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Make a Difference (KN 5766)

You Can Make a Difference

Kol Nidre 5766

Rabbi Randall Mark

Wayne, NJ

This has been a particularly painful year. It has been filled with death and destruction. We witnessed the terrible devastation of the tsunami in South East Asia that wiped out 300,000 people last December, we watched as the death toll rose by 10,000 people a day; lives taken, families rent apart; homes, villages, towns & cities devastated. The magnitude and the suffering were beyond comprehension. But the world responded – musicians sang, people donated, relief agencies went to help. Presidents Bush & Carter teamed up to lead the American response and America led the world! That is what we do – at least over-there, in the third world. But when was the last time you thought about that part of the world and how it is faring today? It can't be doing well. It only held our attention while it was in the news, but the rebuilding, the recovery will take years to complete.

Then Hurricanes Katrina and Rita came barreling through the Gulf coast bringing its variation on death and destruction with it, but this time it happened to us, in America, in our own back yard. In spite of years of reports and warnings, little was done to prevent the catastrophe. That is not to say that we can prevent a hurricane, we can't. The power of nature is beyond anything that we can match. There will always be hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes, landslides, forest fires, tsunamis and host of other natural disasters that's the price we pay for life on earth. However, how we prepare for them is within our control – did we build in the best locations, using the right materials? Did we plan for the worst and have our disaster relief plan in place? There is much that can be done in advance to limit the extent of the damage that will occur.

The disaster in the Gulf coast is not just what was wrought by the hurricanes but by our response and what it revealed about us. First, watching the news revealed for all to see, those of us who have become complacent and the rest of the world as well, that America, despite all our promotions of freedom, democracy and equality; still has not overcome racial segregation. Did you notice how many of the people caught in New Orleans during Katrina were black? Those who could afford to leave New Orleans, white people, did so years ago, when it became clear to everyone living there that the city was a disaster waiting to happen. No one was willing to take responsibility for implementing and paying for the changes that everyone knew needed to take place. And so those who could leave did leave; and those who remained behind did so, because they had no other option. The poorest, those most in need of government protection, those that the Torah speaks about our helping – the poor, the widow, the orphan & the stranger; they were left to hope and pray that disaster never strike. But it did.

For days every forecaster predicted what would transpire and told everyone to get out of town. First, it was a recommendation, then it was mandatory, but those without means were left behind to suffer and to survive as best they could manage. The situation should have been intolerable to each and every American, but for the most part, the situation was ignored. We're good at that – ignoring problems. There are so many problems in the world and they are so overwhelming that we tune out, look elsewhere, and ignore the situation; just so we can function. And now, after the fact every politician and leader has blamed everyone else, no one stepped up to the plate to accept responsibility; from our President on down the line.

We have become a society that is very concerned with our 'rights' – you can't do this to me it violates my rights, you can't do that to me I have my rights. But as Jews we are part of a tradition that doesn't focus on rights, but on responsibilities. We need to spend less time focusing on what we are entitled to and more time figuring out what we can do to help others. We have so much compared to most of the world, certainly compared to our ancestors. And in our society no matter how much you have, the question is how do I get more? The fact of the matter is that most of us don't need more, we have enough; we might want more, but we should be thinking about what can we do for those that have real needs.

Katrina brought home to us, via our TVs right into our living rooms, that the poorest, most vulnerable are those that our society has abandoned. Our reaction time was abysmal considering that the authorities knew what was coming and what needed to be done. So what do we do when there is failure on such a grand scale? We should ask ourselves, "What we can do to make things better?" It may be a financial contribution. Or perhaps it's actually going and doing – giving of our time and our talents. There are so many needs to be addressed; it is just a matter of choosing one and diving in.

Perhaps you want to help build houses here in North Jersey – did you know that our Federation has a Bonim Committee that does this? Bring your hammer, you can help. There are literacy programs in Paterson and Passaic – you can help. Hopefully, you brought a bag with you tonight as part of the Operation Isaiah collection, if not, then you can bring it on Sunday, but either way, we donate them to WIN, the Wayne Interfaith Network, to help those in our own community that struggle against poverty. But realize that their battle does not end with Yom Kippur and WIN functions all year long – so while what you have done is appreciated, it is one shot in an ongoing battle, you can join WIN and continue to help.

There are other ways in which you can help. There is a fairly silent crisis taking place in Darfur, Sudan – in Africa. A year ago we began to hear about genocide taking place in Darfur 40,000 had been murdered and many more were victims of raping, pillaging and plundering. Hundreds of thousands were homeless. The UN was looking into it! The Holocaust Museum for the first time since WWII used the term "holocaust" for a world atrocity. A year later, nothing has been done to stop the killing, 400,000 men, women and children have died, two million are displaced and living in overcrowded DP camps in Chad without adequate food, water or cleanliness; disease runs rampant. I have signed a Darfur Call to Action letter to President Bush; I have purchased and worn my "Not on My Watch" Save Darfur wristband. It's not much, but it's better than doing nothing.

I try not to venture into politics, certainly it is not my place to tell you whom to vote for in an election; but I can tell you that in NJ everyone is talking about tax relief and clearly from a Jewish perspective that is the wrong conversation to be having right now. As we see all the needs that exist in society, we need to call upon our government nationally, regionally and locally to respond to those needs and to do that they'll need funds. As caring, compassionate Jews we should be in favor of increased taxation so that more services can be provided to those with the greatest needs. This is not a message that is likely to be popular, but the Prophets of Ancient Israel said some pretty disturbing things, things that needed to be said, they were God's messengers. God's message has not changed, the needs have not been resolved; all that has changed is that now WE are the ones being spoken to – will you respond to the call?

While we are on the topic of government and politics, there is a topic now making its way through DC that should be of great interest to us as a religious community – torture. Why am I speaking about torture on Yom Kippur? Because Yom Kippur is about transforming our lives and our society. In the words of our haftarah, "the fast that I desire: To unlock fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free... It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to cloth him"

One would think that there little to say about torture – it is bad, we shouldn't do it, we won't tolerate it being done, etc.... You get the idea. Yet Senator McCain had to sponsor a bill that will ban the use of torture by the US against detainees outside the USA. The Senate overwhelmingly passed it, it is likely to pass the House of Representatives too, as well it should. However, our President has threatened to veto the entire Defense Bill, just to stop this Amendment. I try to be respectful of people in important positions, I think that we owe them our support for the job that they do, but there are times when we have to stop and say, "No, this cannot be." This is one of those times. This great nation of ours is founded upon the value of human life and freedom – to torture a person is to reject their humanity. It is something that we might expect to find in Iran or Iraq, but not something that we should tolerate from our own government. This administration has tried to argue that torture is a necessary tool to be used in the war against terror, that we don't allow it to be done here on our own shores, but only in other parts of the world. However, the Torah teaches us that morality is not relative, some things are just wrong – to paraphrase Dr. Seuss, they are wrong here, they are there, they are wrong everywhere.

Our government has argued that these detainees that we are torturing are not citizens of any nation, as if that makes it OK. It doesn't, but worse, it should bring to our mind a previous occasion where this line of reasoning was used – by the Nazis against us, against the Jews. Nazi Germany argued that since the Jews had no nation, they could not expect to be included in the laws of civilized society. It was the beginning of the end for us; it was the start of our being dehumanized as a people. As victims of this perverted logic we should be at the forefront of opposition to its use by our government. I have signed a Rabbinic Letter Against Torture and other Cruel, Degrading, and Inhumane treatment of Detainees.

There are a great many Jewish reasons to oppose the use of torture. It violates Kivod Habriot, Respect for Creation; we are all created B'zelem Elohim, in the Divine Image, and so we are required to respect all of God's creations. We know the importance of the Jewish value Pikuach Nefesh, Saving a Life; this obligation supersedes almost all others and mandates that we do what we can to save lives, since all life is sacred, even our enemy's life. And Jewish historical memory demands that we oppose torture. I'll share but one example from our long and bloody history, brought to my attention by Rabbi Feld of Rabbis for Human Rights.

In Cecil Roth's classic History of the Marranos you come across this account of inquisitorial persecution:

She was carried to the torture chamber, and told to tell the truth, when she said that she had nothing to say. She was ordered to be stripped and again admonished, but was silent. When stripped, she said, "Senores, I have done all that is said of me and I bear false witness against myself, for I do not want to see myself in such trouble; please God, I have done nothing." She was told not to bring false testimony against herself but to tell the truth.

The tying of the arms commenced; she said, "I have told the truth; what have I to tell?" She was told to tell the truth and replied, "I have told the truth and have nothing to tell." One cord was applied to the arms and twisted and she was admonished to tell the truth, but said she had nothing to tell. Then she screamed and said, 'I have done all they say." Told to tell in detail what she had done, she replied, "I have already told the truth." Then she screamed and said, "Tell me what you want for I don't know what to say."

She was [again] told to tell what she had done, for she was tortured because she had not done so, and another turn of the cord was ordered. She cried: "Loosen me, Senores and tell me what I have to say: I do not know what I have done, O lord have mercy on me, a sinner!" Another turn was given and she said, "Loosen me a little that I may remember what I have to tell; I don't know what I have done; I did not eat pork, for it made me sick; I have done everything; loosen me and I will tell the truth." Another turn of the cord was ordered, when she said, "Loosen me and I will tell the truth; I don't know what I have to tell – loosen me for the sake of God – tell me what I have to say – I did it, I did it, -- they hurt me Senor – loosen me, loosen me and I will tell it."

She was told to tell it and said "I don't know what I have to tell – Senor I did it – I have nothing to tell – O my arms! Release me and I will tell it." When was asked to tell what she did and said, "I don't know, I did not eat because I did not wish to." She was asked why did not wish to and replied, "Ay! loosen me, loosen me – take me from here and I will tell it when I am taken away – I say that I did not eat it." She was told to speak and said, "I did not eat it, I don't know why." Another turn was ordered and she said, "Senor, I did not eat it because I did not wish to – release me and I will tell it." She was told to tell what she had done contrary to our holy Catholic faith. She said, "Take me from here and tell me what I have to say – they hurt me – O my arms, my arms!" which repeated many times and went on, "I don't remember – tell me what I have to say – O wretched me! – I will tell all that is wanted, Senores – they are breaking my arms – loosen me a little – I did everything that is said of me." She was told to tell in detail truly what she did. She said, "What am I wanted to tell? I did everything – loosen me for I don't remember what I have to tell – don't you see what a weak woman I am? Oh! Oh! My arms are breaking."

More turns were ordered and as they were given she cried, "Oh, Oh, loosen me for I don't know what I have to say – Oh, my arms! I don't know what I have to say – if I did I would tell it." The cords were ordered to be tightened when she said, Senores, have you no pity on a sinful woman?" She was told, yes, if she would tell the truth. She said, "Senor tell it, tell me it." The cords were tightened again, and she said, "I have already said that I did it." She was ordered to tell in detail, to which she said, "I don't know how to tell it senor, I don't know." Then the cords were separated and counted, and there were sixteen turns, and in giving the last turn the cord broke.

As part of the Musaf service in the morning we will read the Eleh Ezkarah, a historical retelling of torture and suffering. We are a people that knows what it means to be tortured and to suffer. It is time for us to again be a people that actively opposes torture and suffering.

There is a big world out there in need of repair and redemption. Let us use our time, our skills, and our resources to do our part to make a difference. May your fast this Yom Kippur, be a fast that motivates you to action.

G'mar Hatima Tova, May you be sealed in the Book of Life for a good year!

Thu, December 5 2019 7 Kislev 5780