The following is a transcript of the sermon given by Austin Zoot at Temple B’nai Israel in Kokomo, Indiana on Erev Rosh Hashanah.
When I look at the news, I often find myself checking the date. I want to make sure that I’m reading the news for today, not from months ago, and it is getting harder to tell. I feel as though every day I’m finding similar stories, repeated over and over again. Race rioting in Charlotte. A shooting at the University of Illinois. An ISIS motivated attack at a mall in Minnesota. The details change each time, the locations, and, of course, the lives affected. But the ills that plague our country persist, over and over again, a seemingly endless stream of terror and fear, fighting and strife.
I find myself growing frustrated, growing tired of feeling hurt, confused, and sad. Worse, I find myself growing disengaged. I find myself feeling less, resigned to the fact that we continue on, doing exactly what we’ve always done, knowing better than to expect any different results until we are willing to change something.
And the problems in America don’t stop with rioting and murder. We, as a nation, are struggling with anger and resentment that has found a home in the hearts of nearly all Americans. During this, an election year, we are finding more and more hostility about the very basic elements of what it means to be Americans. When, since Abraham Lincoln, have we ever disagreed so profoundly on the direction of our nation? When have we ever struggled so mightily to know who we are and, more importantly, who we want to be? It used to be that it was impolite to talk about politics. Now, it seems we can’t possibly talk about anything else. And we can’t help but be angry, be upset. Last month, when I was in town for Shabbat, we had a text study, during which we discussed the notions of justice, and our role in pursuing it. Within 15 minutes of the discussion, we were discussing politics. You want to know something: I bet it didn’t matter what the Torah portion was that week, what we were using to frame our conversation. We are constantly and profoundly disturbed by what we see going on around us.
And that is because America is at a formative point in our existence as a nation. Racial tensions are, arguably, as bad as they have been since the 1960s, with riots in Charlotte, Baltimore, St. Louis, and many more in just the last two years. Gun violence has turned into a daily occurrence. According to the Religious Action Center in Washington, DC, an average of 30,000 Americans are killed each year killed by gunfire. CNN released a report stating that for every 100 citizens in America, there are 88 guns, and the number of background checks requested per month is on the rise dramatically since 2012. In other words, guns are a major problem in our country, but they are getting more popular, rather than less. And the threat of terror is becoming very real, with many incidences of growing concern, including the New York City bombing earlier this month.
This is, I will admit, not the happiest of starts to a sermon. Luckily for us, a Jewish lens affords us the ability to find some hope.
We, as Jews, are given an opportunity, once a year, to start over, to wipe the slate clean and start again. Rosh Hashanah is the time on our calendar that we are absolved of everything that happened in the past year, and allows us the chance to start again. Our New Year is not like the January 1st secular version, in which we often get two days off to party, then return to the mundane normalcy of daily life. In our version, there is a built-in notion of introspection. In the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we are expected to take stock of our lives, to make amends for the mistakes we’ve made, and to lay out a plan for how we are to be better people in the world. In that regard, Jews have perfected the notion of a New Year’s resolution.
Our task is to apply that to the world around us. In the book of Isaiah, we read that we are meant to be a “light unto the nations,” serving to guide the world toward a better future. It is our job to use our new beginning to look at our world with fresh eyes, to guide our discussion as a nation and to remind others why these issues are important. We don’t talk about gun violence prevention in terms of statistics, we talk about it in terms of lives we are able to save. We don’t talk about racial tensions in our hopes of returning to a status quo, we do it to ensure that every American, every PERSON has the right to live with respect and integrity. We don’t work to banish terrorism and hate because of fear, but rather in spite of that fear, working to ensure that the values of America are maintained in every corner of our country.
I have been accused of being an idealist when it comes to an individual’s role in making the world a better place. I didn’t come up with that on my own, though. Our tradition teaches us that to save a single life is as if you have saved an entire world, and to destroy a life is to destroy the entire world. We, as Jews, have the opportunity to use Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of our Jewish year, as a launching point, recharging our desire to make the world a better place, and to do so even on the most micro level.
In 37 days, we will be voting for the new leadership of our country. But decisions are made by those who show up. We have the right and the obligation to vote, to have our voices heard in terms of who we wish to represent our best interests. Not only do we get to vote, but we also have the chance, in the next 37 days and well beyond them, to use our voices to make a difference. It can be in a post on social media. It can be through donations of time, money, and attention to political and social activities we find meaningful. It can be through engaging in meaningful dialogue with our friends, family, and coworkers, to ensure that we do not sit idly by and continue to let the challenges that face our nation plague us.
Not all action needs to be political in nature either. Much of our challenge is that we are surrounded by sadness, surrounded by conflict and strife. The simple act of bringing a little joy into the world can go a long way toward making a difference on a communal level. A smile here, a pleasant conversation there. We often forget how profound a difference we can make on others by remembering the humanity in one another, even when we may be going through our own challenges. It costs nothing of us to take a moment to wish someone well, to pause and offer someone some care, and yet it has the power to significantly impact another person’s life.
It is easy to get discouraged by all that is wrong with our world. It is easy to forget what hope feels like. Which is why we take the time to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, to start anew. One of my favorite readings from Mishkan T’filah, our Reform Jewish prayer book, says “Disturb us, O God, and vex us; let not your Shabbat be a day of torpor and slumber; let it be a time to be stirred and spurred to action.”
When we come to Yom Kippur, known as the Great Shabbat, may we also be called once again to action. May we be propelled to make the world a better place. And may we be inspired, rejuvenated to ensure that we may bring fresh eyes and fresh passion to the work that needs to be done for the world.