The High Holy Days at a Time When Black Lives Matter
A sermon by Rev. Charles Blustein Ortman, delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, September 20, 2015
READINGS: ANCIENT & MODERN
Our first reading this morning is based on the teachings of the Kabbalistic masters, primarily of Rebbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi and six successive generations of Chabadrebbies; it is finally rendered by Rebbi Yanki Tauber.
One night a year, the world succumbs to a cosmic slumber.
On the functional level, the sleeper's vital signs plod on: the sun still rises, winds blow, rains fall, seeds germinate, fruit ripens. But the consciousness of creation is muted. For its soul of souls — the "inner will" of the divine desire for creation — has ascended, retreated to a place from where it views its body and life with a calculated detachment. Only the 'outer will' — the most external element of the divine desire — remains to sustain the sleeping body of creation.
And then, a piercing sound rises from the earth and reverberates through the heavens. A sound that wakens the sleeping universe, stirring its soul to resume its conscious, willful animation of its material shell.
The cry of the shofar resounds. A profound yet utterly simple cry, a note free of the nuances of rational music. An utterly simple cry that rouses the soul of creation to a renewed commitment to the endeavor of life.
Our second reading is from the Mishna Yoma 8:9, a well-known text, often reprinted in Jewish prayer books for meditation on Yom Kippur:
One who says, "I will sin and repent, and sin and repent again," will be given no opportunity to repent. For one who says, "I will sin and Yom Kippur will effect atonement," Yom Kippur effects no atonement. Yom Kippur atones for sins against God, not for those against people, unless the injured party has been appeased.
Our third reading is from the Book of Ecclesiastes:
To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up...
"Le shana tovah tikatevu." "May you be inscribed for a good year in the Book of Life." This is a traditional Jewish greeting from Rosh Ha-Shana, the New Year, which began last Sunday evening, through the observance of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which starts this Tuesday at 6:42 PM as the sun sets. During this time of the High Holy Days, Jewish people around the world observe and celebrate the season of fasting, penitence, reflection and atonement at this, the threshold of the Jewish New Year, 5776. Rosh Ha-Shana began a week of reflection in order to prepare for the day of atonement.
Some of us in this congregation come directly out of the Jewish tradition. I'm curious... how many of us here are related to Judaism by blood or by marriage? And then, of course, some of us are related simply by a love for good Jewish food.
The thing is though, for all of us who are at home here, we are Unitarian Universalists. Why would these High Holy Days be important to us? In the sources segment of our Principles and Purposes of Unitarian Universalism, we especially claim our heritage from Jewish, Christian, Humanist and Earth-Centered religions. It's our practice, in this liberal religious tradition, to recognize these foundations in order to commemorate the universal values and truths inherent in them. And so today we turn to the message of the High Holy Days to find meaning and value in its themes, as we view them from within our time and place.
It is always important to remember that a potential danger in drawing from other traditions is the risk of misappropriating them, or elements of those traditions. It's not our attempt here to pretend that we're all Jews for a day. Instead, we recognize that these High Holy Days are of major significance on the Jewish calendar, just as they are for all of us. They hold valuable lessons for each of us about reviewing our lives, about atonement and right relationships, about renewal of spirit and integrity of character.
So, two of the major elements of the High Holy Days I'd like to hold up this morning are reflection and atonement. Atonement is really about making justice and gaining a sort of redemption. It's about making things right in response to our own shortcomings and wrongdoings. This post-modern consumerist culture we live in encourages us to deny our imperfections. These High Holy Days remind us, instead, of our humanity, more specifically our very fallible humanity.
Though it might rarely be cited on the High Holy Days, Chapter 3 of the Book of Ecclesiastes is one of my favorite passages. It speaks directly to the matter... "To everything there is a season... A time to break down... and a time to build up." The point is, I think, that neither can exist without the other. We will always be incompetent at building up if we are incapable of breaking down. We will be incapable of moving into the future if we have not dealt with our past. We are doomed to be lost within our inadequacies if we refuse to own them, to atone for them. "To everything there is a season... A time to break down... and a time to build up."
The message of the High Holy Days, which speaks to me most clearly this year, is this – we are destined to remain prisoners of our shortcomings until we own them, until we set them right. Until we have done that, Ecclesiastes assures us that we cannot be open to the possibilities of fully rebuilding the lives we are capable of living. There are applications of this message on so many levels. This morning I will only spend a brief moment addressing the global and the personal, so that we might use the example of the national as our primary approach to these themes.
Globally, until we, the citizens of this world, come to terms with the death-dealing destruction we are inflicting on our planet through our shared participation in unbridled individualism and consumerism, we will continue to move away from the healthful restoration of our Holy Mother the Earth. We will continue instead to move towards some kind of annihilation. By ignoring the problems that we've already caused, our meager efforts to do better will pale in comparison to the growing complications from the damage we've already caused. Now is the time to own what we have done so that we might still build a future.
I would be remiss if on this occasion I failed to address our themes on a personal level. Atonement is a very personal matter. Examples of the need for atonement in order to move on with our lives are endless. Unitarian Universalists don't often like to think of the human character as somehow flawed. Many of us are uncomfortable with the word sin. The thing is though, whether it is a universal characteristic or not, to err really is human.
A good number of years ago I preached another High Holy Day sermon. After the service was over, a man came through the receiving line. He asked, "What about me, and people like me? What about those of us who really have nothing in our lives to be sorry for?" I replied that I was pretty sure that I had never met anyone for whom that was the case.
A few years later, I had the precious opportunity to sit with this same man, several times, as he lay for nearly a month on his deathbed. Much of what he wished to talk about was in the form of confession. There were a good many things he needed to get off his chest, and so, on several occasions, he did.
In the course of those last few weeks, as his death drew nearer, I sensed a growing ease in his presence. I also sensed a growing ease among members of his family. It wasn't as though everything was different. But it was very much the case that the things he wanted to be different, and some of the things that his family needed to be different, had somehow been liberated in his process of confession.
We don't have to wait until we are on our deathbeds in order to embrace the redemptive message of High Holy Days, especially Yom Kippur.
I especially want to address our theme on a national level this morning. It is surely one of those larger areas of which we are all a part... I have to say that I've been haunted ever since the publication of, The New Jim Crow, a book by Michelle Alexander, highly promoted by our Unitarian Universalist Association. It's an important read. The New Jim Crow, tells the story of how our country has imprisoned vast portions of our minority populations. It's almost impossible to imagine that 25% of all black men in this country will at some point become a part of our penal system. And yet, that's the truth. Add in, within these past couple of years and even months, that we have been witness to the brutality and murder of so many, especially young, black men across the country, and how can we help but to consider the national, the religious and the spiritual ramifications of the Black Lives Matter movement?
The thing is, I think - as a nation, we've never come to terms with our sin of slavery. Sure, slavery was outlawed and brought to an end as a legal institution nearly a century and a half ago. But the sin of slavery was never atoned for. No forgiveness was sought; restitution was never made. Affirmative action was a feeble attempt towards reparations for the harm caused to former slaves and their descendents. Even affirmative action though, failed to provide any kind of accountability or apology, or even a statement that it was an attempt to pay back what had been stolen. Such acts of contrition might have been steps that could have freed this nation to move into a slave-less and un-racist future.
Instead, today even affirmative action is being stripped away by our reactionary, activist courts. Today young black people, primarily men, continue to be shot down in the streets or enslaved in massive, commercial prison compounds. We have every reason to expect that these ongoing practices of racism and enslavement will continue until some kind of atonement has been made for our national past, as it was in the Truth and Reconciliation processes for South Africa.
An interjection that I would like to make is this: I've heard argued, in conversations across the country, that we should be saying that All Lives Matter, and that, by definition, would include Black lives. And yes, all lives do matter. The truth that I would invoke though, is that it is only Black lives that continue on a grand scale to be antagonized, marginalized, criminalized, brutalized and finally cannibalized! It is Black lives for which atonement remains yet in waiting.
W.E.B. Du Bois noted that racism was the primary issue of the 20th Century. Well into the 21st Century, the issues of oppression and racism continue to be a principal bane of our society - from the way we treat our environment to the way we treat one another.
We live in a culture that is rife with racism. Many of us have an intellectual understanding of what that means. It's significantly more complicated to have an emotional, a spiritual, understanding of this truth though. We've surely made progress in the last 50 years. There are examples, even in this room, of individuals who have broken through the cultural norms, which more than likely stood against them.
I'm not calling anyone a racist. Name calling never has helped much of anything. I'm saying that we live in a racist society; that racism is so ingrained in our culture that we are all, without exception, participants in it. Among the many results of that racism is that too often, far too many parents of African-American children have great reason to fear for the safety and well-being of their children, especially that of their sons.
We needn't look further than the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. We needn't look further than Sanford, Florida, where Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer a couple of years ago. We hardly need to look further than the violent deaths of these two innocent boys, deaths that were sanctioned by both law enforcement officials, and our judiciary system.
If we, as a people, are going to somehow manage to achieve some sort of spiritual maturity on our journeys though, if we are going to manage to be in right relationship with our world and with all who are in it, we'll need to look further than those two cases, much further. We'll need to look deeply at what's going on around us in our country, even at what's going on around us in our community. We'll also need to determine our own culpability within those things we discover, and we'll need to awaken our sense of outrage in response to our own compliance and that of the society we keep.
Is it right that Black parents should have to worry for the safety of their children, especially their sons, and wonder if they will even live to adulthood?!
Black lives matter, my friends. On this day when we are commemorating the Jewish High Holidays, engaging the religious themes of reflection and atonement, if we live in these United States of America, we are called by the events of our day to recognize the error of our ways and to make amends. Who are we, you might ask, to address this ongoing national offense? Who are we, we might ask instead, to sit back and do nothing at all, when nothing at all will likely be done until responsible citizens do what we can to end this blight?
I/we don't have all the answers; we have very few. And yet, I trust, with any kind of assessment of what is, we are likely to agree that something must be done. I would ask you to search your conscience to see if you, if we, are not called to be those who would act to promote the atonement that must occur if ever there is to be absolution and finally a path leading to a future that holds freedom, true justice and compassion for all of us.
There are many potential avenues of response we might choose to act upon towards that end. And, if you agree with my assessment, we each need to find the path that is right for us to follow. One that is available to us in this congregation is the Standing on the Side of Love movement. I have spoken with the leaders of that group in our church and they are willing to take on leadership in pursuing the goal of making sure that we as a congregation, we as a people, do what we can to affirm and promote the principle that Black lives do, indeed, matter. There will be a table in the Atrium at Coffee Hour. Please stop and see them; let them know that you want to work with others in this congregation in helping to right what has been wrong. That might be a good start in the right direction.
We don't have to wait until we are on our deathbeds in order to embrace the redemptive message of the High Holy Days. The thing is... we all do miss the mark, and we miss it quite regularly. We miss it globally, nationally and personally.
In lieu of an enormous theological explanation, that's just the way things are. And the truth is, we are forever stuck in the past unless and until we own and rectify, as best we can, what we have done, when what we have done has been less than it might have been. Merely asking for God's forgiveness can never be enough; we must seek to make things right.
Here's the thing I most want you to remember this morning... our days are numbered, my friends. Most of us have no idea what that number is, but our days are numbered. Our days, these days of our lives, are capable of being filled with meaning through our connections, our relationships, with people and with our planet. Our days are capable of being filled with meaning through these relationships in which we learn to love, and in which we learn to grow our souls.
The need for confession and the need for forgiveness are constant in our lives. When those needs go unexpressed, they impair our ability to learn; they impair our ability to grow; they impair our ability to love. To be open to the possibilities of what yet can be, we need to seek and find resolution for what has been. We are called upon to atone for the past in order to give birth to the future. There is "...a time to break down... and a time to build up."
The message of the High Holy Days, which speaks so clearly this year, is this — we are destined to remain prisoners of our shortcomings until we own them, until we set them right.
Our response? That is up to each of us. How do you understand the invitation of these Holy Days? How will you choose to respond? To everything there is a season... What purpose in your life might this be the season for?
Le shana tovah.