Yom Kippur 5765 / 2004 What is the Fast God Requires?
Yom Kippur 5765 / 2004
What is the Fast God Requires?
The Maggid of Dubno, a hassidic master, tells the story is told of Yossel, the small town bumpkin who went to visit the big city of Warsaw. Now, back in our great-grandparents days, while Yossel was visiting the big city, one morning he was awoken by the sound of drums on the outskirts of the city. He looked out his window and saw that there was smoke and a fire burning in one of the sheds on the edge of town. And then he saw the people were beating on drums and that as one person heard the drums, another down the line would pick up his drum and begin to make a racket. And after a while, the sound of the drums reached the fire brigade, and they came rushing out with their horse-drawn fire truck and put out the flames
Yossel couldn’t wait to get back to his little town (we’ll call it Helm) and tell all his friends of this marvel. Soon he was back home, and one day, sure enough, a fire started in one of the barns. Everyone rushed to grab their buckets and run to the river to get water to put it out. But Yossel shouted, “Wait! That’s not what they do in the big city. Everyone should beat on drums instead and someone will come put out the fire for us.”
So they all banged on drums-louder and louder, to no avail. The flames licked up the barn, until finally they gave up drumming and resorted to getting water from the river to put it out.
When Yossel told his cousin in the big city about his disappointing experience with the drums, his cousin said, “You fool! Beating on the drums doesn’t put out the fire. The drums are just an alarm. There must be someone who is willing to come when they hear the drums and put out the flames.”
This story is taken as an analogy for what happens each year when we hear our spiritual alarm clock, the Shofar. Just to hear the cry of alarm is meaningless unless it calls us to action, unless it evokes some changes in our behavior.
Similarly, we fast on Yom Kippur. It’s not any easy task to go for over 24 hours without food or water (that is for those who are over Bar Mitzvah age and in good health). However, what is the purpose of the fast? Indeed, it has a spiritual purpose, cleansing us, enlarging our consciousness, allowing us to achieve a sense of atonement (“At-one-ment”) on Yom Kippur. But the fast has another dimension.
In the haftarah that we read in every synagogue on Yom Kippur, the prophet Isaiah (chapter 58) asks the purpose of fasting:
Is a fast “merely to deprive one’s body,” to bow one’s head in prayer? Imagine Isaiah bursting into the Temple courts as people fasted and prayed, and challenging them:
“Do you call this a fast, a day in which the Lord delights?” asks the prophet. And he answers for God:
“Is not this the fast that I desire: the unlocking of the chains of wickedness, the loosening of exploitation, the freeing of those oppressed, the breaking of the yoke of servitude?
Is it not the sharing of your bread with those who starve, the bringing of the wretched poor into your house, or clothing someone you see who is naked, and not hiding from your own kin?…
If you refrain from trampling the Sabbath, from doing your business on my holy day, if you call the Sabbath a delight, and honor the Creator’s holy day…”
If the fast that we observe leads us to pursue justice and relieve poverty, and to honor God’s sacred times, then Isaiah tells us: “shall your light burst forth like the dawn, your will light shine in darkness.”
Isaiah is the prophet who thrice declared that the Jewish people are to serve as a “light unto the nations.” But as our haftarah shows us, the light is conditional: it doesn’t shine unless we as a people stand for justice, charity and holiness. Blowing the shofar isn’t enough; even fasting isn’t enough, unless it leads to Teshuvah-repentance, renewal, and righteous behavior. “Tikkun Olam,” repairing the world, is the Jewish imperative to serve as God’s partner in perfecting creation.
At times the task seems overwhelming: the world is huge and yet smaller than ever: we are increasingly interconnected to a global community. Cable news and the internet bring us word of suffering around the planet. The problems are so immense and complicated that we feel powerless to alleviate them. Where shall we turn first: the crisis in Iraq, the Arab-Israeli conflict, environmental degradation?
But in truth, the Torah does not require that any one individual solve the world’s problems. As it says in Pirke Avot, the Sayings of our Sages: “It is not up to you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” Each person must do his or her small part.
Rabbi Benjamin Bisno tells the story of a teacher who wanted to challenge her students. So she took a picture of the world from a magazine and tore it in many pieces, which she asked them to put together like a puzzle. To her amazement, one of the students taped the picture of the whole world together in a matter of minutes. “When the teacher asked the student how it had been possible to reassemble the fragmented world so quickly, the child replied, ‘There was a picture of a person on the back side. I repaired the person and the whole world got fixed, too.’”
If we work on doing tikkun olam on the personal scale, together we can put the shattered pieces of our world together. We each need to contribute our tiny peace of the global puzzle, whether that’s our chosen political action at election time, our advocacy for Israel and our work to heal the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or our membership in an environmental organization. We have provided two suggestions in the synagogue newsletter that are particularly appropriate to the season: donate the cost of the food that you would have eaten on Yom Kippur to Mazon, a Jewish organization that feeds the hungry of all races and religion. Support the American Jewish World Service in responding to the dire situation of genocide and ethnic cleansing in the Darfur region of Sudan. Contact information and flyers for these groups have been in the September newsletter, and we have literature in the lobby. Attend the lecture on the subject of Sudan by Jerry Fowler of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial on Sept. 30th at the University. After the holocaust, we said “Never Again” to genocide: that applies not only to Jews, but to all endangered peoples.
We need to put some passion into our action. Think for a moment-what is you passion? You probably have a passion for a certain art, or team, or hobby. Well, what’s your mitzvah passion? Each of us has one waiting to be discovered. For starters, we need people to volunteer for our Social Action Committee, chaired by Marv Megibow. Marv has donated years to social action in Chico. He is currently chairman of the Human Relations Network, which has taken the lead in an anti-racism, pro-tolerance coalition that arose in response to the distribution of racist, anti-Semitic literature in Chico this summer.
It’s time to expand CBI’s social action efforts. This year we hope to hold a Jewish Community Mitzvah Day in March, during which we will join forces with the Hillel and the Havurah for a day in which dozens of us will volunteer for local organizations. We also need to weave social concern and compassionate deeds into every holiday and function. If Social Action is your passion, if this is your response to the Shofar’s call, then see Marv on Yom Kippur and tell him to invite you to his next committee meeting.
We have to make tzedakah and mitzvot almost automatic reflexes. We can get good habits and bad habits that begin to shape the quality of our life. Think for a moment-what good and bad habits do you have? In the words of tzedakah-activist Danny Siegel, we can all get in the “Tzedakah habit.” The Jewish way of life is that whenever we have a happy occasion, we make a donation. Whenever we have a solemn memorial, we make a donation. When we celebrate or have a family simchah, it’s incomplete until we personally have given Tzedakah. Give to Mazon and feed the hungry; give to the synagogue funds and support the community. When we go to the store, says Siegel, we should get in the habit of buying something extra for the food bank. We can donate leftover building supplies to Habitat for Humanity (there’s a poster in the CBI lobby). When we have a pleasant experience any day, we can take a moment to share the good feelings by writing a check for tzedakah.
The story is told of a rabbi at the kiddush after a large congregational service. A man comes up and brings his daughter to see the rabbi. He says, Rabbi, I brought my daughter to hear you speak because she’s interested in becoming a rabbi when she grows up. The Rabbi is touched and asks the youngster if she as any questions. Well yes, she says, “When you’re not up there on the bimah speaking, what do you do all week?” The Rabbi sighs and says, “You don’t want to grow up to be a rabbi. You want to grow up to be a synagogue president!”
Although thankfully most people in our community know what keeps the rabbi busy, there is a side to the rabbi’s work that isn’t visible to most people on a regular basis. I’m referring to the pastoral work and also the social services that our congregation is called upon to provide. Looking back on my first year here in Chico, I estimate that I had about 60 pastoral contacts such as visits to the sick or meetings with people about personal needs. (By the way, in our lobby tonight and tomorrow you will find “Jewish Life Lights” which are little booklets about addressing personal issues in your life from a Jewish perspective. I was able to provide them to you from donations to the Rabbi’s fund).
In addition to regular pastoral care, about 12 times last year; that is about once a month, we were called by persons (generally Jewish people who are not members) with truly difficult problems: perhaps financial straits, plus health problems or depression, plus family issues. Perhaps addiction or incarceration.
Now, back in San Antonio, I could refer these people to the Jewish Family Service for social services. Here the Jewish Family Service is 90 miles away in Sacramento. We are in a smaller community with fewer resources and we have to know exactly where to refer people in the potpourri of city and county and nonprofit services. And even then, it’s not always possible to meet their full needs as a human being. For one thing, personal issues are often intertwined with religious needs. We can send someone to Catholic Social Services, but does that meet the needs of an elderly Jewish person in Oroville who feels religiously isolated, who “just wants to see a Jewish face?” I asked some of my Christian colleagues in the clergy what they do when someone comes to them with a bill to pay. They send them to the Jesus Center, which isn’t quite comfortable for us.
Sometimes there are few community resources. Although we have researched programs to help people pay their utility bills in winter, the reality is that not much money is easily available to the needy in a crisis. The Rabbi’s Discretionary fund is my only congregational source to help needy Jews or others who call because their electricity is about to be disconnected in the middle of winter, and it is completely dependent on voluntary donations. The donation that you make to the Rabbi’s fund out of joy for your daughter’s Bat Mitzvah may be the saving grace for someone who needs a little help to turn their life around.
As a rabbi who did training in pastoral care, I feel competent to counsel our members as they deal with grief or spiritual issues. However, the first thing that we learned as pastoral care givers was: know your limits. I don’t have the training, the time, or the resources to meet the complex social service needs of all the Jews in our area, but just giving our callers a quick referral is not enough to meet the totality of their needs in a Jewish context. One remarkable person has helped me to respond to the many people who call and that is my administrative assistant, Dana Kraus. Dana will be moving back to Chicago in a year to start her Masters in Social Work. She goes far above and beyond her job description as she tirelessly visits the sick and needy in their own homes, visits people in the hospital, calls agencies to find the right services for people. If not for her, I really don’t know how I would begin to respond to the many requests that come out way.
Some people might think, is it part of our mission to help poor Jews who aren’t members of our synagogue? This has been the mitzvah of Jewish communities throughout history. As Hillel said, “If I am for myself alone, what good am I?”
I recall the story by an American immigrant to Israel, Ze’ez Chafetz, when he joined the army and was called up during the Yom Kippur war. As his transport was heading to the Suez Canal, he thought to himself, “Well, at least the army will protect us.” Then he realized, “Wait! We are the army!”
Well, friends, we are the troops here in Chico. There’s no Jewish Federation, Family Service, or big Temple down the street to pass the buck to. If we don’t help the Jewish needy in Butte Country, who is going to do it? Of course, we want to help others as well, as any Jewish family service would. But we have quite a challenge just to begin to answer the needs of our own kin (as Isaiah would say).
Already I have spoken to our board of directors and our Sisterhood is also taking up the challenge. We are exploring ways to provide a more organized system of social services to the community, whether through an internship in Social Work or through a connection with the Jewish Family Service in Sacramento. We are looking into ways that therapists, social workers and other helping professionals in our CBI community can assist us in doing a better job of meeting needs. Already Helene Ginsberg, Janice Gagerman, Marv Megibow and others have offered us guidance. If this is your passion, if this is your answer to the shofar’s call-whether as a professional or a philanthropist, please let me know.
A lot of this work will need to be done by the board with the help of our local professionals, but there is much room for members to contribute. I’m referring to Bikur Holim, visiting the sick or inform, providing a meal for someone who just got out of the hospital. Yes, as your rabbi I visit our members in the hospital, and our wonderful “sunshine” ladies send cards, but it’s much too big a mitzvah not to share.
Many of you (too numerous to mention by name for fear of omitting someone) already do wonderful mitzvahs and gemilut hessed, deeds of kindness for others. Just by way of example let me note that Al and Sandy Abrams are mitzvah mensches in Paradise, always willing to make a visit, give a ride or do a good deed behind the scenes. Harriet Spiegel takes an elderly man in the Oroville area to lunch every week. Stuart Nutick has volunteered and visited the infirm. This year we need to develop a congregational team of Mitzvah Mensches who are willing to sign up to make visits, cook a meal, or give a ride to services, or as I mentioned on Rosh Hashanah, to host a couple of Hillel students. If this is your passion, if this is your response to the Shofar’s call, we will have a mitzvah sign-up page in the November bulletin, or you can let us know by contacting the office after the holiday.
Finally, the prophet Isaiah tells us to keep the Sabbath. One might wonder how that fits in to this call to Social Action. Well, if we don’t take the time to experience the beauty, rest and joy of Shabbat, we can easily become burned out in our efforts to better the world. Shabbat is a taste of dream, a weekly experience of “the World to Come,” that is what life on our planet will be like when we truly perfect the world as God’s partners. Let us enjoy it, savor it and honor it.
At CBI, we have a regular Shabbat morning minyan, people who come faithfully nearly every week to pray, learn Torah and shmooze over Kiddush. Shabbat morning has become our main service of the week. On Friday nights, too, at Mishpachah Shabbat and Scholars’ Shabbats, we have a full house. It’s especially great to see all the families with young children who come to the Mishpachah services. But at many of our regular Friday night services, when there’s not a special program, things have been too quiet lately. We’ve missed you. If you’ve forgotten what a delight Shabbat can be, perhaps your answer to the shofar’s call can be to attend Kabbalat Shabbat and to celebrate with us.
What is the fast that God requires? It is to do our small part in the repairing the world, to put our little piece in the great puzzle of humanity. To create a caring congregation. To get in the tzedakah habit. To find our mitzvah passion and sign on for it. To tend to our own spirituality and build our community by keeping the Sabbath as a taste of the World to Come.
This is the fast that God requires, the call of the shofar to which we must respond.