19 September 2009

The Dignity of Giving

Rabbi Andy Bachman
The Dignity of Giving
RH Sermon Day One
September 19, 2009
1 Tishri 5770
Congregation Beth Elohim
Brooklyn, NY

תקעו בחודש שופר בכסה ליום חגנו

“Blow the Shofar on the New Moon, on the day of veiling of the New Moon, unto the Festival.”

We read this verse each year at Rosh Hashanah, taken from Psalm 81, as testimony to the ancient tradition of hearing the Shofar. Unquestionably, this sound remains, for generations, one of the most stirring of all our sensory relationships with the Days of Awe.

--The sweetness and roundness of the foods we eat.
--The familiar melodies, both ancient and new, that set our hearts to introspective searching.
--The pure white of the Torah mantels and the bimah coverings.

But none is more evocative, nothing awakens us to the raw experience of our existence more deeply than the blast of the Shofar.

“Arise, oh slumberers from your sleep! Wake yourselves, you sleepers, from your slumber! Examine your deeds, and turn to the Source of Life in repentance. Remember your Creator, you who are caught up in the daily round, losing sight of eternal truth; you who are wasting your years in vain pursuits that neither profit nor save.”

A year ago, when we last gathered on Rosh Hashanah, a great fear and trepidation held us in its grip. Our nation’s economy was on the precipice. Great strides were being made in Congress and in halls of power around the world to stem the overwhelming tide of economic collapse. Millions had lost their jobs and millions more were sure to. Just yesterday, the New York Times reported that the jobless rate in our city has exceeded 10.3%, a sixteen year high. Though there are signs of recovery, we are not there yet.

The action agenda of our leaders here at home in New York and in Washington is enormous and daunting. Bailouts of major financial and automotive industries continue to test the limits of what Americans will and will not tolerate; the health care debate has consumed the last few months of our lives and is sure to occupy several more until an adequate solution is reached; and, here in New York City we see the effects every day of this economic crisis. More homeless people sleeping on our park benches; more begging on main streets of our neighborhoods; diminished supplies in food pantries and continued calls for more help from houses of worship and schools across the city.

In our own congregation, too many members have lost their jobs in the past year or, if they were already out of work, have struggled mightily to find new work. The indignity of this reality cannot be overestimated. It’s said that we spend more time working than we do with our families—a somewhat frightening but nonetheless accurate estimation of the centrality of “work” to our lives. Without it, we may feel naked, alone, unfulfilled.

Despite the sense of financial dislocation that many feel, we should take great pride in saying that we turn no one away from Beth Elohim. To the enormous credit of our lay leadership and our wonderful new executive director, Elana Paru, we work very hard to accommodate those with great needs until their economic ship can sail again through smoother waters. This sense of hospitality and taking care of those close to us is one of the great pillars of our community and a priority in which we can all take great pride. And, as you will surely hear in our President’s Yom Kippur address next week, giving, remarkably, is actually up in our community. It seems the more we grow and meet people’s needs, the more people give. That times of crisis bring great acts of generosity is a silver lining to the dark times we often struggle with.

In the past year we have partnered with a variety of community organizations to attempt to meet the needs of those in our community and beyond, working with UJA Federation, the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services, Methodist Hospital on blood drives, the New York City Department of Homeless Services, Common Ground of New York, Old First Reformed Church, City Harvest Food Pantry, and, the Brooklyn Heights Synagogue Homeless Shelter. In addition, we have held workshops and forums on job training, networking and retooling, talking to your children about the economic crisis, and in late November were visited by New York City councilmen David Yassky and Bill deBlasio, who spoke to us about ways in which the economic stimulus package would help New York City. This work was the great effort of our staff member Bobbie Finkelstein, our membership and social action committee volunteers, and our newest staff member, Penni Beckerman, who was so good in her work for UJA that we recruited her to come join us at CBE! (For a player to be named later.)

Through it all, the ongoing Chesed work of our community continues to touch people’s lives in meaningful ways. Susan Miller and Andrea Dobro have been extraordinary at reaching out to people in need, coordinating rides, hospital visits, and meals to those who need them. And I’m not sure people are aware, but one night a week our synagogue hosts two meetings of Gilda’s Club, the cancer support group and we now have two AA meetings taking place here as well—an all women’s meeting and an all men’s meeting. Being a haven for those in recovery is essential for every community.

Personally, I am blessed to be able to give away money each year, as all of our clergy are, through my Discretionary Fund. Especially in an era of diminishing resources, I am able to help individuals, schools, and non-profits here and in Israel fulfill their mission of caring for and educating others. When you as members thank us clergy for being with you at life-cycle events, we are able in turn to carry on the important mitzvah of helping others. And having the privilege of doing so is something I thank you for from the bottom of my heart.

תקעו בחודש שופר בכסה ליום חגנו

“Blow the Shofar on the New Moon, on the day of veiling of the New Moon, unto the Festival.”

The German Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch has an innovative reading of this text where he notes that the Shofar is blown on the New Moon of the month—at the beginning, on Rosh Hashanah, when the moon itself is a sliver of light, veiled in the sky. And that day of rejoicing, the Festival, Sukkot, occurs when the moon is full. Hirsch writes, “The eclipsing of the moon on Rosh Hashanah is quite appropriate to the purpose of that day; namely, to recall to our minds our task to strive upward and to return to the light. The appearance of the full moon on the Festival of Sukkot, on the other hand, is in keeping with the purpose of that holy day, which is to encourage us to build the shelters of our own lives with trust and confidence and to labor on earth with joy and serenity before God.”

Hirsch therefore provides a structure not only to the Days of Awe from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur but extends the period through Sukkot, where he calls upon us to realize the call of the Shofar in the ways that we create shelter here on earth. This outward looking orientation after an inward period of searching and introspection calls to mind the Sage Hillel, who famously said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

This early rabbinic view contains Judaism’s essential notion of our obligations both to ourselves and others—the covenantal relationship between human beings which the tradition states are made in the image of God.

You know, following all the health care debate throughout the summer brings to mind many things—many of which could very well be too political and certainly too vile for a Rosh Hashanah sermon. But one area where Judaism is unequivocally clear is in the area of certain mandates of social justice and communal obligation. Of what it means to be a people who heard the Shofar blasts not only on Mount Moriah, where Abraham was prepared to sacrifice Isaac but at the Red Sea, at our Exodus from Egypt, and at Mount Sinai, where we received the Law which commands us to “love your neighbor as yourself” and “honor the stranger, for you were strangers in a strange land.” In fact, and here’s an interesting point, that latter commandment to honor the stranger appears more than any other single commandment in the entire Torah! Honor the stranger, for you were strangers in a strange land. Our historic reality teaches us the obligation to love and care for others. Because we were once the other. It’s plain and simple. Regardless of what our government decides on health care—and be sure we have our opinions—Judaism is clear on our moral and ethical obligations to help the least advantaged.

With regard to health care reform, I guess one could say there’s a private option, a public option and a Jewish option!

Where the Torah is quite clear about our moral obligation to care for the stranger and the disadvantaged in broad terms, the Rabbis of the Mishnah, that brilliant 1st century collection of Jewish law, zero in on a number of features of the ancient welfare state and create a variety of standards that have much to say to us today about our civil society and our economy and our obligations to those who are subjected to the various pitfalls of our system.

You know, there is much ink spilled about whether or not government assistance is good or bad for the poor—does it create dependency or does it help people get a leg up, giving them advantage and subsistence and therefore human dignity? In Mishnah Pe’ah, the rabbinic law about tzedakah and caring for the poor, it is stated by the rabbis over and over again that the fundamental purpose of giving to the poor and disadvantaged is so that they can observe the law so that they can be good and dignified citizens. From the perspective of the rabbis of 1st century Jerusalem, the communal tzedakah fund—the ancient Jewish welfare system—was designed to provide food, clothing and shelter for the chronic poor and the itinerant poor—from Shabbat to Shabbat—meaning, the central, organizing principle of time at play in this articulation of societal obligation was to assist the poor so that the poor could have the dignity of being part of the community, on their own terms, of observing Shabbat. If one was too poor to observe the Shabbat—to wear festive clothing, to have a warm meal, and to rest—then the entire community was charged with the sin of enabling someone to break the Law.

This is Judaism at its most economically radical. Subsistence has a purpose and its purpose is rooted in the Biblical mandate to care for the stranger and observe Shabbat; and the Rabbinic mandate to ensure that the stranger and the poor would be able to observe that Law. Without a base-level of subsistence for each member of society, the society itself was at risk of dissolution.

The rabbis of the Mishnah also included a second measure in addition to Shabbat observance: the obligation of those on assistance to contribute themselves to the communal fund which would in turn help others. I guess it’s another way of saying that we want to help the poor enough by claiming that because of our assistance, they will be able to pay taxes—they’ll own the ability and possess the inherent dignity of being able to give back to the community that supports them. In other words, inherent to the definition of receiving would be getting enough to give back to the fund. Why? Because it was and remains essential to Judaism, it remains axiomatic, that the greatest humiliation for a person is to not be able to give.

The Sages in their wisdom here cite the story of Cain and Abel, arguing that what led to the first murder in human history was the tragedy that Abel’s gifts were accepted by God and Cain’s were not. The humiliation was too much to bear. It led him to kill his own brother.

Last night at our service, I mentioned how proudly American were the leaders of our community who established this Main Sanctuary 100 years ago, locating their hopes and dreams for Beth Elohim in the similar values of early 20th century American society. Universal brotherhood, justice, and peace.

Equally true is the test of our generation and how we respond to the world around us today, the measure of our caring and the extent of our giving—especially to those most in need.

תקעו בחודש שופר בכסה ליום חגנו

“Blow the Shofar on the New Moon, on the day of veiling of the New Moon, unto the Festival.”

With the Shofar blasts on this Rosh Hashanah, we are invited to speak to one another about ways in which we can join going efforts in our community to help those in need, from Chesed work, to work on blood drives, to work helping to fill the dwindling food banks city-wide. Let the Shofar blasts move you to volunteer at a local shelter, to join our efforts with Old First in eradicating homelessness from our neighborhood. Let the Shofar blasts turn you to the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington DC, to the American Jewish World Service, always in need of volunteers to advocate and travel to other areas of our nation and the world on the Jewish mission of caring for the stranger and loving your neighbor as yourself.

And closer to home, let the Shofar blasts inspire you to join our efforts at contributing to our CBE Tzedakah Fund, by buying this Tzedakah box and donating all its proceeds to our community’s own ongoing efforts to care for the disadvantaged.

A 10.3% jobless rate in New York City means, in raw numbers, that a whole city like Atlanta, Sacramento, Baltimore, Milwaukee, even Washington, DC, must be seen as being totally without work. Imagine the catastrophe that would represent.

תקעו בחודש שופר בכסה ליום חגנו

“Blow the Shofar on the New Moon, on the day of veiling of the New Moon, unto the Festival.”

And so as the Shofar sounds, let our souls be humbled by the thin light of others but let us be dedicated again, in the New Year, to strive upward and return others to a greater light—a light of hope, dignity, and possibility. Between now and Sukkot, let us search ourselves and others for a way forward and let us build up and fortify a shelter of kindness and love and peace, for those in need.

May you be blessed in your lives for another year of goodness, well-being, dignity, and peace.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very inspirational Andy!

As always, thanks for posting.

Jeff Neubauer