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Care (Kol Nidre 5767)

The sun has set and another Yom Kippur has begun; our most sacred day of the year. We gather to confess our sins and to seek forgiveness from God – quite a tall order! What makes for a successful Yom Kippur? An easy fast? Lots of praying? Catching up with friends? Perhaps all of the above, but tradition finds one answer in the haftarah we’ll recite in the morning. Isaiah records the following words, “Is such the fast I desire, a day for starving the body? No, this is the fast I desire: To unlock the fetters of wickedness, to let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke… share your bread with the hungry, house the poor, and clothe the naked.”   In other words, a successful Yom Kippur is one that motivates us to improve the world. So perhaps we won’t know if we’ve had a successful Yom Kippur until the next one comes around and we can look back at the year just past to determine if we have lived up to the expectations that God gave us through Isaiah. Maybe that is why the Kol Nidre we just recited is for vows made this Yom Kippur until the next one – it is only at this time next year that we’ll know if we’ve fulfilled our vow or if we need to be released from it by God, since we will have failed once again to do all that we could, that the world will still be in need of repair and redemption.

You might say, wait a minute, it’s a big world out there with lots of problems and I’m just one person. And you’d be right. We can’t solve the problems of the world, but can we help to make it better? I think that we can, I think that we can do more than we do and I think that we need to do so. As Rabbi Tarfon taught in Pirke Avot, Lo alecha hamlacha legmor, v’lo ata ven-chorin lebatel mimeni. You are not obliged to finish the task, but neither are you free to neglect it (2:21). So let me share with you some of the causes that trouble me and perhaps I can inspire to do something about them or spark within you the desire to work on some other worthwhile cause that will allow you to feel that you are participating in Tikun Olam, Repairing the World.

Let’s start at home. I don’t consider myself a political person, but I believe very strongly in the importance of living by Jewish values. There is a group called Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR) and they have started a campaign to end US sponsored torture. Just last week the Bush Administration successfully pushed for legislation allowing our government to use torture in cases where they deem it necessary. In this day and age of terrorists and security concerns why would anyone oppose such legislation? Well, America has often promoted itself as a world leader by virtue of moral superiority – we stand for democratic ideals, yet torture is an erosion of those ideals; we stand for law and order, torture ignores the rule of law; much that we hold dear is violated by the use of torture by our government.

As a Jew why do I support the position of RHR? First, I believe that everyone is created B’zelem Elohim, in the Divine Image; which makes acts of torture a denigration of God. Secondly, while there is a rabbinic concept of a rodef, a pursuer, one who comes to kill you; and Jewish law allows you to kill such a person to save a life. US detainees do not qualify as there must be imminent threat; a detainee is no longer a threat. Further, Israeli law also prohibits the use of torture even against Palestinian terrorists as a violation of the rabbinic concept of kavod habriyot, the dignity of all creation; we have an obligation to protect the rights every human being, even our enemy. Finally, every year on Yom Kippur we read the Martyrology, and we remember Jews from ages past who were subject to torture and death at the hands of local authorities who failed to recognize their rights as human beings. We should work to insure that we do not allow our government to reduce us from a civilized nation to a barbaric one. I have no love for terrorists, but if we allow our most cherished ideals to be compromised, then we have let them win. Visit www.rhr-na.org to keep up with this issue and do your part to prevent our country from sliding down this slippery slope.

Let us next turn our attention to a far corner of the globe where torture, rape and murder are common occurrences – I’m talking about the Darfur region of Sudan. We all know that there is terrible poverty in Africa; starvation, disease and AIDS runs rampant, it is not an easy part of the world in which to live; but all of these atrocities are compounded by war and sadly in the Sudan by genocide. Genocide is a very harsh word, to murder a people. As victims of genocide, we need to sympathetic to the suffering of others. Our tradition from the Exodus onward admonishes us to care for the oppressed because we were oppressed. We are a people that has been oppressed over and over again in every conceivable part of this planet, if that has not made us into natural allies of the oppressed, then nothing will. I know that it is not easy to feel the suffering of strangers that you have never met, while sitting in the lap of luxury. But that is what you must do – someone’s life is depending on you.

Why did I travel to Washington DC by bus last spring to attend the Darfur rally? Not because I had lots of time on my hands, not because I thought it was a nice day for a bus trip, not because I love to stand in the sun for hours on end. I went because I care, I went because alone there is very little that I can do to help someone suffering half a world away, but as one small part of something much larger, I can hope to do my part to making a difference. It’s the same reason that Dassy took our kids into Central Park just the other day to participate in the “Rally to Save Darfur: Voices for Genocide”. Tens of thousands of people from all over the northeast joined together at the same time that 57 other rallies took place in 41 countries calling on governments and the UN to pressure Sudan to allow UN peacekeepers into the region.

I visit the American Jewish World Service website, www.ajws.org, to see the latest action alerts, many of them I can do from my desk in two minutes or less. I donate to the cause; I wear my green bracelet as a show of solidarity. They are all small steps, but if everyone does a little bit, a lot of the time, then we can make a difference.   We like to think that over time things will get better, but that is not always the case. In May a peace agreement was signed, but from all accounts the daily life of citizens on the ground has deteriorated since that time and currently. Sudanese has rejected the UN offer of 20,000 peacekeepers to replace the inadequate 7,000 African Union troops currently stationed there. The civilian population of Darfur suffers at the hands of government and rebel troops alike. Someone needs to be looking out for their interests and at the moment the only ones doing that are we the members of the international community of conscience. There are some who do more. In an article by Brian Steidle, a former Marine, he retells his accounts as an eyewitness observer in Darfur. His photographs can be found on the US Holocaust Museum website www.ushmm.org.

A former Marine, I had arrived in Sudan's Darfur region in September 2004 as one of three U.S. military observers for the African Union, armed only with a pen, pad and camera. The mandate for the A.U. force allowed merely for the reporting of violations of a cease-fire that had been declared last April and the protection of observers. The observers sometimes joked morbidly that our mission was to search endlessly for the cease-fire we constantly failed to find. I soon realized that this was no joke.


The conflict had begun nearly 1 1/2 years earlier and had escalated into a full-scale government-sponsored military operation that, with the support of Arab militias known as the Janjaweed, was aimed at annihilating the African tribes in the region. And while the cease-fire was supposed to have put a stop to that, on an almost daily basis we would be called to investigate reports of attacks on civilians. We would find men, women and children tortured and killed, and villages burned to the ground.

 

The first photograph I took in Darfur was of a tiny child, Mihad Hamid. She was only a year old when I found her. Her mother had attempted to escape an onslaught from helicopter gunships and Janjaweed marauders that had descended upon her village of Alliet in October 2004. Carrying her daughter in a cloth wrapped around her waist, as is common in Sudan, Mihad's terrified mother had run from her attackers. But a bullet had rung out through the dry air, slicing through Mihad's flesh and puncturing her lungs. When I discovered the child, she was nestled in her mother's lap, wheezing in a valiant effort to breathe. With watery eyes, her mother lifted Mihad for me to examine.


"This is what they do," the mediator -- a neutral party to the conflict -- screamed at me. "This is what happens here! Now you know! Now you see!" I was unaware at that time that when the aid workers arrived the next day, amid continued fighting, they would never be able to locate Mihad.

 

Mihad now represents to me the countless victims of this vicious war, a war that we documented but given our restricted mandate were unable to stop. Every day we surveyed evidence of killings: men castrated and left to bleed to death, huts set on fire with people locked inside, children with their faces smashed in, men with their ears cut off and eyes plucked out, and the corpses of people who had been executed with gunshots to the head. We spoke with thousands of witnesses -- women who had been gang-raped and families that had lost fathers, people who plainly and soberly gave us their accounts of the slaughter.


Often we were the witnesses. Just two days after I had taken Mihad's photo, we returned to Alliet. While talking to a government commander on the outskirts of the town, we heard a buzz that sounded like a high-voltage power line. Upon entering the village, we saw that the noise was coming from flies swarming over dead animals and people. We counted about 20 dead, many burned, and then flew back to our camp to write our report. But the smell of charred flesh was hard to wash away.

The conflict in Darfur is not a battle between uniformed combatants, and it knows no rules of war. Women and children bear the greatest burden. The Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps are filled with families that have lost their fathers. Every day, women are sent outside the IDP camps to seek firewood and water, despite the constant risk of rape at the hands of the Janjaweed. Should men be available to venture out of the camps, they risk castration and murder. So families decide that rape is the lesser evil. It is a crime that families even have to make such a choice. Often women are sexually assaulted within the supposed safety of the IDP camps. Nowhere is really safe. If and when the refugees are finally able to return home and rebuild, many women may have to support themselves alone; rape victims are frequently ostracized, and others face unwanted pregnancies and an even greater burden of care.


The Janjaweed militias do not act alone. I have seen clear evidence that the atrocities committed in Darfur are the direct result of the Sudanese government's military collaboration with the militias. Attacks are well coordinated by Sudanese government officials and Arab militias, who attack villages together. Before these attacks occur, the cell phone systems are shut down by the government so that villagers cannot warn each other. Whenever we lost our phone service, we would scramble to identify the impending threat. We knew that somewhere, another reign of terror was about to begin.

 

We need to do our part to help end their terror. We would not want to live under those conditions; we should not tolerate it anywhere.

I have one other topic that I want to bring to your attention this Yom Kippur – Global Warming. You might ask what does this have to do with atoning? It is a question that many rabbis have asked in recent weeks as more and more of us decided to speak about this topic these High Holy Days; caring for the world is a longstanding Jewish preoccupation going back to the story of Adam and Eve, when God tells them to watch over the earth and protect it. Jewish environmental concerns have been a priority related to Tu B’Shevat, the Jewish Arbor Day, for many years, but let’s face it; Tu B’Shevat is not a priority for most of us, so now while we gather together on this holy night let us focus on the needs of the earth and our responsibility.

The most famous rabbinic statement is, "The Holy One, blessed be He, led Adam through the Garden of Eden and said, ‘I created all My beautiful and glorious works for your sake. Take heed not to corrupt or destroy My world, for if you corrupt it, there is no one to make it right after you.’” (Midrash Kohelet Rabbah 7:13)

There was a time when global warming was debated, but today in the scientific world there is agreement that global warming is a reality and one that we should be dealing with in spite of the economic and political handicaps that have to be overcome. For anyone needing to see the information in black and white, there is an overwhelming amount of data that can be seen on line, www.stopgloabalwarming.org or AOL Research & Learn: Global Warming. I’m not a scientist, so I’m going to be technical, but I am a concerned human being and so I want to share my concern. The basics: burning fossil fuels emits carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and adds to the natural greenhouse effect that helps to keep heat near the planet; however, human activity has caused an increase in these emissions that has lead to an unhealthy rise in global temperatures that endangers us and all life on our planet.

Just last week NASA published findings that show that the planet’s temperature has risen to levels not seen for 12,000 years and we are coming close to a million year high! This change in temperature has many consequences. Last summer it was reported in Oslo that artic glaciers are melting leading to the discovery of new islands that had been previously covered by ice and they discovered polar bears being stranded at sea and drowning when ice flows break off and float away. Two studies published this year show the Antarctic ice is also melting at a faster rate than previously found. Glaciers on Greenland have been found to be melting at twice the rate they were just five years ago and all this melting ice is causing sea levels to rise. These climate changes has led to the destruction of bleached coral reefs, home to some of the most beautiful ecosystems anywhere and they provide protection to coast lines that now become more vulnerable.

Changing ecosystems does not only affect the ocean. Maple trees have begun to migrate northward with the warming temperatures hurting the maple syrup industry of New England. Forests are more susceptible to fires that burn hundreds of thousands of acres each year and millions of acres of trees in Alaska have died from insect infestations that have progressed at faster rates with the warming trends. Insects have also been found in areas previously free of them, there are now reported cases of malaria from mosquitoes in the Andes Mountains.

Deadly heat waves have killed thousands across the globe from temperature alone, but that pales in comparison to the numbers that have died or been displaced by the growing number of natural disasters that have been linked to global warming – increased rainfall, flooding and even the increase in hurricanes seen in recent years. Now scientists are warning that an even bigger problem may be on the horizon – methane. Methane gas is stored in the earth, but thawing permafrost is releasing the powerful gas at much faster rates that could lead to an increase in the greenhouse effect. But for right now carbon dioxide remains the number one culprit.

The industrial burning of fossil fuels and transportation contribute the lion’s share of carbon dioxide emissions. The US accounts for about 5% of the world’s population, but we are responsible for about 25% of these emissions; so we have a greater responsibility to reduce them than people elsewhere. According to the EPA the typical American household produces 45,000 lbs of greenhouse gas emissions per year. So what can we do to reduce our consumption of fossil fuels? Here are twelve suggestions that I have found –

  1. Change five frequently used light bulbs from standard to energy efficient, 25 watt compact fluorescents;
  2. Heat and cool smartly – programmable thermostats help;
  3. Replace old inefficient appliances with newer energy efficient ones;
  4. Reduce the amount of garbage you produce and recycle more;
  5. Caulk and weather-strip windows and doors;
  6. Leave your car at home twice a week – walk, bike or ride public transportation – need I point one that Shabbat observance makes this much easier;
  7. Make sure that you buy products that have the “energy star” symbol;
  8. Purchase cars that get at least 30 mpg;
  9. Live close to where you work – commuting is a huge contributor;
  10. Turn things off – TVs, computers, lights – after 1 or 2 min. you save;
  11. Make sure your car is tuned up and tires properly inflated;
  12. Keep your water heater at 120 degrees or less and if it is old, insulate.

We are taught to think globally, but act locally. After the Kyoto Protocol was signed the Mayor Seattle challenged mayors across the county to sign on to the US Mayors’ Climate Protection Agreement – to date NJ has 25 communities that have signed on – Wayne is not yet on that list, let us insure that this year we join cities like Ridgewood, Teaneck and West Orange who already done so; we want our Mayor, Scott Rumana, to know that we think this is important.

So what do I want for you this Yom Kippur – I want you to tell our government that human rights are important and that Americans don’t do torture; I want you to speak out for the people of Darfur and I want you to do your part to help stop global warming. You can make a difference – it is up to you to do so.   Let me wish you a G’mar Tov and a Tzom Kal – an easy fast.

 

Thu, December 5 2019 7 Kislev 5780