Wednesday, September 12, 2018

"Listen to the Stories" (Rosh HaShanah sermon at the United Synagogue of Hoboken, September 10, 2018)

I have absolutely no interest whatsoever in astrology.  With one exception.

I find it very moving that the astrological sign for this time of year is Libra - the scales - which have been a symbol of justice for so many centuries.

One nickname of Rosh HaShanah is Yom Ha-Din - the day of judgment.  Throughout the high holiday season, our prayers use the image of a courtroom.  This is the day when, from the perspective of Jewish tradition, we each feel judged, and we make every effort to judge ourselves.  In the stirring prayer Unetaneh Tokef, we confront the elaborate metaphor that each of us has our verdict inscribed in a fearsome heavenly book, determining our fate for the coming year.

So for the sages of our tradition, who were more interested in the zodiac than you might have thought, it was no surprise that the astrological sign for this time of year is Libra - the scales of justice - which our sages referred to by the Hebrew name - ‘מאזניים Moznayim.’  For them, this was yet another demonstration that this is the time of year when all of creation passes before God one by one -   תעביר ותספור ותמנה ותפקוד נפש כל  חי - “You take note of and count and attend to every living thing.  ותחתוך קצבה לכל בריאה - and You determine the fate of every creature.”

As we stand today in the presence of these scales of justice, I want to tell you a story of how the scales of justice have a different meaning for me this year נecause of an troubling experience I had this year in an American courtroom.  This story, which some of you already know, has political implications.  But I am sharing this story with you not because of its political implications but because I think it helps us to better understand one of the themes of Rosh HaShanah.  Fortunately we’re not the kind of synagogue where people get up and dramatically walk out when the rabbi says something they disagree with.  (Or if we are that kind of synagogue, you have never done it dramatically enough for me to have noticed.)   But I want to promise you that, first of all, we have a politically diverse community and on this and other issues I respect where you’re coming from whether I agree with you or not, and I deeply believe that the story I am sharing with you can help you to better  understand Rosh HaShanah whether or not you and I are in sync politically.


This is a story about my visit to immigration court in Laredo Texas in July of this year.  At the height of the family separation crisis, I decided that I needed to learn more about immigration, legal and illegal, at the southern border.  My friend and colleague Rabbi Neil Blumofe in Austin TX had organized a group of his congregants to travel to the  city of Laredo on the Mexican border, under the guidance of some members of the congregation who work with immigrants in various ways, including immigration attorneys and people who guide asylum seekers in that process.  My goal was to learn more so I could come back to New Jersey with a deeper level of understanding of the immigration conflict that has been so wrenching in this country -- and if possible, to understand it through a Jewish lens.  I appreciated that this trip was going to be under Jewish auspices, and was making an effort to meet with people from many sides of the conflict  - including undocumented immigrants, DACA recipients, people who have been in detention, and Border Patrol guards and those empowered with carrying out American law and policy. 

On our trip, we spent one morning in immigration court. And that is where I saw with my own eyes, a mass trial in the United States, with nearly 70 defendants being processed at the same time.   (Taking photos is prohibited in the courtroom, so I have no photos of my experience, but a photo was leaked from a different Texas court proceeding and it looked very similar to what we saw - see
http://rabbischeinberg.blogspot.com/2018/07/i-never-thought-i-would-witness-mass.html.)

These were defendants being tried for crossing the border between Mexico and the United States illegally.  Defendants we saw were mostly men but some women, almost all of whom appeared to be in their late teens or 20s, from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.  
American courtrooms are obviously not built to try nearly 70 people at one time; The first thing the judge had to do was arrange the defendants in the courtroom in rows so that the taller people were in back and the shorter people were in front so she could see everyone during the proceedings.
The next step was for the judge to ascertain everyone’s name - this took a while. (Defendants wore headsets for Spanish translation- though apparently some of them speak other Central American regional languages and are not proficient in Spanish).
The judge then informed the defendants that they were all accused of the misdemeanor charge of crossing the border illegally.  The judge indicated that they had the right to a trial, but they had the opportunity to get a reduced sentence if they were to plead guilty.

The judge then asked a series of questions to which each person was supposed to answer in order. She asked:  “Do you understand the charges against you?” - “Si,” “Si,” “Si,” “Si,” “Si,” “Si,”…. more than 60 “Si’s” one after the other.)


“Do you suffer from mental illness or cognitive impairment or are under the influence of drugs or alcohol or have any other reason why you would not be able to understand these proceedings?”  -- “No,” “No,” “No,” “No,” “No,” “No”...

“Do you understand the rights you would be giving up by pleading guilty?” --  “Si,” “Si,” “Si,” “Si,” “Si,” “Si,”…. (But these answers were somewhat disingenuous, because we learned through discussions with court employees that the court appointed attorney had a total of 2 hours to meet with all of these defendants together, which would translate into less than 2 minutes of consultation time per defendant.)

Then, one by one, all the people we saw pleaded guilty of illegally crossing the border between June 26 and July 6 of this year, with each one, as instructed by the judge, indicating his or her means of illegally crossing the border, by walking, or swimming, or taking a boat or a raft or an inner tube, across the Rio Grande separating Mexico from the United States.

The next step for them would be deportation. It is possible that some of them would request asylum during that phase of the process. (From media reports, it seems likely that at least some of them are fleeing violence.) We don't know, however, about the quality of their legal representation and to what extent they understand this part of the process. As far as I can tell from my notes, 'asylum' was not mentioned even once in the court proceedings that we saw.

Sitting in that courtroom, I felt a mixture of emotions. I felt surprise -- never in my life did I think that I would be in the presence of a mass trial in the United States, considering that mass trials are not generally associated with free democratic legal systems.  If I ever had to have contact with a judicial system, I would not want it to be like this. Even the metaphorical courtroom in the fearsome Unetaneh Tokef poem we will read later today presumes that each defendant is treated as an individual --- וכל באי עולם יעברון לפניך - כן תעביר תספר ותמנה ותפקוד נפש כל חי-  “Each person passes before You - as you carefully enumerate and attend to the soul of every living thing.”

But most of all, I felt a tremendous sense of emptiness and sadness - that I was in the presence of a large number of people with stories - probably important and relevant stories-  that never got told. 

There are a number of reasons why someone might cross an international border without official permission.  At various points in the life of my family, I know that I have ancestors and family members who have similarly crossed international borders without permission.

Of those defendants we saw -- some of them may have been coming for economic opportunity; some may have been repeat border crossers but this is the first time they had been caught.  Perhaps some were criminals or gang members.  But it is also likely that many -- especially those from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador -- were fleeing desperate and dangerous situations in their home countries - desperate enough that they would make a treacherous journey over thousands of miles.  Some of us who have volunteered at The Lighthouse in Jersey City have met people from this region, who have received asylum status in the United States, who have told us their harrowing stories of fleeing from violence.

But no aspect of their stories were part of the proceedings we saw, and I presume that the court-appointed lawyers also did not have the opportunity to hear their stories. The overall message of the proceedings appeared to be:  We are not interested in your story.

My goal today is not to talk about American immigration policy, beyond sharing the story I just told you.  It is not something that I have any expertise in as a rabbi. But I do want to talk about what it means to hear someone’s story - and the implications of conveying that you are not at all interested in someone’s story.  It can’t be coincidental that the Hebrew word for the scales of justice - מאזניים moznayim - includes the word for ears - אזניים oznayim.  Because if you want to use the scales of justice to judge people fairly - you have to listen to them.

Earlier today we read a Haftarah that includes a story of what was almost a miscarriage of justice that resulted from someone not taking the time to listen.  
In today’s Haftarah, Hannah and her husband Elkanah make a pilgrimage to the central Jewish shrine in the city of Shiloh. Hannah desperately wants a child, and her husband Elkanah is not able to give her the emotional support she needs.
When they arrive at the shrine, she pours out her heart to God… the Bible says -  מְדַבֶּרֶת עַל־לִבָּהּ רַק שְׂפָתֶיהָ נָּעוֹת וְקוֹלָהּ לֹא יִשָּׁמֵעַ “her lips were moving but no voice emerged.”

The High Priest Eli walks by and sees this woman soundlessly murmuring - and he does the natural thing:  he yells at her.   עַד־מָתַי תִּשְׁתַּכָּרִין הָסִירִי אֶת־יֵינֵךְ מֵעָלָיִךְ׃  “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Sober up!”

Eli is busy:  lots of people coming to the temple, lots of needs.  It’s  probably easier for him to look at them and to try to figure out what they need and want, rather than listening to them.
But sometimes he gets it wrong.  And he got it terribly wrong here.

Hannah responds and says  לֹא אֲדֹנִי אִשָּׁה קְשַׁת־רוּחַ אָנֹכִי וְיַיִן וְשֵׁכָר לֹא שָׁתִיתִי  “No, sir, I am a terribly sad woman. I have not been drinking anything.” 

Honorably, Eli answers and apologizes, and then gives Hannah really what she wants - a prayer -  לְכִי לְשָׁלוֹם וֵאלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל יִתֵּן אֶת־שֵׁלָתֵךְ אֲשֶׁר שָׁאַלְתְּ מֵעִמּוֹ׃  “Go in peace - and may God grant you your request that you have asked for.”

I imagine Eli praying on Hannah’s behalf as being an act of validation.  it is his way of communicating to her: “I am aligned with you.   What you most want -- that’s also what I want.”  (I should note that I think this is one of the most important effects when someone offers to pray with and for someone else. Even more than an act of divine intervention, it is an act of person-to-person validation.)  And at the end of this passage, Hannah felt heard and affirmed.

But not everyone gets this opportunity to be heard heard and affirmed. My colleague Rabbi Daniel Greyber in North Carolina recently wrote from his personal experience - it took a difficult challenge in his own life for him to realize just how often he was oblivious to the stories of others.   Rabbi Greyber’s wife was undergoing cancer treatment a couple of years ago.  He wrote:

...Illness feels like a great drama of highs and lows;  shopping reminds you that life continues in all its banality. Most days in most places most people were nice. But once, someone in the supermarket was a real jerk and, when they were, I thought to myself: “If that person only knew that I just came from my wife’s chemotherapy at Duke Cancer Center, they’d be ashamed of themselves.” Walking the aisles looking for mustard or waiting in line to check out, I felt like a spy carrying an important secret, like I was on some special mission that - if people only knew - they wouldn’t be so careless with my feelings. I felt a sense of entitlement or self-importance like people should move the hell out of the way for the guy whose wife has cancer.

But after a while, I started to wonder --  no, not to wonder, but to realize -- how many other people were carrying a secret suffering with them behind their eyes in the supermarket aisle? How many people did I pass looking for 1% milk who were struggling with depression? Or grieving for a loved one who died too soon? [Which shopper was] ... an exhausted and lonely caretaker? Or had a child struggling with alcoholism? And, how many times had I been careless and callous with the feelings of a stranger, wrapped up in my own narcissism? “Do not wrong the stranger in your midst” the Torah tells us. Perhaps the verse comes to teach us not only about the careful treatment of new immigrants, but about all of the strangers in our lives, to remind us again that a good life is measured in how much kindness we give to the world.

The great Jewish sage of the Hellenistic era,  Philo of Alexandria, is credited as giving some similarly wise advice to the people of his day - and ours:  "Be kind [to everyone], because everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.”  And this is another reason why one of the principles in Pirkei Avot, the ancient Ethics of the Fathers, is     הוה דן כל האדם לכף זכות
“Judge each person favorably.”  On the balance scales of justice - in which a person’s merits and demerits are weighed out to see which side is heavier - give everyone a little extra consideration to the כף זכות - the cup that holds the good deeds.  Because you don’t know what they’re dealing with, but you know they’re dealing with something.

There’s a remarkable passage in the Mishnah - the central Jewish law text from almost two thousand years ago - that describes a particular ritual that people would follow when they would come on pilgrimage to the temple in Jerusalem -- a ritual that would help them to listen to and affirm each other’s stories.  

The Temple precincts included a couple of concentric courtyards. And there was a gate to get into the outermost courtyard.  Like places where there are big crowds today, they employed crowd control measures such as directing everyone to walk in the same direction. When you walked into the temple precincts, you would be directed to make a circle to your right.

But there were certain categories of people who were told to circle to their left. So who are these VIPs who are walking in the opposite direction from everyone else? The mishnah tells us -       -- מי שאירעו דבר, שהוא מקיף על השמאל.  The people who would circle to the left are the people who experienced some difficult thing:  including a person in mourning; a person who had been shunned by their family or community; [and in the parallel version of this passage in the minor tractate Evel Rabbati,]  the caregiver of an ill family member; one who is preoccupied because of the loss of an important object.

And the mishnah goes on to describe what would happen when you have a small group of people circling in a different direction from everyone else.  It means that they would pass by a lot of people whom they would not previously know; and those other people would see that they were walking to the left. And those other visitors would inquire - מה לך מקיף לשמאל?  Why are you circling to the left?

The person might repond - שאני אבל - “Because I am in morning.”  And the person who asked would then offer a prayer on his or her behalf -  השוכן בבית הזה ינחמך - “May the One who dwells in this house comfort you.”  Or the person might respond - ‘I have an ill family member.’
השוכן בבית הזה ירחם עליו -- “May the one who dwells in this house have compassion upon your relative.”  Even the person who was in nidui -- who was shunned by his or her family or community -- was encouraged to come to the temple and to circle left, so that those that that person encountered Could offer a blessing:  "- "השוכן בבית הזה יתן בלבם ויקרבוך", “May the one who dwells in this house grant in the hearts of your family or community members to draw you near.”

And by offering this blessing, each Israelite would be communicating: ‘I have listened closely to you and I have heard what you most want and need, and what you hope for you is exactly what I also hope for you.

This whole story is so remarkable.  I feel grateful to be an heir to a tradition that understood that people coming to the Temple didn’t need to tell people that they were “Fine, thank you” when they weren’t.  The story sends the message that when someone would come to the temple while coping with a life difficulty, if they chose to share this information with the community, they would be recognized and understood and supported.  (I should add that this story only makes sense to me if the person who was enduring a life difficulty had the option to be private about it if they chose - but even then with the knowledge that had they shared the information they would have been validated and affirmed.)

There are so many ways in which our synagogues today are so different from the ancient Temple.
But I would hope that part of our purpose today in our synagogue mirrors that of the temple - in that we are also creating a place where we show concern for each other- including asking each other - מה לך מקיף לשמאל? - “Why are you circling to the left?  What is your burden?” and communicating that if they answer this question, they will be affirmed and supported.

As you know, ours is a very transient community -- less so than it has been in the past, but we are blessed with new people moving in to our area all the time, many of whom remain for just a few short years before they move (often to suburban New Jersey towns.) And we can rise to the challenge of helping people feel a greater sense of community support and validation even during a brief period of time.

My teacher Rabbi Eliezer Diamond likes to say that we have a tendency to compare our insides to everyone else’s outsides.  In other words, we see the polished exteriors of other people who seem to present their lives as perfect - especially on social media - and we compare that with all the life difficulties and turmoil that we know we are dealing with - whether it’s illness, loss, conflict, financial challenges, loneliness, dislocation, crises of life meaning,or any other challenge.

But not every story is easy to share.  And on my mind today are especially the difficult stories of some in our community which are challenging or uncomfortable to share.  Let me give one specific example, though it is a painful one.  I think of the people in our community who have been touched in a direct way by the current opioid crisis -- which affects people from every walk of life, and every stratum of society.  I am so pained that there are a number of people from our community who have lost dear family members to drug overdoses that are linked to this unprecedented crisis.

As agonizing as it is to lose a family member under any circumstances,  the stigma and shame associated with drug use make it hard to seek and find support (just as it is harder for people who are struggling with addiction, and their families, to seek support).   As a result, people who have this particular difficulty in their family are sometimes unsure if others will really offer the support they should - or if they will be judged by the people who should be supporting them.  

Another painful category on my mind are those who have family members who have died through suicide. That’s also a life situation that is so terrifying that it’s a source of shame and stigma. We have seen this year, as every year, that people in all segments of society - including some of the most prominent and successful people in the world - sometimes deal with mental illness, and like any serious illness it can have deadly consequences.

One of the people I admire most in my life is my brother.  And he recently gave me yet another reason to so deeply admire him.  Which is that he decided - while serving as a successful professional and communal leader in various organizations -- that the time was right for him to become very public about his struggles with depression and with suicidal ideation.  And it’s just the kind of person he is that this means that now, in addition to all the other causes he is active in, an exhausting schedule of community involvement and volunteer roles - he has also become an activist for suicide prevention. And in his various overlapping communities, he has helped to make what is often a problem that festers in the dark into a problem that can be addressed in the light, because of his courage in speaking about his own experience.  (See https://medium.com/@mr_shiny/13-reasons-why-im-still-alive-d7f0c3925439 for an example of his powerful and brave writing on this topic.)  I so hope and pray that we are moving towards a world where for him to be public about his struggles would simply be normal -- I so hope and pray that we are moving towards a world where mental illness is truly stigma-free.  In such a world, more people would seek mental health treatment  - more people would get support - family members would get support - and people would not have to feel so alone.  And it’s so sad that people feel alone, because when you look at the statistics of how many people in this country live with mental illness, or serious mental illness, it’s a large percentage of us.  

Thousands of years ago, it was understood that the Temple in Jerusalem was a place where if you made yourself vulnerable by walking to the left, you could expect those you would encounter to take an interest in you, and validate you and pray for you.  This is and ought to be one of the functions of a synagogue today.  It’s part of what we mean by the word ‘community.’  A community is a group of people who are not simply a circle of friends, but a group who may not even all know each other but realize that they are bound together.

May this coming year 5779 be a year of listening  and affirming - with the knowledge that the Hebrew word מאזניים - - the scales of justice - includes the Hebrew word אזניים meaning ‘ears’ - reminding us that there can be no justice without the opportunity to listen.

May it be a year when those who are courageous enough to open a window into their struggles  will encounter people from their communities who respond as the priest Eli did:

לְכו לְשָׁלוֹם וֵאלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל יִתֵּן אֶת־שֵׁלָתכם אֲשֶׁר שָׁאַלְתּם מֵעִמּוֹ׃
Go in peace - and may God grant you your request that you have asked for.


Note:  After delivering this sermon, I discovered this video discussion of  the Mishnah described above by Rabbi Sharon Brous of Ikar - 
 https://www.facebook.com/songleaderbootcamp/videos/1985293198170292/.

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