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Let’s Get Political - September 25, 2004

     This may be your last chance to laugh for several minutes – if not for several years.  So hang on, and, in the spirit of Yom Kippur, forgive me too since the following one liners off the internet are about women.  Remember, though, they are written by women about women. 

     One other request:  As you listen, try to guess which line would best introduce a sermon for today’s Yom Kippur.

1.  Behind every successful man is a surprised woman.
2.  If you can't be a good example, then you'll just have to be a horrible warning.
3.  From Roseanne Barr - I'm not going to vacuum 'til Sears makes one you can ride on.
4. From Lily Tomlin - Things are going to get a lot worse before they get worse.

And finally - When women are depressed they either eat or go shopping.

Men invade another country.


     So which one is it?  Which one-liner best gets me to the topic for this morning?  Better still, why did I warn you that my one-liners might be your last chance to laugh during this service – and possibly for several years?

     Maybe I was exaggerating, but maybe I wasn’t because it does feel as if this year’s presidential election calls for a decision as serious as any I can remember. The choice of the next president will have major consequences for all of us.  The next president will continue to make appointments to the Federal courts at various levels, but he will also appoint one or more Supreme Court justices.  These judicial appointments will affect us for years into the future.

     And there’s more to expect between 2004 and 2008.  Among other things, the next president will need to deal with social security, health coverage, matters of reproductive rights and the environment. 

     And yes, of course, the next president will have to lead the country as events unfold in Iraq.    

     Hence the one-liner - When women are depressed they either eat or go shopping. Men invade another country.

     I like that comment.  There is just enough humor and truth in it about men and women to make you smile, although the problem, we all know, is that Iraq allows for no humor.  This war is a hugely complicated, confusing affair.  It is not the invasion of Granada or Panama.  This is one for the history books with long-term consequences, costs, pain, and maybe, maybe benefits we can barely imagine.

     Leading up to this morning, I’ve tried to read a lot about Iraq, and I’ve made a special effort to search out opinion from all points along the political spectrum.  I’ve purposely not only listened to voices from the left or center. 

     Nevertheless, one image drawn by Tom Friedman of the New York Times has continued to resonate with me. 

     This past June, Friedman suggested thinking about Iraq as a black box sealed shut for more than 30 years of dictatorship.  The question down to this very day is what we have found inside that box called Iraq.  Is Iraq going to be the Arab Germany so that once the dictator is removed, the natural creativity of Iraqis surfaces to create a functioning country?  Or is Iraq the Arab Yugoslavia?  Is it an artificial construct patched together during the last days of colonialism?  Perhaps Iraq only workable when held together by a dictator like Tito in Yugoslavia?  When you remove the dictator, you discover that there is no governable country at all.

     Of course, the answer to these questions is not yet available.  What we do know is that the war has thus far cost billions of dollars.  If it continues as it has, the war will continue to cost billions of dollars.  As an actual assault on global terrorism, the war seems to be far off the mark.  Over a thousand Americans are dead.  Many, many Americans are wounded and/or disabled for life.  Thousands of innocent Iraqis have lost their lives.  Saddam may be gone, but I am far from the only person who suspects that the United States has opened up a Pandora’s box of violence and confusion with no end in sight.

     If ever there was a time for concern and harsh words, this must be it. 

     Or is that so?  Some of you would say the opposite.  You would say that, of all times, Yom Kippur is not the time for politics.  These High Holidays are powerful because they are personal.  What is magnificent about Judaism is that we are given these Days of Awe to step outside the regular world.  It may be 2004 out there.  There may be a presidential election and a war out there. 

     But symbolically it’s the year 5765 in here.  This should be a place apart.  If only for a few hours, this place should be a refuge from the grind of daily life.  Yom Kippur is a time and place for recharging our batteries.  When we’ve done that, then we go back to the outside world and the battle begins again out there – not in here.

     I hear you.  I really do.  You can make a strong argument that during these holidays we should be looking for quiet not turmoil, for spiritual renewal not the op-ed columns of the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal. 

     But here’s my problem.  Do you remember my buddy, Elijah?  The honest truth is that in one of his first biblical appearances Eliyahu Hanavi, Elijah the Prophet, became famous for being a spoiler.  The First Book of Kings tells us that on a beautiful sunny day, when most people in the ancient Kingdom of Israel, were relaxing at the beach, Elijah discovered that the king of Israel, Ahab, had stolen a beautiful vineyard from a commoner by the name of Naboth.  Elijah, we’re told, was outraged.  He summoned up his courage, probably ruined his family’s plans for a polite picnic, and trooped off to the palace.  There he took up the role of Moses and castigated no one less than the king for doing what was wrong.

     It wasn’t polite and it was disturbing, but that was Elijah telling truth to power.

     I’m thinking too of the prophet Isaiah.  In a few minutes, we’ll be encountering Isaiah’s tirade against hypocrisy.  It appears in our Haftarah.  This is the text where you’ve got to imagine our ancestors assembling in Jerusalem for their version of Yom Kippur.  They too must have come to the Temple for repentance and peace, but in the Haftarah Isaiah will have none of it.  He shouts at the people.  He condemns them.  

     The people’s prayers sound good.  The people look pious.  But it all covers up a reality that is rotten.

     So I am wondering.  Although we are in a different place and time (this is not Isaiah’s Jerusalem), how can we come together and not confront the military, political, moral struggle of our day?  Even if we disagree about Iraq, how can we be here on Yom Kippur and not mention what is going on over there?

     In 1962 and 1963, there were plenty of Temples in Alabama and Mississippi where no one wanted to hear a sermon about civil rights, but they did. 

     In 1967 and 1968, there were Temples where people were enraged about mixing Yom Kippur with Vietnam, but it happened.      

     So I am wondering – If I do believe the war in Iraq should be critiqued, shouldn’t that happen on Yom Kippur which is a day dedicated to the truth?

     My answer isthat I do not have to speak against the war for one major reason.  I have an additional passion.  Like President Bush and Senator Kerry, I have an agenda that runs beyond Election Day straight through the next president’s term. 

     I do care about Iraq.  I am worried.  But I also care intensely about something more reachable than Iraq.  That’s us.  That is the community of Sinai Temple where, you might say, I do have a political agenda.  No matter who is president, I have this vision that Sinai Temple should be significantly and powerfully involved in the best kind of politics.  Not Democrat or Republican, but deep down work on behalf of justice and equality right here where we live.

     Did you know that about a year and a half ago Sinai won national recognition for its social action work?  We submitted our social action programming to the Religious Action Center in Washington DC, which is the social justice center for Reform Judaism in North America.  From over 40 Reform congregations who applied, we were among the few chosen to receive the Irving J. Fain Social Action Award. 

     We called our program at Sinai – Justice for All Seasons – and the thrust of our presentation was that we offered ways for congregants to make a difference in the world in just about every month of the year.

     Look at the shoes on this bimah.  By the end of next week, we will have collected 100 pairs of shoes that will be delivered to Grey House in the North End of Springfield.  Consider that Food Van outside.  Every year we collect several thousand pounds of food on Yom Kippur in addition to all the food that comes in year round. 

     We’ve been involved with Habitat for Humanity and Rebuilding Together.  Some years ago we devised the Cinderella Project, which involved collecting special occasion and prom dresses that were donated to inner-city teens before their prom season began.

     I’m also proud of our Jerome Gurland Human Relations Award.  This is a $1000 award given by Sinai to an individual or agency in our area engaged in bettering the community.   Then there is the Susan Broh Award, which awards stipends to high school and college students who want to pursue a worthy project during the summer.

     Of course, there is the World Crisis Fund which we initiated in 1991.  At that time, a devastating famine took place in Africa.  People in the congregation were reading the newspaper, trying to remember where donations might be sent, but often forgetting to make donations. To respond to this crisis and give ourselves a way to respond to future crises, we created the World Crisis Fund.  The fund pays for emergency mailings to the congregation whenever a “world crisis” arises.  The mailings invite congregants to send their tzedakah to the Temple.  Once the donations have arrived, we send the tzedakah to an agency close to the crisis. 

     Including what we raised for Darfur last month, the World Crisis Fund has now distributed close to $34,000.00 all over the world.

     And now for my agenda.

     I would like to propose that no matter what happens with the November election, we ought to double – no, triple - our social action labors during the next president’s term.

     By the time 2008 rolls around, wouldn’t it be remarkable if we could assemble on Yom Kippur morning and declare:  We did it.  We galvanized ourselves.  We invented 10, maybe 20, new ways to enrich our community. 

     Come Yom Kippur 2008, Elijah or Isaiah should be able visit our synagogue and say, “It matters that Sinai Temple exists. Springfield would not be what it is without Sinai Temple.”

     Now I know that many of you already do marvelous tzedakah work.  You raise money for worthy causes all over our community.  It matters that you do your work; Springfield would not be what it is without you.

     Here’s the extra step I’m hoping you will take.  I’m thinking that Sinai is like an engine waiting for ignition.  Sinai is hundreds of households bound together by history, roots, visions, Torah, and God.  You don’t have to find your volunteers spread out over the Pioneer Valley. Here, at Sinai, we already exist as an institution whose raison d’etre is tikkun olam, the repair of the world.  This place, like an engine, is just waiting to rev up.  This place is waiting to be used as a springboard for great work.  Everything is here…waiting.  Jews together making a difference. 

     Here’s one possibility. 

     This idea comes from Chicago where an accountant by the name of Bob Burke had a simple idea.  He knew the federal government offered tax credits to ease the burden on poor working families, but the process for claiming the credits was so complicated that most poor families never got the credit.  So, one Saturday Bob and some friends set up shop to offer free tax-preparation services.  The response was overwhelming.  Loads of families showed up, and this is how Mr. Burke described one meeting:

     “I vividly remember when a single mother of two, who hadn’t earned enough in three years to file a return, burst into tears when I told her that the IRS had withheld too much from her small paychecks.  They owed her $10,000.  She said she would use the money to fix the leaky roof on her house. Others were equally emotional, making plans to pay overdue bills, buy clothes for their children or even move to a safer neighborhood.”

     So it went with family after family.  Ten years later more than 1600 volunteers have helped more than 8,000 families receive a total of $10 million in tax refunds in addition to offering common sense counseling to hundreds of people with limited resources. 

     Back to Springfield, I wouldn’t be surprised if there are at least 20 Sinai congregants or maybe 50 sitting here right now who have the expertise to be involved in a project like this.  Maybe we can’t do it exactly as they do in Chicago.  Maybe there are issues of liability that make it improper.  Maybe we are too busy.

     But before you say, “No, this project won’t work,” let me ask you to say maybe.  Maybe, something transformative like this could be shaped into a Sinai project.  Who knows without first dreaming a bit? 

     And how many attorneys are sitting here today?  Maybe there is a way for you to undertake some project that would make sense because you are Jews and because our tradition commands us to be engaged in the community.  I know many of you do exemplary pro bono work, but maybe there is something else to be done through the power of your knowledge.  Maybe Sinai can be the launching pad for that project waiting to be born.

     There are teachers here too.  So many of you. 

     There are people who are handy with their hands.  So many of you. 

     Plus there are nurses and many, many physicians in the congregation.  Many of you already staff clinics of various sorts. Your hours are long.  Your responsibilities are great.  But I wonder what healing you might be able to offer if together, through Sinai, you stepped forward and we found that one small place where a small amount of your talent would make a huge difference to many people.

     You want to talk politics?  Do you want to talk about our country’s future?  Better still, do you want to do more than talk? 

     I do.  Even though we won that national social justice award, I don’t think we do close to enough. 

     I want to be the rabbi of a congregation that bubbles with social justice.  I would like you to call me and say we need to do more.  I would like you to complain to the sky because, you might say, Sinai isn’t political enough in the best sense of the word.  We aren’t angry enough.  As the Chasidic teacher, Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev used to say, we aren’t storming the gates of heaven – and we should be doing so.

     Picture this final image.  It captures my vision for our Temple.

     It has to do with a debate that the rabbis of the midrash imagined.  They were wondering how the builders of the great Temple in Jerusalem designed their windows.  Remember the walls of the ancient Temple would have been built out of thick stone and there were apparently two options for the windows.  One involved creating windows that were narrow on the outside and widened out towards the inside.  The other possibility involved cutting the windows so that they were narrow on the inside and widened out towards the outside.

     Which kind of windows were chosen for the Jerusalem Temple?

     The first windows had one great benefit.  They tended to bring light into the sanctuary.  Although they were narrow on the outside as they expanded toward the interior, there was a feeling of increasing light inside the building.  That seemed to suit the needs of the worshippers perfectly.  It filled their sanctuary with light and peace.

     The other kind of windows worked very differently.  They opened up to the outside; they seemed to direct light from inside the Temple to the outer world.

     Given a choice between the two types of windows, the midrash says that the builders of the Jerusalem Temple chose the second style.  They chose the windows that opened up to the outside world.  It made the inside of their sanctuary a bit less comfortable, but it did something else.  It reminded the Jews inside the sanctuary that what they did there wasn’t complete until the meaning and the message of the sanctuary flooded out into the world.  They could be polite inside the sanctuary; they could be dressed beautifully; they could say all the right words the way we do.  But the words could only have life when they were made real out on the streets of Jerusalem.

     That’s how I feel about us today.

     These are angry, difficult times for the United States.  We can’t hide from that reality in this sanctuary.  On the contrary, we need to follow the light out of our windows, be there on the sidewalks, and, as they say, walk the talk. 

     Our platform should be the platform of Elijah and Isaiah. 

     When 2008 rolls around – and why not sooner – let Elijah and Isaiah visit us.  Let them take a look at this beautiful building with its holy Jews, and let them declare:

It matters that Sinai Temple exists. It matters that these Jews are here. Springfield would not be what it is without these people and without Sinai Temple."

(If you would like to get a broader perspective on Sinai Temple's social action programming, please read the application we developed for The Fain Social Action Award in December 2002.)

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