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Sermon on Rosh Hashanah Morning 2015/5776

 

Hear Ye, Hear Ye - It's the Jewish Things To Do

Rabbi Mark Dov Shapiro, September 14, 2015

 

What do you need to be a Jew - better eyes or better ears?

If you've got at least adequate eyes, you'll probably recognize some of the iconic photos on Page One of this morning's handout.

One goes all the way back to Times Square in 1945 when Japan surrendered to end World War Two. Another reminds us of the day President Kennedy was buried. Another takes us to the triumph of the Six Day War.

And one photo... of the little boy with his Velcro shoe fasteners hanging loose... that is September 2015. That's 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi. A Turkish soldier is lifting Aylan off the beach where he drowned as his family tried to make their way from Turkey to Greece and on to Canada where his aunt was waiting to greet the family.

Aylan almost looks as if he has fallen asleep.

He's a preschooler like any of the playful, bubbly children so many of us have nurtured and loved in our lives.

Except Aylan isn't taking a nap. He is not going to wake up and play with his brother. Both died along with their mother when the rubber raft provided by smugglers capsized just off the Turkish shore.

But Aylan and his family are not isolated people in a one-of-a-kind sad story. He and they are just the most visible refugees in a world that is awash with refugees.

Eleven million Syrians are already displaced. Seven million are homeless inside the borders of Syria. Four million live in refugee camps scattered through Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey.

Then there are the thousands of refugees from parts of Africa, Afghanistan and more. A week ago Sunday, when the Hungarian authorities released trains to go from Hungary and onward to Vienna, 13,000 refugees boarded those trains in only 36 hours.

You know Germany is talking about taking in 800,000 refugees.

The numbers are staggering. We are witnessing the worst global refugee crisis since World War Two.

Around the Mediterranean Sea desperate human beings are floating towards what they believe has to be a better place. If they make it to dry land, they are then walking, trudging, "shlepping" somewhere anywhere.

Of course, they don't know they are "shlepping" because virtually none of these refugees are Jewish.

But we are, and we do have memories of Jews shlepping from nowhere to nowhere over the centuries. We know the refugee experience because, at its worst, it meant the Jews of Europe were trapped in Europe 75 years ago and six million Jews died as a result.

So which sense do you most need as a Jew? Better eyes or better ears?

To start with, yes, you do need eyes with which to see what is happening around you, but I think hearing may be even more consequential.

Let me explain by telling you the story of someone most of you probably don't know at all. It's the story of the mother of Sisera.

And who was Sisera, her son?

According to the biblical Book of Judges, Sisera was among the archenemies of our ancestors. For time frame, think 1200 BCE. Moses is gone. His disciple, Joshua, has led our people into the Land of Canaan where several generations of our people have to contend with ongoing disputes between themselves and various groupings among the local Canaanites.

At one point, our people are led by a courageous woman named Deborah. The Canaanites attack; the fighting is ferocious; but Deborah leads our people to victory. She vanquishes the army of Sisera. He is our man.

Reading in the Book of Judges we learn that Sisera flees the battlefield and is assassinated by an Israelite woman shortly thereafter.

But here's the center of my story.

Sisera has a mother. Even Sisera, the general who would have wiped out Deborah and our people, has a mother.

And Sisera's mother does not know what has happened to him, which is why the Book of Judges tell us she waited for news that day and she waited. She sat at her window waiting for her son to come home and asked, "Where is his chariot? Why so late the clatter of his wheels?"

She sat there for hours until the sun began to set and a messenger finally , finally brought her the news. The mother of Sisera learned that her boy, Sisera, was dead.

And then she wept. According to Jewish tradition, she sobbed not once but 99 times which is why... again according to our tradition... we hear the shofar blown again and again.

The Talmud teaches that when we hear the broken shofar notes (tekiah, teruah, tekiah, teruah... all those notes) we are meant to hear Sisera's mother. Her crying. Her pain. All those tears.

So which is more central to Judaism?

Seeing or hearing?

Is it seeing or hearing which brings you to your senses and guides the way you approach the world?

I think it's all about hearing.

Consider this. On this first day of the New Year, do you know which is the most critical mitzvah/commandment? It's not the commandment of blowing the shofar; it's the commandment to hear the shofar.

That's what the blessing will say in a few minutes: We praise You, God... for commanding us to hear the shofar.

But what do you hear when those various calls are made? What kind of hearing is Rosh Hashanah hearing?

You are supposed to hear the cries of Sisera's mother; you hear the cries of a woman who wasn't even Jewish! But she was a mother... a human being... and that trumps everything.

To be a Jew, then, must mean to listen... to hear.

To be a Jew must mean to listen and hear the groaning of your closest neighbor and, beyond that, the groaning of all your neighbors.

Being a Jew means having an exquisite set of ears that is fine tuned to all the sounds that surround us.

They may come from Africa. They may come from Iraq. They may come from Syria. They're all part of the human family - created in God's image - and that is why we must hear them.

The whole matter actually goes beyond today's humanitarian crisis.

For me, being a Jew means listening well and listening hard to the voices of so many others.

As some of you may know, a few weeks ago I spent a day in Columbia, South Carolina marching with African Americans under the auspices of the NAACP. We were part of what's called a Journey for Justice, which is taking groups of Americans 20 miles per day on foot from Selma, Alabama all the way to Washington DC. I did my part of the journey on August 25 and, you might say, I did so because I needed to fully understand and hear the story of African Americans in our country.

Walking north on the side of Route 1 in Columbia, one African American said that, if you really want to understand America, you need to know this reality of the African American experience. The children of white parents, he said, are taught, "If you're on the street and something happens to frighten you, look for a policeman and run to him as fast as possible."

This is not what black children learn. Black parents caution their children, "If you're on the street and something scares you, whatever you do - DON'T RUN."

That's the experience of our black brothers and sisters, who also know about something they call DWB - Driving While Black. DWB means that even if you haven't broken a single law, driving while black can still lead to trouble. Remember Walter Scott; remember Sandra Bland. Both didn't survive being pulled over to the side of the road for what were minor traffic violations.

DWB - Driving While Black set them up to be killed.

You've got to hear this pain from African Americans because it is their reality.

Maybe that's why, although African Americans don't blow the shofar, they have given us the blues! It's their kind of historic wail.

But it's not only political matters that call us to listen and hear... to pay attention.

Back on New Year's Eve 1913 in New Orleans a shot rang out. A colored boy was playing with a pistol, and he was put into a house of correction called The Colored Waifs Home for Boys.

He was incorrigible. Nobody wanted to hear his story until the director, one Peter Davis, acted on a hunch. He talked to the boy, heard the boy's story, and then he had an idea. What if he could quiet him by exchanging the metal of the revolver for the metal of an instrument? He gave the 12-year old boy a trumpet and then he listened as the boy coaxed his first notes that would become thousands of notes out of the instrument.

That boy was Louis Armstrong.

Someone listened; someone thought twice; someone had an open heart.

And the world got Louis Armstrong.

And let me make it more personal.

Many of you remember how we created our own Viddui/Confession back on Kol Nidre night 2010. I asked you that night to "fess up," as it were. I asked you to record a sin that troubled you and, among the hundreds of cards you handed in that night, many, many referred to regrets you had regarding family.

On those cards, you told me you were sorry for not listening fully and responsively to your wives; others wished to listen more compassionately to husbands. Some of you were upset because you lost your temper with your children.

You wished you had patience. You regretted speaking too quickly. You needed to hold your tongue. You knew you needed to listen.

Can I share a little insight with you?

You may not have considered it, but the most central declaration of Judaism offers a hint about our challenge. In Hebrew, we say Shema Yisrael. In English, we never come together for prayer without declaring - Hear, o Israel.

Shema - Listen.

Shema - Pay attention.

Shhh - The first part of the word -

Shhh - Quiet - Is something being said... is something being whispered... is something being left unsaid... you need to hear it.

Which brings me back around to Sisera's mother and the way in which her cries come through the shofar.

I'm thinking of her and all mothers and fathers in pain today... right now.

They are mothers and father, brothers and sisters like you and me. They are floating in leaky boats; they are thirsty on some road leading nowhere certain; they languish in refugee camps. Their children haven't been in school for months or years.

I am thinking of all those refugee families whose voices would surely overwhelm us if we heard them this morning.

And here's my proposal.

Although you and I cannot solve their problem, let's also not shut our ears.

Instead of that, won't you please join me at a concert in Northampton on Sunday afternoon, September 27. The concert is called Songs for Syria and it will feature the Layaali Arabic Music Ensemble which is based here in Massachusetts.

We'll hear some of the music of the refugees and also have a chance to learn about the Syrian American Medical Society. This is a non-profit organization of medical professionals providing medical services to Syrian civilians and refugees.

Come hear the music; come spend 90 minutes with people in the Pioneer Valley who don't want to stand idly by.

In addition, I'd like you to learn more about HIAS - The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society - which has been protecting the lives of refugees for over a century. As HIAS says on its website, their refugee work here in America began with our grandparents and great grandparents when the refugees were Jewish. The work continues now regardless of the refugees' origin because we are Jewish and protecting those fleeing persecution is an outgrowth of our Jewish values.

Learn about HIAS. They are advocating for a more vital American response to the refugee crisis; they have people working on the ground in a number of the countries where refugees start their journey. HIAS even has an office in Vienna which could be expanded to handle more refugees and their need for asylum.

There is an information sheet in blue outside the office which makes the boldest demand of all. Raise the limit on refugees from Syria who can be resettled in America. Jump it from the 1500 absorbed in 2015 to 10,000 or even 100,000. There isn't time to wait.

Remember the Boat People of 1979? Those Vietnamese who were fleeing the collapse of Vietnam and were adopted around the world? It may very well be that Springfield will some day receive a new refugee family. Sinai Temple could stand tall if we were to open our doors to such a family. It would be our responsibility; it would be our honor.

And in the meantime, this afternoon... tomorrow and the next day.

At the very minimum, a Jew needs to pay attention. In the words of the poet, Emanuel Eydoux, "to hear when others do not wish to listen, to look when others turn away."

That's what Jews do. That's what you can do for the refugees.

You can do so on behalf of African Americans here in our country.

You can do so for friends and, most especially, for fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, spouses, and children.

Shema Yisrael. Listen.

Sisera's mother was broken. Don't let her weep alone. Stand by and, please, reach out.

 

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