Yom Kippur 2016 Sermon

Good Yontiv.  We read in our Torah portion today that through sacrificial rites, fasting, and most prominently, the ritual of the Azazel or so-called “scapegoat”, the sanctuary is purified, the Ancient Israelites’ sins are removed, and the people are reconciled with God.  The scapegoat is driven into the wilderness, and miraculously, God re-enters the camp.  Centuries later, these rites and rituals still stood, but the prophets spoke of a different relationship to wrongdoing – and to God.  In today’s Haftarah reading, the prophet Isaiah cries out:  “Is this the fast that I, your God, desire? A day for starving and denial?  No, this is the fast I desire: to unlock the chains of wickedness, to let the oppressed go free, to share your bread with the hungry, and not hide from your own flesh and blood, your fellow human being.”

I wonder, if Moses and Isaiah, the two legendary authors of our Torah and Haftarah texts, were here today – if they came back together, what would they say?  What message would they deliver to us?  Would they ask us:

“Is this the scapegoat I desire?”  Is this the scapegoat I desire?  Is it the young girl or woman suffering from low self-esteem because she was humiliated on social media when someone said she was “fat” or wearing the wrong outfit?  Or, is it the Muslim woman singled out with suspicion for wearing a hijab?  Is it the Mexican boy who won’t go to school because he’s afraid when he gets home his parents will have been deported?  Or is it gay or transgendered teens bullied and committing suicide at alarming rates?  Is this the scapegoat I desire?

Is it Jewish journalists, being portrayed on Breitbart.com and other White Supremacist websites, wearing striped pajamas and being kicked into an oven?  Or how about the Asian-American NY Times editor and his family who – just the other day – were screamed at in the street to “go back to China”? Is it the Indian-American man running for Congress right here in our own district who recently had swastikas painted on his house?  Or, is it the young African-American woman being literally shoved and pushed around by a bunch of white men at a political rally in Kentucky this past March – a sight the likes of which we have not seen in decades; a sight that should have caused a national outcry of “Shame!” and “Enough!”  Is this the scapegoat I desire?

In Europe, in the nations of Austria, Hungary, and France, even in certain states of Germany, ultra-right nationalist and fascist parties are gaining seats in their Parliaments (I say “even Germany” because Germany has anti-fascist laws on its books because of its past).  These parties all have agendas that are anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, and anti-Semitic.  And right here, in the United States of America, we are now seeing websites and organizations that espouse vicious and violent anti-Muslim, anti-Immigrant, anti-Semitic, anti-Gay and transgendered, and all manner of racist and sexist points of view – views once relegated to the fringes, to the sidelines, now taking center stage.  Is this the scapegoat I desire?

Many of you are probably familiar with the famous saying:  “First they came for the Communists, but I did not speak up because I was not a Communist.  Then they came for the trade unionists, but I said nothing because I was not a trade unionist.  Then, they came for the Jews, but I remained silent, because I was not a Jew.  And then, they came for me, and by that time there was no one left to speak for anyone.”  Perhaps you know a somewhat different version of this quote – one that includes Catholics or Socialists or Jehovah’s Witnesses.  If you do, you are not alone.  Many versions of this saying exist.  And the story of why this is so is both fascinating and critically important.

This quote, found on memorial plaques and Holocaust museum walls, in history books – and also in our Reconstructionist Shabbat prayer book – is attributed to the German Protestant Pastor, the Reverend Martin Niemoller.  But the evolution of these words is as tangled and complicated as Niemoller himself.  Because, you see, Niemoller started out as an avid supporter of the Nationalist Socialist or Nazi party.  Like them, he was an extreme nationalist.  He is said to have greeted his parishioners with the Nazi salute.  And when Hitler withdrew Germany from the League of Nations after coming to power in 1933, Niemoller sent him a congratulatory telegram.  Moreover, as a minister, Niemoller fully supported the Nazi’s anti-Communist stance.  After all, the Communists were opposed to religion, weren’t they?  And, Niemoller had no great love for Catholics or Jews, and certainly not for homosexuals.

So, the Reverend Martin Niemoller did not sit up and take notice of anything amiss from his point of view – until Hitler began to interfere in Church affairs, especially when he began going after Church leaders who were of Jewish ancestry.  It was over this issue that Niemoller co-founded the “Pastor’s Emergency League” which in 1934 became known as Niemoller’s Confessing Church.  After continued protests over this issue – and this issue alone – Niemoller was arrested in 1937.  In 1938, he was imprisoned, first in Sachsenhausen, and then Dachau concentration camps, where he remained until the end of the war.  Yet, despite his own persecution, it took a while for Niemoller to connect the dots between himself and the rest of the persecuted.  It took a while for him to formulate those now famous words that evolved and changed in the numerous speeches he gave in Germany, the United States, Britain, and elsewhere, beginning after the war and into the 1950s, 60s and 70s.

At first, Niemoller exonerated himself over the mass murder of millions of Jews and other groups.  Those things took place mostly after his arrest in 1937, did they not?  He was, he reasoned to himself, in solitary confinement for much of that time.  What could he do?  How could he be guilty?  But in 1946, a year after the war had ended, Niemoller went with his wife to visit his cell in Dachau.  It was there, in Dachau that he saw, on a sign the Americans had posted, the number: nearly a quarter million murdered in Dachau concentration camp.  And it was there that he saw the date of this heinous crime: between 1933 and 19451933!  The date hit him like a lightning bolt.  That moment, Niemoller relates, he heard God call out to him, as God calls out to Adam in the Garden of Eden after he eats from the Tree of Knowledge:  “Adam, where are you?  Mensch, Where were you?  Where were you from 1933 to 1937?  Where were you, Martin, before your arrest, when there were already tens of thousands of communists, Jews, journalists, and artists rounded up, deported to concentration camps, and killed?  Where were you when it all began?  The bullying and defaming, the beatings and arrests?”

And it was from this moment on – although in fits and starts and backslidings – that Niemoller realized that his words, his testimony, his now famous poetic formula – “First they came for the Communists, the Jews, the trade unionists”, and so forth – his words were of little value unless he named the groups of people his audience was the least likely to care about.  It was Niemoller who changed the groups he named depending on who he was talking to. And let me tell you, Niemoller was none too popular in Germany for using Jews in his famous formulation – especially in those early years after the war, when he was met with jeers and worse.  And in the United States in the 1950s, when he referred to the Communists in his famous saying, that wasn’t so welcome either.  But Niemoller finally realized that the job of a Pastor is not only to comfort the afflicted, but also, sometimes, to afflict the comfortable.

So, yes, there are terrorists who wish to do us harm.  There are people with evil intent in our world who make us fearful.  And we must not be blind to this sad fact.  But evil acts, whether from terrorists or dictators or petty demagogues, always start with evil speech.  The speech our Ancient Rabbis called lashon ha-ra, or “the evil tongue”.  From the kind of speech that embarrasses or shames the vulnerable to the kind of speech that demeans and defames those who are different – or attacks the-ones-we-think-we-don’t-need-to-care-about-because-it’s-not-us – this kind of speech, said the Rabbis, might as well be murder because words are like arrows, they taught, and once released from their quiver, we don’t know where, or upon whom, they will land.

So, now, you tell me whether we should be silent or speak out when Muslim-Americans are defamed because we are Jews or Christians; whether we should be silent or speak out when a lone black woman in a crowd is manhandled because we are white; whether we should be silent or speak out when Mexicans are called murderers and rapists because we are not Mexican;whether we should be silent or speak out when a transgendered person is assaulted because, well, we are all male or all female or because, well, I really don’t get what the heck transgendered is and what does it have to do with me?

These things are happening right in front of our eyes.  And little by little, like the frog in the pot of slowly heating water, they become normal.  But they are not normal.  They are dangerous and despicable.  So, now, you tell me.  You tell Moses and Isaiah:  Is this the scapegoat I desire?  And will I not speak out?  Because in the words of the great Rabbi Hillel, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  But if I am only for myself, who am I?  And if not now, when?”

Who am I?  Where am I?  Why am I here?  And what will I do?  May we all find the courage to embrace these questions on this day and as we leave this sanctuary at the end of Yom Kippur and go back to our lives.

GemarChatimahtovah.  May you already be inscribed for lives of goodness and kindness and peace.  May you be kept safe from harm.  And may you each be embraced by forgiveness and compassion.  KeynYehiRatzon.  May it be so.  Good Yontiv.

Published in Rabbi Falk's Sermons on October 21, 2016