Find the Good

Yizkor 5776, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim

Why do we observe Yizkor? There are traditional reasons, to be sure. Traditional Judaism understands the soul to be eternal, but once separated from the physical body, it is no longer capable of performing mitzvot or doing good deeds. Hence, it falls to the loved one’s closest relatives to do good deeds on his or her behalf. Once upon a time, funds for tzedakah were committed in the name of departed loved ones during Yizkor, in order to help elevate their souls wherever their eternal resting place might be. And there was understood to be a positive chain reaction, one good deed leading to another – pledged funds would benefit the departed, and those acts of lovingkindness would increase the chances of one’s own personal atonement, in turn. I suppose, like many synagogues, we see the remnants of that practice in the donations raised through our Yizkor booklet each year.

I think there is still something to this “once upon a time” reason. I think we do find comfort in sitting here with our personal memories; standing up in tribute to our loved ones who are no longer with us; and knowing that we are doing something affirmative and public to not only honor, but continue, their legacies.

Yet I think there is another reason we observe Yizkor, on Yom Kippur especially. When we lose someone we love, we become particularly sensitive to the themes of this day – the themes of mortality and finitude, and choosing life while it is ours to live. Our Yizkor liturgy understands this and underscores it. The guiding imagery of this Yom Ha-Din, Judgment Day, is The Book of Life, its pages open, awaiting our inscription. One need not believe in fate, or divine judgment, or even God, to know that all we are guaranteed in life is the one page open before us. One only need to have loved and lost to understand that. So mingled with our memories is the appreciation that life is a finite gift. Were that we could spend all of it with those we love most, that’s a given. But in their absence, we come searching… how can we live it best? How can we give it the most meaning? What lessons about life do we learn from death?

Heather Lende is an obituary writer in the small town of Haines, Alaska. With a population of 2,000 that makes her whole town not even twice the size of our KKBE congregation. So what she writes are much more like personal eulogies than the formulaic obituaries we typically see in the paper. These are people she has known in some capacity – or, if not, talking to their friends and family members places their stories in the context of the community she knows and loves. Just as we experience in our own congregational community, all deaths are sad for Lende; some more tragic than others. Her job, regardless, is to pull up a chair, accept a cup of coffee, and listen. And from all she’s heard, she’s learned incredible life lessons.

A couple of years ago, she was asked to write a short essay describing just one piece of wisdom by which one could live one’s life. Just one? She had written obituaries for almost twenty years. As she said, “The journal’s editor assumed that I must know something about last words and good lives. But I didn’t have such pithy haiku wisdom at the ready. So I pretended I was on my deathbed. I imagined I’d already said good-bye to my husband, children, grandchildren, and all the great-grandchildren I hadn’t even met yet. If indeed all the wisdom I had in my heart was to be summed up in final words and it was difficult to speak more than, say, three, what would I say?”

And then it came to her: Find the good.

“Writing obituaries is my way of transcending bad news,” she writes. “It has taught me the value of intentionally trying to find the good in people and situations, and that practice – and I do believe that finding the good can be practiced – has made my life more meaningful.”

When Lende volunteered to help clean out the cabin of town resident, Russ, before it was auctioned off to benefit Hospice of Haines, she thought she’d be there for an hour, not all afternoon. “I never envisioned sitting outside in the spring sun for hours,” she said, “sorting his bills, receipts, and especially all those cards for recycling – whites, colors, cardboard.

“Russ had willed his home and its contents, including his TV, easy chair, and a shelfful of military-themed videotapes, to our hospice organization, which had arranged for his care after a lifetime of smoking caught up with him. When the hospice board president suggested that a fellow board member and I clean up the place before the sale, we were happy to help. Compared to other hospice work, this was easy on the heart. Besides, it wouldn’t take long. Russ’s cabin only had two small rooms.

“He lived a simple life but was not a woodsy hermit. His place is on the main road at the edge of town. A few curious drivers slowed to check us out. There’s not a lot of privacy in a small town. I was determined to protect Russ’s.

“So when I opened the first cigar box filled with greeting cards, I tossed them without a peek. By the tenth box, though, I looked more closely at each envelope. Who were they all from? Why had he saved them? What did they say? Not much beyond the publisher’s sentimental verse followed by a handwritten Thinking of you, or Hope you are well, or on one tucked into an envelope postmarked in Maine, So glad to finally meet you Uncle Russ.

“While researching his obituary, I had called his brother back east and learned that Russ had been born and reared in Maine, joined the Army right out of high school, and then disappeared by degrees. Pretty soon, there was no forwarding address. No phone calls, no letters, no cards. Nothing. For thirty-eight years. …

“I asked why. What had happened? His brother told me Russ had spent that time riding the rails. He had been a real-life hobo before a searching family member discovered him alive and well in Alaska. I had hoped to learn why he had been gone all those years; that must be the crux of Russ’s life story, I thought. But his brother didn’t share the reason, if he even knew, and instead said all that mattered was that Russ had been found and that, by the time he died the family had been happily reunited for several years. Relatives had visited Russ in Haines, and he had traveled to Maine. The brothers played music together. The nephews enjoyed fishing in Alaska. …

“Russ’s mother died before the family found him, but on her deathbed she made her other children promise that when Russ turned up (and she knew he would) they’d give him her Bible. In it was a note. Wherever you are I hope you are happy and well, she wrote in shaky old-fashioned cursive. Remember me always. As I have always you since the day you left us.

“After Russ’s brother delivered the Bible, his relatives must have begun writing to his Alaska address, mailing him all these Christmas, birthday, even Thanksgiving cards, and he, in turn, must have been so grateful that he saved what appeared to be every single one.”

“I believe gratitude comes from a place in your soul,” Lende writes, “that knows the story could have ended differently, and often does. And I also know gratitude is at the heart of finding the good in this world – especially in our relationships with the ones we love. … You don’t have to be an obituary writer to connect the dots and shift priorities so your regrets will be no worse than wanting one more day with the people you have loved well in the place that means the world to you.”

Goodness – is it with us always? Can we feel it even now?
Consider this: the eye is narrow in its gaze.
For, at this very moment, some lives are bathed in miracle:
a newborn child in the arms of parents who were past the point of hope;
the happiness of improbable love after many years alone;
recovery from surgery; the easing of grief;
food for the hungry, rain after drought,
the first light of peace in a war-darkened land.
May we look up from our dark places with a measure of gratitude:
Somewhere, even now, wonderful goodness blossoms forth.

It is our task in life to find it. Amen.

Heather Lende’s book is called Find the Good: Unexpected Life Lessons from a Small-town Obituary Writer (2015). Closing prayer is adapted from Mishkan HaNefesh for Yom Kippur.

One Law, One Reality

Yom Kippur Evening 5776, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim

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Sacred and profane, pure and impure, kosher and traif. Our tradition has often sought to categorize the world according to binary principles, and centuries of halakhah, Jewish law, have built elaborate structures to maintain their separation. Yet it is the Torah that teaches – nearly at its midpoint, in fact: “You shall have one law for the stranger or native alike. I am the Lord your God.” (Lev. 24:22) One law. One reality. One common existence. A fundamental teaching and a critical pursuit. Yet there are serious places where we see this is simply not the case, and too often the distinguishing variable is race.

When one set of parents tell their child to apply himself in school with the hope that maybe, just maybe, he’ll go to Harvard; and other parents tell a child to apply himself so that maybe, just maybe, he won’t land in jail or, worse yet, get shot in the street – when this is the case, there isn’t one reality. While all parents, hopefully, educate their children about the dangers of irresponsible sex, drug use, driving under the influence – but some parents also have to have “the talk” with their children about smiling, but not too much; about keeping their hands in full view not if, but when, they’re pulled over; about what clothing they wear and how they wear it – there isn’t one reality. When, even with the same level of education, whites earn more than Hispanics and blacks; and blacks with some college education have the same probability of employment as whites who haven’t completed high school – there isn’t one reality. When “the majority of illegal drug users and dealers nationwide are white, [yet] three-fourths of all people imprisoned for drug offenses have been black or Latino,” and “black men have been admitted to state prison on drug charges at a rate that is more than thirteen times higher than white men” – there isn’t one reality. When prosecutors routinely describe black offenders as committing crimes due to an internal personality flaw, like disrespect; and white offenders due to an external condition, like family conflict – there isn’t one reality. And when the black population in the city of Charleston, about 50% in 1980, slips to 41% in 1990 and only 25% in 2010 – there isn’t one reality. In fact, our city was described to The New York Times by a local community leader as “a tale of two cities.”

Two cities, two realities, two laws – this is what racism looks like in our society. It’s systemic. As Debby Irving, author or Waking Up White, has written: “Racism [isn’t] about this person or that, this upset or that, this community or that; racism is, and always has been, the way America sorted and ranked its people.” That’s why the same Torah that commands us to, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” also has to instruct us that, “You shall have one law for the stranger or the native alike.” Because we can get along well, respect one another, link arms and hands and span the entire three miles of the Ravanel Bridge with extra people to spare, yet still fail to examine how at the end of the day we, more often than not, return to neighborhoods and lives and realities so far removed from one another.

Mere blocks from here, President Obama challenged us to do better in his eulogy for the Honorable Rev. Clementa Pinckney. “For too long,” he said, “we’ve been blind to the way past injustices continue to shape the present. Maybe we now realize the way racial bias can infect us even when we don’t realize it, so that were guarding against not just racial slurs, but we’re also guarding against the subtle impulse to call Johnny back for a job interview but not Jamal. So that we search our hearts when we consider laws [that] make it harder for some of our fellow citizens to vote.” So that we work toward one reality.

But if racism is systemic, then it’s big, really big – surely bigger than anything you or I might try to do about it. I know I’ve often felt helpless this summer. If I had begun the summer traveling hundreds of miles by bus through the South with my family, visiting civil rights monuments, markers and museums that tell the story of senseless hatred and stoic bravery, and not realized that my son and the other children on the trip weren’t just learning history, but that their generation, like ours, will still have to continue the struggle – Dayeinu, it would have been sufficient. If I had completed that trip and not been called back to Charleston under the most horrific of circumstances – the buses traveling on to the church in Birmingham where 4 little girls had been murdered in 1963 for the color of their skin; our plane bringing us back home, where nine men and women – despite their hospitality, despite their graciousness, despite their purpose of gathering for study and prayer – had been murdered because of the color of their skin – Dayeinu, it would have been sufficient. If I had stood at press conferences with colleagues and friends, many of whom had dedicated their lives and careers to causes to which my eyes were only just beginning to open, as they strove for a first step, removing the Confederate flag from the South Carolina State Capitol, and had not read the disgusting comments detractors posted on their Facebook pages, heard about the threats they received by phone and mail, watched as groups and individuals sought to overturn even this one symbolic achievement as soon as it happened – Dayeinu, it would have been sufficient. Any one of these experiences would have been sufficient to overwhelm me with the scope of the task before us and leave me feeling inadequate to tackle its numerous challenges. And I have to imagine I’m not alone.

But we can’t afford to feel helpless, powerless. As we said on Rosh Hashanah: It is not up to us to finish the task, but neither can we walk away from it. Rabbi Israel Salanter taught: “When I was young, I wanted to change the world. I tried, but the world did not change. Then I tried to change my town, but the town did not change. Then I tried to change my family, but my family did not change. Then I knew: first, I must change myself.” And that we can do! That’s what this day of Yom Kippur is all about. So let’s talk about what you and I have the power to change about ourselves, for it is powerful and may very well change our families and our town, if not the world, as well.

First, we need to raise our antenna and increase our awareness. We need to educate ourselves. Precisely because we can remain ignorant of the African-American experience in this country and our community, we need to work to ensure that we don’t. One of the most poignant and powerful responses to the Emanuel shooting I saw was a crowd-sourced, evolving document called #charlestonsyllabus. Have you seen it? Two days after the shooting, Chad Williams, Associate Professor of African and Afro-American Studies at Brandeis University, reached out to a few colleagues and began soliciting readings that could help one make sense of what had happened – not just this one tragic event, but the root causes and systemic factors that fueled it. In his words, the result is “a list of nearly 300 books, articles, novels, primary source documents, films, songs, children’s literature and educational websites that provide historical context for the Charleston shooting and the various issues related to it. … Organized thematically, the readings cover [topics like] the history of African Americans in South Carolina, slavery in the United States, the Civil War and Reconstruction, the Confederate flag, southern racial violence, the black church, and the civil rights movement. While by no means definitive, [it] offers teachers, students and [all of us] an excellent introduction to African American history and the legacies of race in American society.”

But #Charlestonsyllabus is more than a list. “It [represents] a community of people committed to critical thinking, truth telling and social transformation,” to the kind of serious attention addressing racial inequality demands. So the first thing I would encourage you to do is read something, a whole book – material or a perspective you’ve never encountered or had occasion to learn about before. More than one book would be even better. You’ll note that one of our selections for KKBE Reads! in our Adult Education program this semester is the latest work by Ta-Nehesi Coates, Between the World and Me, written as a letter to his son. It’s a powerful and incredibly thought-provoking book and I look forward to discussing it with you in November. Too often our information comes in sound bites – a news clip, an article, an editorial written from a single viewpoint. So let’s dive deeper. Doing so can help us with the second area we need to address, as well: Eliminating our colorblindness.

It may seem counterintuitive, but I agree with author and civil rights lawyer, Michelle Alexander, who says colorblindness – in the context of racial inequality in our country – is a disability. Sure being colorblind is a good thing when it leads us to treat individuals with equal respect and dignity regardless of race or ethnicity. But colorblindness also prohibits us from seeing where equality doesn’t exist, and where the differentiation isn’t based on hate or economics, education or effort, but fundamentally and at its core on race. As Alexander writes: In America, we persist in our belief “that anyone, with the proper discipline and drive, can move from a lower class to a higher class. We recognize that mobility may be difficult, but the key to our collective self-image is the assumption that mobility is always possible, [and] failure to move up reflects on one’s character. … But the current system permanently locks a huge percentage of the African American community out of the mainstream society and economy.” Only if we remove our blinders to color can we begin to see this truth.

Consider the incident that occurred only last week of a 14-year-old boy arrested at school for bringing in a clock. Ahmed Mohamed had built a clock and brought it to school to show his science teacher. His teacher, together with school administrators, supposedly mistook it for a bomb and called the police. Perhaps you read this posting about it on Facebook:

I said: It’s sad they thought that kid had a bomb.
She said: They didn’t think he had a bomb.
I said: Yes, they thought he made a bomb and even called the police.
She said: They just wanted to humiliate a little Muslim, African boy. They didn’t think he had a bomb.
I said: Don’t be a conspiracist. They might be a little prejudiced, but I’m sure they thought he had a bomb.
She said: Ok. But they didn’t evacuate the school, like you do when there’s a bomb. They didn’t call a bomb squad, like you do when there’s a bomb. They didn’t get as far away from him as possible, like you do when there’s a bomb. Then they put him and the clock in an office, not like you do when there’s a bomb. Then they waited with him for the police to arrive. Then they put the clock in the same car as the police. Then they took pictures of it.
I said: […Something that probably shouldn’t be repeated in this sacred place.] They never thought he had a bomb.

If we can’t see that this 14-year-old’s name, Ahmed Mohamed, and his brown skin are the heart of this story, things will never get better. If we can’t realize that whites enjoy certain privileges in this country because we’re white and blacks suffer certain disadvantages because they’re black, things will never get better. If we persist in our insistence on colorblindness, instead of seeing the role of race and ethnicity in profiling and privilege, things will never get better. Only by removing the blinders can we see where there are two laws, two realities, and that the expectation should be just one.

So we can educate ourselves, open our eyes to the way race and color divide in our country, and, finally and perhaps most importantly, we can stand in true solidarity with the African American community right here in Charleston. Why do I say true solidarity? Because most often, when the Jewish community seeks to stand in solidarity with the black community, we do so on our terms. This isn’t unique to Charleston. We ask them to come worship with us. We invite their leaders to speak from our bimah. We hatch an idea, design a program, decide what will make a difference. But, on this day when we search our souls for truth, let’s admit that, with the best of intentions, more than making a real difference, we’re mostly making ourselves feel better. We’ve done something. “Standing in true solidarity with one another,” however, as an insightful recent college graduate put it this summer, means “letting black folks lead. The church is more than a church, it’s a pillar of the community, a sacred place, a safe place.” If we really want to make a difference and show our solidarity, we need to support it and “support community organizers and organizations in their efforts. Go to a meeting. Ask them what they need.” Move past our comfort zones.

This is why KKBE, and so many of you here this evening, participated in the community prayer vigil at the TD Arena – even though it was on Shabbat; even though it included, at times, Christian worship. Because black leaders told us it would be helpful to be there. This is why I feel it is so important for our congregation to be involved in CAJM, the Charleston Area Justice Ministry. Because it’s among the few places where we get to hear what concerns keep the African American members of our community up at night and stand with them in true and powerful solidarity to address them. This is why 11 of us from KKBE carried a Torah scroll and marched through the heat and hills of Columbia, SC, under the banner “Our Lives, Our Jobs, Our Votes, Our Schools Matter.” Because the NAACP organized a 40 day, 1000 mile march from Selma, AL, to Washington, D.C., and together with some 200 other Reform rabbis, several NFTYites, and numerous other congregants from around the country we answered their call.

This is why I ask you to pick up one of these cards from our ushers as you leave the sanctuary this evening. All of us on the march, from Alabama to Virginia, met a 68-year-old disabled veteran of the merchant marines, with long dreds and a broad smile, who had changed his name to Middle Passage in recognition of the harrowing, forced journey that brought his ancestors to America generations ago. Middle Passage marched at the head of the line every day, American flag in hand, leading the procession – until he suffered a massive heart attack and died at the 922nd mile. Like too many foot soldiers on this decades long journey, he didn’t make it to the end – but his message still lingers: “Voting is the most important right we have,” he said. “It’s been altered. It’s harder for us, for the whole population of the United States, to vote.” So, please take one of these cards when you leave the sanctuary this evening and bring it back tomorrow morning, when we will collect them and mail them to the offices of the Religious Action Center together. They ask Congress, simply and succinctly, to honor our nation’s history of bipartisan support for voting rights and ensure that they are once again adequately protected. Your clergy, Executive Committee and Board of Trustees have signed them, and we hope you will, too – not because our Reform movement has made the cards the available. They’re simply facilitating the effort. Do it because Middle Passage and so many others who have dedicated and given their lives to advance civil rights have asked us to, and we need to listen.

Friends, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” is a beautiful teaching, but the Torah knows it’s not enough. Our community gets along reasonably well. We’re kind and decent to one another. We haven’t erupted in violent protest like Baltimore or Ferguson. And, for that achievement alone, there’s an active movement to nominate our city for the Nobel Peace Prize. A humbling gesture, to be sure. But nonviolence isn’t an end in itself; it’s only the preferable means to a necessary end. The end is, and has always been, social change.

“You shall have one law for the stranger or native alike. I am the Lord your God.” One law. One reality. One common existence. The Torah makes it clear this is God’s will; in 5776, will we make it ours, as well?

Ezrat Nafsheinu, M’kor Chayeinu – Soul-Sustainer, Source of Our life –
We wish to stand as one before You.
Where is justice?
When will there be peace?
Who can mend our broken and fragmented society?
Let healing come –
Let it come through the pursuit of education;
Let it come through the clear vision of eyes no longer blind to color;
Let it come through acts of true solidarity and committed support.
O God, let healing come – let it come through us. Amen.

Quotations from: Ta-Nehesi Coates interview on Charlie Rose, July 12, 2015; “Entrenched Racism Drives Down South Carolina Child-Well-Being Scores,” Paul Thomas, The State, August 9, 2015; The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander; “Steeped in Racial History, Charleston Ponders Its Future,” Richard Fausset, New York Times, June 19, 2015. Concluding prayer adapted from Mishkan HaNefesh for Yom Kippur.

We Need To Talk

Rosh Hashanah Morning 5776, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim

What would happen if I began these remarks today with the familiar preamble: “We need to talk”? If pop psychologists and online bloggers are to be believed, then the majority of this congregation would immediately begin to quiver in their seats. Formerly fearing only the possibilities of a long and potentially boring sermon, these four words would suddenly evoke a sense of impending panic and dread. What’s happened? Is something about to happen? I’m going to lose something or someone I love, aren’t I?

“We need to talk.” Just four little words that, according to today’s Urban Dictionary, are understood to signal the beginning of the end – a relationship; a job; the comfortable, if complacent, status quo. “We need to talk” immediately produces butterflies in our stomachs and sweat on our brows. And what goes for us as individuals, holds true for our congregational community, as well.

I know because I’ve felt it, too. Gun violence, a nuclear Iran, immigration reform, the Confederate flag… as we’ve considered whether and how these timely issues might enter our discourse at KKBE – whether and how we might participate in, or even lead, community action – I’ve felt knots in my stomach tightening. Aren’t the dynamics of synagogue life delicate enough without inviting controversy?

So do we just keep quiet? Put our noses to the ground and go about our business, because surely it’s true, addressing the difficult issues of the day will probably reveal tensions, fissures, moments of discomfort?

Well, consider the intense drama of the Torah portion we just heard chanted so beautifully. The calm of an ordinary, everything-going-along-as-usual biblical day is suddenly disrupted by God’s stunning pronouncement: “Abraham, take your son – that one, the one you love, Isaac – and bring him up on a mountain to sacrifice to me.” If ever some sort of introduction were needed – a “We need to talk,” at the very least – this would be it. “Whoa!” we want to say to God; we want Abraham to say… But Abraham is silent. Not once – not when he hears the command, not when he packs for the trip, not when he binds his son and raises the knife – not once does Abraham tell God, “Just a minute, please – we need to talk.” The only time Abraham speaks, is when his son asks for reassurance. “Everything will be OK,” father says to son – but how can it be, if no one’s talking?

We cringe at this Abraham; will him to find his voice, to be the Abraham of an earlier chapter, who, when God revealed His plans to destroy Sodom and Gemorah, spoke up and said, “Wait a minute, God – before You do anything, we need to talk.” We shudder at Abraham’s silence, Abraham’s avoidance; we want more of that willingness to engage with God and explain how the proposition to destroy two cities opposes the very essence of who God, the Creator, is.

So why does Abraham speak up in this earlier case but not in today’s Torah reading? Is it because the dilemma of today’s portion hits too close to home? Is it because Abraham values relationships over issues, and his relationship with God matters to him more than anything in the world? Is it because the situation feels so tenuous and fraught with danger? Is it because there is just so much at stake?

When it comes to the most pressing issues of our day – race and racism, guns and violence, affluence and opportunity, war and peace – all the same impediments exist. However, as clearly as we see the need for Abraham to overcome his reticence, we know that we too must find the will and the courage to have difficult conversations amongst ourselves. We need to talk.

And we can be strengthened knowing that doing so is a significant part of our American Reform Jewish heritage, a heritage of which we are, deservedly, so proud. In the 1850s, Reform Rabbi David Einhorn spoke out vehemently and courageously against slavery in his southern city of Baltimore. At the end of the 19th century, Rabbi Emil G. Hirsch became known as one of the foremost political and social reformers of his time, tackling sweatshops and the inequities of working conditions amidst strikes and riots. Following the lead of these giants, our movement advocated for the protection of civil liberties during the McCarthy era, was deeply involved in the civil rights movement, and “very early [and] sharply condemned the war in Vietnam.”

And we’d be in error if we deduced that the willingness and courage of our forebears to do these things reflected the luxury of agreement and uniformity of opinion unique to their time. Far from it. Rabbi Einhorn was run out of town for his views on slavery. When the CCAR (the central body of Reform rabbis) issued its Declaration of Principles in 1918, the first social justice platform of any Jewish denomination, nearly all of its policies pertaining to social and economic equality – a fair minimum wage, regulation of working hours and industrial conditions, universal health insurance and pension – nearly all “remained the subject of [significant] controversy,” as they do today.

When the Reform rabbinate “called for radical measures to curb poverty,” during the Great Depression, “lay leadership, at that time dominantly conservative, sometimes stood in opposition to [their rabbis].” Following World War II, the tables turned and it was the laity, represented by the UAHC (Union of American Hebrew Congregations), that took the initiative – conducting social justice activities at the national level, encouraging the formation of social action committees, providing educational materials for the discussion of issues in congregations, and publishing statements in areas of social concern. When the UAHC passed a resolution in 1967 “calling for a halt to the bombing of North Vietnam,” it represented a minority view in the country at the time.

So what’s changed? Are we just more squeamish about controversy? Perhaps. Against the backdrop of heightened concern about the future of American synagogues and American Jewry, are we extra wary of doing anything that might further rock the boat, alienate the members and potential members necessary for our institutional survival? Quite possibly. Or is it that the issues of today feel more complex than those of earlier times? As Al Vorspan and Rabbi David Saperstein, key leaders of the Religious Action Center, have written:

“In the days of the historic civil rights struggle, [for instance,] it seemed so easy to make a clear moral judgment on the big issues in American society. It seemed so easy to tell the good guys from the bad, to stand up and be counted. It did not require great moral ethical sophistication to distinguish right from wrong when witnessing black children in Birmingham being killed in church bombings and assaulted by police equipped with attack dogs, fire hoses, and electric cattle prods. It was not difficult to salute those fighting to win the elementary right to vote and to condemn those who sought to frustrate that right.

“On the international scene, it was easy to shout ‘Let My People Go’ on behalf of Soviet Jewry. And although making an initial judgment on the Vietnam War was less clear-cut than the civil rights issue, most Americans [eventually] came to see the war as morally wrong.

“The clear-cut issues of yesteryear have faded into the complex gray of today’s dilemmas. … The certainties of yesterday have become the ambiguities and conflicts of today, especially when one right collides with another right, [as they almost always do]. …

“But the complexity of these issues does not exempt us Jews from facing up to our moral challenges. We may have to walk a moral tightrope, yes, but we cannot escape our Jewish mission. With greater modesty and less certainty than in the past, with more tentativeness and greater tolerance for dissenting views, we still bear our historic burden: to face this world and its pain head-on; to engage in endless study and moral debate; to cherish human life and to pursue justice; to enhance the life of the mind and to struggle to be God’s partner in repairing this broken and incomplete world. It was never easy, even in the old days; it is more difficult today and will be even harder tomorrow. But, if the agenda is more nuanced today, our duty to do the right thing, to engage in tikkun olam, the ‘repair of our broken world,’ is as compelling as ever.”

Sometimes I think we fail to talk about controversial issues because we assume it won’t matter. Abortion, gun violence, racial profiling, Confederate flags… the lines are drawn, opinions are set. Let the national offices of Reform Judaism make their statements and issue their resolutions; let the politicians hash it out. If we’re not going to change minds, why risk division?

I might have drawn the same conclusion, but then, sometime this past school year, when our son was in first grade, Aaron and I were caught off-guard at the dinner table. Eli knows that we support same-sex marriage in our household, and has known it for some time. We talk about treating everyone the same – no matter what they believe, what they look like, or who their heart loves. We showed him the marriage licenses of the first wedding ceremonies at which we officiated after the law changed – where instead of bride and groom, they read “Party A and Party B” – and we celebrated. As grown ups (far more than kids) jokingly ask about girlfriends, we remind him everyone can grow up to love anyone.

Perhaps we talk about it too much; Eli seemed to think so as he rolled his eyes at the table that night when it somehow came up again. “I know, I know,” he said. “Boys can love boys and girls can love girls. But, Mommy, when I talk about it with my classmates at school, nobody really agrees with me.” My initial reaction was surprise that he was talking about it at school, and my first instinct was to tell him he didn’t need to do that, he didn’t need to invite the controversy. But then, what he had said sunk in. How could first graders already disagree with him? How could six and seven year olds already believe that loving someone of the same gender is somehow deviant? How, if not from their parents and houses of worship and other influences. And so, no, he did need to speak up and so do we, because as I told him that night: “I guarantee you that there are boys in your school who are going to grow up to love boys and girls who are going to grow up to love girls, and think how much it will mean – and might already – to know that there was at least one of their classmates who supported and stood up for them. We’re proud of you.”

We need to talk, not only to continue the legacy of those who came before us, but because – whether we accept it or not – the next generation is already talking, and we – as peers, parents, and a place of worship – need to help guide the conversation.

So the question is, How? How do we engage in a meaningful dialogue about hot button issues so that – whether in our homes or our workplaces, with our friends or our congregation – we don’t just deepen divides and might even begin to bridge them? Let me suggest a few strategies:

First, when we talk, we have to do so in a way that demonstrates we want to be heard. “When we think about divisive moral problems, our first instinct is to think of all the ways in which We are right and They are wrong,” as though right is ever the exclusive provenance of one side. We urge people to “be reasonable”, though an issue is usually controversial precisely because “each of us believes that we’re already reasonable.” We appeal to moral authority, forgetting that, “in nearly all moral controversies, there are truly moral considerations on both sides.” Whipping up support by demonizing the opposition may work, but then, understandably, “the opposition becomes much harder to deal with … less willing to listen to what we have to say.”

We would do well to remember the sage Talmudic teaching regarding dispute. When Hillel and Shammai are at a standstill with one another in one of their many disagreements, each claiming that his perspective is the definitive one on the issue, none other than the voice of God calls out to adjudicate the dispute, saying: “These and these are the words of the living God.” These and these. Even statements diametrically opposed to one another can be the words of the living God. But when one side denigrates the other, delegitimizes the other, hurls accusations and personal attacks against the other – these are not the words of the living God. God’s words were the very instrument of creation; those words are the vehicle for wanton destruction.

When we talk, when we write, when we post and forward and press “SEND”, let’s remember that the goal cannot be merely to hear ourselves talk without regard for the consequences. We need to hear one another, and so the first thing we need to do is be mindful of how we sound when we talk about an issue.

The second thing we need to do is pay attention to how we listen. In 2003, social psychologist Geoffrey Cohen conducted an experiment.

“[He] presented self-described conservative and liberal Americans with two different welfare policy proposals: one offering generous welfare benefits, more generous than any existing program, and one offering meager welfare benefits, more meager than any existing program. As you might expect, the liberals tended to like the generous program more than conservatives did and vice versa. In the next part of the experiment, using a new set of liberal and conservative subjects, Cohen presented the same proposals, but this time he labeled the proposals as coming either from Democrats or Republicans. As you would expect, support from Democrats made programs more appealing to liberals and support from Republicans made programs more appealing to conservatives.”

But what was really astounding was the strength of this partisan bias, which completely obliterated the policy itself. Liberals liked extreme conservative policies identified as coming from Democrats better than extreme liberal policies identified as coming from Republicans, and conservatives liked extreme liberal policies identified as coming from Republicans better than extreme conservative policies identified as coming from Democrats. Of course, all of this was happening unconsciously – so we need to raise our consciousness to discourse. We need to listen – really listen – to one another, pay attention to content and acknowledge our biases. We all have them. An official makes a controversial call in a game – how do we respond? Depends on who we’re rooting for. In 2012, groups of Arabs and Israelis were shown news coverage of the 1982 war in Lebanon. Both groups watched the same footage and each concluded the media was biased in favor of the other side. To truly evaluate perspectives other than our own we need to make sure we’re open to hearing them. As the Dalai Lama once said: “When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, [really listen,] you may learn something new.” So we need to work to listen beyond our biases.

And, finally, let’s recognize that all of this is incredibly difficult. If it were easy to calmly address challenging, controversial topics – to speak gently and listen openly – well, then they wouldn’t be so controversial after all. It’s not easy. So let’s do what we can to set ourselves up for success.

In counseling, one of the best practices taught to couples and families who need to talk about a difficult topic is to set aside a specific time for the conversation. Not so that everyone can come in armed with his/her airtight arguments or defense. As we’ve said, we need to speak in such a way that we acknowledge right and reason exist on multiple sides. Nor do we set a specific time so that we can put up a shield that keeps us from hearing ideas that differ from own, perspectives that might upset us. We set a time so we can prepare ourselves to come with the open minds, ears and hearts that every meaningful dialogue requires. This is the preparation we begin today.

We’ve had an intense and difficult summer. Our community experienced what some might call an unspeakable tragedy. The flowers and prayer shawls that continue to be placed at the steps of Mother Emanuel Church remind us that the wound is still fresh. The unchanging realities of its root causes, however, tell us that of all the things this tragedy may be, “unspeakable” cannot be one of them. We need to talk. When individuals and organizations told us in the immediate aftermath of the shooting that it was time to talk deeply about gun violence and race we, I believe appropriately, told them it was too soon. But, friends, it is no longer too soon. And, though these issues run deep and wide and long, the message of these holy days is that it’s not too late either. We need to talk. Because if – and only if – we do, can we learn and grow and change.

So we’re setting a time. When we reconvene nine days from now, my sermon on Yom Kippur evening will address the important topic of racial inequality, and Rabbi Terkel’s sermon the following morning will discuss the crucial issue of curbing gun violence. And it will be up to all of us to listen with open minds and hearts, to reflect on how we personally can make a difference, and to continue the conversation in our homes, our community, and yes, our synagogue.

In just a few moments we’ll resume our liturgy with the words of Aleinu. The word Aleinu itself means: “It is our duty.”

Ours is the duty to listen and ours the duty to praise.
Ours is the duty to raise questions
And build houses of study in which to ask them.
Ours is the duty to respond to what we hear:
To do justice, to fix the broken, to open doors of hope.
It is not our duty to complete the work,
But neither may we turn away from it.

As we enter a new year, whose moral challenges cry out for the attention and commitment and voices of our community as much as ever, may we prove up to the task. Amen.

Quotations from: The Reform Judaism Reader (Michael Meyer and W. Gunther Plaut); Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them (Joshua Greene). Concluding prayer adapted from Mishkan HaNefesh for Yom Kippur, p. 430.