Yom Kippur Sermon by Rabbi Joel M. Mosbacher

5777 - What would Jonah Do?

October 12, 2016


The phrase "What would Jesus do?" (often abbreviated WWJD) became popular in the United States in the 1990s as a personal motto for adherents of Evangelical Christianity. They used the phrase as a reminder they wore on bracelets, of their belief in a moral imperative to act in a manner that would demonstrate the love of Jesus through their actions. 

Not necessarily the way you expected a Yom Kippur sermon to begin, eh? The reason I started this way is because I’d like to recast the acronym WWJD. I thought about getting you bracelets, but Rabbi Wajnberg already got us these fantastic ones for his beautiful Erev Rosh HaShanah sermon. 

I’ve had lots of moments in the last 10 days where I alternately thought, “for my sake was the world created,” and, “I am but dust and ashes.” I hope you have, too. Right now, as my hunger pangs begin, as I reflect on the hard work of repentance that lies before me, I am resonating with the dust and ashes side of Rabbi Wajnberg’s bracelet.

If I were to have made you bracelets, though, they might have said WWJD. In this case, that would have stood for “What would Jonah do?”

The Jonah to whom I refer was a prophet of the Hebrew bible who, scholars tell us, may have lived in the 8th century BCE. Jonah, as you may remember, was called by God to leave his home town and go and plead with the people of Nineveh to repent of their sinful ways. 

We will read his story in the afternoon service, and I have to tell you, it is one of my favorite stories in the bible, so come back later today!

What do we know about Jonah? God sends him on a mission to get on a ship to go to Nineveh in northern Israel, and instead, Jonah runs away to Tarshish in the opposite direction. He runs away from his prophesy, from speaking the truth to a people in need of hearing truth. 

I’m personally sympathetic towards Jonah when God first confronts him. He must have been confused and scared. Maybe he wasn’t sure what to do. Maybe he didn’t believe he could really make change.

When we are confronted with moral challenges, many of us might also run. Even if we don’t run, we might edge away.

It’s only after he survives a near shipwreck caused by a storm that God brings, and survives 3 days in the belly of a big fish that God provides, that Jonah finally, reluctantly makes his way to Nineveh. There he asks the people to repent. 

When they do and God forgives them, Jonah, instead of being elated at his success and remorseful to God for trying to avoid God’s mission for him, ends the book in a depression. 

He can’t believe that God would be so forgiving as to relent in punishing even the people of Nineveh, one of Israel’s great enemies at the time.

Actually, come to think of it, I’m glad Rabbi Wajnberg gave out his bracelets. “What would Jonah Do?” would be a terrible message for me to offer today. Jonah is the anti-prophet in the Hebrew bible. 

Other prophets ask God to choose someone else. But Jonah does more than attempt to beg off of the job. He runs away, thinking he can somehow hide from God. He simply wants to avoid the responsibility of making the world better, especially if it involves working with strangers, with the “other.”

My friends, we have a choice today. To be like Jonah, or not to be like Jonah. Our Torah portion this morning, from the book of Deuteronomy, begins this way. Atem nitzavim hayom, kulchem, lifnei Adonai Eloheichem. You are standing here today, Moses says, all of you, before Adonai your God. 

The text goes on to list all those who are present: tribal heads, elders, officials, children, wives, strangers-- from the woodchopper to the water drawer. 

Moses says that God is making the covenant with those who were there that day, and also those who were not physically there that day-- meaning us-- all the Jewish people who would ever live. Moses lays out a choice: to hearken to God’s call, or not to hearken to God’s call. 

We know the option Jonah chose. The question before us is, what option will we choose?

Last night, I spoke of the power of getting proximate-- getting close to the people and issues that matter-- if we really want to have an impact on the world. 

I asserted that if we want to complain about things, we can certainly do that from afar, from our armchairs. 

But if we want to make a difference, to bring blessing into the world-- the blessing that God commands us to bring in this morning’s Torah portion-- we will have to make ourselves vulnerable. We will have to be willing to open our hearts to others, and truly see them and listen to them as they open their hearts to us. 

The question that challenges me, and should challenge all of us is, what will we need to experience so that we can hear the call of justice? How much more tragedy can we witness in our nation and still turn away?

The moment of rayiti came for me in the heat of rural North Carolina this summer.

At the inspiration of another great sermon from Rabbi Wajnberg, a group of 8 of us took a journey that opened my heart, that made me realize that I can no longer look away; that I can no longer run in the opposite direction. 

We joined Jews from across the country who had travelled to North Carolina to assist in a non-partisan voter registration drive, after that state passed some of the most regressive voter restrictions in the country, targeted specifically at poor people and people of color.

Each of us who travelled to North Carolina has our own story of the most powerful interactions we had there, of elderly folks who had lived through the civil rights movement of the 1960’s and couldn’t believe that we were having to fight these fights again; of young people who had already come to believe that their votes wouldn’t be counted, of people of all races whose voting places had been moved, in some cases dozens of miles away, without any notification; of a white police officer who hadn’t realized that his father, who doesn’t have a birth certificate, would likely be prevented from voting because of a new restrictive voter ID law. 

Story after story after story washed over us, like the waves threatening the boat Jonah was on. Reform Jews helped register hundreds of voters in just a couple of days. 

Thankfully, shortly after our visit, a federal court struck down North Carolina’s laws because it concluded that the state’s voting strictures “target African-Americans with almost surgical precision.” 

This battle continues all over the country, however. Attempts to roll back the advances made in the Voting Rights Act of 1964 have ramped up dramatically since the Supreme Court in 2013 ironically invalidated a section of that 52 year old law that kept 9 states, including North Carolina, from unilaterally changing voting laws to repress the votes of poor people and people of color.

My story from that trip came from High Point, North Carolina, where a small team of us, including our own Ruth Fuchs Hallett, went to register voters at a town fair. I can remember going to such fairs as as a kid-- they were so much fun.

There were perhaps 30 booths in a circle outside the YMCA-- boy scouts, girl scouts, local sports teams, a dunk tank, a DJ, a raffle station, some booths for local candidates running for office. Those in attendance were largely people of color. 

At the fairs I went to as a kid, there was almost always a firetruck or a police car in the circle of booths, often with a sign that said something like “touch a truck,” with friendly officers and firemen giving out candy, taking pictures, and schmoozing with residents. 

Not so in High Point. Here, distinctly just outside the circle of community booths were 3 police cars, 5 heavily armed police officers wearing riot gear in the brutal heat, and a huge vehicle I later learned was called an M-RAP stationed menacingly for all to see. MRAP, I came to know, stands for: mine resistant ambush protected.

The message to local residents was all too clear. You are being watched. The men, women, and children of all ages in High Point are assumed to be dangerous and suspect, and we need you to know who is in charge. 

High Point, NC, population 100,000, brings an army surplus mine resistant ambush vehicle to the town fair, and not so kids could touch it. It was only there for one reason: to intimidate and scare the hell out of people. The MRAP is the 21st century stand-in for Bull Connor's attack dogs.

My friends, I understand why we’d want to be like Jonah in this moment, confronted as we are with the nation’s racial divide.

I understand it, and I’m just as guilty of it. The truth is, if we are white, we don’t usually experience the effects of racism every day. We don't experience the glares or insults or jokes people make based on assumptions about who we are. 

If we are white, we don’t usually experience the effects of racial profiling or voter ID laws. If we are white, we don’t usually experience discrimination in employment, housing, or education. If we are white, we usually don’t go to jail for minor drug offences at the astounding rate black and brown people do, even though the rate of drug use among white people is the same as the rate of drug use among people of color. If we are white, we don’t usually experience fear for our lives in a routine traffic stop.

We edge away from the daily indignities of people of color, because those indignities and injustices are overwhelming.

Jonah must have been overwhelmed as well. The people of Nineveh also had seemingly intractable social problems. Jonah decides to flee from God, so he boards a ship for Tarshish, in the opposite direction from Nineveh, and falls asleep in the bottom of the ship. God, knowing what Jonah is doing, causes a huge storm to prevent his escape. The ship rocks precariously in the water, and the sailors furiously try to dump their freight to make it lighter and save it from sinking. Finally, the captain wakes Jonah from his sleep.

Or in the words of the midrash:

“The captain of the ship came to him and said, “Behold, we are standing between death and life, and you are sound asleep!  

In our society, it is people of color who are standing between death and life, and too often, death prevails. As we recite Yizkor this morning, we remember: Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tanisha Anderson, Mya Hall, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Tony Robinson – to name just a few unarmed black people killed by police officers in the last year or so.

Death prevailed in Charleston, South Carolina as well. We remember the victims of Dylan Roof’s white supremacist attack at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Will we, like Jonah, stay sleep?

Systemic racism is uncomfortable to talk about and it’s difficult to change, but Yom Kippur is a time to talk about uncomfortable things and to commit ourselves to making difficult change.

Yom Kippur is a time when we talk about responsibility, both individually and collectively. We are responsible for our behavior and we are responsible to our neighbor. We are responsible because remaining silent in the face of injustice makes us complicit in that injustice.

As the Talmud teaches:

Anyone who is able to protest against the sins of one's household and does not do so is held responsible for the sins of the members of the household. Anyone who is able to protest against the sins of one's community and does not do so is held responsible for the sins of the community. Anyone who is able to protest against the sins of the entire world and does not do so is punished for the sins of the entire world (Shabbat 54b).

A core part of taking responsibility is for us to understand where we have come from. We can begin by considering our own history in the United States and the conclusions we draw from it.

For those of us who trace our heritage back to Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants who came to the United States in search of a better life, we remember the bitter experiences that they and their children endured. It was not that long ago that American Jews suffered from consistent and persistent discrimination, both on institutional and personal levels. We remember discrimination in university admissions, in hiring practices, in housing, and in anti semitic slurs and assaults.

We also remember Jewish involvement in the civil rights movement. Many of us have been deeply inspired by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching with Dr. King in Selma, or by the disproportionate number of Jews who risked their lives on the freedom rides through the South. We remember the young Jews, Michael Schwerner and An­drew Goodman, who along with James Cheney were murdered by the Klan as they were fighting for voting rights for African Americans.

These stories of our past are important. They shape who we are and how we see ourselves in the present. Our minds jump to these stories when we consider the issue of race today. 

We sympathize with the African American and Latino communities because our grand-parents also experienced discrimination. We take pride that our community was on the front lines in Selma, fighting for justice alongside African-Americans.

But history is never that simple. We have a tendency to see Jews as either victims or heroes. The truth is that we weren’t always oppressed and we didn’t always do the right thing. That makes our history less glamorous, maybe, but taking responsibility means learning about who we really are and what we really did – not using parts of our history to hide in the bottom of the ship, to get ourselves out of difficult conversations.

White Ashkenazi Jews have been able to make use of our white skin and integrate as part of white America. 

Not always, of course, and “passing” carries with it its own complexities, but we have made enormous strides, in part because we have been able to blend in and assimilate, a privilege that African Americans and Latinos do not have, and because the larger society’s attitudes towards Jews have changed.

Jews “became white” – meaning that white, Christian America now largely sees us as part of them, not as immigrants who don’t belong. And while anti semitic acts still do happen in the United States, most of us do not live our daily lives in fear that we will be stopped by the police, not be hired for a job, or be the victim of a hate crime because we are Jewish.

It’s hard to recognize and own our power and privilege. But it’s important that we do so that we might, as a community, help to end racial injustice.

The process of doing teshuvah, of turning back to our best selves and making real change in the year to come, begins by reflecting on what we have done and how we have fallen short. 

We do this in all areas of our lives, and if we choose, we can also do this in order to take responsibility for the racial injustice around us. 

On this day of days, we recite a litany of sins as we seek to become whole again. On this Yom Kippur, I submit that there are a few more we must say:

Al chet she’chatanu l’fanekha – for the sin that we have committed against You, God, by assuming the worst of Your children, please forgive us.

V’Al chet shechatanu lifanecha – for the sin that we have committed against you, God, by ignoring the suffering of your children, please forgive us.

Al chet shechatanu lifanecha – for the sin we have committed against you, God, by closing our eyes to injustice committed in the name of justice.

V’Al chet shechatanu lifanecha – for the sin we have committed against you, God, by looking down, rather than eye-to-eye, at those made in Your image.

For all these sins, O God, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement, only if we take on the task of opening our eyes and ears, overhauling our attitudes and mindsets, and address the critical oppression of our brothers and sisters – with urgency.

Today, in America, we can choose to say hineini and rayiti. We can hang in there when we see things we don’t like about ourselves, when we feel defensive or self-righteous, or when we feel that our feelings matter more than other people’s feelings. 

We can choose to stay when, like Jonah, we want to turn away.

Just as last evening I challenged us to take the hard steps of making ourselves vulnerable with our families and congregation, today I acknowledge how hard that is on a larger scale as well. We gather each year to open ourselves to this discomfort and vulnerability and to commit to doing something new to challenge ourselves in the year to come.

We want to turn away because making amends and repairing what’s broken and stepping across the racial divide require that we make ourselves uncomfortable and vulnerable. We would have to say hineini. “Here I am. I have a complicated story. I am blessed. I have privileges that people of color do not.” And we would have to say, rayiti. “I see what is going on in the world, and I won’t turn away from the story of racial injustice in this country.”

Often we look for the perfect place to step into work like this, but I don’t think there is a perfect place. I think there are lots of imperfect places that might lead somewhere if we’re diligent and open-hearted, if we’re willing to stay committed even when it’s hard, if we let go of our assumptions, if we’re patient and don’t move on when something more interesting comes along.

As I advocated last week, we are going to start with relationship. I have invited Reverend David Brawley, pastor of St. Paul’s Community Baptist Church in East Brooklyn to address our congregation on Friday evening, October 28. He will share with us stories of joy and pain that his congregants feel on a daily basis. My hope is that we will have the opportunity to meet his congregants in East Brooklyn as well.

The transition sub-committee working on the speaker series that began with the brilliant talk from Dr. Ruth Calderon some weeks back is working to bring a major speaker on the issues of mass incarceration and criminal justice reform to Shaaray Tefila some time in 5777. 

More tangibly and immediately, the Reform Movement is working with the NAACP to mobilize a non-partisan voter-protection effort on election day itself. I will be joining one of our members, Jolie Schwab, in travelling to Ohio to protect the right vote of vulnerable communities with the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. 

We’re focused on states like Ohio because they, like North Carolina, have proposed or passed many discriminatory election changes in the past 3 years. If you are willing to vote by absentee ballot here in New York and travel with us, please contact me after today for more information.

We will be exploring other opportunities in the coming months to deep our learning on these issues, to build connections with communities of color, and to act purposefully in ways that can make a difference. 

This is a complex set of issues with no one solution, but we are called by our Jewish tradition not to stand idly by when our neighbors are bleeding.

The people of Nineveh were guilty of great injustices towards each other, but by the end of the story they really do go through a social transformation. Jonah really wasn’t much of a hero in the story. He just wanders into Nineveh after being forced by God to do so and proclaims that the people do teshuvah. He was resentful before he did it and he was resentful after he did it.

The heroes of this story are the people of Nineveh; they are the ones who make change. They did the hard, slow work of righting their wrongs, of fighting against their inequities, of protecting their most vulnerable. Change came from the ground up, from the people. Only after they did this work did the king join in, forced to follow the people’s lead.

I think we can be like the people of Nineveh. I think we can create social transformation – slowly and imperfectly, but with sincere commitment and passion, with a commitment to see with clear eyes the world as it is, and to work diligently to partner with God in building the world as it should be.

On this Yom Kippur, as we seek to be sealed for blessing in the book of life, may we hear God’s call to be a part of bringing blessings into the world. Let us begin by showing up and saying hineini

Let us take a risk by saying rayiti. Our souls, our families, our communities, our country, and our world need us now, more than ever.

Gemar chatimah tovah. May we be sealed for blessing in the book of life.