Saving our Souls:  A Sermon for Yom Kippur 5777    Rabbi Cheryl Rosenstein

A psychiatrist asked his patient if he had trouble making decisions.  The patient responded, “Well, doctor, yes and no.”
We’ve all been there.  “I like to think of life as just one decision after another,” said science writer Jonah Lehrer.  “From the most mundane decisions, what kind of toothpaste to buy, all the way up to who to marry.”

Minute by minute, we make all kinds of choices: what to eat, what to wear, how to get where we want to go, where to go, who to talk to, whom to avoid.  In the moment, those choices may seem inconsequential.  Yet every decision does have a consequence.  Especially the choice we are confronted with today:

See, I have set before you this day life and good, or death and evil.  

It’s been maybe thirty years since I watched television on a Friday night.  So I really learned something a few Thursdays ago, when I attended the Kegley Ethics Institute lecture in the Dore Theater at Cal State Bakersfield.

For the first time, I met John Quinones, a genial, Latino newscaster – in fact, the first Latino to occupy an anchor’s chair in a primetime network newscast.  John shared his riveting life story: how he rose from his migrant farmer family, picking cherries in Michigan and tomatoes in Ohio, to attend Columbia’s School of Journalism, to eventually scoring his Friday night gig, “What Would You Do?” – which is best described as a kind of ethical “Candid Camera.” 

I had no idea this show existed.  And I was so grateful, during the Q and A, I nearly stood up and thanked him for providing such fine content for the past ten years to those folks who were unable to be in shul every Shabbat.  

If you haven’t seen it, it works like this: each week, Quinones and his team hire some actors and stage a scenario in some public place: a store, a bank, a restaurant, wherever.  Topics are largely gleaned from the news or the internet: racism, classism, LGBTQ discrimination, veterans who find themselves in economic hardship – all kinds of human stories.  In one segment, which he screened for us, a white customer at a deli publicly denigrates the Muslim clerk working the counter, and refuses to complete his purchase as long as the Muslim is at the register.

What Quinones and his team watch for is public reaction.  Who, among the customers or onlookers, will step up and take a side?  Whose side will they support?  Once the drama has played out, Quinones reveals his presence and interviews the citizens who choose to get involved about their motivations.

What would you do in such a scenario, if you didn’t know there were cameras present?

In the case of the Muslim clerk, three people, in turn – a man, a woman, and a veteran in uniform, defend the clerk and put the offending customer in his place.  When provoked by the bigot, the camouflage-wearing soldier says, “You have a choice to shop anywhere, just as he has a choice to practice his religion anywhere.  That’s the reason I wear the uniform – so anyone can live free in this country.”

On another occasion, in Newark, New Jersey, the” What Would You Do” crew had a well-dressed, forty-something stunt woman feign collapse on a sidewalk near a train platform during the morning rush hour.  Given a choice between arriving on time to work or school and helping her, who would stop and offer assistance?  Within an average of 6 seconds, Quinones reported, some eighty people, in turn, interrupted their mad rush to care for the woman and call 911.

Being curious, Quinones decided to switch things up.  His new actor was dressed as a disheveled, dirty homeless man    Consider, for a moment: Would you stop to help if you saw such a person collapse?  This time, in front of Quinones’ hidden cameras, eighty people walked on by.  Some even stepped right over him –  including a woman who made the sign of the cross as she did!  

After many attempts in the vicinity, the disillusioned camera crew was ready to call it quits, when they heard a distinct gait.  A woman of color, herself occasionally known to be homeless and leaning on a cane, slowly approached.  She leaned down to speak to the man, and got no answer.  With no phone herself, she pleaded with passers-by to call an ambulance.  Twenty-six more people walked by, ignoring her.  Hoping, perhaps, to give the man some dignity, she took his beer can and threw it in a nearby trash receptacle.  She continued to plea for an ambulance on his behalf, and at one point threw her hands toward heaven in despair.  Finally, someone stopped and dialed the critical three numbers.  Once this second person stepped in, others eventually followed her example.

Meanwhile, Linda Hamilton – the name of his original rescuer – gave the anonymous man on the sidewalk a name.  Billy, she called him. Though he still offered no response, she told him she would stay by his side until help arrived.  When Quinones and his cameras moved in, she slipped quietly away.

How many of us have done, or would do what Linda Hamilton did?  

Who among us, had we been patronizing the Habit Restaurant on California Avenue on September 30th, would have stood up for Balmeet Singh?  Outside the restaurant, in view of the patio full of diners, he called his cousin on his cell phone to wish him a happy birthday,  As he placed the call, Mr. Singh, a local real estate agent, medical clinic  administrator, and turban-wearing member of our local Sikh community, was confronted by an angry white man, who accused him of wanting to “blow up the country” and threw a cupful of coffee at him.  Not one bystander intervened.

Ours is largely a generation of cynics and skeptics.  We have been taught to fear one another.  We shrink from contact or cross the street when approached by someone whose appearance disturbs us.  We racially profile one another – yes, we do!  And the consequences of our fear harm us every bit as much as they harm the people we avoid.  The habit of acting on our fears eats away at our neshamas – it destroys our souls.

We are a nation divided.  Small as the world is, we are also a world divided.  We are losing our sense of humanity.  We are losing are ability to see the Divine candle of soul that glows deep within every person.  We are forgetting the deep meaning of the Sh’ma: the teaching that God’s Oneness is reflected in the entirety of humanity, in the completeness of all creation.  And we have forgotten how to listen.

Laura Schroff, had almost forgotten, too.  She was a successful, white middle class executive on her way home from a busy day at work in Manhattan, when a skinny, bedraggled eleven-year-old boy stopped her in the street, asking for spare change. He had such sad eyes that she knew he was hungry.

At first she walked away. “His words [were] part of the clatter,” she says, “like a car horn or someone yelling for a cab.” But something drew her back. Rather than giving the boy some money, she took him to lunch. And she continued to meet with him, again and again. She and Maurice met up for dinner nearly every week over many years.  In the process, they built an unexpected, life-changing friendship that has spanned nearly three decades.  Partly as a consequence of their bond, Maurice overcame his family’s sever e hardships – sharing a one-room flat in a squalid welfare hotel with as many as twelve family members, many of whom used and sold drugs.  He attended college, and became a successful construction worker and family man.

His relationship with Laura Schroff was transformative — for both of them. As Schroff says: “In the time we spent together I tried to encourage him to imagine a different future for himself— to dream of a life of possibilities…At the same time, Maurice gave me one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever  received. He taught me to be grateful for what I had. He showed me

there are great hidden blessings in our lives, if only we open our minds and our hearts to the world around us. He taught me how one small act of kindness can change a life.”

 See, I have set before you this day life and good, or death and evil.  For I command you this day to love the Lord, to walk in God’s ways and to keep the commandments, laws, and teachings of your God, that you may live and increase…”

What is it God wants from us?   How do we choose life?

The prophet Isaiah schools us in this morning’s haftarah:

“…to unlock the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free, to break every cruel chain…to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house…when you see the naked, to clothe them, and never to hide yourself  from your own kin.

The people who step up to do the right thing  – who stand up against kind of injustice, whether or not they are being watched by a reporter’s hidden cameras –  they choose life.  Taking the time to watch over a fallen man most people treated as a nobody, Linda Hamilton chose life.  Noticing and listening to Maurice, Laura Schroff chose life.  They voluntarily took on the responsibility of caring for their fellow human beings.

When God asks Cain about his murdered brother’s whereabouts, Cain answers: Am I my brother’s keeper?  The answer is a resounding yes.  In our Mussar studies, we are reminded that responsibility is more than a Jewish value – it is a soul trait we need to cultivate.   The majority of the mitzvoth in the Torah are ethical in nature, and relate to how we are supposed to care for the welfare of all God’s creations.  Accepting that responsibility is truly the only path to justice, harmony and peace.

How can you and I take on that kind of responsibility?  Many of us do, when it comes to friends and family.  I know quite a number of wonderful people in this congregation who have come to the aid of other members in need, and I know that their efforts are deeply appreciative and transformative.  

I do not denigrate your efforts in any way.  Yet reaching out to care for the stranger is a mitzvah on another level.   Because it is often so hard for us to break out of our comfort zones, to take the risks involved.

I have not asked their permission – but I would like to call out three members of our congregation who routinely show us the way – and to apologize to anyone I offend by not calling on you!

Laura Wolfe works for the Kern Literacy Council, whose central mission is to teach people of all backgrounds and circumstances the essential skills of reading and writing – and which also offers English as a second language, GED tutorials, and more.  Some of you are already volunteers with this worthy organization, or have done so in the past.  Kol hakavod.  This is one deceptively simple, but extraordinary way to lift up the fallen and care for the stranger.

Jill Egland works with United Way of Kern County, which works to reduce homelessness and hunger, and works to improve the education, health and income of every resident, by collaborating with other community efforts.  United Way are not just the folks who house people when their houses burn down.  They are so much more, and Jill is engaged in much of that work.  Perhaps some of you have volunteered with the United Way or one of their partner organizations.  If so, kol hakavod to you, as well.

Larry Saslaw has been our Temple’s representative to the Kern County Homeless Collaborative, affiliated with the United Way, and has participated in the annual count of the local homeless population for the last four or five years (at least).  That counting enables the Collaborative to identify and house the most desperate and needful of our residents, quite literally saving lives.  I am certain that Jill, Laura and Larry are full of other suggestions on ways that you and I can fulfill our mandate to care for the stranger in our midst.

 Choosing life means being our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers – not only for their sake, but for our own. Rabbi Ira Stone teaches, “The ego develops as the object of love, the soul as its subject.  The ego is all about me, myself, and I.  When we bear the burdens of others, we cultivate our own souls.  Rabbi Israel Salanter elaborated: “My soul cannot develop, refine and ascend except through caring for the needs of others…An elevated soul must be a sensitive soul, and you couldn’t possibly be sensitive without feeling the pain and suffering endured by others.

Every week, every day, every moment presents us with opportunities to care, to listen, to accept responsibility for the welfare of others.  We can raise our voices against injustice.  We can lift up those who have fallen.  We can care for the stranger. 

Some decisions we face may be hard to make.  But the decision to choose life should not be.  As Anne Frank wrote in her famous diary: “Nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world. You have to make sacrifices for a good cause…”  This year, let us answer this holy day’s  call to holiness by choosing life: the one path that will save lives and elevate our souls. 

Rabbi Cheryl Rosenstein
Temple Beth El Bakersfield, October 2016