I Learned to Pay Attention Yom Kippur MorningSeptember
2007 Rabbi Mark Dov Shapiro
Last night I began my sermon
with comments on e-mail.This
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
The antidote for civilization…Club
You’ll wonder where the yellow went….when you
brush your teeth with…Pepsodent
We answer to a higher authority…Hebrew
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
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
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
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.
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
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
he sharpen the knife carefully.”“He
he moisten the blade exactly?”“He
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.”
you pay attention, you learn that kashrut may lead us somewhere humane and
- In the last several years a number of very sensitive Jews have asked a fascinating
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?
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.
responsibly this morning rather refers to drinking coffee attentively
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
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
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
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.