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Sermon Yom Kippur 2007

Drink Responsibly:  How I Learned to Pay Attention
Yom Kippur Morning September 2007
Rabbi Mark Dov Shapiro


 

Last night I began my sermon with comments on e-mail.  This morning?  Let’s start with the internet where I found myself a few days ago looking for a catchy title to this morning’s sermon.  Lo and behold, I discovered a website called – The Advertising Slogan Hall of Fame.  At the website I came across some of the following slogans that I invite you to identify and consider for Yom Kippur sermon titles.

 

Reach out and touch someone…AT&T

 

Have it your way…Burger King

 

The antidote for civilization…Club Med

 

You’ll wonder where the yellow went….when you brush your teeth with…Pepsodent

 

We answer to a higher authority…Hebrew National

 

So there I was searching for that perfect title when a beer slogan came bubbling onto my screen, and after visiting two different beer sites for verification, I realized I had my title.  The slogan title for this morning’s sermon is:  Drink Responsibly.  The subtitle:  How I Learned to Pay Attention.

 

So, then, how did I learn to pay attention?

 

I got my starting lesson during a visit to Israel many years ago.  It was Yom Kippur in Jerusalem when, for the first time in my life, I saw people going to synagogue wearing canvas shoes…running shoes.  

 

Obviously, this was not a fashion statement.  This was a long time before the television show “What Not To Wear.”  

 

What I learned was that those Jews were wearing canvas shoes as a way of drawing attention to a particular compromise almost all of us make every day.  It’s the compromise we make when we eat meat even though we know that meat only gets to our plates as the result of an animal’s being killed.  That hamburger comes from what was a living being.  Our leather watchbands were once part of an animal that mooed somewhere in the USA.  The shoes on our feet only got there because an animal shed blood to release the leather.

 

If you pay attention (remember that’s the sermon’s subtitle), you have to admit that we human beings bear serious responsibility for living the way we do.  And Jewish tradition’s response is to say that at least once a year we ought to raise this issue explicitly.  Therefore, on Yom Kippur, Judaism proposes that Jews not wear leather.  The goal is to ritualize or concretize what we take for granted.  On this day when we acknowledge the many ways we sin, we can choose not to wear leather as a way of drawing attention to the fact that our very eating and dressing does do injury to the animal world around us.

 

For me, no leather today.  It’s my way of paying attention to (I guess, repenting for) the way I live, eat, and dress the rest of the year.  

 

Now you could respond to this “no leather” position by calling it quixotic or charming at best.  A person might say, “What’s the value of not wearing leather once a year if you consume meat the rest of the year?  How can Judaism be paying attention to animal welfare if animals are being slaughtered every day?”

 

Those are fair questions for which there may be a Jewish response.  Perhaps those curious laws of kashrut (which don’t generally engage Reform Jews) have something to say about the treatment of animals.  

 

In point of fact, I once heard Rabbi Yitz Greenberg make this very point.  Greenberg taught that, if you pay attention to kashrut’s implicit meaning, you realize that the laws are designed to make Jews extremely careful about the consumption of meat and, therefore, the pain inflicted on animals.  

 

Even if you don’t feel connected to kashrut, listen to see how the system works.  If you want to eat a carrot or an apple, the laws of kashrut have no comment.  Vegetables and fruits are pareve, according to tradition.  If you want to eat them, you eat them.  The same holds true for adding a slice of cheese to your plate.  It’s dairy, but the tradition accepts it into your diet with few restrictions.  Add some tuna (which means you’ve taken some life in order to feed yourself) and the tradition is still quite accommodating.

 

It’s a different story when you take one more step up the food chain to chicken or especially beef.  Now kashrut gets complicated.  You need separate dishes and silverware.  If you do eat beef, you’ve got to wait hours until you can eat dairy.  And you need to train a person who will do the slaughtering of the animal for you.  Rules galore pertain to how this slaughterer (or shochet, as he’s known in Hebrew) conducts himself.  The cut to kill the animal has to be done at a certain spot, at a certain speed, and with a certain kind of knife.  The act must be done as painlessly as possible or it is invalid.  

 

  If you’ll forgive me, eating an orange is a “piece of cake” for a Jew.  Eating meat, on the other hand, involves a “whole Megillah.”  And it is done that way because Judaism wants to make it difficult for us to eat meat.  

 

I know this isn’t obvious.  Until Rabbi Greenberg outlined this progression in kashrut I had never seen it.  But it is there. If you pay attention, kashrut has a built-in reticence about eating meat which means taking life.  

 

Listen to this story told about a new shochet who was chosen to replace the beloved old shochet who had passed away.  The members of the community tested the new shochet and someone asked, “How did he do?”  One of the men sighed. “What’s the matter?  Didn’t he recite the prayers?”  “He did.”  “Didn’t he sharpen the knife carefully.”  “He did.”  “Didn’t he moisten the blade exactly?”  “He did.”  “What was wrong then?”  “Well,” the man said, “our old shochet used to moisten the blade with his tears before he would come close to the animal.”

 

Pay attention.  If you pay attention, you learn that kashrut may lead us somewhere humane and valuable.  Another illustration - In the last several years a number of very sensitive Jews have asked a fascinating question:  Could something not be kosher even though it is kosher?  

 

Let’s say, for example, that an animal has the required cleft hoof and chews its cud.  Let’s say that the shochet does his work perfectly and mercifully.  He even weeps as he does his job.  Could eating the animal under such circumstances not be kosher?

 

Well, maybe yes.  

 

Couldn’t you say that if it’s important for the slaughtering to be done mercifully, it’s just as important for the animal to be treated mercifully while it’s alive?  Kosher means “fit” or “proper.”  So if the animal isn’t treated properly while it’s alive, maybe the whole affair could be unkosher.

 

This is the way a number of people have come to the conclusion that eating veal (which is technically kosher) is not ethically kosher.  Many of you know that veal comes from calves that are taken from their mothers immediately after birth and often raised in tiny stalls only a few feet wide.  They can’t turn around; they can’t stretch their limbs.  Their short lives are the result of a ferocious kind of inhumanity.  

 

Pay attention to this broader definition of kashrut, and you may find yourself saying, “I’m not kosher, but maybe, when it comes to veal, I am.”

 

Take one more step with me beyond this ethical or eco-kosher idea and you’ll discover another dimension of kashrut.  My friend, Rick Litvak, is a Reform rabbi in California who pays close attention to Deuteronomy, Chapter 24, Verse 14.  The verse reads as follows:  “LO TA-A-SHOK - You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer,” and it provides the Jewish basis for asking not only what was done to an animal as it was raised, but how were the workers involved with the animal treated themselves.  

 

LO TA-A-SHOK gives rise to the phrase OSHEK – EXPLOITATION.  

 

So we ask:  Were the workers exploited on farms or in slaughter houses?  Were they paid living wages? Was their health and safety protected?  

 

There is a growing movement among Reform and Conservative Jews who are saying that kashrut ought to embrace these kinds of question.  Kashrut should relate to justice.  If there is OSHEK, if the human beings involved in bringing food to market are exploited, the food shouldn’t be fully kosher.  

 

Which finally brings me from the subtitle of this sermon up to the title.  You see, once I learned to pay attention, I realized, in the words of the sermon’s title, that I had to Drink Responsibly.

 

Not in terms of safety – I already know that a person shouldn’t drink alcohol and drive.  

 

Drinking responsibly this morning rather refers to drinking coffee attentively and thoughtfully.  In the broadest sense of the word, this sermon is all about making our coffee drinking ethically kosher.    It’s all about asking if we are paying attention to the full story of our coffee.  Let’s go back, then, before the coffee arrives on the shelf at Big Y or before it gets into the espresso machine at Starbucks.   Where does it come from?  How is it grown?  Who grows it?  

 

Most of the coffee we drink is grown on small farms in Latin America, Asia, and Africa by farmers who sell their coffee to middlemen of various sorts.  These people then sell the coffee onward to another level and so on up the chain until the coffee arrives in this country.  It sounds like a reasonable arrangement - except that farmers in this system are being driven deeper and deeper into poverty.  

 

Although coffee is the second most valuable commodity in the world market after oil, local farmers are sometimes selling their harvest for as little as 60% of what it cost to grow it.  Farming families are forced into a cycle of poverty and debt.  Some turn to cultivating drugs because they are more lucrative.  Some sell their land and migrate toward cities looking for work.  Health care and education are totally absent from their lives.

 

You and I as Jews have a name for this circumstance.  It’s called Oshek or exploitation, and if you’ve followed me up to the brim so far, you understand why we say that coffee grown in poverty just can’t be right for us.  It isn’t kosher.

 

That’s where something called “fair trade” coffee makes all the difference.  “Fair trade” describes coffee grown in small farmer cooperatives which sell their coffee to a single organization in the USA that then processes the coffee for sale here.  Middlemen are removed.  The fair trade organization guarantees a fair price to the farmer and often helps nurture the coffee cooperative so that the farming community can be stronger and healthier and have some hope that their children will gain access to education.  

 

In many cases, fair trade coffee looks even better because much of it is also certified organic and shade grown.  Fair trade coffee is grown with less damage inflicted on the environment.

 

Bottom line - “Fair trade” coffee is fair, “ethical” coffee.

 

I know it seems strange for Reform Jews who almost never discuss kashrut to say it, but fair trade is (in an unusual, but significant way) kosher.  

 

If you drink fair trade, you’re making an ethical decision.

 

If you drink fair trade, you might say it’s like sharing a cup of loving kindness.

 

If you drink fair trade, here comes the title of this sermon – You are drinking responsibly.

 

So how do you get the stuff?

 

Here’s the good news.  This afternoon when our Neilah Concluding Service comes to a close, our Social Action Committee will be distributing 200 small bags of fair trade decaf drip grind coffee. You’ll get it here at Sinai, go home, and break the fast with your kosher justice coffee.

 

Starting in the next week or two, Sinai will also serve fair trade coffee whenever coffee is available.  Since it is slightly more expensive than regular coffee, we’re doing this as an experiment through to Chanukah.  We’ll see how the coffee is accepted and decide how to proceed after that.

 

In addition to this, our Gift Shop will soon sell fair trade coffee.  We’ll have a variety of 12 ounce bags available for you to purchase at cost value.  

 

In addition to this, the Annual Reports all around you contain an order form for fair trade coffee and chocolate too.  You can buy as much as you want whenever you wish.   

 

By the way, we are purchasing our fair trade coffee from an organization called Equal Exchange, which was one of the first fair trade companies in the United States.  We decided to go with Equal Exchange because they have a helpful website and offer educational materials, including an excellent introductory video.  On line you can also go to Dean’s Beans, although you can also buy fair trade coffee in a real store.  

 

Watch for packages with a black and white logo that says – Fair Trade Certified.  These coffees are mixed in among the standard coffees at stores such as Big Y, Stop and Shop, and Trader Joes.  

 

Some of the coffee (but be careful, not all of the coffee) is fair trade at Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts.  If you want to patronize a local merchant who has no franchise connections, go to Blue Moon Coffee Roasters on Sumner Avenue across from the old Bing Theater.

 

So now you know why I called this sermon – Drink Responsibly.  I did it because I wanted to explore how paying close attention to what we wear or eat results in important value decisions.  I did it because I wanted to explore how that word “kosher” might contain new meanings we as Reform Jews would never expect.  Finally, I called this sermon “drink responsibly” because I felt responsible for making a difference in the lives of some real human beings who barely survive growing coffee for our pleasure.

 

But did I need to spend so much valuable time on Yom Kippur of all days to sell you a cup of coffee?

 

Of course, I had to do this.

 

There couldn’t be a topic more appropriate for Yom Kippur.

 

For isn’t this a day when we are supposed to weigh ourselves in the balance? Isn’t this a day when we are supposed to ask are we good enough, kind enough, thoughtful enough?  Are we responsible enough?

 

You can read the words of the prayer book as much as you want.  You can make all the New Year’s promises you want.  

 

But Judaism is real and concrete, and our tradition asks every one of us a simple question on Yom Kippur.  What can you do here and now so that you make a difference?

 

Just in case you aren’t able to develop a vaccine against AIDS this morning…

 

Just in case you can’t figure out how to find adequate care for the homeless all across America and if you aren’t sure how to resolve the War in Iraq by this afternoon…

 

I suggest starting small.

 

That’s what God did.  God started with one human being.

 

Why don’t we do the same?  Start with ourselves and tomorrow’s coffee.  Drink fair trade.  It will be a fair and just way to step into your New Year.

 

 

 

 

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