Yom Kippur Morning Sermon/5783-2022

Rabbi Heidi Cohen

How do our choices affect us? And do they only affect us? It’s like the pebble that, when tossed into the water, creates ripples for as far as it can go. 

Today, we read in our Torah: 

You stand this day, all of you, before your God יהוה —your tribal heads, your elders, and your officials, every householder, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to waterdrawer—to enter into the covenant of your God יהוה, which your God יהוה is concluding with you this day, with its sanctions…I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before our God יהוה and with those who are not with us here this day. I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life—if you and your children will live—

Deuteronomy 29:9-11; 30:19

There stood Moses, speaking with the Israelites as they were about to conclude the final part of their 40 year journey. They are on the border of entering into the land of Israel and Moses reminds them, ‘just as you all stood at Sinai in receiving Torah, so too do you stand here today, every single person. No matter your wealth, profession, gender, or age, every single person stands here restating that you accept the covenant of God and all the rules that go with it.’ 

And it is not just the people who stood there at that moment, it was each and every generation yet to come. 

Today, we too stand on the border of blessings or curses. Every choice we make is not just a choice that will affect us, but those around us and those who come after us. Our choices in how we live and what we do are like the pebble in the pond, rippling on and on and on.

This afternoon’s Haftarah, the story of Jonah, also calls out to us to choose our actions carefully so that we might be a blessing and work within our entire community, not just the Jewish community. We are called to repair the whole world, tikkun olam. 

Jonah was called to go to the people of Nineveh and call them to repent from their lives as robbers and sinners. Jonah was sad and frustrated when the people of Nineveh listened to him and put on sackcloth and repented. How could they so easily follow this call to action when Jonah’s own people, the Israelites, who had been warned time and time again by their own prophets, refused to listen, refused to act.  Would God judge the Israelites unfavorably because of their inaction? Rashi teaches that God was not concerned only about the actions or inactions of the Israelites but that all people are responsible for our world. We have the obligation to cry out when we see injustice anywhere in the world, not just our own problems. Be it education, climate change, and the right for every person to have a voice.

We stand on the border of free thought and education. Over the past few years during Covid, our students had the challenges of learning how to pivot from learning in person, to online and back to in person. But another barrier was put in their way, books being banned. Many Books that we read in school, books that are a part of the very fabric of Americana are being stripped from our classrooms and libraries, purging ideas and identities of our nation. 

Schools are being told to remove such classics as 1984 by George Orwell, books teaching the Holocaust such as Maus by Art Speigelman, more recent favorites, The Hunger Games, and even a picture book called Everywhere Babies! Most of the books that are targeted are written by and about people of color and LGBTQ+ individuals. A Tennessee lawmaker, Representative Jerry Sexton, suggested the banned books should be burnt. All I can see are the images from 1933 Germany of the Nazis burning books in the middle of cities and towns. 

There are educators who understand that they have a choice to comply or to speak out in defense of our children’s education and in defense of all families and individuals. Cassandra Oetinger-Kenski, a third-grade teacher in Florida’s Palm Beach County is one of those educators. She was recently told to yank any books from her classroom that are not “in compliance” with new state laws circumscribing instruction on race, racism, gender and LGBTQ issues. “Oetinger-Kenski, who is married to a woman, does not want to hide books that feature families like hers. As the school year begins, she has decided not to comply. ‘I have books in my library that talk about all kinds of family makeups, two moms, two dads, one dad and a grandma, you name it,’ Oetinger-Kenski said. ‘I am not removing them.’ If pressured, she said, ‘I would strongly consider leaving.’” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2022/08/17/book-ban-restriction-access-lgbtq/)

Choose education for all so that we and our children will live.

On Rosh Hashanah, we celebrated the birth of the world. When God began to create the world, the Zohar, our mystical tradition of text from which the Kabbalah comes, says, “there opened and flowed from it one river…Like a fountain – a water spring – filling  a large reservoir, from which flow rivers and streams in every direction;  so…through one slender channel, unknown, that gushing river flows forth; and from there springs and streams are conveyed, filled by it.”  Melila Hellner-Eshed, of the Shalom Hartman Institute, explains this to mean that the river is a metaphor for divinity which descends into the world. God’s divinity pours forth to overflowing until it becomes like gushing rivers. Nature sparkles with divinity and, when everything works as it should, everything and everyone is satiated, there is an abundance of the divine.  

Rabbi Suzanne Singer in her work with RAC-California asks some very important questions. What happens when everything is not working as it should? When we are not able to welcome the Divine or even to create a connection to that which is greater than us? What happens when we as humanity forget about the partnership that exists between us and God and instead focus on only that which will benefit people without considering how our actions cause the world to slowly die?

We are asked to be partners with God in caring for the world so that it will exist for generations to come. And as with every generation before, we must renew the covenant with the land in order to ensure abundance. The Talmud teaches, bal tashchit, “Do not destroy My world, for if you do, there will be nobody after you to make it right again.” (Midrash Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13).  Our actions or inactions can mean destruction as well.  Climate change is now our reality. It is not an issue that we can say, let my children or grandchildren deal with it. 

Water is one of the most precious resources we have and we know here in California, we are in a drought. And while we are lacking water here in Southern California, there is an over abundance of water in other places, especially as we saw in Jackson, Mississippi. Just last month, Jackson experienced severe flooding and at the same time dealt with a lack of water to flush toilets, or produce enough drinking water for the residents. More than 180,000 people were in crisis. The flooding of Pearl River compromised the water treatment plant that was already in danger because of a neglected public infrastructure. And this neglection is not unusual in southern Black communities. 

Jackson Mayor Lumumba said that they always knew that it was not a matter of if the system would fail, but when. The water plant had been in operation for over 30 years and had already been running on backup pumps. A newer plant would have had a better chance of withstanding the heavy rains and flooding. Unfortunately, there were bills to address the needs of the aging water plants presented to the Mississippi legislature that failed to pass. 

In 2015, there was great concern about the high level of lead in the water in Jackson and while some measures have been addressed, reports even in the past year show higher than normal levels of lead. And in 2020 The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued an emergency warning that something was going to need to happen soon regarding the water plant in Jackson but to no avail. 

Unfortunately, Jackson receives less tax money than other cities in Mississippi and we have to ask the uncomfortable question, is this because the population is 82% black and nearly a quarter of those in the city live under the poverty level? Is this another example of environmental injustice? A recent study shows that “​​Historically marginalized communities are disproportionately impacted by pollution from heavy industry and agriculture – one study last year found that Black, Hispanic and Asian Americans were more exposed to air pollution from nearly every source when compared to white Americans.” (​​https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/sciadv.abf4491

And with Hurricane Ian just last week, we see how minority and low income communities are disproportionately impacted by the devastation left behind. Of the 1.8 million households in the nine counties President Biden claimed as disaster areas, “only 29 percent have federal flood insurance, according to an analysis of government records by POLITICO’s E&E News. That leaves 1.3 million households at ground zero without federal flood coverage. In Hardee County, only 100 households have federal flood insurance — out of 8,000 households in the county. That’s a 1.3 percent coverage rate. Hardee has one of the lowest income levels of any Florida county, and 44 percent of its residents are Hispanic.” (https://www.politico.com/news/2022/10/01/hurricane-ian-will-financially-ruin-homeowners-00059615

We make the choice to ensure that all communities, and all people, no matter their race or wealth, have the resources they need for safe living conditions. “You stand here this day; Choose life—if you and your children will live—” We choose to be a blessing when we choose to protect the earth. 

And finally, we choose to be a blessing when we choose to ensure that every voice is represented.

Since the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, we understand that we cannot sit idly by and take for granted that these two rights establish that every person, no matter their race or gender, has the right to participate in our election process. Each person has the right to vote for whom they want and for the issues that mean the most to them and reflect their values. Free, safe, and accessible elections are a part of a healthy democracy. However, we see this being challenged with gerrymandering and voter suppression. 

The John Lewis Act has passed the House but is still waiting for a vote in the Senate. “The John R. Lewis Act would restore critical protections against racially discriminatory laws and move us toward a democracy that responds to the needs and priorities of voters. The right to vote is fundamental in a democracy and we must ensure that elections are accessible for all by passing this critical piece of legislation.” (RAC.org) The choices we make today will affect the next generation and we have the choice to bless them with a fair democratic process.

This morning, after services, we invite you to take action. We have postcards already addressed and ready to be sent to voters in Arizona reminding them of how important it is that they vote in the elections on November 8. The Religious Action Center in partnership with Reclaim Our Vote have provided these postcards and text so that we can remind all people that their voice is a blessing. Please take a few minutes after services, fill out one or two of these postcards and we will mail them for you or you can mail them on your own. 

We choose to be a blessing when we choose justice for all. 

The ripples of all of our choices do not only affect us, they affect all people. You stand before Me, on this day, to choose to be a blessing. You make this choice not just for yourself but for future generations. This world that you have been given is not yours alone, it belongs to all people and you only have one world. 

Alden Solovy writes, (Why Do You Slumber? -Alden Solovy)

?מה לך נרדם? / מה לך נרדמה
Mah lekha nirdam? / Mah lakh nirdama?Why do you slumber? (Jonah 1:6)
Child of humanity?
When your brothers die?
While your sisters cry?
While anger shakes us?
When terror breaks us?

!קום קרא אל־אלהיך
Koom kra el elohekha!
Get up, cry out to your god (Jonah 1:6),
Cry out for justice and for peace.


?מה לך נרדם? / מה לך נרדמה
Mah lekha nirdam? / Mah lakh nirdama?
Why do you slumber? (Jonah 1:6)
Child of God?
Your heart is noble,
The need is global.
This is the hour,
To act with power.

!קום קרא אל־אלהיך
Koom kra el elohekha!
Get up, cry out to your god (Jonah 1:6),
Cry out for justice and for peace.


?מה לך נרדם? / מה לך נרדמה
Mah lekha nirdam? / Mah lakh nirdama?
Why do you slumber? (Jonah 1:6)
Child of love?
The call is urgent,
The cry resurgent,
To embrace each other,
And bless one another.
To rise from slumber.
To live in wonder.

!קום קרא אל־אלהיך
Koom kra el elohekha!
Get up, cry out to your god (Jonah 1:6),
Cry out for justice and for peace.

So get up and cry out for educational rights! Cry out for our protected planet! Cry out for the impoverished! Cry out for those in harm’s way! Cry out for voters rights! Throw the pebble and set the ripple upon the waters of change. Choose wisely and act with strength! Choose life—if you and your children will live—