Sermon for Yom Kippur morning, 5778

(September 30, 2017)

Last night I spoke a bit about the introductory paragraph before the Kol Nidre prayer, in which we proclaim: “Anu matirin lehitpalel im avaryanim”  -- “We grant permission to pray with transgressors.” 

As I also mentioned last night, the word עברינים  / avaryanim  (“transgressors”) is linguistically related to the word  עברי / ivri – (“Hebrew”).  Both words come from the verbal root ע.ב.ר.  )ayin-vet-resh( – the basic meaning of which is “to cross over” or “to pass.”

I mentioned the midrash about how Abraham was called “Ivri”/ “Hebrew” -- because he was proud to stand up for his beliefs even if that put him mey’ever echad/ on one side of a philosophical divide while the whole world stood mey’ever echad/ across from him on the other side of the philosophical divide.

Another explanation about why Abraham was called “ha-Ivri” (“the Hebrew”), taken from that same midrash passage in Bereshit Rabbah, simply says: 

וְרַבָּנָן אָמְרֵי שֶׁהוּא מֵעֵבֶר הַנָּהָר, וְשֶׁהוּא מֵשִׂיחַ בִּלְשׁוֹן עִבְרִי.

But the Sages say – that he was “mey’ever hanahar” (“from across the river”), and he spoke Hebrew.[1]

(The river being referred to there is the Euphrates River.[2])

Fast forward a few centuries and the latter books of the Torah talk a lot about crossing over the Jordan River as, for example, in Torah portion Nitzavim, where Moses refers to

הָאֲדָמָה, אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה עֹבֵר אֶת-הַיַּרְדֵּן, לָבוֹא שָׁמָּה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ

the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.[3]

All this reminds us that, as Jews, we are boundary crossers – like Abraham and Sarah when they left their native land to go forth to a land that God would show them; and like the generation that grew up in the wilderness of Sinai after their parents had gone forth from Egypt.

If our Jewish identity is bound up with the idea of being boundary crossers, so much more so for our identity as Americans.  If you go back far enough (and for some of us you don’t have to go back very far at all) none of our families originated within the borders of the United States.  And that’s even true for American Indians in the sense that anthropologists tell us that they came to North America across a land bridge from Asia a few thousand years before everyone else came along. 

Speaking of Parashat Nitzavim, many Reform and Reconstructionist congregations read from Parshat Nitzavim (starting in Deuteronomy chapter 29), for their Yom Kippur morning Torah reading, instead of the traditional reading from Parashat Acharei Mot (starting in Leviticus 16) that we read in our own Torah service this morning.

Let’s all turn to page 443 right now and read the English translation of that first paragraph of Parashat Nitzavim out loud together:

You stand today – all of you – before Adonai your God: your leaders, your tribes, your elders, your officials, every man, woman, and child in Israel, the stranger in the midst of your camp, form the one who chops your wood to the one who draws your water, that you may enter into the sworn covenant of Adonai your God which Aodani your God is confirmeing with you this very day, for the purpose of establishing you as the people whose only God is Adonai, as you have been promised, and as God swore to your father, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.  But it is not only with you that I am making this sworn covenant, but with whoever is standing here with us today before Adonai your God, and with whoever is not here with us today.[4]

From just this first paragraph, we can readily see why the Reform and later the Reconstructionist movements included this passage as an alternative Yom Kippur morning Torah reading.

The reading from Parashat Nitzavim emphasizes the idea of inclusion, of everyone being part of the process, not just an elite few.  While the traditional Torah reading in Leviticus focuses on one High Priest making atonement on behalf of everyone else in the community, this alternative Torah reading has a much more democratic focus.  Look at the way it starts:

“You stand today – all of you – before Adonai your God”

and the passage then goes on to include every single person in society – men, women and children; community leaders and common folk; citizens and resident aliens; present attendees and future generations. All are to be included in the transmission of Torah and in the establishment of a covenant with God.  

This emphasis on democratic inclusion is particularly appropriate for liberal Jewish movements like Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism which reject the continuation of special honors for Kohanim and Levi’im, the descendants of the priestly castes.  Also, this inclusiveness naturally leads to our contemporary advocacy for equal opportunity for all --- without invidious discrimination on the basis of gender identity, sexual orientation, physical disability or other factors. 

But getting back to the idea of boundary crossers – its’ especially noteworthy in the Torah’s language in Parashat Nitzavim that it explicitly includesגֵ֣רְךָ֔ אֲשֶׁ֖ר בְּקֶ֣רֶב מַחֲנֶ֑יךָ מֵחֹטֵ֣ב עֵצֶ֔יךָ עַ֖ד שֹׁאֵ֥ב מֵימֶֽיךָ “gerkha asher bekerev machanekha --  meychoteyv eytzekha ad sho’eyv meymekha”/ .  “the stranger in the midst of your camp, from the one who chops your wood to the one who draws your water.” 

The traditional rabbinic interpreters identify these woodchoppers and water carriers as Canaanites who came to the Israelite camp claiming that they wished to convert to Judaism.  Rashi, following the lead of the Talmud, argues that Moses doubted their sincerity, yet agreed to let them stay and assigned them menial labor tasks like chopping wood and drawing water.

It would behoove us not to gloss over the implications of this:  We seem to have here a recognition that mistrust of foreigners has a long pedigree in Jewish tradition.  This is a trait that we ought to combat within ourselves even as we recognize how easily we can succumb to it.  

Let us remember the contemporary counterparts to these ancient woodchoppers and water carriers: The people from Mexico, Salvador, Haiti, Somalia, Syria and elsewhere who struggle for a secure foothold for themselves and their families in a strange new land. 

For many, the Rio Grande crossing to El Norte has become the modern equivalent of the Jordan crossing to Eretz Yisra’el.

And remember:  As Jews and as Americans, whether or not we have United States green cards or passports, we are still all boundary crossers or the descendants of boundary crossers.  We are still all immigrants or the descendants of immigrants.

Americans of goodwill may, and do, differ on the specifics of how best to construct a fair immigration policy for our country. 

Nevertheless, our tradition calls upon us to remember the strangers in our midst --- the choppers of wood and drawers of water who stood with us in our journey to freedom.  Responding to that call today, we must make sure that our legitimate concern with protecting our borders does not lead to the oppression of resident aliens within our borders who are struggling for existence.  And this is especially true in these times.  For it would be easy to succumb to xenophobia as we continue to be on the defensive against international terrorism even now, sixteen years after the attacks of September 11, 2001.

I know that we’re not serving lunch here at Temple today as we do almost every other Shabbat of the year.  But it’s worth recalling the words with which we begin the Birkat Hamazon or Grace After Meals, those stirring opening words of Psalm 126:

שִׁ֗יר הַֽמַּ֫עֲל֥וֹת בְּשׁ֣וּב ה' אֶת־שִׁיבַ֣ת צִיּ֑וֹן הָ֝יִ֗ינוּ כְּחֹלְמִֽים׃

Shir hama’a lot beshuv Adonai et shivat tziyon hayinu ke-cholmim

“A song of ascents. When the Eternal returned the fortunes of Zion —we were like dreamers.”

On this Shabbat Shabbaton – This Sabbath of Sabbaths[5] which is Yom Kippur – we remember today’s cholmim – todays’ “Dreamers” – the undocumented young adults who arrived in this country as children and know no other home but the United States of America.  We hope and pray – and we advocate and lobby – that Congress will rise to the task of setting the DACA program on a firm legislative footing.

And we hope and pray – and we advocate and lobby – on behalf of refugees and asylum seekers throughout the world who are desperate to reach our shores. 

The United States does not have the capacity to absorb all of the potential immigrants of the world or all of the potential asylum seekers of the world or all of the potential refugees of the world.

But our faith as Jews, and our heritage as Americans, impels us do our part – and to advocate that our country does its part.

That we not sit idly by in the face of discriminatory travel bans, or heartless forced family separations, or miserly refugee limits.

May God be with all of us boundary crossers --- nitzavim hayom lifney Adonai – standing today in the presence of the Divine – today and in the days to come.

Gmar chatimah tovah/ May we all be sealed in the Book of Life for a year of health, happiness, prosperity and peace.

And Shabbat Shalom!

© Rabbi David Steinberg (September 2017/ Tishri 5778)

[1] Bereshit Rabbah 42:8 

[2] See Joshua 24: 1-4

[3] Deuteronomy 30:18

[4] Deuteronomy 29: 9-14 as translated by Rabbi Richard N. Levy, in On Wings of Awe (revised edition),  KTAV Publishing House in Association with Hillel: The Foundation of Jewish Campus Life (2011), p. 443

[5] Leviticus 16:31

Posted on October 3, 2017 .