The Work of Prophets
Among the writings, papers, books and essays I have come across in my day, one quote rises above all others for its resonance, its salient criticism coupled with its invitation for improvement.
Abraham Joshua Heschel opens his major philosophical work, God in Search of Man, with words stunning in their sharpness, words that will be familiar to many of you with whom I have had the honor of studying this past year. The opening words to Heschel’s magnum opus declare:
It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid.
Religion’s demise in modernity, says Heschel, is its own fault, a direct result of its inability to captivate the hearts and minds of its practitioners. Coming from arguably the most influential rabbi in twentieth century America, these words offer a acute critique of religion as we know it.
Irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid.
Heschel, through his very being, showed us a way to remedy this malady. For Heschel was a man who dedicated his life to embodying a Judaism which has the power to transform worlds, a Judaism that speaks intimately to the soul. Heschel was a man who demanded we do nothing short of praying with our feet – allowing our prayers to infuse our very being such that our actions on this earth make manifest the very godliness and goodness that we pronounce in our liturgy.
Irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid.
That need not be the religion that we hold dear. Judaism is relevant when it speaks to the issues of the day. Judaism is interesting when it when it helps us find answers to life’s greatest problems. Judaism is relieving when it offers an optimism that can lift our spirits and help us out of the depths of life’s morass.
On this most holy day, as we introspect and afflict our souls to repent and return to a more goodly path, we may be tempted to think that Heschel’s message is not the most pressing of issues. We may be tempted to let introspection turn us inward, closing us off to the world around us. We may be tempted to let teshuva monopolize our attention as a uniquely personal exercise. We may be tempted to fast, to abstain from food and drink and pleasure solely as a means of self-flagellation and punishment.
We could not be more wrong.
If Yom Kippur is a day solely about repentance, it risks irrelevance. If this holy day is just about standing and sitting, standing and sitting, it is immeasurably dull. If Yom Kippur is solely about beating our chests in punishment then it is as oppressive as I can imagine. If we let these things define our most holy of occasions, then it is truly insipid.
So we must expand our horizons and let this day become greater.
In a few short moments, when we open the pages of our Haftarah, we will hear the voice of the prophet Isaiah, speaking on God’s behalf, lambasting us for precisely these inclinations. Isaiah cries out to us:
Is such the fast I desire, a day for men to starve their bodies? Is it bowing the head like a bulrush and lying in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call that a fast, a day when the Lord is favorable? No, this is the fast I desire: Unlock the fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke to let the oppressed go free; break off every yoke. Share your bread with the hungry and take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, clothe him, and do not ignore your own kin.
If we spend this day locked inside our heads, afflicting our bodies yet ignoring our world, we have missed the point entirely. A fast day like this that does not lead to transformative change in the world is a fast day wasted. Isaiah pleads with us to realize that inner teshuva is only worthwhile to the extent that it leads to outer teshuva – to the holy commitment to realize our power to transform this world, to tackle the challenges that have society has faced for millennia.
We can take this prophetic sentiment even one step further, and I will: Jewish ritual and observance, prevented from infecting our lives with an ever-growing appreciation for the fact that each of us is a child of God, that each human life matters and that it is our holy responsibility to protect, support and sustain the most vulnerable in our midst – Jewish life and ritual divorced from this connection to social engagement is a game of smoke and mirrors whereby the entire enterprise risks sinking into the shaky sand of its murky foundation.
Our tradition’s rituals and ethics exist in order to help us build a more just society.
Many have taught this same idea over the millenia in different words:
Hillel says: What is hurtful to you do not do unto others, that is the entire Torah. All the rest is commentary. Go and learn it.
In our day, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson writes, “Ethics and a passion for justice remain the engines driving the entire Jewish enterprise. Rituals are essential and beautiful, but they remain frosting. Goodness, justice and decency form the base.”
Justice and decency form the base of the Jewish enterprise because we assert that God is a God who cares about the actions and ways of humanity, God is a God who is concerned by the smallest minutia of our being.
That is the base-assumption of halakhah, of Jewish law, living and observance. That is the underpinning of our Exodus from Egypt. Deism is wrong. God is not a watchmaker, who made His Creation and then lets it tick away. God is the great carer, the active participant in the beautiful experience of Life.
This was the great debate between Jews and Greeks millenia ago. Hellenism maintains that people’s actions are of small concern to the Holy One. In the words of Cicero, “The Gods attend to great matters; they neglect small ones.”
Our heritage rejects this assertion. God cares, God is moved by and concerned with everything we do. Nothing concerns the Holy One more than the plight of humankind. That is why we are free. That is why we live in Covenant. That is why we have Torah.
And it is the prophet – Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah and many more – that is the vehicle through which this message is delivered.
The prophet is a person willing to speak hard truths to his people, eager to push us to remain honest with ourselves and our failings. The prophet is a person who feels the energy of the Divine pulsating throughout humanity and calls on us to act in order to protect ourselves from the greatest of our society’s failings. The prophet pushes us to hear difficult truths. The prophet is a person who demands our people to wake up, to see the horrors of suffering that are right in front of us but which we so callously ignore.
Think about Isaiah’s message today. We are engaged in introspection, we are fasting, at this point of late morning we are likely to be the hungriest we will be all day. Our heads throb with the pain of caffeine withdrawal. And he throws all we are doing in the trash.
Wake up! Isaiah screams. Wake up! Look out in this world and see what the Holy One demands of you. Wake up!
Heschel describes the prophets motivations another way, saying:
Our eyes are witness to the callousness and cruelty of man, but our heart tries to obliterate the memories, to calm the nerves, and to silence our conscience….The prophet hears God’s voice and feels His heart. He tries to impart the pathos of the message together with its logos.
The prophets realize that their voices have the power to push us to act, push us to see the problems that stare us in the face yet we ignore. And then realize that we have the power to change – not just ourselves but our world, that we each have the exceptional power to solve life’s greatest problems, with our tradition as our toolkit, and fill this world with more good with every passing minute. The prophet speaks hard, in-your-face truths to us, because our prophets know that we can hear them, know that we have the exceptional capacity to solve life’s greatest problems, because of our humanity, because of the small spark of divinity inside each of us.
This is where we, the recipients of the prophets’ messages, may take serious issue with Vladimir Putin’s noxious assertion in the New York Times on Thursday that it is dangerous for individuals to see themselves as exceptional. The opposite is true. It is extraordinarily dangerous – a callous waste of our humanity – for us to not appreciate our exceptionalism. Each of us is exceptional. Each of us extraordinary. The alternative is to trash our God-given gift of uniqueness, our creation in the Holy One’s image.
And because we are so exceptional, because each of us is created in the image of God, because each of us has the capacity to think and to grow, to challenge and to act, and because we are inspired by a Jewish tradition that sees anything short of massive, constant, subversive challenge of the status quo when it is unjust as a dereliction of our religious obligation, because of these reasons and more it is of utmost consequence and concern that we recognize our power, our God-given ability, to heal this world.
Because we are special, because each human is unique and worthy, because society and community and all of humanity is greater than the sum parts of our cells and DNA, each of us possesses both the ability and the holy responsibility to be inspired by the prophets of our tradition and demand excellence in our society – to look hard at the ways that we miss the mark globally, nationally, communally, just as seriously as we introspect personally on this Yom Kippur.
That is what the prophet does. That is what each of us can do, if we choose to be a prophet.
So let’s move from theory to practice, transition from the ephemeral to a serious assessment of the form of our prophetic actions, right here, right now.
What are the lenses through which we can look out at our society and community, able to discern when we step down the wrong path, miss the mark, or avoid an opportunity to be better? What pillars can we rely on, right here, in Dallas, at Shearith, to better-realize the prophets’ dreams of a more just world, a more Jewish Judaism?
These past six months I have worked closely with our social action committee discussing this very issue. We have talked, we have studied, we have engaged our fellow congregants in conversation. And we have come up with a list of four – four values, four approaches that our tradition demands of us if we are to translate our inner religious convictions into an interaction with the outside world that is worthy of God’s approval. These four values form the foundation of our tradition’s desire to make this messy life the smallest bit cleaner, to fix and the broken cracks in the asphalt in the road of life.
Four ways that we can heal the world. Four ways that we can heal ourselves. Four ways that we can ensure our Jewish obligation to passionately fix this planet’s problems, to heal the rifts in society.
I want to share those four with you today.
Pillar One: Justice.
Tzedek, tzedek tirdof, we are commanded. Justice, justice shall you pursue. Lema’an tichiye v’yirashta et ha’aretz ahser Adonai Eloheicha notein lach. That you may live, and thrive on the land the Lord Your God has given you.
The pursuit of justice leads this list because it is an act so central to our being, such a pillar of the Jewish experience that our ability to live is entirely dependent upon it – that you may live, says Torah. This is where our tradition’s concern for the powerless is expressed – the widow the orphan. This is where we remember that we cannot oppress the stranger because we were strangers in the land of Egypt. We tirelessly work to make just that which is not.
Because our world is filled with homelessness, with hunger and disease and poverty. Because inequality is still more pervasive than equality. And we have the power to fix this.
Pillar Two: Loving-Kindness
“Three things sustain the world,” we are taught in Pirkei Avot. “Torah, worship and acts of loving-kindness.” Torah and worship seem obvious in a rabbinic text. But acts of loving-kindness? Why?
Because the rabbis realized that we lived in a harsh world filled at times with emptiness and meaninglessness. But love can heal. Love can protect. Love can soothe the pain of an open wound.
Because we cannot prevent death, we cannot prevent illness or loss. But we can be there for those we love and for those we do not know, we can be Giving Trees, and care for those who need our sweet kindness during life’s most difficult moments.
Pillar Three: Responsibility.
Hillel reminds us: If I am not for myself who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I?
We live in an interconnected world where our actions can have deep ramifications on others, on society and on our planet. And our teacher pleads with us to realize that when we focus solely on ourselves, when we make ourselves into islands of existence we become an it, not a who. The narcissism of selfishness erases our humanity. So we must take responsibility for this world and for others.
Because other Jews depend on us. Because we are citizens. Because our earth is sick, and getting sicker. And we are citizens. We are members of society cannot be only for ourselves.
Four: Human Dignity.
Human dignity is about not just recognizing that each of us is created in the image of God but actualizing a way of living that so-celebrates that reality that we protect the dignity of the few over the rights and needs of the many.
In Masechet Megilah of the Talmud we learn that human dignity is so great a value that it supersedes any Torah prohibition. Human dignity is so great a value that it takes precedence over anything else.
Think about just how radical an assertion that is! A person’s dignity is more important than this or that ritual, this or that law from Torah.
Human Dignity is paramount.
Because we are all created in the image of God. Because each life is sacred. Because when one person is degraded, we all are.
Justice. Loving-Kindness. Responsibility. Human Dignity.
Shearith Israel, our community, is on the precipice of utilizing these four values as a tool for translating our learning, our prayers and our values into sustained action in this world, sustained efforts to solve the problems that surround us. Using these four to prevent another four: Justice, loving-kindness, responsibility and human dignity can erase and prevent irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid.
Over the span of one month, across four Monday nights in a row following these holy days, we will gather in Topletz auditorium to listen and to speak as a community. Each session, we will learn about the Jewish underpinnings of one of the four values, taught by one of our rabbis, and then we talk, frankly and honestly. How can Shearith Israel better be the beacon of light that we know it to be? How can thrive through our passionate pursuit of justice?
What worries you? What bothers you? What saddens you about this neighborhood, this community, this city, this country and this world in which we live?
What are the ways in which we fail to act like the human beings that we are? What are the ways in which our community, our city, our world is perpetuating injustices, not filling this world with loving-kindness, acting irresponsibly, or trampling upon human dignity?
I invite you to answer those questions, together with your fellow congregants. I invite you to join us in conversation and in listening about the ways that we must act, the ways we are bothered by the failings of our society, the ways in which we can translate our Jewish values into actualizing a better world.
We want to hear from you. I want to hear from you.
So please join us.
This is something that I, that all of your rabbis believe in so fully, so totally, something that we believe has the power to inspire all the work that we do and community that we build that each of us have devoted our sermons this morning to this topic. We believe that this initiative has the power to dramatically change the future of our congregation and its work in the world.
These four listening sessions are just the beginning, the first step in actualizing a systemic approach to bringing the goodwill and good values that we profess inside this building outside of this building, to taking the Torah that we study out to the streets and shouting at the tops of our lungs like the prophets before us all the ways that we can improve our world.
But before we act, before we develop new programs and projects, new initiatives and administrations, we must listen and we must talk.
As we put this period of personal teshuva behind us, please join us in reflecting on the ways we can pursue communal teshuva in the year ahead. Join us for frank conversations that have the power to transform our community.
Do it because you believe in Shearith Israel’s future. And do it because you believe that the Jewish people has a powerful message of hope and good to promote in this world, because you believe that we can bring change to our community. Do it because you want your voice to be heard.
Do it be because you are ready to be a prophet. Because you are ready to translate the emotions and values of this holy day into a transformative new approach to engaging with the world and speaking loudly about the things that bother you in it.
Martin Luther King, that great American prophet who marched hand-in-hand with Heschel during the Civil Rights Movement warned:
We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.
Or, in words even clearer and more direct, he says, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
Be a prophet.
Speak. Make your voice heard. Realize your capacity to change and to change this world. Understand our tradition’s push toward uprooting the status quo to undoing systems that no longer make sense. And appreciate your ability to see a problem and address it, to pray with your feet and make real in this world all the values that we study and preach in this shul.
The work ahead is great. We have much to do. But we have so much we can accomplish.
This Yom Kippur, let us hear the words of Isaiah and internalize them, let us realize that our fasts are great if we translate our ritual into acts of goodwill and good-doing. Let us remember the words of U’netaneh Tokef, that the severity of our decree is tempered by tzedakah.
Then we protect Judaism from its own demise, then we ensure that this beautiful tradition which we have been handed remains relevant and worthwhile. Then we avert the severity of Heschel’s critique of modern religion.
Let us leave this shul tonight so thoroughly clean on the inside that we cannot help but get our hands dirty cleaning up this world, pursuing justice, promoting loving-kindness, ensuring responsibility and protecting human-dignity.
Yom Kippur 5774
Rabbi David J. Singer