Don’t Give Up – Drash for Rosh Hashanah Morning 2018/5779

We are about to read the Akedah, the binding of Isaac; Abraham’s final test, his almost sacrifice of his beloved son. For many years I have handled it from one perspective or another, trying to make sense of this difficult story. Some of you appreciate my efforts. Others, I know because you have told me, think I’m working to hard to reinterpret it and the message is simple and clear, the point is that Abraham, by his willingness to sacrifice Isaac, demonstrates his faith and, ultimately, God rejects child sacrifice. But it seems to me that all these years I have missed a critical question. What if Abraham had actually killed Isaac? What then?

The answer is quite simple really. No descendants. No Jacob and Esau, no twelve sons of Jacob, no Joseph, no going down to Egypt, no slavery, no Exodus, no Sinai. In other words, no Jewish people and no Jewish history. That is how fragile the whole Jewish enterprise is. But for one slip of the knife, or one angel who calls out too late we would not be here this morning. Who knows how human religion, culture and history would be different? It was a very near thing. The lesson I take from this is that our decisions, our choices, and our actions matter, profoundly, and we never know how much.

Last night I spoke about empathy, about its necessity if we are to have healthy relationships with ourselves, with those we love and care about, and with our fellow citizens and human beings around the world. in short, if we are to survive. Because, as the Akedah shows us, survival is not guaranteed. It always hangs by a thread. So today I want to suggest to you that in addition to empathy, we must be engaged with life and with the issues of our society, the struggles and challenges of our age. We cannot give up. We are not allowed to be a cynic or to abdicate the field. As we read in Pirkei Avot 2:15-16,  “Rabbi Tarfon said: The day is short and the work is much, and the workers are lazy and the reward is great, and the Master of the house is impatient. He used to say: It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” The problems we face, here at home, in our country and as a global society are profound, they are overwhelming, and yet, we must engage, we must act, we must do something. We are not allowed the luxury of non-engagement.

Let me give you just a few examples as I did last night, from my studies at Yad VaShem this summer. The Jews and their communities, during the Holocaust, were under conditions that we can never imagine or comprehend, conditions that were designed to dehumanize them, and yet, they never gave up the struggle to be human beings. Despite the constant shadow of random, capricious death, starvation, exhaustion, and fear, some created schools and educated children, some stole food and medicine to keep people alive, even for just another hour or another day. Others created art and literature. Still others recorded their experiences so that future generations would know what happened. And, in many more cases then we used to believe, still others fought, even when they knew their resistance was futile, that it would be crushed. Each of these actions were a form of resistance. Because even to stay alive, or to help someone stay alive for even one more day was resistance. Against unimaginable odds, with failure and death the most likely option. In this way our people sustained their humanity. And after the horror, those who survived built new lives and new families. The marriage rate and the birth rate after the war in the DP camps was unprecedented, with multiple weddings every day and an incredible birth rate. And more than that, out of those ashes our people created the first Jewish state in two thousand years. And, beyond all that, imagine how history might have been different if the non-Jews of the world who saw the evil had not turned away and spoke up, or the democracies of the world had acted sooner to stop the Nazi evil and had crushed it in its infancy? Imagine the amount of suffering our people and the world would have been spared. But many looked away, and the governments of the world world acted too late. They waited too long.

Of course these examples from the Holocaust are profound, dramatic in their sweep and deeply moving. But they should remind us that whatever struggles or problems we may face as a society pale by comparison. We live in a country and in a time where we have the freedom to act against policies we know are wrong. All the more the so that we cannot stand idly by.

Let me share a few examples. A central pillar of our current government has been its anti-immigration, and anti illegal-immigrant policies, based on the idea that immigrants of any type, particularly non-white immigrants are bad for our country. It may have reached its most extreme cruelty last spring when our border enforcement agents were separating children from their parents, but it began almost immediately upon President Trump’s taking office, when he banned Muslims from coming to the United States as one of his first executive orders. Since then our government had done everything in its power to prevent almost all immigration. I have been opposed to this policy on principle. I think you know my stance on immigrants and refugees well. I was opposed to President Obama’s failure to open up our country to refugees from the Syrian civil war and I remain opposed to President Trump’s doubling down on this policy.

I was particularly pained that the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Department was the only law enforcement agency in the Bay Area that cooperated with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to incarcerate detainees at our county jail. Local governments are not required to cooperate with Federal authorities in the enforcement of immigration law, since that is a federal responsibility. Our sheriff’s department signed a contract with ICE to house detainees in the county jail, making ICE’s job easier. They did it for the money, bringing an additional $3 million a year to the department for this service.

So I tried to do something. I met with our county supervisor, John Gioia. He said he had voted against the contract, but the other supervisors voted for it. I contacted other clergy. I signed letters. I tried to mobilize other synagogues in more conservative parts of the county to work against this cooperation. The one thing I didn’t do was go to the demonstrations that were regularly held at the county jail. They seemed pointless to me. What difference would a few people standing in front of the jail make? It seemed like a waste of time. The truth is, they seemed pathetic to me, a physical manifestation of our inability to change this policy. Finally, I went to one demonstration in late May because Carla shamed me into going. Then, in late June or early July the sheriff cancelled the department’s contract with ICE. One of the main reasons, the cost of providing deputies to monitor the demonstrations was too high. They had originally contracted to house these inmates because the Department of Homeland Security paid them $3 million each year. But the cost of monitoring the demonstrations was costing the department more than the contract was worth. A few people, standing in front of the jail, day in and day out, may have looked pathetic to me, but it changed policy. I should never have underestimated what commitment, dedication and consistent action can accomplish.

You all know Carla works with refugees from Syria and Afghanistan in Greece. I have spoken about it on High Holy Days past. What you may not know is that she wasn’t sure how to start. She had tried a number of times to make contact with health providers who were working in the refugee camps and nothing panned out. She should have given up. But she didn’t. One time, on her way to Israel, she booked her flight through Athens with the hope of making something happen. She had the phone number of a doctor that she had gotten from a friend. She called him when she arrived and he invited her to join him at camp where he was working. That is how her work started. It began with nothing but hope and will and the desire to help. And with no idea whether it work at all. David Ben Gurion said, “In Israel, in order to be a realist you must believe in miracles.”

I have been speaking about the Syrian Civil War and the refugee crisis for the past three years. Nothing has changed. The war continues. Yesterday, I read in the New York Times that the Syrian army and its Russian enablers are preparing to conquer the last rebel stronghold in Syria, Idlib province, where three million civilian are concentrated. Who knows how many will be killed, murdered really, collateral damage in the coming battle. We all sit by, outraged, unengaged and seemingly unable to affect any change as we watch this disaster unfold. More refugees will flee. Around the world other refugees flee environmental devastation or armed conflicts in their countries. They seek safety and the ability to build a new life in a stable country. Countries that don’t want them. Countries where they become pawns to create a politics of hatred, fear and reaction. It is like the 1930’s in Europe all over again.

If we want to make our country and our world better, more whole, we are not allowed to leave the field. We are not afforded the luxury of cynicism or of checking out. When I look around the room I know that many of you care deeply about our community and our country and that you act on those convictions. You work regularly to make our things just a little bit better. God forbid that you should think I am suggesting you have given up. But I know at time that I lose hope. There are times I want to quit. There are times I have quit. There are times when I think going to a demonstration is a waste of time.  

Then I remember today is Rosh Hashanah. Today is the day when we examine our lives and our actions. Today is Yom Hazikaron, the Day of Remembrance when we hope that God will remember us and be merciful to us. If we want to be seen and remembered, then we must see and remember others. I don’t know what matters most to you. Is it the environment and climate change? Is it social justice and discrimination against people of color? Is it the refugee crisis? Is it all of these, and others I haven’t mentioned? The problems we face are serious, complicated, and defy easy solutions. They require us to take a long view, to stay engaged, to work to solve them and make our world better, day in and day out, over and over again, over time and to never give up, even when we are tired. Even when we are not sure it matters. Remember, Rabbi Tarfon said, “It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”

Because today is the day when we are reminded that everything hangs in the balance and one action or another, by any one of us can change the course of the world for better or worse. It all hangs by a thread, by a hand holding a knife that was stayed just in time, by a voice that called out before it was too late. Because this not just true today. It is true every day.

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