Yom Kippur 5779/2018

As I mentioned last night, I’m going to be talking today about the necessity of speaking up about injustice. I’ll be discussing the importance of allyship, advocacy, and trust, through a close read of three texts from our tradition.

In the Dr. Seuss book, Horton Hears a Who, Horton the Elephant hears a voice coming from a speck of dust.

“I say!” murmured Horton. “I’ve never heard tell/of a small speck of dust that is able to yell. So you know what I think?…Why I think that there must/be someone on top of that small speck of dust!”

Humpf!” humpfed a voice. ‘Twas a sour kangaroo/and the young kangaroo in her pouch said “Humpf!” too. “Why, that speck is as small as the head of a pin./A person on that?…Why, there never has been!”

The kangaroo didn’t hear the voice that Horton heard. So she is skeptical of what he is saying.

“Believe me,” said Horton. “I tell you sincerely,/ my ears are quite keen and I heard him quite clearly. I know there’s a person down there. And, what’s more,/Quite likely there’s two. Even three. Even four./Quite likely…a family, for all that we know!/A family with children just starting to grow./So please,” Horton said, “as a favor to me,/Try not to disturb them. Just please let them be.”

Horton has become aware that there is a vulnerable population in his midst. He has seen the reality of the Whos’ existence, and he has taken it upon himself to protect them. He is acting as an advocate and an ally. He is attempting to explain to the kangaroo that the Whos should be left alone. He doesn’t ask the kangaroo to change her life, or take on any extra burdens or responsibilities. He simply asks her to believe him, and to let the people on the speck continue to exist.

He speaks with the person whose voice he heard, who turns out to be the Mayor of Whoville, the community of people who live on the speck of dust.

And Horton called back to the Mayor of the town,/”You’re safe now. Don’t worry. I won’t let you down.”/But just as he spoke to the Mayor of the speck,/Three big jungle monkeys climbed up Horton’s neck!/The Wickersham brothers came shouting/”What rot!/This elephant’s talking to whos who are not!/There aren’t any Whos! And they don’t have a Mayor! And we’re going to stop all this nonsense! So there!”

They snatched Horton’s clover! They carried it off/To a black-bottomed eagle named Vlad Vlad-i-koff,/A mighty strong eagle, of very swift wing,/And they said, “Will you kindly get rid of this thing?”

It’s not enough for Horton’s doubters to simply deny what is saying. The Wickersham Brothers are intent on destroying the speck, to stop Horton’s advocacy, which for some reason infuriates them, although it does them no harm.

Horton chases after the bird, putting himself in danger and fighting exhaustion and injury to save the Whos. When he finally finds them, he once again makes a vow to protect them. But a familiar voice returns to make trouble.

“Humpf!” Humpfed a voice!/For almost two days you’ve run wild and insisted/On chatting with persons who’ve never existed./Such carryings on in our peacable jungle!/ We’ve had quite enough of your bellowing bungle!/And I’m here to state,” snapped the big kangaroo,/That your silly nonsensical game is all through!”/And the young kangaroo in her pouch said, “Me too!”

“With the help of the Wickersham Brothers and dozens/Of Wickersham Uncles and Wickersham Cousins/And Wickersham In-laws, whose help I’ve engaged,/You’re going to be roped! And you’re going to be caged!/And as for your dust speck…hah! That we shall boil/In a hot steaming kettle of Beezle-nut oil!”

The kangaroo has organized a sort of lynch mob to torture Horton and destroy that which he has sought to protect. And she’s proudly involving her child in this activity! Things look bleak for the Whos. They join together to make enough noise that their voices will be heard – so that attention will be paid. So that they can no longer be ignored.

Finally, at last! From that speck on that clover/Their voices were heard! They rang out clear and clean./And the elephant smiled. “Do you see what I mean?…/They’ve proved they ARE persons, no matter how small…”

“How true! Yes, how true,” said the big kangaroo./”And from now on, you know what I’m planning to do?…/From now on, I’m going to protect them with you!”/And the young kangaroo in her pouch said, ME TOO!…”

The kangaroos and the monkeys have finally become aware that Horton was right – they’re newly woke. But they also have a fair amount of teshuvah ahead of them, as throughout the entire story, they are the ones who have systematically put the Whos at risk, simply for the sake of upholding their status quo.

Their terrible cruelty grew out of a much more basic form of cruelty – denying someone else’s lived truth. It’s not enough for them to disagree with Horton – it infuriates them that someone else is telling a story that doesn’t fit the way that they perceive the world. And it’s terrifying for people to be forced to acknowledge their relative privilege in not having to experience what other people experience.

There is so much skepticism in our society about other people’s lives. People with privilege can’t imagine the challenges that people without privilege face – so much so that when they hear true stories, they cast aspersions on the people who are simply describing their lives. Whether it’s writing off the testimonies of survivors of sexual assault or the racism faced daily by people of color, underestimating the effects of poverty or dismissing people’s experiences of gender dysphoria, people with relatively greater power frequently shut out narratives that could complicate their understanding of the world.

Marginalized people are left asking for the bare minimum – acknowledgement. To be believed. To be trusted.

And our society fights vociferously against even giving them that. Even if there were not actually any Whos on the clover, letting Horton believe that there were  would not be dangerous to the society. Instead of believing that Horton was telling them the truth, the kangaroos and monkeys and bird engaged in a campaign of denial which quickly escalated into attempted genocide.

When we resist people’s attempts to tell us about what’s going on in the world because we don’t (or, more accurately, can’t) see it – when our first response is, “well, that’s not racist,” or, “that’s not sexist” – what we are doing is minimizing someone else’s pain – denying someone else’s reality – for the sake of our own discomfort at having our preconceived notions shaken. We’re telling them that their lives are worth less to us than our beliefs.

Compare Horton’s detractors to our greatest prophet. In Exodus 2:11, we read: “…when Moses had grown up, he went out to his kinfolk and saw their labors. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsmen. He turned this way and that, and seeing no one about, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.”

What does it mean that Moses “saw” the labors of the Israelites, “his kinsmen”? And what made this instance so special? Surely, growing up with privilege in the Pharaoh’s home, Moses had many encounters with the Israelites in bondage. Why, at this moment, does Moses respond so strongly? Our commentators and rabbis analyzed this particular word. RaMBaN said: “He had been told that he was a Jew, and he wanted to see them because they were his kinsfolk. But when he saw their toilsome labors, he could not bear it…” In RaMBaN’s read, Moses knew that he was connected to the people, and so he went out to see the work that the majority of them were really doing – away from the enforced “civility” of the palace. Sforno said: “He made it his concern to take a benevolent interest in the afflictions suffered by his brethren.” In both of these views, Moses’ “seeing” is influenced by his knowledge that these are his people suffering – that despite his comfortable upbringing and fancy clothing, there is little that separates him from the people who are being systematically abused. They could be his parents!

Moses opened his eyes to the reality around him. The JPS translation replaces the more literal translation, “seeing,” with the more active “witnessing.” On that day, he truly understood the horrors of that oppression. He was finally able to see the world as it truly was, rather than how it seemed from his position of security.

Rashi says: “Literally, ‘he saw in their labors’ – he saw himself in their labors, empathized with them, and grieved for them.” In Rashi’s view, Moses connected more personally. He saw a person who his society had marginalized, and he didn’t make excuses for why those people were in that place of vulnerability. He didn’t say, “there but for the grace of God #blessed.” He was able to identify with the powerless – to imagine himself in the position of the oppressed.

One midrash imagines that Moses went a step further than basic empathy. Shmot Rabbah says: “For he would look upon their burdens and cry and say, ‘Woe is me unto you, who will provide my death instead of yours, for there is not more difficult labor than the labor of the mortar.’ And he would give his shoulders to assist each one of them. Rabbi Eliezer the son of Rabbi Yose the Galilean said: if he saw a large burden on a small person and a small burden on a large person…he would leave aside his rank and go and right their burdens, and act as though he were assisting Pharaoh.”

In this reading, Moses actively stepped in to decrease the pain of the Israelites’ lives. He didn’t keep a distance from “the help,” but took on some of the burden to decrease the burden of the oppressed. And he did so under the guise of upholding the status quo, until he witnessed an act of violence that caused him to react with violence.

The Midrash continues, saying that it was this act of seeing, or witnessing, that let God know that Moses was the right person to be a prophet: “The Holy One said: You left aside your business and went to see the sorrow of Israel, and acted toward them as brothers act. I will come and talk to you. This is why a later verse says, ” And when Adonai saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him from the bush” (Exodus 3:4). The Holy One saw Moses, who had left aside his business to see their burdens. Therefore, “God called to him from the bush” (ibid.).”

This midrash completely alters one of our most significant stories, in which God calls out to Moses from the burning bush after Moses stops and turns to look at the bush. In this telling, God’s choice of Moses as prophet is not because he stopped to look at the bush and notice that it was burning without being consumed. God had already decided to make Moses a prophet after seeing how he was willing to sacrifice his own comfort and status for the sake of the vulnerable.

Our Haftarah for the morning of Yom Kippur comes from the book of Isaiah. Later today, we’ll hear a poetic rendering of the message of the Haftarah, but I want to discuss one of its central messages. First an excerpt of the prophetic text, from a translation by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat:

“Cry out, don’t hold back. 
Raise your voice like a shofar! 
Remind My people they have transgressed;
remind the house of Jacob of their misdeeds.
Every day they seek me, 
eager to learn My ways. 
As if they were a righteous nation
which hasn’t abandoned justice, 
they ask Me for the right way. 
They are eager to be near Me.
They ask, ‘Why, when we fasted, 
did You not see us? 
When we starved our bodies, You paid no heed!'”

“Because on your fast day 
you’re thinking about your business!
You’re oppressing your workers! 
Your fast is marred with ego and argument.
You strike with a wicked fist.
Your fasting today 
will not make your voice heard on high!”

“Is this the fast I want? 
A day for people to starve their bodies?
Do I want you to bow your heads like the reeds,
to mortify your bodies 
with coarse cloth and ashes?
You call that a fast, a day
when Adonai will look upon you with favor?”

“No! 
This is the fast I want: 
unlock the chains of wickedness,
untie the knots of servitude. 
Let the oppressed go free, 
their bonds broken.
Share your bread with the hungry, 
and welcome the homeless into your home.
When you see the naked, clothe them. 
All people are your kin: 
do not ignore them.”

“Then you will shine like the dawn, 
and healing will rise up within you. 
Your righteousness will vindicate you; 
the presence of God will guard your safety.
Then, when you call, Adonai will answer. 
When you cry out
God will say, ‘Here I am.'”

Isaiah’s prophecy rebukes the Israelites for engaging in public shows of piety and repentance without actually engaging in change. They fast and prostrate themselves, and then go out the next day and continue to uphold a system built on inequality and injustice. Isaiah is sent to remind the people that to get right with God, they need to tear down the systems of oppression and ensure that everybody’s needs are met. They need to protect the vulnerable in their society.

It’s not enough for us to simply say, “I’m not a sexist,” or “I don’t have a racist bone in my body,” or “some of my best friends are gay people.” It’s easy (or, at least, it should be) to condemn blatant hatred. It is harder to acknowledge that we are the beneficiaries of a system that privileges one class of people over another – that our comfort comes at the expense of others. It is our responsibility, as members of a society that we want to perceive as just, to address the systemic issues at the root of these evils, rather than simply view them as isolated incidents. You could look at the world and say, “we ended slavery! We passed the civil rights act! We had a black president!” or “There are some women in positions of power!” and think that the work is done. Or, you could look and let yourself see the wage gap, or the prison-industrial complex, or the fact that the life expectancy of a trans woman of color is 35, and say, “there’s so much work still to be done.” And then, like Moses, or Isaiah, or Horton, you have to recognize your place in enacting that change, and commit to making yourself uncomfortable for the sake of those who need you to be an ally, or an advocate.

Published in Rabbi Jake's Sermons on September 21, 2018