Ripples of Change (Rosh Hashanah – Day One – 09/30/19)
Ripples of Change
Years ago, when I was still had the religious zeal of my youth, I gave a sermon on Rosh Hashanah in which I asked my congregants to refrain from talking gossip, aka Lashon HaRa, for one whole day. I pointed out to them how many times speech sins are mentioned in the Al Het and the Ashamnu, Bagadnu prayers, the great confessionals that we recite on Yom Kippur. So to start the year right, let’s try refraining from this sin.
I was hoping we could guard our lips for twenty-four hours. I figured that if we could refrain for just one day, it would demonstrate our powers of self-control, and then we could strive for two days and perhaps even more.
Well, the very next morning, one of my most loyal congregants came over to me just as the services began and said: “Rabbi, I tried so hard. But I got halfway through the parking lot when someone asked me what I thought of your sermon…and there went all my good intentions!”
Perhaps refraining from gossip over the long term is too lofty a goal, but what if I asked you in the upcoming year to make real efforts towards getting our government to make more stringent gun control laws or to take the threat of climate change seriously, would you?
A few weeks ago, we read Parshat Shoftim, and there was a lesson there that truly spoke to me (Deuteronomy 21:1-7).
“When a dead body, will be found …fallen in the field, and it’s not known who struck him then your elders (leaders) and your judges will come out and measure to the cities surrounding the victim.”
For whichever city is found to be closest to where the body was found, those leaders, the judges, the city council will then express their innocence in the matter by saying:
“Our hands didn’t spill this blood, and our eyes never saw anything.”
Now, this is strange. It seems we are blaming this death on the judges and elders, for we are forcing them to go through a ceremony to prove their innocence.
But does the Torah really suspect that the judges were the murderers?
The Mishnah in tractate Sotah explains the Judges’ testimony as follows:
‘What does “Our hands did not spill this blood and our eyes never saw anything” mean? It means that we never let a stranger leave the city alone without offering him some food or accompaniment.”
If the stranger had some food, maybe he would have been able to have the strength to resist the attack. If he had accompaniment, maybe the attackers would have thought him too important or well-connected to kill.
Maimonides explains that offering food and accompaniment is a unique form of kindness that our ancestor Abraham instituted and practiced.
Essentially what Maimonides is saying is that the leadership of the city has to practice what it preaches. They all stress the importance of kindness and hospitality. Now they have to swear that they implemented their ideals.
If they did that, then even if a murder occurred, they are not culpable.
Yet, there is another interpretation of this verse that I find more compelling.
The Jerusalem Talmud explains:
What does “Our hands did not spill this blood and our eyes never saw anything” mean? It means that we didn’t pervert justice in order to release a guilty murderer, and we didn’t cover our eyes, as if we didn’t see a crime.
The bottom line is responsibility.
The judges have to be able to say, “We didn’t knowingly send a visitor off without food and accompaniment, or we didn’t let a guilty criminal out on the loose.”
What does it mean to be a leader or a judge according to our traditions?
One has to be able to say: “We didn’t let a crime occur because we were negligent or too intimidated to take action.”
It’s twenty years since Columbine. We can all list numerous churches, synagogues, mosques, schools, businesses, concert and movie theaters where too many innocents lost their lives to gun violence. This year alone, hundreds of people have been killed in mass shootings. Is our leadership really able to say, “It’s not our fault? That we didn’t spill this blood”?
In a recent Pew Study, 57% of teens worry that a shooting could happen at their school.
What kind of country do we live in, when a motorcycle backfiring creates utter pandemonium and people fleeing for their lives in Times Square?
Is there truly nothing Congress can do to improve the situation?
To drive a car, you need to be trained and licensed in this country. To drink a beer, you need to be 21 years old. But to own a semi-automatic assault weapon, there are no federal rules, licenses or special training required?
Can our leaders honestly say that they weren’t too intimidated to take action?
Concerning climate change, last year the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said that crucial policies to reduce global warming must be in place by 2030 to avoid the worst. If emissions continue at the current rate, 1.5 degrees of warming could be reached between 2030 and 2052. If not stalled, then it might increase to two degrees.
The report pointed out that there would be significant differences between a 1.5 degree and 2 degrees of global warming. Under a 2-degree scenario, the proportion of people exposed to heatwaves at least once every five years would leap from 14 to 37 percent. This will increase ozone-related mortality and the spread of vector-borne diseases, such as malaria and dengue fever.
Even under the 1.5-degree scenario, which we merely hope to maintain, ocean fishing is expected to decline by 1.5 million tons a year. But this figure would double if global mean temperatures reach 2 degrees of additional warming.
The report highlights several potential pathways to prevent further warming, including removing carbon from the atmosphere, phasing out coal, and reducing food waste.
Our government, however, has just taken steps to increase our Carbon footprint. They’ve just recently lessened requirements on natural gas producers to monitor their leakage. Additionally, they removed the requirement to phase out incandescent lighting with energy-saving LED bulbs, and that’s already a current technology!
Our government, unfortunately, is not able to say, “We didn’t let a crime occur because we were negligent or too intimidated to take action.”
I’m not just talking about one person. There have been four presidents since Columbine, and nothing has progressed. The whole government is culpable.
If we want to see a change in our country, I think we’re going to need to be more proactive in the year ahead.
We’re going to have to donate more to causes we believe in. We may have to actively rally, not just sign on to email petitions.
Last year when the Parkland Students organized the mass rally in New York City, I sidestepped Shabbat morning services and urged all our congregants and teens to join me at the rally. The Torah teaches us that saving a life outweighs the observance of the Shabbat. I was hoping our rally would initiate change.
At the time of the shooting, youths from across the county didn’t return to school for a week. I felt they shouldn’t return at all until something significant was done.
The Florida legislature raised the age on buying an assault rifle, but nothing was achieved federally.
I regularly receive email petitions from the mourning parents in Sandy Hook; it’s seven years and they’re still waiting for change to take place.
If this is the case, then we need to embody the charge of the Torah ourselves. We need to be able to say
“Our hands didn’t spill this blood”
We need to be able to say that we saw the need for change in our gun control laws and for improving our country’s carbon footprint, and we did something.
I encourage us all to be more proactive in the year ahead.
Robert F. Kennedy once said, “It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a person stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
If the Berlin Wall can fall, if the Soviet Union can dissolve, then we should be encouraged that our small efforts will eventually pay off as well.
On a more local level, among the other things we need to be able to say is, did we belong to Manetto Hill Jewish Center and not allow it to falter?
We just celebrated MHJC’s 50th anniversary. Considering the plight of other synagogues in our area, it’s a great achievement, but I think the next five years may be the most challenging.
Only 20% of Long Island Jewry chooses to affiliate with a synagogue. Even of those that affiliate, many of the post-bar/bat mitzvah families and empty nesters don’t feel like paying $2000 to come to synagogue a few times a year.
We need your help.
We are trying to innovate and serve you in the best way possible. In the past year alone, we’ve purchased comfortable benches for people to be able to sit and converse when they are in the lobby.
We instituted a one day a week “Time for U Cafe”, where parents can come and socialize with each other in a relaxing environment with espresso and delicacies.
We shortened the Shabbat morning service to just two hours.
Last year we introduced the Alternative Hybrid Rosh Hashanah service, which we are continuing tomorrow, that many people praised as an accessible, meaningful and uplifting service.
We offered a weekly bereavement group that gave comfort to dozens of people.
Most recently, we started “The Cultivated Life at MHJC” geared towards our longer-term members offering programs to stimulate you intellectually, gastronomically and socially.
We’re trying our best to serve you; please pick up your donation card and do your best to make sure MHJC can continue to serve you and our community this year and years to come.
“Our hands did not spill this blood and our eyes never saw anything.”
Our traditions demand from us that we don’t see the need for change and let the world fall apart around us. We are responsible.
Nowadays, that our government is stalled in these efforts, we the people, need to respond. Whether it’s making our country a safer place to live or protecting our environment, we’ll need to make greater expenditures and efforts than we have in the past.
Likewise, I ask you to share your blessings with the synagogue to keep this little haven of Judaism and friendship running.
Times change and what’s expected of us varies as well. Let’s make this a year where we give more, exert ourselves more, knowing that our individual ripples will eventually produce great waves of change.