Be Part of the Healing
Erev Yom Kippur • Yom Kippur Eve
September 18, 2018 • 10 Tishrei 5779
Rabbi Bridget Wynne
I was fascinated to learn from Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s writings that, in Zulu, when you ask someone “How are you?” the reply you get is in the plural, even when you are speaking to one person. The person would reply, “We are well” or “We are not well.” She may be fine, but if her grandfather is not well, she is not well either. (1)
So how am I? How are each of you? We are not well.
Here are just a few of the many symptoms we have experienced in the past year.
After months of forced separation that began at the border, a small boy is reunited with his mother. He squirms to escape from her arms. He doesn’t recognize her. She desperately cries, “I am your mommy! What’s wrong with my son?” Even now, weeks after the court-mandated deadline, there are still hundreds of children separated from their families.
I’m sure you have heard the #MeToo stories that seem to emerge almost daily about coaches, politicians, reporters, executives, actors, hotel guests … What seems to be an entire underground world of harassment and assault is painfully being revealed.
Less dramatic, but equally devastating, is the video of two black men being arrested while waiting for a business associate at a Philadelphia Starbucks. It helped focus attention on another world, one that most of us have not experienced: the world of black Americans who are treated with suspicion or have the police called on them for mundane acts like barbecuing at Lake Merritt or sleeping in the common room of one's own dorm at an Ivy League university.
These symptoms – separating children from parents, forcing sex on those you have power over, calling the police on African Americans who are just living their lives – are extreme examples of how we are not well.
Here is the sickness I am talking about. As Archbishop Tutu teaches, all of us are interdependent, our humanity bound up with one another's. Yet instead, more and more, our culture teaches us to see others, and ourselves, as winners or losers whose worth is based on status, wealth, or what we produce.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a 20th-century Jewish thinker and activist, observed that our culture is encouraging “all of humanity’s worst impulses – our selfishness, our egotism, our indifference to other people’s suffering, and our proclivity to value things (and people) only to the extent that we can use them.” (2)
We all do this, we’ve all had it done to us, often without even noticing. We meet someone and assess their status almost unconsciously, based on their job, race, gender, body, car, home – where do they fit in the ranking? What is their worth? Perhaps we have experienced others assessing us in these ways.
Surrounded by and part of this sickness, we are taught to be self-sufficient, to deny our fragility, our vulnerability. In our country, to need others is shameful. A recent study found that unemployed workers in the United States blame themselves, while unemployed workers in Israel blame the hiring system. (3)
If being unemployed, or underemployed, if needing help means that we have failed, better for us to hide our failures, and to blame others for theirs.
Let’s step away from this sickness now to explore a possible source of healing.
You may have heard the Jewish saying that if you save one life you save the entire world. What does this mean? Clearly it is not literally true. It teaches that that every human being is infinitely valuable, every human life is worth saving, no matter their race, their gender, their social status, no matter what home they have, or do not have. This is one of Judaism's core beliefs. It is an amazing thought, and it is sad how amazing it is. It applies not just to how we see others, but also to how we see ourselves.
Imagine looking at others and ourselves this way, with no hierarchy in our value as human beings. If each of us has equal worth, then winning and losing, shaming others and feeling shamed, no longer make sense, nor do the symptoms I spoke about earlier. If each of us has equal worth, we cannot rip children away from their parents, allow men to assault women they have power over, or see African Americans as criminals for living their lives.
Trying to see each person as infinitely valuable is the first means of healing I urge you to consider this evening. It is a difficult assignment. You might call it naïve, but I have learned that when we experiment with new ways of being we may discover possibilities and even next steps we could never have imagined.
The second means of healing I propose to you this evening builds on the first. If our worth is not based on our status or achievements, perhaps we can acknowledge what is already true – that we need one another. All of us are weak and vulnerable at times, despite our culture’s increasing contempt for this reality. There is courage and dignity in being able to say, "I need help." There is courage and dignity in creating an environment in which those words are welcomed rather than shameful.
Clearly, we are not well. What can we do about it?
What I suggest to you is simple, yet it is far from easy. Trying to see every person as valuable, no matter their status, trying to create, and even celebrating, relationships of interdependence – these ways of living go against what we learn every day.
Yet the healing we deeply long for – the culture in in which we want to live – requires us to step out of our comfort zones and to take risks like these. Acting against the values that surround us can be frightening, but think how frightening it is to live with our society's symptoms that seem to worsen almost daily.
If you are part of Jewish Gateways' community at other times during the year, I invite you to join in discussing and experimenting with these ways of living. If you are not, I encourage you to find a friend, a family member, a colleague – or two – to talk with about these ideas, to take small steps to experiment with them, and to see what you discover and can build on.
In this way, let us do our part to help create a culture in which the Zulu greeting makes sense, in which we know, deeply, that we are not well until all are well. In this way, let us be part of the healing.
1) Archbishop Desmond Tutu, God Has a Dream
2) Rabbi Shai Held, "The Heschel Exchange," Jewish Journal, Oct. 1, 2014
3) "Americans Want to Believe Jobs Are the Solution to Poverty. They’re Not." New York Times, Sept. 11, 2018