Sermon delivered on Yom Kippur Eve 5769 – October 8, 2008
by Rabbi Barry H. D. Block
I was a strange child. Some would say that I still am.
Specifically, I did not listen to Rock and Roll. Instead, I listened to my parents’ Kingston Trio albums. I have previously offered public performances of Charlie of the MTA, and, of course, We’ll Call Him Barry.
Tonight, though, with apologies to Cantor Berlin, I will intone a lesser-known ditty:
They’re rioting in Africa;
There’s strife in Iran;
There’s hurricanes in Florida;
And Texas needs rain.
The whole world is festering with unhappy folk;
The French hate the Germans, the Germans hate the Poles.
Italians hate Yugoslavs, South Africans hate the Dutch.
And I don’t like anybody very much.
In the words of Ecclesiastes, Ayn kol hadash tahat ha-shamesh, “There’s nothing new under the sun.” Hatred and war, poverty and strife continue to tear at our human family.
Here in San Antonio, most of us live in comfort, but we also inhabit a dangerous world. Here in America, we are geographically removed from the hostilities of war, but we are party to global conflict. Here at home, peace is our daily experience; meanwhile, hundreds of millions, perhaps billions of our fellow human beings are impoverished and homeless because of government-sponsored violence. Here in the land of the free, we may speak and protest and worship as we please. But how many of our fellow citizens of the Earth, yearning to be free, know that expressing their hopes would mean certain death? Here in the United States, even under the rigors of recession, most of us live in prosperity; but so many men, women, and children will never see another meal.
I live, and all of us worship, only a couple of blocks from poverty we hope never to experience. But even the very real ills in our own city don’t hold a candle to the troubles that afflict much of our human family. We live at great distance from a largely unhappy world. But how can we be far away from our very own Earth? How can we separate ourselves from our very own human family? How?
On this Yom Kippur, let us confess the sin of indifference. We can’t bear to read the international news, so we skip to the sports page. We are fatigued: Iraq, Darfur, Pakistan, whatever they’re calling Burma these days, the list goes on. How much more satisfying to read the latest rant about Barack Obama or Sarah Palin.
On this Yom Kippur, let us commit ourselves to the welfare of our family, the human family.
We can start by living by the words that Mickey Roth will read from the Torah tomorrow: lo ta’amod al dam rei-echa, “Do not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds.” Who would do such a thing? Anybody here, if we were outside in the front yard, and the guy across the street suddenly sliced his finger instead of the shrubbery, we would do whatever we could to help. We would call 911.
But who, today, is our neighbor? The person at the other end of the phone could be at a call center in the Irish countryside, as easily as she could be in Westover Hills. Recently, when Toni’s brother visited us from Israel, he came by way of a business meeting in Mumbai. Every human being on Earth is our neighbor.
Even more, every man, woman and child is a member of our family. The Rabbis point to the story of Adam and Eve to teach that no person can boast of a lineage greater than any other. The power of that moral lesson transcends silly arguments between evolution and so-called “creationism.” Genesis teaches that the prince cannot claim more august ancestry than the pauper. We are all equal, one family in the sight of God.
This summer, I engaged in my own silent and most ineffective protest, refusing to stand by while my human neighbor bleeds.
I love the Olympics. I always have. Even through the tragedy of Munich, I still recall, with a nine year old’s glee, Mark Spitz’s record-setting triumph in 1972. I even got to go to Montreal for a few days in 1976. The field hockey preliminaries I saw were not fit for television, but the spirit was palpable. This year, I followed Michael Phelps’ super-human feat with interest. I watched news clips. I read about it in the newspaper. I would not watch it on live television.
The Chinese regime is one of the world’s most repressive. The economy may be evolving toward capitalism, but freedom has not accompanied it. Religious minorities, notably including Christians, not to mention the Falun Gong, are grievously repressed. Peaceful protest against Chinese occupation and hegemony in Tibet is outlawed. Painful persecution greets those who speak the words of the Dalai Lama. The Chinese government exports its repression, too, shoring up wicked regimes in North Korea, Burma, and elsewhere.
The Chinese leadership knows well that we live in a global community. They have paid close attention to events in Darfur. Hundreds of thousands have been murdered, and millions more injured, raped, rendered starving and homeless, all at the hands of their own Sudanese government. Nevertheless, China has repeatedly exercised its veto power at the United Nations, preventing the international community from taking strong humanitarian steps to save lives and end genocide. Why? Perhaps because China is heavily invested in Sudanese oil, of which it is the world’s largest importer.
For all these reasons and more, countless Americans of every political persuasion urged President Bush not to attend the Opening Ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics. That Ceremony was nothing if not a celebration of 21st Century China. No American President had ever previously attended Olympic Opening Ceremonies outside of the United States. But the President did not heed the cry of the oppressed. Permit me to echo the critique that came most harshly from his fellow Republicans and the Christian right: President Bush did not just stand by while his human neighbors continued to bleed, and worse; our President stood up and cheered.
Even though my own little protest had no real effect, except on my own conscience, others around us are taking action that will make a real difference in the lives of human beings in need.
Recently, when my friend Father David Garcia concluded his term as Rector of San Fernando Cathedral, he took two new jobs. Most people in town know that he is working to restore the Churches at the four historic Missions south of downtown. Many folks don’t realize, though, that this local post is only a one-quarter time “job.” Father David isn’t ignoring our local needs, of course, and nor should we. However, this consecrated Priest is not content to stop at home.
Instead, Father David’s primary employer these days is Catholic Relief Services. He is traveling the globe, helping to direct the Catholic Church’s massive efforts to relieve poverty and distress in the most remote and impoverished corners of the Earth. Just as important, Father David is crossing the United States, spreading the word to his brother Priests and to Catholic parishes about the importance of sharing God’s love and bounty around the world.
Through my involvement with Methodist Healthcare Ministries, I know folks who go to Mexico on medical missions every year. These people have become my friends because we work together on behalf of South Texans in need. I am deeply moved by their ability to carry their concerns, in action, worldwide.
The idea of such “missionary work” is less well known among Jews. We may have trouble separating such endeavors from the proselytizing and disdain for local culture that were inevitably entangled with such work in ages past, and still may be in some instances today. Thankfully, though, some Jewish folks, even a few members of our congregation, have begun to seek and find opportunities to reach beyond our nation’s borders. Just as importantly, good work is done in our name as Americans, throughout the world. We can take responsibility to assure that more good is accomplished, wherever our neighbors live.
Our Untied States Armed Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, many of them stationed in San Antonio, are doing good work, in our name, in a devastated part of the world. Make no mistake: Whatever any of us thinks of the Iraq War, Saddam Hussein was a very bad man. He was a much greater threat to his own people, every day, than he ever was to the United States. He robbed his citizens; he murdered them by the millions; and he left them with very little. The Iraq war cannot succeed, whatever the definition of success, if we do not leave Iraqi men, women and children better off than we found them. These efforts are performed in our name: The United States of America.
All over the world, American Jewish World Service improves the lives of the most desperately devastated among humanity. Though AJWS has been around for decades, that organization has grown exponentially since it came to our consciousness through meaningful response to the Indian Ocean Tsunami. Ruth Messinger, who heads AJWS, has been among those working hardest and most effectively to bring the plight of Darfur to the attention of average Americans.
Most of what AJWS does every day is on the ground – like Catholic Relief Services, if on a smaller scale – in the world’s poorest corners. AJWS helps people to improve their lives. Subsistence farmers are taught how to grow more food, more efficiently, more sustainably. Reproductive health care is made available to folks who could not otherwise access birth control, thanks to regressive American policy.
With AJWS, individuals and families can tour some of the world’s most devastated populations, bearing witness, refusing to stand by while our neighbors bleed. With AJWS, any of us can travel to an impoverished corner of the world, giving of ourselves to provide direct service to our human family members most in need. We can all also join the Temple’s Landsman Family Relief Fund and various individuals, supporting the work of AJWS financially. After all, this work is done in our name: American Jewish World Service. It’s easy to find, at ajws.org.
At this election season, we can assure that more be done in our name as Americans. Let us ask – no, let us demand – that both of our candidates tell us what they will do to improve the lives of our poorest and most oppressed human neighbors, wherever they be. And let their answers make a difference to us when we go to vote.
When asked, “What is Judaism’s greatest commandment,” many of us will point to those words above the Ark, like Hillel, Jesus, and so many who came before us. No mitzvah is greater than these words: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” A Yom Kippur affirmation: Planet Earth is our neighborhood. A Yom Kippur confession: We have been indifferent to our neighbors, and indifference does not demonstrate love. We have sinned. A Yom Kippur commitment: Each of us will find new and meaningful ways to serve our human family. A Yom Kippur dream: Love, for all humankind, is the heart of the world.