Originally posted Thursday, September 24th, 2015
(Sermon for Yom Kippur Morning 5776)
September 23, 2015
Our Torah reading this morning from Leviticus 16 begins with an understated reference to tragedy:
א וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, אַחֲרֵי מוֹת, שְׁנֵי בְּנֵי אַהֲרֹן--בְּקָרְבָתָם לִפְנֵי-יְהוָה, וַיָּמֻתוּ.
1 Adonai spoke to Moses, after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they drew near before Adonai, and died….
Last week during the two days of Rosh Hashanah, we had read two stories about two brothers who ALMOST died.
On the first morning of Rosh Hashanah we read about Ishmael, who had been banished along with his mother Hagar from their home by Abraham on the urging of Sarah. Ishmael almost dies of thirst in the midst of the desert.
We can blame Sarah or Abraham – or God for telling Abraham to listen to Sarah . But, ultimately Ishmael survives to become the father of the Arab peoples.
And all that is certainly the subject for another sermon for some other time.
On the second morning of Rosh Hashanah we read about Ishmael’s brother Isaac, whom Abraham had almost slaughtered as a sacrifice to God. Ultimately this turns out to have been only a test ----- a very sick, twisted, perverted, insane test if you ask me.
We can blame God or we can blame Abraham for misinterpreting God. But Isaac also survives to become the second of our Jewish patriarchs.
And all that is certainly the subject for another sermon for some other time.
Those two brothers, Isaac and Ishmael, reconcile and reunite many years later to bury their father at the Cave of Machpelah. Similarly, not just each High Holiday season but throughout the year as well, we hope and pray for the full reconciliation of the modern state of Israel with the Arab States around it and with the Palestinian Arabs currently under its jurisdiction.
And all that is certainly the subject for many sermons, just not this morning.
Isaac and Ishmael survive their fearful brushes with death.
But Nadav and Avihu, the two oldest sons of Aaron and Elisheva, drew near before the Eternal and they died. And now, on this Yom Kippur, as every year on Yom Kippur, we gather together “Acharei Mot Sheney Benei Aharon”/ “After the death of the sons of Aaron”.
During the yearly Torah reading cycle, the Shabbat of Torah portion Acharei Mot doesn’t come until six chapters --- and two or three weeks of Shabbat Torah readings --- after Nadav and Avihu’s deaths take place in Leviticus Chapter 10. The intervening chapters of Leviticus are taken up with dry, unrelated legislation about kosher and unkosher foods, skin diseases and household mold….
It takes a while for the Torah to do that double-take – finally to refer back --- even obliquely and understatedly – to those two tragic deaths of Nadav and Avihu.
Perhaps we can make a comparison here to the world’s current focus on the over 200,000 deaths that have occurred during the Syrian Civil War. The war has been going on over four years but only now is its urgency finally being recognized by the world at large, as a refugee crisis unparalleled in our generation has emerged out of that conflict.
Amidst these huge numbers of dead and displaced, as is often the case, one family’s tragedy among myriads of tragedies has finally shaken us awake.
It’s also about the death of two brothers.
In Unetaneh Tokef we ask: “Mi va esh u’mi va mayim?”/ “Who by fire and who by water?” For Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu it was fire. They offered “eysh zarah”/ “strange fire” and were in turn consumed by fire.
For Abdullah Kurdi’s sons, 3-year-old Aylan and 5-year-old Kadip, it was water. They and their mother Rehan drowned off the coast of Turkey earlier this month during the family’s failed attempt to make a sea crossing in a flimsy rubber raft to Greece. They had been attempting to make their way to Sweden after efforts to be admitted to Canada had proved unsuccessful.
The photograph of Aylan’s lifeless body, washed ashore on a Turkish beach, galvanized the world.
But the Kurdi’s were only one family among the four million Syrians who are now fleeing as refugees from their shell of a country. HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, reports that there are 60 million people in the world who are currently displaced by conflict or persecution, comprising a global refugee population larger than at any time since World War II. Eleven million are Syrians who have fled their homes because of war: 7 million are displaced within Syria and over 4 million are refugees. Over 90% of Syrian refugees are in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, which have been good host countries, but don’t have the funding to provide for such an overwhelming number of people. This has resulted in a lack of job opportunities and limited access to medical care and education. The United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees has only received 37% of the funding it requested to meet the needs in these areas. The World Food Programme had to cut food assistance to one third of its recipients due to a lack of funding.
Earlier this month I listened in on a conference call convened by HIAS on the topic of the Syrian refugee crisis. Melanie Nizer, HIAS’s Vice President for Policy and Advocacy had visited refugee camps in Jordan earlier this year. She told us on the conference call that many folks there were feeling broken down and dejected. But that NGO’s like HIAS were bringing some hope to them by providing assistance that the host countries did not have the capacity to provide. HIAS is trying as best as it can to resettle as many refugees as it can but far more of them are simply “voting with their feet” and joining the mass migration to Europe.
Mark Hetfield, HIAS’s President and CEO, told us on the conference call that his organization’s main focus right now is engaging in advocacy to get the United States to “step up to the plate” alongside other nations.
Germany alone has committed to taking in 800,000 refugees this year.
The United States so far has accepted just 1500 Syrian refugees this year, as part of a total commitment of 70,000 refugees from the world at large. However, HIAS and other refugee relief agencies are asking the U.S. to take in 100,000 Syrian refugees over and above that 70,000. Just this past Sunday, Secretary of State Kerry announced that President Obama had committed to raising the U.S. commitment to a worldwide limit of 85,000 for this year and 100,000 for next year.
The very next day, HIAS President Mark Hetfield responded that “Increasing the total number of refugees from 70,000 to 85,000 for next year and to 100,000 for the year after is a nice symbolic gesture. It is a baby step in the right direction. But it is not leadership.”
And Rabbi Jonah Pensner, head of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism likewise declared “The new admission numbers remain insufficient considering the scope of the crisis at hand.”
Meanwhile, some in Congress and among the contenders for the Presidency have argued that this is just a European problem. But there are countering views as well, like that of Republican Senator and Presidential nominee Lindsey Graham. Graham declared at a National Press Club luncheon earlier this month that “we might as well tear down the Statue of Liberty” if we don’t do more to help bring Syrian refugees to the United States.
Some voices in Congress and among the candidates for the Presidency have warned about the danger of Islamist terrorists infiltrating into the US amidst this tide of refugees. But Mark Hetfield said on the conference call that to oppose their entry would be just as erroneous as when German Jews were barred from coming to the US during the holocaust because, as Germans, they were considered potential enemies even though it was Germany that was terrorizing them. Rather, argues Hetfield, the Syrians whom HIAS wants to help are the ones who are FLEEING from ISIS, not ISIS members themselves.
This afternoon during our Yom Kippur martyrology service we will remember, among all the martyrs of Jewish history, our Jewish brothers and sisters who died in the Shoah. It’s important to keep in mind that the entire structure of the international refugee resettlement system grew out of the aftermath of the Holocaust. The Syrian refugee crisis is, of course, not identical to the plight of the Jews who were attempting to flee Hitler. But the images coming out of Syria and Europe today are close enough to be chilling.
Our Yom Kippur afternoon Torah reading later today includes the imperative “Al ta’amod al dam re’ekha” / “Don’t stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” The Torah’s message resonates in the face of the current crisis.
The tangled mess of opposing forces in Syria today are challenging to sort out. Indeed, that’s also worth dealing with as the subject for another sermon for some other time.
But meanwhile, the simple humanitarian need should rise to the fore.
Please check out the HIAS website --- www.hias.org --- for more information about the Syrian refugee crisis, to donate tzedakah towards their efforts on behalf of the refugees, and to sign a petition calling upon the Obama Administration to do more to help those seeking refuge from the violence in Syria.
Let me conclude by sharing with you the words of a statement issue by HIAS entitled “A Yom Kippur Call to Action in Support of the World’s Refugees”.
“Today, as we reflect on our lives and the world in which we live, our thoughts turn to the world’s refugees – people whose faces we see now in the daily news. In this moment, we recall the familiar refrain:
“U’teshuvah, u’tefilah, u’tzedakah ma’avirin et-ro’ah ha’gezeirah – Repentance, prayer, and charity temper judgement’s severe decree.”
“U’teshuvah. We return to the story of the Jewish people. Persecuted for our faith, we fled from Pharaohs, crusaders, and communist regimes. We turn our attention and open our eyes to the stories of those now persecuted in Syria and in the Congo, in Eritrea and in Colombia, who have fled their homes in search of protection. Let us answer their cries.
“U’tefilah. We pray that they will find places of refuge and, ultimately, the opportunity to live in freedom. We pray that we will have the moral courage and perseverance not to turn away from their plight but instead to turn toward them with an open heart.
“U’tzedakah. So let us take action and ask our government to be a leader amongst the world’s nations. Let us give generously so that those who have fled have access to food and shelter, education and medical care. Let us commit to helping them rebuild their lives in safety and with dignity.
“This Yom Kippur, may our teshuvah, tefilah, and tzedakah call us to help change the course of history so that all people can live free from fear and have a place to call home.”
May our efforts “acharei mot” – after the deaths of Nadav and Avihu --- and “acharei mot” after the deaths of Aylan and Kadip and all the others who are dying amidst warfare or in the course of seeking refuge from it ---- help to bring comfort to the afflicted on this day in which we afflict our own souls and bodies through fasting and prayer.
Gmar Chatimah Tovah/ May we all have a good sealing in the Book of Life on this Yom Kippur as we pray for all who are in distress and for ourselves as well.
© Rabbi David Steinberg September 2015/ Tishri 5776
 Gen. 25:9
 Leviticus 10: 1-2.