Erev Rosh HaShanah Sermon 5778 by Rabbi Beni Wajnberg

5778 - Letter to Shai

September 20, 2017


Dear Son,

    My two-year-old bundle of joy. I want to say that I love you. I want you to know that I always will love you. It must be a little weird to read this in English and not Portuguese. But the first time this letter was ever read out loud was to our extended Shaaray Tefila family, on a Rosh Hashanah evening, before you were able to really understand all of these words. And you weren’t even present, since your bedtime was still 7:00! 

    I also want you to know that this idea, to write a letter for you, came from another father who wrote his own letter, that then became a book, to his son. This letter will not compare to that one, and it is not meant to do so. That letter will always be imprinted in my memory and in my heart. And you should read it too - if you haven’t already. Knowing your Ima, I wouldn’t be surprised if we gifted you with the book even before you got to Harry Potter or whichever crazy tale of dragons and magic is trendy when you learn to read. Nevertheless, you know sometimes I can go off in a tangent, please read the book I was mentioning; the book is called Between The World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Ta-Nehisi tells his son about the hardship, although his son already knows some about it, of living in a black body in America. 

    He speaks to his son directly about his own story, about the perils of being a young black boy – of having to be “twice as good” and to take responsibility for the actions of other black people, of having to know and follow “the rules,” of having to struggle more than everyone else. Your life is much better, son. That son, is because just like me, you are white. I have an accent. I’m Latin. An immigrant. And sure there are times it’s rough to be those things; but I still am aware of the ways in which being white makes my life unfairly easier. This is why I couldn’t even try to compare this letter to Ta-Nehisi’s. And that’s important to know. 

    And I am writing this letter for you on Rosh Hashanah, a season of reflection on what the year was like, on what our individual and collective actions in the year were like, on how our world looks like. A season of reflection, judgment, contemplation and atonement. I want to reflect with you, to contemplate what this recent time has been like with you. 

    Son, when you were just two weeks old, your Ima remembers holding you tight in her arms when news came in of a mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, in an African-American church. Many were murdered, and the murderer’s confession made it possible to call what happened in Charleston a hate crime. And when you were a little more than a year old, our country seemed to change a lot. America felt divided. People started to express fear, anger and anxiety about what was going on in our country. Some say 77%, others say up to 86% of people in our country felt a stronger division in 2017 than ever before. 

    First, I want you to know that the division is not new, that the internal struggles of our society are not new. If you read Between the World and Me, you already know that. In some ways, prejudices became a little more self-evident.And a whole part of the country, for whom the colors blue, red and purple have not had any real meaning whatsoever, for many decades and many presidential mandates  of presidents of all sides of the political spectrum, instead of having their suffering finally heard,were called uneducated and unintelligent for how they recently voted. And a lot of latent hate, hate that was already there, came to the surface. White supremacists marched in Virginia, passing by a synagogue, just like the one from our Shaaray Tefila extended family, screaming “Jews Will not Replace Us.” Hatred seemed to be sanctioned, normalized.

    Son, my two-year-old bundle of joy, your heart is already so clearly kind, good, funny, silly, beautiful. I know it must be so hard to know that there is hate. Remember, hate always existed. It seems only to be a little more public, less apologetic on one side, more apologetic - but yet still existent - on the other side. There’s so much work left. I know it’s unfair, I wish it was different, but I don’t think you will live in a world of compassion and kindness only. I think the journey is long. Very long. And it breaks my heart knowing that I can’t deliver this to you.

    Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (I know, I know, you hear me quoting him ALL the time, but he is just so right ALL the time!), once said: “A religious man is a person who holds God and man in one thought at one time, at all times, who suffers harm done to others, whose greatest passion is compassion, whose greatest strength is love and defiance of despair.” We cannot despair. We have to have compassion as our greatest passion.

    I want to tell you a story that will help me to express what I’m trying to express, what is so hard to express. You may have heard this story before. You know me. I can sometimes be a little repetitive with the stories I really love. A professor walks into a classroom and places a jar on the table. She silently places rocks in the jar until no more can fit [DEMONSTRATE]. She asks the class if the jar is full and they agree it is. She then pulls out a pile of small pebbles, adding them to the jar, allowing them to fill the spaces between the rocks [DEMONSTRATE]. She asks again, “Is the jar full?” They agree. Next, she adds sand to the jar, filling the space between the pebbles [DEMONSTRATE]. She asks again. “Is the jar full?” This time, the class is divided, some feeling that the jar is obviously full, but others are wary of another trick. So she grabs a pitcher of water and fills the jar to the top [DEMONSTRATE]. 

    She then says: “If this jar is your life, what does this experiment show you?” So she explains: “The rocks represent the BIG things in your life – what you will value at the end of your life, and what you can’t live without – your closest loved ones, all of things you just can’t live without. The pebbles are the other things in your life that give meaning to it, like your job, your house, your hobbies, your friendships. The sand and water represent the ‘small stuff,’ clutter that fills our time, such as TV or the internet.” Looking out at the class again, she asks, “Can you see what would happen if I started with the sand or the pebbles? There would simply be no room for the big rocks.” 

    You see, son, this is all about priorities. You are a big rock for me. Your Ima is too. Judaism is one as well - I am a rabbi. But I think we need to make sure that something else is a big rock for us. And for everyone we are able to inspire and work with. That’s the rock of compassion. Compassion is an overly used word. It sometimes is interchanged with the word “Empathy.” Empathy is when you are able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Remember, like when you were two, and you learned the word “no,” and then you learned to respect when someone else says “no.” You learned what it means to be heard and respected, and hear and respect back. Compassion is when we not only put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and notice their suffering, but we also act to mitigate that suffering. Like when you were two-years-old, and after you heard you gave someone an “ouchie,’ you came with a serious concerned face to give a kiss to make it better.

    Son, on the High Holy Days, we read the 13 Attributes of God. The first of them is compassion. El Rachum Ve’Chanun - God who is compassionate and merciful. Rabbi Alschich, in the 16th century, wrote that the commandment is not to say (yomru) the 13 attributes. It’s to do (ya’asu). We are commanded to do God’s attributes. It is not enough that we say these words, that God is compassionate. We have to do them. We have to enact God’s compassion. To become compassion, to become the big rock of compassion. That’s the work that can be the most transformative.

    We need to make compassion the hugest of all rocks, because, my sweet child, the world needs it. America needs it. And, of course, Ta-Nehisi Coates expressed what we deep down already knew: we have always been far from achieving a society of love alone. A society that feels united, all of its pieces, its diversity, its explosion of differences, respected on the same level. Oysters can suffer up to 6 years from an intruder grain of sand until they produce a beautiful pearl. We have to keep working towards making the most beautiful of all pearls, remembering, as a society, that loving all of the creatures is what gives us a higher purpose.

    Michael Gellert, a renowned Jungian psychologist, wrote a book called “The Fate of America: An Inquiry into National Character.” In this book, he calls for the need of a spiritual renaissance in America. He calls us to respond to the erosion of the sense of a national purpose. When purpose became sand. He says that Adams, one of our founding fathers, already had a vision that included the need for our personal “interior integrity.” America was founded with the idea of more than just a common national fate for our founding fathers, but a common purpose. A person seeing the other person as vital part of society. The way we behave towards the other will be reflected, Gellert says, in our institutions and our culture. This is why compassion needs to be a big rock for us.

    Son, I don’t know if you remember. But in August of 2017, I traveled to DC to participate in a march. I joined a group of about 3000 ministers to mark the anniversary of the “I Have a Dream” speech by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We joined to commemorate the speech, and to recommit, as faith leaders, to protect civil rights. One of the most impactful parts of that trip were the stories I heard from ministers from all around the country. I want to share one of them with you. 

    I met a Reverend who served nearby Richmond, VA. He told me that in Richmond, VA, there’s an avenue called Monument Avenue, displaying statues memorializing Virginian Confederate participants of the Civil War. Many of those monuments were built during the Civil Rights movement, and not before. They were built to instill fear and pain. He spoke of tensions, new and old. He spoke of pain. He spoke of violence committed against his community, and at an ascending rate for the last few months before we met. He spoke of hatred. And to my surprise, he spoke of love.

    “Love?” I asked. How can you speak of love? “They live in darkness, they live in pain,” he said. “And we have to love ’em.” I admit I was a little surprised. Can I love a Neo-Nazi? Can I love an Anti-Semite? A White Supremacist? How on earth can I love the person holding a gun across the street from a synagogue, as they did in Charlottesville, in a direct threat to the Jewish community, meant to bring forth the despair that Abraham Joshua Heschel so much opposed? 

    The reverend told me I had to love. He taught me that love is not complacency. Love is NOT complacency. Love is a way to find the good, to search for humanity even in our enemy. And then, from that love, still stand up to the one who hates you. Resistance becomes sacred when we see the other as human, when we learn that the other has fears, insecurities, suffering. That suffering originates hate. And we never understand that in a complacent way. We still fight hate, because we have to. Remember that we are fighting brothers and sisters. Estranged brothers and sisters. And perhaps by loving the other, we become less like strangers. And perhaps by loving them, we can feel our resistance as an act of love for us, for them, for the world. For our common world.

    Another great rabbi of the 16th century, the Maharal of Prague, said: “Love of all creatures is also love of God, for whoever loves the One (God) loves all the works that God has made. When one loves God, it is impossible not to love all of God’s creatures. The opposite is also true. If one hates the creatures, it is impossible to love the God Who created them.” The Maharal of Prague taught me that, Abraham Joshua Heschel taught me that, that reverend from Virginia taught me that, and you, my child, always teach me that: building a rock of compassion is an imperative for our future.

    Son, my big rock. We are going to need to help one another in building this big rock of compassion. It’s so hard at times. We will have to be more aware of the suffering we may inflict in the world, in others, even without knowing. We need to love, see ourselves in the other, and wish to mitigate the suffering of all living beings. You and I are the other. We are the Jew that first came to one of the Americas escaping hatred in Europe. We are the trans-person who cannot use the restroom he/she/they prefer to use. We are the black person who is stopped by the cop for a broken tail-light and then murdered. We are the undocumented immigrant. The woman who gets paid 79 cents of each dollar we make as men.

    And. We sometimes are the ones with stereotypes, prejudices. We need to remember that we are just as human as the poor of all colors, including the poor white from the Rust Belt no matter how they voted in these last elections. We are the same as the ones ignored by politics of all trends and colors. We not always mean unconditional love when we say love. To love everyone - EVERYONE- and to build our big rock of compassion, we are going to have to learn their stories, and share ours. We have to be acquainted with the other, no matter who the other is. And why? Because son, I love you. I love life, I love people, I love being alive, being able to breathe, and think about who I am, who I want to be, who I ought to be. Who we ought to become. Who we, as a country, are. Who you want to become, my loving and loved son. And we can do much better than we’ve done. All of us. You and me. Even before this last year, even before you were born and before the United States existed in my life.

    In Judaism, we speak of one of the thrones in which God sits to rule the world as kiseh rachamim, the throne of compassion. Just like with the attributes, that we are not merely commanded to say that God is compassionate, but we are commanded to BE compassionate as God is, I want to tell you that the High Holy Days are here to agitate us. This time, I pray, to agitate us to build our own chairs of compassion with our bare hands.

    Son, do you remember how, during the High Holy Days, I always like to give people a tchotchke, a souvenir to take home to remember my sermon, right? Maybe a bracelet, maybe something else. When I wrote this letter, and I read it first before our Shaaray Tefila family, what people didn’t know was that I had put under their seats - with help from others - the tchotchke for this year. A green rock. A green rock for each person to take home and remind themselves to make compassion their big rocks. Green on purpose, to symbolize growth, our capacity to cultivate, to let compassion sprout inside of us. And they are the right size to be carried in a pocket, as a daily reminder of the need to be compassionate and to make compassion a big rock. And there’s something else. These rocks that they got were special; if left in the sun during the day, they would absorb energy and shine with light  in the dark when it’s night. If we want, if we dare to love everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, if we dare to resist, with love, and compassion, if we resist hate, bigotry and racism, inside and outside of us, we, too, will shine in the darkness. It’s all a matter of choice.

Son, I am sorry that the world you were born into was not one of full compassion, of unconditional love. I am sorry I could not do that for you - you know there is nothing in the world I wouldn’t do for you if I could. But we have the capacity of loving, caring, and being compassion. And son, I hope and pray, from the depths of my heart, that you will choose to continue to grow your little heart in the same amazing way you have so far, and become a loving, compassionate person. I love you.