- Posted by Dan Slipakoff
- On September 29, 2020
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- High Holy Days, Rabbi Slipakoff, Sermon
Delivered by Rabbi Dan Slipakoff on Rosh Hashanah 5781 at Temple Israel of Boston
Shana Tovah and Shabbat Shalom,
It is really an honor and privilege to be standing here with you today. Though circumstances have kept us physically distanced, my heart reaches out to your heart, and we are connected on a deeper, more sacred level as we acknowledge our challenges and work through them together. This year has been unstable for us all in many ways, but our tradition has ways to help us recenter and return to the holy space we aspire to.
The symbols and imagery of the High Holy Days help us ascend to a higher spiritual plane than we normally tread during the year. The shofar stirs our souls, the honey brightens our senses, and the special melodies of our prayers elevate us to the threshold of an audience with Avinu Malkeinu, our most personal and powerful God.
On Rosh Hashanah, the gates open. That image of the open gate, the access to the the Divine – to God’s sacred dwelling amongst us and within us.
The open gate presents opportunity, for something greater, something better than in years past. There is certainly work to be done to get there, but the gate is open.
We stand at the open gates of the New Year full of hope and optimism.
We enter the New Year with visions of what tomorrow can look like
With dreams of what the world can be.
But – what happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?[i]
This summer, Langston Hughes’ question was answered with a bang. This summer has been a tipping point for many, a time to say enough is enough. A time to shine new light on the many places where darkness persists in this nation. The awakened reckoning across this country could be traced back to the brutal murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmoud Arbery – but that is far from the end of the list. There’s a house on my drive home from Temple Israel – on Paul Gore Street in Jamaica Plain, maybe you’ve seen it. Out front is a chalkboard framed with the words “Remember Their Names” and every day, every day I drive by, there is a new name listed of a murdered Black man or woman. I’m not sure when this vigil was started, but I am deeply disturbed by the knowledge that there is no shortage of names to add to it.
And countless other names of somebody’s daughter or son, or mother or father
The biblical Job pleads with his companions to witness his pain and suffering:
Face me and be appalled, clap your hand over your mouth. Listen carefully to what I say; let this be your comfort[ii] Like many, I have tried my best to bear witness. By using my ears and eyes more than my mouth.
When George Floyd gasping for air calls for his dead mother, he is crying Avinu to his loving parent and caregiver – the source of support that should be there to make everything alright. Floyd’s cry to Malkeinu – mercy from the sovereign, the upholder of law, is horrifically denied, as his plea for Derek Chauvin to get off of his neck is ignored.
Face this reality and be appalled. Let your outrage lead to action.
Listen carefully, and let this be your comfort. Listen and read and understand that this moment in history is not a flashbulb that materialized out of nowhere. The acts of violence we see today are modern day lynchings. This tree which bears strange fruit[iii] has deep deep roots.
Rapper Yasiin Bey rhymed:
Why did one straw break the camel’s back? Here’s the secret:
The million other straws underneath it.[iv]
Let us return to our gates. When I imagine those gates opening or closing, I have always imagined myself alone on a blank page. No environmental factors to consider,
the ability and decision to cross through or stay back being all mine. But that’s not accurate is it? That does not reflect the world we live in. After all a gate has been put up for the sole purpose of letting people in, or keeping people out. Gates open or close, depending on who is trying to get in, when, and why and how. And to that end, someone has the job of deciding who gets to get in, when, and why and how. The Gatekeeper. The Gatekeeper is a power player, determining the fate of those who wish to enter and to access the treasures on the other side. The Gatekeeper uses power to control the threshold, and it take many forms:
- Physical or Militarized Power
- Political and Systemic Power
Our national history has been poisoned by the corruption and ill-will of power hungry gatekeepers.Redlining, Standardized Testing, Voter Suppression, Mass Incarceration[v]
Crippling the Stability, Advancement, Representation of oppressed groups.
A complex spiderweb of control and restraint.
In each of our lives, we have all been at the mercy of a gatekeeper. In some ratio, we have felt the joy of admission and the sting of rejection. The sweetness of inclusion and the bitter taste of exclusion. To be at the mercy of a gatekeeper is to be humbled, to be vulnerable, and oftentimes forced to take desperate measures.
But we have also been Gatekeepers. Each one of us has been the decision maker, the guard at the door deciding who is in and who is out.
We need look no further than this congregation.
For all that 5780 was and was not, it was surely a year where Temple Israel committed to Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Antiracism.
And the work is far from done – as Rabbi Zecher shared last Yom Kippur:
“This isn’t a program or an initiative – there is no due date or checklist to finalize
Our goal is a culture shift – we continue to strive and re-evaluate, constantly searching for new areas of improvement and new opportunities to heal.”
We have read together, we have studied together. We have learned with educator and thought leader Yavilah McCoy, about how to recognize our biases and how they impact those around us. We have heard stories from congregants of color who have been wounded by microaggressions. Stories of painful comments made in our very building which doubt someone’s belonging in this community, or question their status as Jews.
Sometimes veiled as perceived pleasantries, but sharp as a razor’s edge. Let us not deny or avoid these transgressions, let us learn from them. We all carry the responsibility to repair wounds within our own community. As we continue to work to combat racism, bigotry, and hatred within our synagogue walls and beyond.
We are witness to the power of gatekeepers, we know the inequalities which breed
but we envision and work towards a world where we all can open doors instead of slamming them shut. Perhaps with an opportunity to offer, or support of someone’s enterprise. Perhaps with a simple word of kindness, and the attitude that our house is a house of prayer for all peoples.[vi]
We wrestle. We wrestle like our patriarch Jacob. The night before confronting his wronged and embittered brother, Jacob wrestles. But with who or what does he wrestles? In the middle of the night, in this liminal space, the ambiguous language in Genesis allows us to interpret. Did Jacob wrestle with another man? Did he wrestle with an angel of God? Or did he wrestle with himself?[vii] Today, we wrestle with all three – we wrestle with our interactions with others, we wrestle theologically in the face of suffering, and most importantly – we wrestle with ourselves.
This last element is the hardest challenge. Taking the honest look at our thoughts and taking responsibility for actions or inactions which have led to pain and suffering.
Though the challenge is great, there are ways forward. Every year, members of our Temple Israel community work to create 10 Days 10 Ways, a journey through the Days of Awe through the lens of antiracism. This year, we ask the question, “Who will you be in 5781?”. This year’s 10 Days features powerfully honest and thought-provoking personal stories from within our community which highlight both the pains of our missteps and the commitments to change tomorrow. Join us, as we strive together towards an antiracist future on our website or on facebook, and I do hope that you will join us tonight as members of our 10 Days team lead a Havdalah service as we use the theme of separation to put down outmoded thinking about how we are in this world, and pick up new perspectives and a spark of action.[viii]
As dawn breaks and darkness lifts, Jacob’s wrestling match reaches its end. In acknowledgement of his struggle, Jacob’s name is changed to Yisrael. We learn in Talmud that a name change accompanied the well-known trio of teshuvah, tefilah, and tzedakah as a way to negate the harsh decrees of this season.[ix] The name change marked a declaration by a person, that I am committed to a new identity moving forward. This is a time to consider how we refer to ourselves and ask “what do you want to be called in 5781?” Let us stop referring to ourselves by what we are not, and reframe to the positive of what we are. Remember, it is our actions which define us.
So Leave behind “not a racist”, and enter this year as “antiracist”
Leave behind “innocent bystander”, and enter this year as “an activist”
Leave behind “not the problem”, and enter this year as “part of the solution”
This year has been so hard – for the reasons we all know, and for the reasons which impact each individually. But within the darkness there are glimmers of light. When Dr. King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial 12 years after Langston Hughes penned Harlem, he looked out on to a landscape full of dreams deferred.But he offered the world a new dream, a dream of promise, a dream of action, a dream of faith.“With this faith” he prophesied “we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.”
We still witness dreams deferred,
We must wrestle with that reality daily
We acknowledge our roles in the narrative – whatever they may be
And we press forward, together
To end, we turn to our clarion call of Rosh Hashanah, the shofar. We hear the shofar blast and we are moved to shake off our slumber. This Shofar blast, Zichronot, deals with remembering.
We remember names, we remember stories, we remember who we have been. We hold these memories in our hearts to remind us of our sacred purpose. The wail of the shofar stirs within us discomfort and angst, may it inspire us to action. The call of the shofar offers opportunity and hope, let us not lose faith in our ability to change the world.
We open some gates and we tear others down.
We tell a new story, and we dream a new dream.
[i] “Harlem” by Langston Hughes
[ii] Job 21:2-5
[iii] “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holliday
[iv] “Mathematics” Yasiin Baye (formerly Mos Def)
[v] How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi
[vi] Isaiah 56:7
[vii] Genesis 32:25-30
[viii] 10 Days 10 Ways 5780 & 5781
[ix] BT Rosh Hashanah 16b