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If Not Now, Tell Me When

Rosh Hashanah Morning 5778 Delivered September 20, 2017

Hurricanes: we’ve been talking about them for the last several months. From Harvey and Irma, to Jose and now Maria, we have centered the focus of conversation on the effects of these natural disasters. After all, for many of us, they have hit close to home. At the same time, we continue to see nature show her force through wildfires in the west and the earthquake this week around Mexico City. These storms and other events are reminders of just how fragile life can be.

Harvey and Irma’s devastation will take a long time to heal. While we focus on the build up to the storm, the days after can be even more challenging. Many among us have been personally affected by the storm. I pray that the repairs needed to your homes and property goes easily. For those among us who have been displaced, or who have family where that is the case, I cannot begin to imagine what you are going through. We are talking about more than the loss of things. These storms are disruptions. I pray—and know that our Hevreh joins with me—in praying for strength and resolve as you make your way through the changes that the storms presented.

Around Houston, where I grew up, from the way that friends and family tell me, the damage is extensive. Driving through various neighborhoods, you’ll see debris piled up feet high in front of people’s homes. One friend, who is a social worker, recently took to Facebook venting her frustrations over the challenges that many of the most vulnerable experience: FEMA resources–while present–are not enough for those who have been displaced from their homes and apartments. The Red Cross also has some resources, though they are difficult to access. When you call the Red Cross, they tell you to go to their website. The website keeps crashing. The larger apartment complexes have offered to move residents to unaffected units, but that takes both time and availability–neither of which anyone has.

Hearing and seeing the challenges that many are facing, my heart breaks. During Harvey, an image spread around news outlets of a group of senior residents from the La Vita Bella nursing home in Dickinson, Texas. They were sitting in the common space of their housing. It looked like a typical scene—one woman is crocheting in a recliner, another sits in her walker, a third person mills around in the background, except that the room has to be filled with at least three feet of water. Only after someone tweeted out the image did someone come to rescue them. Images from the Florida Keys–where 1/4 of the homes have been destroyed–and along the Florida coasts are equally heart breaking.

We are about 1,500 miles from where these storms hit; yet, they are proximate. I cannot but help hear Hillel’s teaching in my ear: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? When I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, tell me when?” (Pirkei Avot 1:14)

Police and firefighters talk about how when there is a fire, one typically runs to safety. A true first responder is someone who goes toward the smoke, intending to save lives. We saw that instinct dramatically 16 years ago on 9/11. We continue to see it whenever we experience communal tragedy; and, I would argue, many feel it when we realize that we are more proximate to any communal challenge than we regularly recognize. “If not now, tell me when?” When will I get up and go? When will I go and hear the call to help?

5777 has been a flooded year. We have been through a lot, including and beyond the recent Hurricanes. And the events of the world seem close by. We in the Berkshires are close to Houston. We are close to the Florida Keys, closer to Naples, to Sarasota, to Miami. Mexico City and London are not that far away; and neither is Charlottesville.

Since we were together for Rosh Hashanah last year, we saw an unlikely candidate take office. His ascension to the Presidency has felt dangerous at times, because much of what he stands for, and much of what he has emboldened come close to directly affecting our lives. During that election, then-candidate Trump called offense to so many: He bragged about assaulting women. He called Mexicans rapists. He equated the Jewish Federations of North America with the Klu Klux Klan. He insulted a sitting judge on the basis of ethnicty. He insulted the parents of a fallen soldier on the basis of religion. He hamstrings our federal institutions by refusing to appoint key staff. He courts those who would limit the rights and freedoms of those who do not think, look, sound, or believe like they do. He has encouraged aggressive policing practices to the surprise of many chiefs-of-police from around the country. He plays the strong man, beating his chest threatening war with North Korea, while neglecting the diplomacy required for such a volatile situation. He continues to not really denounce white supremacy. If only today were Yom Kippur, and if only he were regretful about any of this, I would call this a sort of contemporary Al Cheit liturgy.

The effects of the Trump administration’s actions and statements strike close to us. I am not one to ring the alarm of anti-Semitism; still, by not earnestly condemning white supremacy, he is telling us who he really is. And, to focus on those organizing at rallies like the one we saw in Charlottesville, to hear them chant “The Jews will not replace us,” sends a caution about the direction we are heading as a society. When the rally in Charlottesville’s took place, the group of Neo-Nazis marched past Congregation Beth Israel on their way there. They chanted “Sieg Heil” as they walked past.

Friends, we as a Jewish community need to be clear-eyed. As people of faith and conscience, we need to be honest and frank about what we are facing and about our own moral position and calling.

To what we are facing, we must realize that the alt-right did not emerge over night. We should not fetishize it as a radically new phenomenon or wishing it away as nothing more than a rebranding of fascism. It’s a political movement that as of right now is primarily online and amorphous. But a movement has momentum, and that is what I am worried about. The anxiety the alt-right generate feels real. What we saw in Charlottesville is not an afternoon thunderstorm, quick to pass. We need to consider these rallies as serious domestic threats. The rhetoric and actions that are happening on a Federal level that would limit the freedoms of people living here in our country–whether that be in regard to access to health care, or the ability to access a legal pathway to citizenship, or the order to remove transgender soldiers from their posts based on their gender identification, alone—that too should be take seriously. Like a large storm heading into a community, these trends and decisions have real impacts on real peoples.

To our Jewish moral calling, when Hillel taught “If not now, tell me when?” he was prodding his students to action. Which is greater, our Sages ask, study or action? Some say study because it leads to action. Others say action, as it is written, “We we do, and we will come to understand” (Exodus 24:7). Our tradition esteems action because it promotes further learning, further understanding, further meaning. Hillel’s teaching of “If not now,” is about Olam Ha-Zeh, the world as it is, the world in which we live. Hillel was not pushing us to act for the world as it should or could be. He was not inviting us to act now so we can reap the benefits in Olam HaBah. Hillel invites us to be in the world as it is, and to act in the world as it is.

And Hillel proscribes a dual ethic, two ways of being, in the face of the challenges around us. For one: “If I am not for myself, who will be?” We have to stand up for ourselves. And two, “When I am only for myself, what am I?” We have to turn our care to others. Hillel invites us to act both inward and outward when presented with the need for action in the here and now.

Being focused on one’s self is not selfishness. In the Jewish sense, it’s about being attuned to your own self-interest. Rabbi Abraham Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi in Israel, described this as one’s Ani-ut, one’s I-ness. Kook’s concept of the I-ness is one’s spiritual, inner self; our truest selves (Orot HaKodesh III, 140).

For some, when the storm comes in, they seek shelter. For some, that is exactly what they need. When pogroms were a regular reality for Jews in Eastern Europe, some turned inward. They focused on their spiritual lives, realizing that they were powerless to influence the world around them. It was this mindset that gave birth to Chasidism, a way of thinking about Jewish life that is focused on the internal life of individuals and the Jewish community.

“If a person is not concerned with his own needs and well-being, why should he expect others to be?” Asks Rabbi Joseph Telushkin (Hillel, 164). When trouble sets in, when we are faced with adversity, we have to be our own advocates.

This is both a spiritual and a practical mission. Challenges affect our souls, and if our own houses are not in order, that only complicates the situation. Earlier this year, a report came out from the New York Federal Reserve Bank noting that 1/3 of Americans could not access $2,000 in an emergency situation. Commentaries on this report believed this statistic to be understated. Friends, family, credit cards, pay-day loans–using whatever resources they may have–they could not come up with the money were they to need it. What if you were someone affected by a hurricane? To regular occurrences: What if you have a relative who’s sick or dying and you need to go see them. That unexpected airfare is probably around $2,000. A new transmission on your car, $2,000.

Hillel’s teaching “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” recognizes the realities with which we live. We need to make sure that our own houses, practically and spiritually are in order. This is about how we hold ourselves accountable to ourselves.

At the core of our tradition, we are far from acetic, turning away from any sort of communal responsibility. “One should not separated himself from the community.” Hillel also taught, “And when I am only for myself, what am I?”

Taking care of ones’ self is necessary. And paying attention to the needs of others is parallel to caring for our own needs. But Mah ani? in Hebrew, literally “What am I?” “As Professor Louis Kaplan taught: ‘If you are only for yourself, you cease to be a real human being, and you become no longer a who but a what” (as told in Telushkin’s Hillel, 165). Hillel calls us to both heed our own needs and to take care of others.

In the midst of Hurricane Harvey, I was drawn in by the reports about the Cajun Navy, a group of Louisiana residents who had been affected by Hurricane Katrina back in 2005. They embodied Hillel’s teaching. They put their boats on trailers and drove to Texas, and started helping. Why? Because of the core of our shared Abrahamic traditions: “Love your fellow human being as you, yourself are loved” (Leviticus 19:18).

Storms in the South, like wildfires on the West Coast, cause some to run toward them, with the intent to help the vulnerable. The realities that we face in terms of policies being put forward by the Trump administration, and the rhetoric he fails to denounce and incites are like storms and wildfires. For some of us, we may be drawn to higher ground, to seek shelter from the storm. For others, as we look at the troubles we face as a nation, at the way that others are made more vulnerable by the policies and positions of the current Trump administration and some of their supporters, we want to know what we can do, we want to know how we can help. With the intensification of natural disasters, we seem drawn more and more to a fight to mitigate the effects of climate change. There seems to be no time like the present. “If not now, tell me when?” For those who are getting involved, who are acting out of their values, this too is a spiritual way of being. This too is being a contemporary chasid. This is living out Hillel’s second line–of turning to the needs of others, and helping to assure them that there are times in which they do not have to go it alone. The atmospheric conditions are such right now that moral clarity is necessary.

In 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King was jailed in Birmingham for protesting the treatment of the Black community there. From jail he wrote an open letter to other clergy, who criticized his protests as “unwise and untimely.” In response King wrote, “I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Proximity matters, and we are often closer to the eye of the storm than we recognize.

Our tradition and our values call us to be actors in our world, to leave a positive dent on the universe. And the call is present. If not now, tell me when?

We have two ways of being in this world–to focus on our own lives, our own spiritual way; and to focus outward, caring for those most vulnerable among us. In truth, to contend with the here and now, we need a strong dose of both. We need to be both for ourselves and not only for ourselves. We need to be advocates for a healthy spiritual life, and we need to give kindness and love to others.

I once knew a man who lived by both standards. He was a sitting judge in the Massachusetts district courts. For himself, to do what he needed to do as a jurist, husband, and father, he had the habit of running two miles every day, regardless of the weather conditions or what was on his agenda. Far from prosaic, this simple daily dedication made him a better man in the other arenas of his life. Even when he was diagnosed with cancer, he did not let that slow him down. He continued to serve on the bench for as long as was reasonable. He continued to run his two miles every day as long as his doctor approved and encouraged him.

At his funeral, we played a song by the singer, Carrie Newcomer. She meditated on Hillel’s teaching, “If not now, tell me when?” And out of that came a song: “I see sorrow and trouble in this land / Although there will be struggle, we’ll make the change we can.” This year has been a flood of challenges to our moral conscience. The storms of the last month have tested the strength of our communities. To bring healing to ourselves and the world, we face inward to make sure that we care for our own I-ness, strengthening our truest selves. We face outward, caring for others, strengthening the world around us, and leaving it more whole than it was the day before.

As we face this new year, may we seek resolve and energy. May we find grace, kindness, and compassion for ourselves and those around us. And may we know that the actions we take–to live lives of worth for ourselves, and to strengthen the lives of others–that that is a spiritual calling. That it is Godly and sacred.

“If not now, tell me when.”


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