A Vision of Better: now in video

A vision of better: a sermon for Rosh Hashanah morning 5779


There's a meme going around the internet -- maybe you've seen it -- that says, "if you want to know what you would have done during the Civil Rights movement, you're doing it now." 

I'm too young to remember Black people being harrassed and beaten for sitting at a lunch counter, or the Freedom Riders risking their lives by riding interstate buses into the segregated south. 

But in the last few months we've seen migrant children ripped from their parents and imprisoned in cages, and some of their parents have been deported with no apparent plan for reuniting the families thus destroyed. There's a referendum on our ballot in Massachusetts this November that would strip rights from transgender people. There's mounting fear that Roe v. Wade will be overturned. We've seen attacks on the freedom of the press, widespread attempts at voter suppression, and actual Nazis running for Congress.

If I want to know what I would have done during the Civil Rights movement, I'm doing it now. So what am I doing now? Too often the answer is "nothing" -- I'm overwhelmed by the barrage of bad news. Many of you have told me you feel the same way, paralyzed by what feel like assaults on liberty, justice, and even hope.  So much is broken: it's overwhelming.

So much is broken. It's overwhelming. There's no denying that.

But one of the dangers of overwhelm is that we become inured to what we see. It becomes the status quo. Police violence against people of color, business as usual. Islamophobia and antisemitism, business as usual. Discrimination against trans and queer people, refugee children torn from their parents, xenophobic rhetoric emanating from the highest levels of government: business as usual. It's so easy to shrug and say, that's the new normal. And it's easy to turn away, because who wants to look with clear eyes at a world so filled with injustice?

Many of you have heard me quote the poet Jason Shinder z"l, with whom I worked at Bennington when I was getting my MFA. He used to say, "Whatever gets in the way of the work, is the work." If the overwhelm of today's news cycle is getting in the way of the spiritual work we need to do, then it becomes the doorway into that spiritual work.

Because the real question is, what are we going to do about it? How does this season of the Jewish year invite us to work with this overwhelm?

It's Rosh Hashanah, the day our tradition names as Yom Ha-Din, the Day of Judgment. If I told you that our two big fall holidays map to love and to judgment, you might have guessed that the birthday of the world would be the day of love, while Yom Kippur would be the day of judgment. But it's the other way around. Our tradition connects Yom Kippur with chesed, unbounded love. Today is the day of gevurah, the day of din: boundaries, and strength, and judgment, and discerning where we've gone astray.

Many of us feel that the whole world has gone profoundly astray. And the first step toward fixing that truth is facing that truth. We must not turn away.

I want to pause here to say: of course we can turn away sometimes. Everyone needs to turn away sometimes. Many of you have come to me with increased anxiety and depression because of the horrendous injustices in the world around us, and I have often counseled taking Shabbat away from the news cycle. No one can carry the weight of the world all the time, and the heart and soul can't be healthy if they're constantly marinating in outrage and trauma. By all means, turn away when you need to. In fact, consider turning away before you need to, so that you can get the sustenance you need in order to turn back.

Turning back is the quintessential move of this time of year. The Days of Awe are all about teshuvah: repentance, return, turning ourselves around, re-orienting ourselves in the right direction again. Turning back is what we're here for today. Turning to face what's broken in the world, and then doing something about it.

The first step is opening our eyes and choosing to see. Choose to see hatred of immigrants and fear of difference. Choose to see assaults on voting rights. Choose to see white supremacy and racism. Choose to see injustice both large and small. It really is tempting to turn away. But before we can fix what's broken, we have to see it clearly.

Of course, we may not all agree on what needs repair. One thing that doesn't help us is the human tendency toward homophily -- the tendency of "birds of feather" to "flock together." (And anytime I think or speak about homophily, I owe a great deal to my ex-husband Ethan, who wrote on this subject in his book Rewire.) It's human nature to surround ourselves with people with whom we agree: Democrats hang out with Democrats, and Republicans with Republicans. (And so on.) I used to imagine that the answer was simply to expose ourselves to other viewpoints, but I've come to believe that that's insufficient. I mean, yes, encountering other viewpoints is broadening. But it won't fix this problem.

Because this isn't just a problem of information flow. It's a problem of fundamental human disconnection, of which the information flow is a symptom. It's a spiritual problem. And the spiritual question it asks of us is exactly the question of this moment in the Jewish year: am I doing the work I need to do? Where do I need to course-correct? Where do I need to be more generous in how I see myself and others, and where do I need to draw a firmer line?

We can disagree on which media source is the most trustworthy, but we shouldn't accept rhetoric that holds that the free press is the enemy of the republic. We can disagree on who to vote for, but we shouldn't accept systemic voter suppression. We can disagree about which rights we hold most dear, but we shouldn't accept the dismantling of human rights and dignity for anyone.

Siddhartha Mitter writes that the first question we should ask any political aspirant is, "How does human dignity shape your vision of society?" It's a question, he notes, that "can admit many answers—'liberal,' 'conservative,' 'progressive,' etc. It’s not a question of partisanship and tactics. It’s a question of morality." Policies that diminish human dignity are wrong. This is a fundamental Jewish value, and it's a value that we need to center as we move into the new year.

The new year demands that we envision a better world, and then find the persistence and commitment to figure out how to get from here to there. The new year demands that we figure out how to build bridges with those with whom we disagree, without endangering the most vulnerable among us. Migrant children need to be welcomed and cared-for, not caged. Refugees need to be protected, not deported. Trans and queer people need to be valued and uplifted, not harmed. People of color need to be valued and uplifted, not harmed. Jews and Muslims and Hindus and Sikhs need to be valued and uplifted, not harmed.

The new year demands that we stand firm against unethical policies without demonizing the people who enact those policies. Jewish tradition is clear that every human being is made in the image and the likeness of God, and every human being is animated by a soul that is fundamentally pure. That is true even of those with whom we most profoundly disagree. But Jewish tradition is also clear that we make choices, and those choices can obscure our pure souls with schmutz. And when our choices pull us askew from what God and our tradition's highest values ask of us, we need to make teshuvah, we need to repair and to return.

Vision is our theme for this high holiday season at CBI. That theme calls us to ask: what do we need to see? What are we reluctant to see? What would it be like to see differently? Because if we can en-vision a better world, then we can build that better world. As the Psalmist wrote (and as we've been singing for a month now) לוּלֵא הֶאֱמַנְתִּי לִרְאוֹת בְּטוּב-יְהוָ”ה  בְּאֶרֶץ חַיִּים / Lulei he'emanti lirot b'tuv Adonai b'eretz chayyim. "What if I wholly believed to see the goodness of God in this land of life?"  What if I could really and truly believe that I would see God's goodness in the world? What would that faith feel like?

The way to cultivate that faith is to act. You want to see God's goodness in the world? Then do something to bring that goodness into being. "We are loved by an unending love," says Rabbi Rami Shapiro's poetic riff on Ahavat Olam. "We are embraced by arms that find us even when we're hidden from ourselves. We are touched by fingers that soothe us even when we're too proud for soothing. We are counseled by voices that guide us..." [Listen to it here.] And he also writes, "ours are the arms, the fingers, the voices." 

It's up to us to see a better world, and then to make that vision real. In this sense, we're all called to be prophets, and then to build our vision into being. A prophet, in Jewish tradition, is someone who exhorts us to do and be better. We need to envision a better world than this, and then we need to set our hands to the task of building that better world.

That's how we make teshuvah. Teshuvah is an evergreen high holiday theme, but this year I feel a new urgency. This year we need course correction, and we need vision.

It takes vision to imagine a world where the vulnerable are protected, and the strong lift up the weak. It takes vision to imagine a world where the planet's abundance is truly shared. It takes vision to imagine a world where no one feels diminished by anyone else's mode of dress or skin color or gender identity or way of worshipping.  It takes vision to imagine a world where no one would seek to diminish anyone else's rights or dignity.

It takes vision to imagine a world where no one exercises entitlement to or dominion over another human being. A world without rape and sexual assault. A world without white supremacy. A world without antisemitism or Islamophobia. The world Judy Chicago wrote of in her poem that we often sing as part of our Aleinu: "and then all will be so varied, rich, and free / and everywhere will be called Eden once again." 

We must imagine that world -- and then we must build it. I know that may feel implausible. I know that so many hopes feel precarious right now. I want to honor that, even as I challenge us to draw strength from how far our nation has come. Once upon a time chattel slavery was the law of the land. It was legal to own another human being. That changed because of hard work, and activism, and legislation, and struggle.

And that's what these times demand of us, too. So that our transgender loved ones can be safe and protected. So that women continue to have ownership of our own bodies. So that the rights of marriage and adoption granted to people of all sexual orientations are not taken away. So that the laws that protect our nation's fragile environment are not gutted. So that white supremacists will understand that (in George Washington's words) to bigotry we will give no sanction -- that hatred of any person is tantamount to hatred of all people, because we are all created in the image and the likeness of the Divine.

Teshuvah calls us to turn toward God, turn toward our highest selves, turn toward our ideals. But it's not enough to just aim ourselves in the right direction: we also have to do something about it. 

So what are we going to do? Will we register new voters and fight voter suppression? Will we work toward affordable health care, or to protect the environment? Will we take a stand against prejudice and unethical behavior? Will we find a candidate who inspires us, and support them with our phone calls or our wallet? Will we urge our public servants to put human dignity front and center in every choice they make about how to govern?

Teshuvah calls us to resist apathy, and overwhelm, and the internal voice that says "I can't actually fix anything so I might as well not try." Teshuvah calls us to take action to preserve and uphold human dignity and human rights, to love the stranger for we were strangers in the land of Egypt, to do what we can to build a more just and righteous world. 

If we want to know what we would have done during the Civil Rights movement, we have an opportunity to do it now. That's the antidote to relentless bad news and overwhelm. That's how we make teshuvah. That's the turn to which this season calls us.

Be brave enough to envision a world better than the one we know now. And then set your hands to bringing that vision to life. That's the work, and this year it feels more critical than ever. As our sages remind us, it's not incumbent on us to finish the task, but neither are we free to refrain from beginning.

Shanah tovah.


This year my shul's theme for the Days of Awe is Vision. My sermons reflect and refract that theme in different ways. 

Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.