Hope and Fear, Blessing and Curse

A Sermon for Yom Kippur 5777

I set before you life and death, blessing and curse…

Recently, I met a young mother with a hard story.  Born and raised on the east side of town, she alone in her family has overcome the poverty and dysfunction that marked her young life.  Driven to excel, she attended college and earned degrees.  She found her way into a stable career and a faithful marriage.  Yet with all this success, she is troubled.  She worries greatly for her younger brothers – young men with brown skin.  They have not escaped her old neighborhood, and are endlessly pressured to do the wrong things: to drink, to sell and do drugs, to join a gang.  They haven’t done all of these things.  But having made some poor choices, they have both served time behind bars, thus far for relatively minor offenses.  And they have both endured abuse by members of law enforcement.

This young woman bears the police and correctional officers no ill will.  On the contrary – she understands how difficult their job is.  She attended a recent community listening session because she cares about our community, and is seeking to save her brothers, and others, by helping to create a solution.

Likewise with the man who lost his brother, a police informant, in the parking lot of the local Sheraton Hotel.  Though he was working to assist the police in catching some real perpetrators, he was mistaken for one of the people they intended to catch.  He was shot dead.

His surviving brother, too, does not hate police.  He just wants answers.  And he wants to prevent other informants from suffering the same fate.

I attended this listening session.  And it may surprise you to know that the palpable emotions there were not rage or hatred.  There was no cry for revenge.  Rather, there was tremendous sadness and frustration.  Those of us who gathered did so, not to condemn cops or rally against them.  We gathered out of concern for the welfare of our whole community – black, brown, white, yellow, red, AND blue.  We mourned the tarnished image of “Officer Friendly,” the servant of the people we, as children, were trained to respect, admire, and trust.

All over the country, innocent black and brown men, and some women, too, have met violent ends at the hands of people who were supposed to protect them.  We’ve been reading and hearing about their stories in the news for years now.  All over the country, today’s children of color are learning to duck and cover, to distrust and fear law enforcement.

I am not blaming or castigating all police – and neither do the organizers of the listening session.  Statistics show that the cities with recurring problems harbor small handfuls of bad actors.  Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, Baltimore, Atlanta, and yes, Bakersfield – these are among the places where the crimes and reputations of two or three or four “repeat offenders,” officers who are quick on the draw, whose modus operandi is always “shoot first, ask questions later,” have a history of being protected by the “brotherhood of the badge.”

What drives these rogue offenders and their protectors?  The answer is Fear.  Here we are, in the 21st century, and people in the United States actively fear one another.  The proliferation of arms has made us less safe, not more.  Guns are everywhere.  Anyone might be armed.  So officers of the law are being trained to defend themselves first, by any means necessary, lest they become another statistic, the victim of a shooting.

This is not just a Black Lives Matter issue.  It’s not only about Trayvon Martin, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Delrawn Small, Keith Scott or Terence Crutcher.  It’s not just about Atlanta or Austin, Baltimore or Bakersfield.  It’s even bigger than gun control.  This is xenophobia – fear of strangers.  It is a problem we must work together to resolve.

Ours is a nation overcome with fear.   Headlines about ISIS and terrorism drive the irrational impulse to deport all undocumented immigrants, even those not associated with countries in conflict.  In our fear, we forget that ninety-nine-plus percent of immigrants simply wish to live quietly and provide better lives for their families.  We forget that nearly all of the terrorists in this country are home-grown and self-radicalized, be it in New York, New Jersey, or San Bernardino.

Emotions are real – but they are not rational, and they don’t help us make rational judgements or decisions.  Fear makes people want to build walls when we should be building bridges of understanding.  

As Jews, we ought to know better.  We know from our own people’s experience that fear is the co-parent, together with ignorance, of hatred – and in an atmosphere of fear, amid an epidemic of willful ignorance, hatred is too easily fed.  Without knowledge, we learn to fear the unknown, the mysterious “other,” whether it is someone from a different land, a different race, a different faith, or even a different gender identity.  

I am reminded of a story I’ve told before, a story by Mitchell Chefitz.  It’s about a man and his people, who are taught that their village walls were built by their ancestors to keep the monsters out.  In the story, “Left side monsters” were green, with three eyes and sharp horns.  They were rumored to rip open young children’s bellies and eat them from the inside out.  “Right side monsters” were brown and covered with bristles; they would spit acid and boil children into pudding.  Of course, when the narrator of the story finally meets one of these creatures, he finds him to be remarkably like himself.

Terrorists may be monstrous to us; the very idea of strangers, who may or may not be armed, terrifies us.  But the real threat comes from the people who exploit our fears, who wish to rule over us and control us, who want to make us feel as though monsters are lurking everywhere.  Our country is falling under the spell of those who curry our fear and take advantage of our terror to feed their own greed and self-interest.   It is those people- the fear-mongers- whom we ought to fear the most.  Not their lies and their rumors, but the people who spin them.

Fear separates and draws lines between us.  When we capitulate to fear, we allow ourselves to be conquered and divided.  As Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently observed, in his first speech to the United Nations:  “Fear never created a single job, or fed a single family.”

What is the antidote to all this fear?  How can we overpower it, and restore sanity and dialogue, and build bridges instead of walls?

We find some guidance in our Sabbath siddur, Mishkan Tefilah,

“How shall we sanctify God’s name?  By being holy ourselves.  How do we accomplish this?  Let our prayers bring us to sacred deed, to actions that promote justice, harmony, and peace.” (MT, p.233).

What we need, friends, is holiness.  Menschlikite.  Decency. Civility.  And hope..  We need hope.  We need to cultivate knowledge and understanding.  We need, not rampant diatribes and accusations, but civil dialogue and consensus.  We need government  – local, state, and national – that reflects the best that is in us, not our worst.

What we need is to sit down and listen to one another.  Just as I and the other participants at that listening session did.  

Sh’ma, Yisrael – Listen up, Israel.

Our Founding Fathers knew their Scripture very well.  While they were careful not to create a theocracy or monarchy, they did their level best to imbue our Constitution and our Bill of Rights with Biblical values.  Though they may not have identified it as such, they were surely familiar with this afternoon’s Torah reading, which we call the Holiness Code:  They would have understood God’s call to holiness as we do, as a call to justice.

Our best is not isolationist, suspicious, greedy and intolerant.  Our best is generosity of spirit.   It is welcoming the stranger – in the words of Emma Lazarus, the lifting of “the lamp beside the golden door.”  We are at our best when caring for the neediest in our midst: our veterans, the homeless and the mentally ill, and yes, immigrants too.  

Our best is providing a justice system that is truly just – not the mass incarceration of any subset of our demographics, not the summary mass deportation of human beings who crave a better life but who are unable to navigate the long and arduous maze devised by petty bureaucrats.  And our best surely does not include the demonization of an entire religion.

Our best society is one that cares for and educates every child with equal resources, so that they are not tempted by a life of crime.  Our best society has a health care system that is first-rate and accessible to all, so that no community need be frightened by the threat of disease.  

Our best America is a democracy that allows every law-abiding citizen ready access to their neighborhood ballot box, regardless of their zip code or skin color.  In our best America, law enforcement is respected, approachable, and unafraid, and reflects, demographically, the communities it serves, both in color and in gender balance.

Being the best does not mean being the richest or the greediest, the biggest or the toughest.  It does not mean that we should be an isolated island among the nations of the world, amped up on a sense of our own superiority.  Being the best means that we hold onto the moral high ground, in matters of foreign diplomacy and here on the home front.  

Our siddur, our Sabbath prayer book, enjoins us:

We pray that we may live

Not by our fear, but by our hopes

Not by our words but by our deeds. (MT, p.213)

Our Torah portion this morning proclaims:

Atem nitzavim hayom, kulchem, lifnei Adonai Eloheichem… You stand this day, all of you, before Adonai your God…I have set before you blessing and curse, life and death, …

Blessing, or curse?  It is incumbent on us to choose hope over fear; ethical speech over hate speech; unity over division; and the love of God over the hatred of humankind.

Atem nitzavim hayom – as we stand, let us remember what we stand for.  Let us stand up for a society, and for the world, not of our nightmares, but of our dreams – for our children and for their children, for our health and our welfare, and for the good of us all.  Let us build bridges instead of walls.  Let us listen to one another and reconnect with our common humanity.  No man, woman or child is a monster, when we strive to understand where they are coming from, find what we share in common, and work together to make our dreams a reality.

We are also commanded: Kedoshim tihyu: You shall be holy.  Holiness is found between us and among us, when we stand, or sit, together.

Rabbi Cheryl Rosenstein
Temple Beth El Bakersfield, October 2016