October 13th: Sins Big and Small

The following is a transcript of a sermon given by Austin Zoot on Erev Yom Kippur at Temple B’nai Israel in Kokomo, IN.

We begin Yom Kippur, our final day in the Ten Days of Awe. This has been our time to look back, to reflect on our lives and to decide what are the pieces of ourselves that we love, that we cherish, that we hope to continue, and what are the parts of ourselves that we need to repair, to improve, to make better.

Yom Kippur seems to be a day full of transgressions. We admit our selfishness and our deceit. We admit our shortcomings and our failures. We are forced to look into the face of our humanity and know that, in the coming year, we are asked to do better, to be better.

As I reflected over the past ten days on the nature of repentance and sin, of transgression and return to holiness, I found myself thinking of two different levels of sin. There are Sins with a big S, those things that we know, at our core, are wrong. Some of them we learn from holy scripture, some from the law, others from basic understandings of morality. We know that stealing is wrong. We know that lying is wrong. We know that causing pain to others is wrong. And yet, sometimes, we find ourselves in situations where we make a mistake, where we do something that we know is wrong, and are forced, on Yom Kippur, to attempt to find forgiveness from those we love, from ourselves, and from God.

There are, too, sins with a lowercase s. These are far less clear, far less easy to identify. These are the times when we don’t do things that we should be doing. We should be listening to our loved ones better, and we miss the mark. We should be giving of ourselves to those who need more, and yet we find ourselves hording our resources and our gifts. We should be standing up for those who need our help, and yet we sit, waiting for someone else to do something to help.

These sins with a small s are maybe the hardest to see, the hardest to understand. We know the things we do that we shouldn’t, but there are countless opportunities to do better that we miss every day. It is easy for us to ask for forgiveness for something we did, something we know hurt another person, and yet it is nearly impossible to identify and to count all of the times that our inaction caused someone harm.

Last week, during Rosh Hashanah, I talked about many of the social challenges our country faces, and our inability to fix many of them. I talked about how we, as a nation, are faced with many issues that desperately beg for attention, and yet we find ourselves unwilling or unable to do anything to make a significant different. One of our greatest failures, as a country, is when we do not stand up against the things we see on a daily basis, those small actions of hostility, bigotry, hatred, or nastiness that we are afraid to confront head on, for fear of awkwardness of embarrassment.

We start this education on a large-scale at a very young age. We tell our children as soon as they begin school that bullying is wrong, that we should not pick on one another, that we should be nice to everyone. If this is a value that we teach from the very first day, why is it that bullying is, almost without fail, a major part of nearly every young person’s high school experience? Why is it that we are telling our children how to behave, and yet we so consistently see these problems recurring, year after year?

The answer is unfortunately simple, and it is that we also teach awkwardness and embarrassment to young people. We, as a society, do not like to call one another out, whether for fear of embarrassing ourselves by getting involved or embarrassing the other person by pointing out their shortcomings.

What exactly is bullying, after all? We certainly know that bullying is stealing someone’s lunch money, and that it is physical abuse. What about name calling? What about jokes that hurt someone’s feelings? What about those times when people are made to feel excluded, weird, separate from a community? We know that bullying is wrong, and that we should stand up against it, but we aren’t truly able to identify what is bullying worthy of standing up against, and what is considered ignorable acts of unkindness.

Everyone in this room is at least a few years removed from their high school years. And yet, our understanding of how to stand up for others is based on our notions of what we deem socially acceptable. Is it my obligation to tell off a customer at a store who is berating an employee? Is it my job to get involved when a man or woman is yelling at their partner in public? Am I expected to demand justice for homophobic and racial slurs muttered under one’s breath within my earshot?

It is impossible to answer each of these without a full understanding of context and situation. Yet, at our core, our society doesn’t do enough to identify each individual moment that we fall short. We allow too many moments to go by without demanding the best from one another, too many times that we fail to stand up and to demand that the world around us adhere to our own notions of morality and civility.

This Yom Kippur, we are aware of all of our Big S Sins, those actions we took for which we are not proud, that we hope to refrain from in the coming year. But, this year, may we also be aware of all of the Small s sins, those times when we didn’t do enough, when we weren’t looking around and finding the places to stand up and make a difference.

Maimonides, a 12th Century Jewish philosopher, said that repentance is only complete when we are willing to identify our misdeeds and refrain from making them again in our future. We know that, as we move forward, we are not going to be perfect, just as we were not perfect this year. Yet, we are expected to do all that we can to ensure that we do not make the same mistakes, that we do not fall prey to the same transgressions all over again.

We think of our Big Sins and little sins, those things we have done that hurt others and those things we didn’t do that we should have, and we hope to do better in the coming year. We hope to keep ourselves under control when we shouldn’t do something, and to be inspired to brave action when the time calls for it. And we hope that, as we approach the coming year, we are able to do all that we can to ensure that our world is a better place, in order that we may deserve another year in the Book of Life.

Gamar Hatimah Tova.

October 10th: Not My Locker Room

During Sunday night’s debate, Donald Trump attempted to shrug off accusations of sexual assault and sexually inappropriate language by saying that it was simply “locker room talk,” nothing more. In the wake of a 2005 video that revealed appalling language and implications, denigrating women and demonstrating his overall values, Trump attempted to make it sound as if this was normal behavior.

The problem is, this kind of language IS fairly standard fare amongst men. This kind of culture that doesn’t respect women and uses vulgar language IS too popular in our society. Don’t believe me? Check out Total Frat Move. It’s a website that is meant for men in fraternities. Their articles are insulting. Their photos of “girls of the day” are objectifying. Their conversation regarding women is unacceptable. They are, of course, not the only example of this kind of language and material. The internet is full of similar pages and ideas. But, if our young men in college are learning that this is how we treat women, it is no wonder that we are seeing it reflected in other places in society.

It is all too likely that Trump is right, that his words are commonplace in the mouths of American men. But that doesn’t make it acceptable, and it doesn’t make it right. As a man, I not only stand up against his language, but also the “locker room talk” that he thinks makes it acceptable. If that is the image that he wants to present of the “normal” American male, than we, as men, need to stand up and say that this is not who we want to be, not how we want to treat our peers, our friends, and our partners.

This means that we, as men, need to be willing to call out the language we hear that isn’t appropriate. We need to tell one another what we expect, and we need to hold ourselves accountable. Our language needs to match our actions, and our actions need to be representing the best of ourselves, not the Trumps in our society.

What Trump said was inappropriate and unacceptable. His excuse for it was just as troubling, and we, as Americans, have an obligation to prove him wrong with the way we talk, the way we think, and the way we treat one another.

October 9th: A New Home

For six years, I have used blogger as the home for the Zoot Perspective. As of today, my content will be moving over to this new site, which can be found at zootperspective.wordpress.com. This new site will allow me to merge together my many different channels, from my blog to my videos to my twitter and Instagram, all on a single page.

The look and feel will be very similar, and will continue to allow me to play with my formatting. But the new site will hopefully allow convergence of all of my work into a single space, that will be easier for me to manage and easier for my readers to follow.

One of the other areas that I hope to play with on the new site is the posting of more frequent, shorter bursts. The world is constantly evolving, changing as fast as we have time to think, and this site will hopefully allow me to participate in the conversation with as many people as possible. Rather than one, 600 word post per week, I am going to aim for three or four 300 word posts per week, allowing us to cover more topics and process more together.

I’m very grateful to all of the individuals who consistently follow the evolution of my social media presence, and join the conversation when I post. I hope that we can continue to look at the world around us and find our own perspectives, as I continue to learn from and explore the Zoot Perspective.

Welcome to the new Zoot Perspective.

October 6th: Waiting for a Third Option

We already know that there are a great many Americans who are unhappy that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are our two options for President come November. As a result, the door has been opened for third party candidates, individuals who hope to take advantage of America’s need for a multitude of voices and a multitude of options for the direction of the country. Unfortunately, that third party candidate is Gary Johnson.

Johnson, the former governor of New Mexico, has quite loudly declared himself to be the third-party option for all of those who don’t want to vote for Trump or Clinton. His argument is that this government system hasn’t been working, and we need to elect someone different, play by a different set of rules in order to get the country back on track.

johnsonThe notion of a third-party candidate is a good one, one that works for the health of the country, and encourages a discussion that will allow many different voices to be heard. The Libertarian party is a good option for many Americans who like the economic mentality of the Republicans, but aren’t willing to participate in many of their social ideals. The notion that individuals and businesses should operate outside of the jurisdiction of the government has validity, at the very least a place in the conversation. Gary Johnson, though, is not running as a libertarian. He’s running as “the other guy”. And it isn’t working.

Gary Johnson’s primary goal as a candidate is to NOT be the other two. All of his ads talk about who he isn’t, his website boasting all of the ills of the other candidates. If your complaint is that the other candidates are running smear campaigns, you have an obligation to run an issues-based campaign, something that Johnson has seemed almost determined not to do.

Worse, we have seen gaffes by the candidate on a frightening level. Sure, the Aleppo incident could have easily been a moment of nervousness, a human moment. Even presidential candidates are allowed to be human. The problem is, you can’t do it twice, and he most certainly did. When asked to name a foreign leader he admired, he couldn’t think of a single name. Couldn’t think of one. And while this may seem to be a minute issue, it is a demonstration of a lack of poise and a lack of diplomacy, two of the essential characteristics required of a president.

Gary Johnson has made it abundantly clear that he wants to be president. What he hasn’t done is give Americans nearly enough of a reason to believe that he should be. And, as voters begin to consider what they should do on November 8th, this is not the year to gamble with a bet on a candidate who both won’t and shouldn’t be elected. This year, as America confronts the reality of two very different, dramatic directions for the country, it is not the time to cast a vote for a man who has made it abundantly clear that he not only lacks the poise to be president, but also lacks the ability to gain any kind of momentum to make the point he is attempting to make.

Hopefully, in the next decade, we will see a rise in third party candidates worthy of their positions. Hopefully, we will see men and women with dedicated conviction to their issues, and a willingness to put themselves out there to discuss those issues fully. The reality of today, though, is that we aren’t there yet, and voting for a man who is a bad example of a good idea is a misguided version of the elections process.

October 5th: Forgiving Abraham

The following is a transcript of the Sermon given on Rosh Hashanah morning by Austin Zoot at his student pulpit in Kokomo, Indiana.

We just read one of the most intriguing passages of the Hebrew Bible, the Akedah, or the Binding of Isaac. In this episode, Abraham is told to take Isaac, his son, and sacrifice him before God. So the next day, Abraham gets to work. They journey to Mount Moriah, where Abraham binds Isaac and begins to ritual of sacrifice, only to be stopped by an angel of God, telling him that he has demonstrated his faith and that Isaac is not actually to be sacrificed.

When I was in Sunday school as a child, we discussed this narrative as the ultimate test of faith. Abraham believed so completely in the notion that God would look out for him and for his family that he was willing to do whatever he was asked, regardless of the gravity of the situation. Imagine that for a moment: a man who was willing to sacrifice his only son to a God who had promised him offspring as numerous as the stars.

This level of faith, unyielding and blind faith, seems foreign to many of us. And that’s because it should. A willingness to throw away even one’s own family for a belief in God is something that, today, would seem outrageous, too dramatic to be stomached comfortably. And there is evidence that while God was pleased with Abraham’s faith, God was also disturbed by it. According to the text, this was the last time that Abraham and God conversed, and the divine relationship passed to Isaac from that moment on. God asked Abraham to do something as a test, and seems almost disturbed by Abraham’s willingness to follow through with it.

What are we supposed to do with this? Abraham is our very first patriarch, a figure of honor and respect from which all of Jewish tradition derives. What do we do with a flawed patriarch? How do we come to terms with an individual who we know has flaws, who we know has tendencies of extremism, and yet is supposed to be a role model for us?

First, we are asked to look at what it means to be asked for actions based on faith. During the High Holidays, a time when we talk about who shall live, who shall die, who will be inscribed in the Book of Life, it is easy to say that blind faith is the way to go. Let go of the wheel and let God take over, so to speak. And yet, this story tells us to stop, to reconsider. We are told that, in this instance, Abraham’s willingness to do what is asked of him is acknowledged with a promise for a rich and blessed future, but it also comes with it the departure of God’s connection, a loss of direct communication with the almighty. The Torah is, in essence, warning us about the potential ramifications of what a total and blind commitment to divine decree can lead to if it goes unchecked by reason and understanding of context.

This is especially complicated when we take a look at an earlier story in the Bible. When God tells Abraham that he is about to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham argues with God, negotiating exactly how many good people need to be present in the cities in order for God to spare them from destruction. In this case, Abraham isn’t blindly trusting in God’s decree; he is demanding that God do what is right, even if that means being willing to put his own standing as God’s chosen emissary at stake. Why is it that Abraham was so willing to compromise in one narrative, while so singularly focused in another?

We read this text on Rosh Hashanah for a number of reasons. One is to show us what it means to have faith in God’s plan, to know that, as we are about to be inscribed in the book of Life, that there is some notion of faith in what God has assigned to us. Another is the notion of coming to terms with a flawed character in our lives. During the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we set out to ask forgiveness from those in our lives against whom we have sinned, those who we have hurt and those who we have not fully appreciated. At the same time, we are asked to forgive others, allowing them the full repentance that we ourselves seek in our own work to be better than we were a year ago.

In that regard, Abraham continues to be a role model for us, although in a decidedly different way. Abraham as a flawed character allows us to see what it means to both be the best we can be, as well as to struggle in certain areas. We are able to see Abraham in a moment of faith, doing what God has asked him to do without question and without compromise. That is a huge act of commitment, and a worthy virtue for us to embody. And yet, his unyielding determination, and his refusal in that moment to look thoughtfully at the consequences of the matter show to us the humanity of our ancestors, of our leaders, and to remind us that if Abraham was able to make this kind of mistake, then certainly we, too, may err and make a full return to goodness.

As we begin the ten days of awe, we first are asked to forgive Abraham for his blind faith. We see what it means to believe in God, what it means to be willing to go to great lengths to do what is asked of us, and yet we are forced to come to terms with what happens when we get carried away, when we go too far in our pursuit of our own selfish desires. Once we have started the process with Abraham, we turn our attention to those in our own lives, those far more complicated situations of virtue and sin.

It can be difficult to forgive those in our lives who have made mistakes. We are hurt, we are angry, we are struggling to figure out how to find those values of forgiveness and understanding in ourselves. Sometimes it is loved ones who hurt us. Sometimes, we struggle to forgive ourselves, to let ourselves off the hook for the mistakes we have made. The Torah gives us Abraham as a guide, a model by which we are to understand our own inclination to extreme behavior. If we have it within ourselves to forgive our patriarch for his actions, and still see the virtue in him, then so too must we be able to find within ourselves the values and good intentions that sometimes lead us to misdeeds and mistakes.

Over the next ten days, it is our responsibility to go through our lives and take stock of the moments where we missed the mark. We are meant to improve ourselves as people, to ensure that we learn something from where we messed up, and to find the places where we can improve ourselves the next time around. But I am not a believer in the wrath of God, the notion that humans are inherently sinners. I’m not a believer in T’shuvah as a forced admission of guilt. It is, rather, an opportunity, a chance to look back and discover parts of ourselves that we like, and that we cherish, and to ensure that our misdeeds do not overshadow the good things that we do for ourselves and for the world.

The Torah portion gives us the chance to see this in action. We are able to see what happens when our virtues go to extremes, to see when we go beyond what is healthy in terms of devotion. It helps us to establish the line, to learn where goodness begins and ends. And, as a result, it also teaches us a valuable lesson about what it means to forgive, to overcome character flaws and continue to serve as a role model, as a leader. If we can learn this morning from Abraham, learn to forgive him and to understand him, we have already begun the process of forgiving one another and ourselves.

Shana Tova.

October 4th: Fresh Commitment to Justice

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.

Shana Tova.

September 28th: That’s Debatable

If you had not watched the debate and exclusively looked at my Twitter feed, you would have thought that Hillary Clinton delivered the knockout punch to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Depending on what news source you choose to follow, you might find something very different.

In all reality, an objective viewer is likely to say very little changed from Monday to Tuesday. Clinton was exactly as prepared and calculated (perhaps overly so), and willing to expose Trump’s character flaws as we would have expected. Trump continued to be as brash and braggadocios (yes, it is, in fact, a word) as he has always been, marginalizing some and endearing to others. On the whole, voters got to see very little that they had not known hours before.

debate-1

Perhaps a few Clinton supporters feel more confident in their candidate. Perhaps the political ideologues feel a little better knowing that their candidate will stick to certain statements and adhere to party lines. Perhaps even a few undecideds were able to come to terms with their voting reality. But, on the whole, it would be hard to say that Monday night moved the needle much at all in one direction or another.

The sad reality we face was displayed in the split-screen image that filled our TVs. We were able to see these two individuals next to one another, to compare their speech and their reactions. In this way, it was abundantly clear that we are comparing two dramatically different characters. One a career politician, taking up a role she has spent years training for, and another who continually proves himself to be impulsive and volatile. It is an embarrassment to our political system and a mockery to the ideologies that divide our nation.

Our country is deeply and troublingly divided on big conceptual issues and how to solve them. In an election year, we have the chance to discuss and debate, to hear from potential leaders and choose a future we can believe in. Unfortunately, we do not have two options of legitimate governmental direction. We created a situation in which a man with nothing but money and hot air has been selected as the leader of a party once known for its traditional adherence to values and history, now known as a circus. In a year where we so desperately need to discuss the political reality of our country, we find ourselves incapable of having a legitimate conversation.

A debate is only valid when two legitimate parties agree to discuss particular issues. While Clinton showed up to play ball, she opposed a man with no legitimacy to back himself up. What resulted was a sad version of two people engaging in very different discussions from one another. What should have served as a moment of high-level discussion and policy argumentation devolved into a mockery of a country in desperate need for change.

This election will show far too many people who are voting far more because they hate the other person, rather than that they feel strongly in support of their candidate. That is a sad reality, but one we have to come to terms with. As a result, Americans will have to continually fight for their voices to be heard. It won’t be enough to wait another 4 years until we can take another crack at this elections craziness. We must be willing to work hard to work with whichever of these two individuals find themselves in the oval office. Monday night made it abundantly clear that we have an awful lot of work to do.