Below is a transcript of the sermon given by Austin Zoot at Temple Oheb Shalom in Sandusky, Ohio on September 21st, 2017.
When the year 5776 began two years ago, I was living in Israel, beginning my rabbinical school journey. During that year, I was learning about the basics of our faith, the history of our people, and, most intensely, about life and society in Israel. One of the elements of the year that I found particularly intriguing was that my time in Israel overlapped with the American Primary Season. I was, in a way, getting to experience the American election from the perspective of an outsider. I was getting to see how the world saw us, and how our decisions as a nation had an impact on our allies.
By the time I got home to America in May, the primaries were essentially over. The year, in retrospect, could be fairly significantly defined as a year of polarization. Our nation had divided itself into camps. You had those who identified with Bernie, those who were Trump supporters, those who were With Hillary. What years ago had been impolite to discuss was now unavoidable. To ignore the politics of the world was to appear ignorant or disengaged.
Well, the year 5777 began almost exactly before the election of 2016. What came next was, in many ways, defined by an election in which one candidate received a significant victory in the electoral college, the other receiving a victory of the popular vote by a wide margin. The polarization from the year before was about to shape the coming year.
Thus started the year of reaction. It seemed, over the past 11 months, as if every day came with a new reaction to something going on around us. Donald Trump was sworn in as president, the next day saw the women’s march on Washington. News media outlets published pieces and the White House restricted access. Countless executive orders and bills were brought forward and the public ran to their keyboards to express their frustration and their indignation. Even when our enemy was nature, we reacted, rushing forward to offer donations of time, money, and shelter to those affected by the hurricanes of this past month.
Overwhelmingly, this year of reaction has been difficult to process. We have struggled with a lack of control amidst a world that continues to move in ways that we don’t see coming, surprising us and driving us to actions that, in some cases, we never thought we would have to take. I never thought I would have to explain why participating in climate change agreements were important, yet we did this past year. I never thought we would have to debate what “real news” is, because all of a sudden the foundations of truth have been uprooted by the spread of mislabeled opinion. I never thought that on Rosh Hashanah morning, I would have to be discussing the fact that yes, Naziism is wrong and that Jews would have to live in fear in this nation, one founded on equality and liberty and freedom, of those who seek to destroy us because of our faith that is different from theirs.
We are living in a time of change in the way our society functions. We have easier access to information than ever before, and it is, in some ways, growing difficult to hide from the inundation of data streaming in. With every update, we react. With every news blast, we react. We have gotten to the point where, in the time it takes us to process what has just happened, the world has already moved on, forcing us to grapple with the next dilemma, the next challenge, the next scandal.
The year 5777 has been exhausting, confusing, and difficult. Which is why, in 5778, as we begin anew today, we must turn this year into the year of action, rather than reaction. It is time that we change our focus away from the ever-changing cycle of reaction in favor of proactively making the world a better place.
We know, after all, what this feels like. When we have an experience thrust upon us, a difficult and trying day, we feel that frustration and exhaustion from the loss of control and the demand to catch up. But, when we know what we are about to set out to do, when we have our marching orders before we embark, we feel like we’re accomplishing something, like we’re making a difference. The ownership fuels us. The action inspires us.
What does that look like, though? It can start in the simplest of ways. In Cincinnati, like many communities, we have a high population of homeless and hungry people, asking for money on street corners. They stand on the highway off ramp and ask for handouts. It was in my fourth month in the city that I finally got frustrated with the constant feeling of inadequacy. I wasn’t able to clothe them or shelter them or help them in all the ways they needed. What could I do? How could I become part of the solution?
I finally decided that I would buy a box of granola bars that I would keep in my car. I can’t be giving money every time someone needs help, but I can help ease a little bit of hunger for today. Maybe it’s granola bars. Maybe it’s a few blankets or hand warmers as the days grow colder. We, as individuals, have the ability to look at those who need help around us and to reach out and make their lives easier. The assumption, of course, is that if I make this tiny little effort, than everyone else will join with me. In our tradition, Rabbi Tarfon teaches us that it isn’t our job to complete the task, but we aren’t free to ignore it either. We have a difference to make, and we each have to do our part to make it happen.
Now, not all help has to be financial, but sometimes a donation of money is the best way to help a specific cause that we’re passionate about. When you make your donation, though, don’t do it alone in your home. Tell people about it! Share it on social media. Organize games and activities around making donations to causes that speak to you. Maybe you make a bet on football. For every loss by the Browns, you donate to your favorite charity (and there will be many of them). Maybe you ask your friends to sponsor your daily walk; for every mile you traverse, your friends will donate to the cause of your choice. Find friends who will match your donations and partner in your work and all of a sudden, your giving grows beyond what you can afford, and your ability to make a change grows too. It may sound like bragging about the good you’re doing, but in reality, it may be an inspiration to someone else to do their own version of good.
A huge part about taking intentional action to make the world a better place is about wearing your values on your sleeve. So many of the problems we are facing today are as a result of the animosities and resentments people are holding in their heart. We are experiencing racism, sexism, bigotry, religious intolerance. While I am only able to control the way I think and feel, I am able to share that with other people. Letting someone know that you are there for them, that you care, that you respect them as an individual is a powerful thing, something that we all too often overlook. These outward expressions of support are subtle, but they could go a long way toward letting someone in your life know that they are not alone in their fight against oppression, and that they have a partner on their journey.
One of the inherent problems with my theory, of course, is that if everyone listens, not everyone will be taking action in the same direction. If I go out and do, and someone who opposes me goes out and does, then we are pushing against one another. But, in the words of Aaron Sorkin, “decisions are made by those who show up.” We need to be present, we need to stand up, and we need to go out and fight for the world we wish to create. When that happens, truth and righteousness have a way of rising to the top.
Proverbs teaches us that “a person who runs to do just, good, and kind deeds attains life, success, and honor.” But we are meant to go run to do that work. The days of sitting back and waiting for the world to change around us are over. We have spent a year reacting, allowing others to decide where we are going to put our attention and our energy. Now is the time that we must take ownership of the places and the things that we want to exert our influence, the ways that we want to make an impact.
Rabbi Hillel famously asked the question: “If not now, when?” 5778 is the year for us to take action. 5778 is the year for us to go out and busy ourselves with the repair of the world. 5778 is the year that we take control of our task. May we all work together to fight for a brighter future.