Helping to Bend the Arc of the Moral Universe, Rosh Hashanah 5779/2018

Whether you count with 5,779 years of Jewish mythical reckoning; or the 4 ½ billion years of  scientific reckoning . . . today we Jews celebrate the birthday of the World.  

The Mystics teach us that God’s act of Creation was never fully completed.  Something was left a bit broken, unfinished.  They explain that to repair and complete Creation, we human beings would have a role to play: that through our best moral actions, we can help complete God’s work.

We call those acts Tikkun Olam.  Repairing and completing the world.

In 1964 Martin Luther King Jr. commented on the unfolding of this Creation’s history:  He famously said,  “Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Today I want to share with you three broken places in this creation that need our help; our acts of Tikkun Olam; places we can help to bend that arc of the moral universe towards justice.

The first broken place:

In February of 1972 I was one of 150 enthralled teenagers, sitting on the floor of the rec room at a camp in Connecticut. Speaking to us was Deborah Lipstadt, our regional Youth Director, who had just returned from a harrowing, secret mission to the Soviet Union. 

She was not yet Professor Deborah Lipstadt, renowned Holocaust scholar.  She was grad student Debby, youth group advisor Debby.  And we 16 year-olds were spellbound with the idea that our Debby had just come back from a truly frightening “clandestine” mission on behalf of the Jewish people. 

She had travelled to the USSR to visit Refuseniks, Jews who were denied permission to emigrate by the authorities.  The term refusenik comes from the “refusal” to let them go, handed down by the Soviets.

(The following based on her telling of the story in her book, History on Trial.)

Before she and a fellow grad student departed on their mission to the USSR, Deborah was quietly given special instructions on what to bring, who to visit, what to say and not say . . .  all this, to keep herself and the refuseniks she encountered safe. 

She writes, “We were to bring one family medication for their child. And for others,  books to distribute on the Jewish holidays, tradition, and history, and souvenirs from Israel, including a number of small Jewish stars on a chain. 

         “Our primary goal was to let these Jews know that Israel and world Jewry had not forgotten them and were partners in their struggle.”  

She spent Yom Kippur at the synagogue in Moscow. She wrote, “Later that afternoon I returned.   I saw the old woman from the morning standing at the back of the sanctuary. I handed her my small leather-bound prayer book. Unable to read it, she seemed proud just to hold it. When people walked by, she showed it to them.  

Suddenly, the relative calm of the moment was broken. The synagogue sexton, [a Jew,] who, it was commonly assumed, reported all unusual activities to the KGB; he burst in and accused me of being a provocateur, a serious charge by Soviet standards. When he saw that the old woman had my prayer book, his face grew bright red. Sputtering in a mix of Russian and Yiddish, he grabbed it and accused me of distributing religious items. He then disappeared down the street with my book in his hands. 

The next day we were waiting in our hotel lobby to depart for Kishinev.  Suddenly we found ourselves surrounded by men in trench coats who identified themselves as KGB.  Had I not been so frightened, I would have laughed aloud at the predictability of their dress.  I lost any inclination to laugh when I saw that they had my prayer book as well as a list of every home we had visited. 

“When they questioned us, they used traditional anti-Semitic stereotypes, describing the Jews who wished to leave the Soviet Union as part of an international cabal. . .  They kept asking who sent us.  We kept insisting we were just tourists.  I suspected that the exercise was designed to frighten us.  The Soviets knew precisely who had sent us.  

“After a long day of strip searches and interrogation, my traveling companion and I-who were kept apart the entire time-, were accused of spreading lies about the Soviet regime.  We were “invited” to leave the country and, in the dark of the night, placed in an empty train car with an armed guard.  [They didn’t tell us where we were going.] Many hours later, after a long and circuitous route, we were let off the train.  We found ourselves in Romania.”

That was a visit to a broken place.  But that was 46 years ago  That’s a long time! Moscow is far away!  And the perpetrators were part of an evil Empire that no longer exists. 

The KGB, indiscriminate interrogations, going through your bags to find propaganda materials; questioning you on your motives and your politics and your affiliations.  That kind of thing doesn’t happen anymore. Our world is a more benign and friendly one.

One would hope.

Yet, here’s another story about interrogation, intimidation, and the questioning of politics and beliefs and intentions.  But this one was not long ago, and for us, the Jewish people, it was not far away.

It was July 16th, a few weeks ago, at 1AM.  Sam Sussman, a writer and activist, posted the following:  

“I just spent a deeply disturbing hour being questioned about the books in my suitcase by security officers at Ben Gurion airport. “Why are you reading this?” the officers asked again and again. I had Amos Oz’s memoir, Saed Kashua’s last novel, a religious tract on Hasidism and Kierkegaard, Bernard Henry-Levi’s ‘The Genius of Judaism,’ a history of the Communist Party in Mandate Palestine, two novels about the Iraq War by writers with distinctly Arabic names, a novel by a left-wing Israeli writer, a collection of short stories about the occupation edited by Michael Chabon, and four short collections of testimonies from Breaking the Silence.      

 For a full hour the security guards held up one book after another. “Why are you reading this?” “Where did you get this?” “What is this about?” “Tell me again: why do you want to read this?” “You know Breaking the Silence is against Israel? You know Breaking the Silence opposes the Army?” “Who told you to read this?” After a full search of my suitcase, the security officers found the business card of the director of B’Tselem בצלם. “Why do you have this? You know B’Tselem? You know they are against the Army?”

Sam continued, “I cannot explain or justify this as a security practice. My luggage had already been cleared when the first “non-kosher” book was discovered. This was a political exercise. It’s deeply disturbing to me that airport security officers are using their position to defame Israeli human rights organizations and question readers of Palestinian authors. Imagine if you landed at JFK and for an hour security officials insisted that Iraq Veterans Against the War is against America, questioned why you were reading books written by minorities, and asked why you had a business card from the ACLU.”

(From the JTA) Meyer Koplow – the Chair of the Board of Trustees of Brandeis University – and a longtime donor to pro-Israel causes,  Koplow was delayed by a security agent at Ben Gurion International Airport a few weeks ago before being allowed to board his flight. He believes he was called for questioning after security personnel found a brochure in his luggage titled “This Week in Palestine,” which he had picked up in a Bethlehem hotel lobby.  

The JTA reported that Koplow said,  “The best way I can describe it is a badgering form of questioning where before you finish giving one answer, you’re being asked the same question again as if what you said is not credible. She asked what purpose could possibly be served by people visiting the territories. She asked that several times.”

Koplow said he appreciates Israeli personnel checking luggage for the purposes of security, but he feels that the questioning he experienced “goes a level beyond that. . .  Why would you do that other than to send a message that the government doesn’t welcome your engaging in any kind of inquiry.”

Koplow was disturbed as well by “the manner of the continued implication that I wasn’t telling the truth or all of the truth,” he said. He added that describing his past involvement with Jewish and Israeli causes did not change the tenor of the interrogation, which was conducted in public view.

In addition to his position at Brandeis, Koplow is a board member of the UJA-Federation in New York and has served as the president of his synagogue, Young Israel of New Rochelle. He told the reporter  that he has given millions of dollars to Israeli causes.

Koplow said “The most disturbing question she asked me, and she asked me more than once, was what was I going to do with the information I learned in the territories.”

 “What business is it of security at departure as to what I’m thinking or what I might say?”

Something is broken in the universe when a long ago interrogation by the KGB in Moscow has even the slightest resemblance to the questioning of passengers at Ben Gurion Airport.

A second broken place:  Destroying Families

A broken place in the history of Australia is a government program in which Children were stolen from their parents; they were taught to reject their Indigenous heritage, and forced to adopt white culture. Their names were often changed, and they were forbidden to speak their traditional languages

Official government estimates are that in certain regions between one in ten and one in three indigenous Australian children were forcibly taken from their families and communities between 1910 and 1970.

In our own country’s past “the U.S. government forcibly removed tens of thousands of Native American children from their homes and families to attend “assimilation” boarding schools in the late 19th century. 

U.S. cavalry captain Richard Henry Pratt, who opened the first such school in Pennsylvania infamously said, “Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”  

(From The Washington Post, Haley Sweetland Edwards.  June 14, 2018)  Earlier this year, a young Honduran woman named Mirian gathered her 18-month-old son into her arms and walked across the bridge between Mexico, and Brownsville, Texas, where she presented herself to U.S. border agents to ask for asylum. Mirian and her son spent the night in a detention facility. The next day, officials told her to put her son into a car seat in the back of a government vehicle. Her hands shook as she buckled him in. The officials wouldn’t tell her where they were taking him, only that she would not be allowed to go with him. 

As the car pulled away, she could see her baby looking back at her through the window, screaming.

Immigrants’ advocates offer wrenching accounts of how, exactly, federal authorities remove children from their moms and dads. On some occasions . . . kids are pulled, sobbing, from their parents’ arms. On other occasions, agents have allegedly lied. “They say, ‘We’re just going to take your kids to have a bath,’” “But then they don’t bring them back.” 

The American Academy of Pediatrics recently published a letter noting that taking a child from a parent can do “irreparable harm, disrupting a child’s brain architecture and affecting his or her short- and long-term health.” (The above appears in the June 25, 2018 issue of TIME.)

And then there are the hundreds who, due to a fundamentally evil policy, bad planning, lost records and ineptitude, will never be reunited with their families.

Someone commented on the radio the other day:   “When we go to the dry cleaners with a shirt, they make sure that we get a receipt, that little claim ticket that guarantees that of the thousands and thousands of shirts they process each week, that my shirt will get back to me. 

Hundreds of children were taken from their parents at our border  without even a claim ticket!  

How broken that is.  (Journalist: Annie Correal)

The third and final broken place:  For most of our lives, at dark moments in our nation we have been able to turn to our country’s president, of either party, in the hope of hearing comforting and inspiring words that speak to our higher selves.

55 years ago, President Lyndon Johnson, addressed the nation on the occasion of the signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.  It was in the midst of a very difficult time in our modern history.

He said, “Americans of every race and color have died in battle to protect our freedom. Americans of every race and color have worked to build a nation of widening opportunities. Now our generation of Americans has been called on to continue the unending search for justice within our own borders. We believe that all men are created equal. Yet many are denied equal treatment. We believe that all men have certain unalienable rights. Yet many Americans do not enjoy those rights. We believe that all men are entitled to the blessings of liberty. Yet millions are being deprived of those blessings — not because of their own failures, but because of the color of their skin. Our Constitution, the foundation of our Republic, forbids it. The principles of our freedom forbid it. Morality forbids it. And the law I will sign tonight forbids it.”

With those words and those laws, LBJ did indeed place the not-insignificant weight of the American Presidency firmly against that long arc of the moral universe.  

Following the racial violence and death in Charlottesville last August, two more US Presidents weighed in: (Maya Rhodan, August 16, 2017)

Both presidents Bush released a joint-statement saying: “America must always reject racial bigotry, anti-Semitism, and hatred in all forms.  As we pray for Charlottesville, we are all reminded of the fundamental truths recorded by that city’s most prominent citizen in the Declaration of Independence: we are all created equal and endowed by our Creator with unalienable rights. We know these truths to be everlasting because we have seen the decency and greatness of our country.”

Voices of moral clarity.

Alas, here is the third broken place; the response of our current president to the anti-Semites, the racists, the white supremacists and neo-Nazis who gathered in Charlottesville.

He said that counter-protesters deserve an equal amount of blame for the violence. “What about the alt-left that came charging at, as you say, at the alt-right?” “Do they have any semblance of guilt?”  “I’ve condemned neo-Nazis. I’ve condemned many different groups. But not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me,” he said. “You had many people in that group other than neo-Nazis and white nationalists,” Trump said. “The press has treated them absolutely unfairly.”

“You also had some very fine people on both sides,” he said.

As former President Obama commented on that infamous moment on Friday when he asked:   “How hard can that be?!  Saying, “Nazis are bad!”?

What are we to do during these dark times?  What role can we play in this Tikkun Olam, in the fixing of these broken places?

Presidential historian Jon Meacham reminds us that we’ve been here before.  And for similar reason:  Fear.  Economic fear and fear of the other.

He reminds us that the irrational fear of the emancipation of  blacks and of immigration in the 1920’s created a KKK that was so much more dominant than we now remember.  

Like today, he continues, it was all about economic transition, uncertainty, a fear of the other, that somehow or another people who didn’t sound like us or look like us – then meaning white Anglo Saxon Protestants – were going to take those jobs, were going to take over the country.

That was the 1920s.  And here we are again.  The same fears.  And same ugliness arises.  We become ugly at our borders, ugly with our nationalism, ugly with our racism.

The question Meacham asks is the question we need to ask right now:  

Since we have been here before,  how did we get through it?  What did people do that turned things around?  

There was one essential element , one common denominator, was that the people themselves were relentless in saying  that, “This is not who we want to be.  This may  be who we are sometimes, but we don’t want to be that.  And if we can get to 51% of our better angels, that’s a pretty good day.’

The Mystics taught us: Tikkun Olam is not something we observe passively from the sidelines as we watch others do the work.

Martin Luther King reminds us: Our task is not to sit by with folded arms, and admire others, as they work to bend Martin Luther King’s moral arc.

May we be relentless in letting the world know that “this is not who we want to be!”

With our votes

With our voices

With our presence

Today with our prayers

In the days to come with our actions!

Amen