, a 4-time elected city and county attorney Theresa Todd fell under investigation for stopping her car and helping a migrant whose sister was literally on the brink of death. ‘It makes people have to question,” she asked, 'Can I be compassionate'?" Today in America, like in Sodom in Gomorrah, compassion is criminalized.
Such criminalization of compassion could only take place through a blasphemous idolatry—taking the value of patriotism and nationhood, which are but parts of a greater whole, and worshipping them as if they were the whole. Nationalism then becomes an idol worshiped through the evils of racism. “The god of me is not the god of you.” “My god is concerned with me but not with you.” In the name of God, as Bree Newsome said, that flag must come down.
The story of Noah and the story of Sodom and Gomorrah are stories of societies where there was no collective teshuvah and catastrophe was not averted. I want to leave you with a more hopeful story, however, the story, that we traditionally read every year on Yom Kippur afternoon, a story about how collective teshuvah can change a society and avert catastrophe. That story is the book of Jonah.
While the stories of Noah and Sodom and Gomorrah focus on innocent individuals, there is no righteous individual described in the book of Jonah, least of all Jonah himself. What makes the book of Jonah remarkable, is that its focus is on collective teshuvah, social change for social sin, and it works.
There are two potential catastrophes in the book of Jonah. The first is on the ship that he boards in order to escape God’s prophetic call. With the coming of a severe storm, and with their lives hanging in the balance, the sailors, who are described as coming from multiple religious traditions, all cried out to their gods and worked together to make the ship lighter, throwing cargo into the sea. All except Jonah who, the story relates, “went down to the hold of the vessel where he lay down and fell asleep.” But his fellow shipmates would not give up on the situation or on Jonah. Mah lecha nirdam “how can you be sleeping so soundly,” they say to him. They encourage him—engage with him. “Kum kra el elohecha Arise and cry out…” The ship can be saved only if all of them work together, and they do save the ship.
The second impending catastrophe is in Nineveh. As God instructs him, Jonah announces to the Ninevites, “forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” The number forty is significant. It took forty days in the Noah story to regenerate life from catastrophe. Jonah story, however, says that catastrophe does not have to happen. The 40 days can avert a catastrophe if used for teshuvah.” And indeed, the people responded to the call. First it was the people themselves--“They proclaimed a fast, and people great and small alike put on sackcloth.” In other words, it was a comprehensive response to a comprehensive and structural sin—rich and poor, powerful and vulnerable. Next, it was the king, who “rose from his throne, took off his robe, put on sackcloth and sat in ashes.” But the Ninevites did not rely on prayer alone. They also engaged in action. “God saw what they did,” it says in the book of Jonah. Traditional commentary emphasizes those words, “what they did.” Catastrophe was averted because they acted. It reminds me of the t-shirts that the youth group at Ebenezer Baptist Church wore when they engaged in social action. “I will show you my faith by what I do.”
The idolatry of the Ninevites was that everyone did as suited themselves. The teshuvah was when people acted together for the public good. When people sacrificed their own short-term desires for the good of the society as a whole. It was only then when catastrophe was averted. In the name of God, that flag of individualistic self-centeredness, came down.
Nineveh was a huge capital of the Assyrian empire. The Israelites thought of it as an ancient Gotham City. The book of Jonah is telling us that if Gotham City can engage in teshuvah and systemic social change, so can we.
Waking up is the first step of collective Teshuvah. After that we need to learn, like Jonah needs to learn, to step into the unknown. To risk engaging with others, to risk failure, to risk exposing our idols. Idols give us an illusion of constancy, of certainty, of stability. But their power is an illusion. The real power, like Moses’ power, comes from breaking them. Over the past few years social movements for the environment, and against racism and poverty, have challenged our sense of place in the world, but they have also given us vision for what America could be if we all work together. Let’s welcome the discomfort and the challenge. It may be the way to save ourselves from catastrophe.
The Book of Jonah ends with a question. God asks Jonah, “Should I not care for Nineveh? with its many human beings and many animals as well?” We do not hear Jonah’s answer perhaps because it is our answer that is needed to complete the story. Will we be able to take courage from Moses and break our own idols? Will we be able to have faith in the process of collective Teshuvah modeled in the book of Jonah? Mah lecha nirdam “how can you be sleeping so soundly,” the sailors say to Jonah. “Kum--Wake up! As the novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, said, “Whenever you wake up, that is your morning.”
May we all be blessed with the courage to break our idols, wake up and work together for a year of change and transformation. As the King of Ninevah says—"Who knows…” maybe out of this crisis, and with our efforts, will come a new morning.
 Rashi on Genesis 6:14.