|At a wedding I officiated a wedding last August, I was introducing the shehekeyanu blessing that celebrates how great it is that we had all made it to this glorious day together. I mentioned that we have blessings for everything, and suddenly, out of my mouth came something along the lines of—like Elizabeth Warren has a plan for everything, we have a blessing for everything. People laughed, there was no consternation. However, I was surprised at myself, as this was probably the first vaguely political thing I had ever uttered at the 90 or so weddings I’ve been blessed to officiate.
Two weeks later, during a rehearsal with another couple, the bride specifically asked me—without having heard the above—not to say anything political at their ceremony. She was worried about one of her uncles. Then she told me that she had recently been at her fiancé’s nursing school ceremony where the speaker talked about the importance of people being kind and compassionate to each other—and some people objected to such a statement.
What a time we live in, when encouraging people to be kind and compassionate is a controversial concept. Being kind and compassionate.
So let’s talk about this, as we think about choosing life and the fast God expects of us today. I began thinking about what God expects of us at the moment we were told that any Jew who voted for a Democrat was being disloyal—to Israel. An old antisemitic trope worth its own sermon (and there were several such sermons given all over the Bay Area last week).
But what that trope made me think about was—well, what DOES it mean to be a Jew? Here we are, this tiny group of people, just barely 2% of Americans and less than point two percent of the world. What makes us who we are? Is it our loyalty to Israel? Is it keeping kosher? Is it a commitment to social justice or tikkun olam? Is it a commitment to study and having a critical mind that celebrates the argument or the chiddush—new insights on older problems? Is it a commitment to Torah with a capital tav or a small one? Is it a commitment to kindness and compassion—chesed and rachamim?
On this day—the most sacred, solemn day of the year, we can look at what our texts tell us God expects of us. The Torah reminds us often to take care of the poor, widow and orphan, that threesome that represents the vulnerable, and to welcome the stranger, because we were strangers in Egypt. The Torah is a profoundly political document—discussing how we should be in community, as well as a moral compass, with lessons to argue about through the millennia.
Earlier this morning we looked at the Talmud—and our daily liturgy, which remind us that certain of our behavior earns us entry into the world to come—those acts of gemilut chasadim—acts of loving kindness, as well as caring for the sick, the bereaved, the bride, offering hospitality, study, making peace. It’s these acts of kindness and compassion, not blind or even sighted loyalty, that are what we are supposed to focus on.
Our morning blessings remind us that we are expected to clothe the naked, free the captive, open the eyes of the blind, and recognize above all that we—and everyone else—are created so that we can distinguish day from night, right from wrong, good from evil.
But then, today—today—when we read that we are supposed to choose life, we also read about what kind of fast we are supposed to do. Not one that shows that “I’m fasting better than you”, or that “I’m fasting so that God will notice my goodness,” while the rest of my life I engage in bad behavior… Fasting today is not meant to be the be-all and end-all of our religious commitments. Indeed, fasting without the intention of spiritual growth, is an empty ritual, one not worthy of spiritual connection.
We have responsibilities, expectations, tasks to do that reflect our desire to be in touch with what is most holy, most good and just. These are daily responsibilities, not ones stored up just for a fast day, or just for Yom Kippur: tasks to do every day.
So let’s look at them more closely, these spiritual tasks that the ancient rabbis thought were what would make us a holy people and individual holy people.
First, Isaiah tells us we are not to oppress our workers. Still a problem today. Today we can work for a higher minimum wage, or paying our workers in a timely manner, or giving them breaks and weekends, safe working conditions, and health care. A friend of mine worked at a job for 5 years, a school that was a collaboration between religious organizations. When the collaboration ended this spring, the religious leaders neglected to tell her she was out of a job. That’s an example of oppressing our workers.
God is also NOT looking for a fast that leads to quarrels and violence. I know hunger can make us crabby. But those of us with a sumptuous break fast ahead of us and a refrigerator full of food can surely spend one day experiencing what too many of our neighbors and fellow humans experience regularly.
Isaiah moves on: we are to loose the bonds of wickedness—which most commentary, including by Rashi, believes means that we should eliminate all perversions of justice and oppression. Practice justice. Let the oppressed go free.
Bobby Kennedy spoke to the ADL and American Jewish Committee in 1961, and he might have been giving a drash on this verse: (Imagine his Boston accent)
“Every time we turn our heads the other way when we see the law flouted, when we tolerate what we know to be wrong, when we close our eyes and ears to the corrupt because we are too busy or too frightened, when we fail to speak up and speak out, we strike a blow against freedom, decency and justice.”
This is also still a problem today—a major problem. I think Isaiah is calling us–for example—to join in actions to end mass incarceration, or to enforce the Flores Agreement protecting children at the border, or support women’s reproductive rights.
He could just as easily be speaking about ending bullying and harassment in schools and work places.
Or helping people with serious depression.
Oppression appears in so many forms, from the internal to the global.
Notice that we can explore these words literally or metaphorically, spiritually or politically, or a personal level or a communal level.
But notice also that freedom from oppression is about kindness and compassion—chesed and rachamim, or as Senator Cory Booker stated recently, “What does love look like in public? It’s justice.”
Next, the prophet comes to the heart of the matter: feed the hungry. House the homeless. Clothe the naked. While you are fasting, feeling that self-denial, give to those who live their life in want.
How intensely personal these exhortations really are: share your bread, bring the homeless into your home, cover the naked. Become personally involved. Show your humanity by touching theirs, come close enough to feel their pain as you can touch your own. Open your home, open your heart, open your compassion. To those you see as Other.
Not all of us are going to be able to get so close and personal, although on some level we might long to. When my daughter Olya was young, she would ask us to invite homeless people home, and we would, regretfully, say no. We still wrote our checks to homeless shelters, and we all can still come to lunch with seniors or volunteer with the food bank, or advocate with the Marin Organizing Committee or help when it is Gan HaLev’s turn to help with the rotating shelters, or give our used clothes away to those it will help. It’s not the same as what Olya and Isaiah are asking of us—creating the intimacy of sharing our bread or inviting people into our homes, but it’s surely something.
And at the same time, Isaiah tells us that we should not become so enamored of the other, the vulnerable, that we forget our own family, our own flesh.
As someone who has various family members who don’t talk to each other (including to me), that last phrase—do not hide yourself from your own flesh… really spoke to me this year. Again, I think a whole sermon could cover family struggles and disaffections and generational stress and repeated patterns. And I think Isaiah would like us to do that. Maybe next year.
On the other hand, traditional interpretations hew more closely to the theme of caring for the less fortunate in your family: not being embarrassed by your poor relations, not shunning them and giving them a helping hand. My uncle, for example, made sure all his grandchildren had college funds, and opened his home to me to stay rent free each week of seminary. I know some of you can share similar stories of support from family or to family.
Isaiah is urging us on: Be human. Let your fast show your humanity. While you are experiencing gnawing discomfort, assess how you might relieve the suffering of others. Show your compassion. Remember what Bryan Stevenson said: that we have the choice of sharing embracing our brokenness or of walling ourselves off: Isaiah wants us to open ourselves up and have compassion for ourselves so we can have compassion for others.
And finally, the last thing Isaiah exhorts us to do in this prophecy is to keep Shabbat. Recognize that we all benefit from a day of rest from labors, from making money or thinking about making money, or acquiring toys. Rest in what is. Be present with all that is just, and good, and real, and beautiful, remembering that wholeness makes everything blemish-free. We might imagine unplugging for the day, taking walks in beauty, reading books, coming together with friends and loved ones. Being good to ourselves and others.
Recognize, he suggests, that, without our turning it, the earth will spin, and we all need time—time—to recharge.
These are the tasks Isaiah charts for us, and that the Rabbis thought were important enough to include on the holiness day of the year.
They are, in the end, all about compassion and kindness—deeply political—even radical, but maybe, just maybe, if we bring ourselves closer—panim al panim—face-to-face with the Other, whoever they might be—we will see they are just like us… We will be living the life Isaiah urges us to live. And we will be Jews who are loyal to the ideals of our people’s history and values.
I want to conclude this with a quote from Edmond Fleg, who witnessed the Dreyfus trial. It made him question what it meant to him to be a Jew—and I thank Rabbi Rachel Timoner for pointing this out to me. He wrote,
“I am a Jew because…”
I am a Jew because born of Israel and having lost it, I feel it revive within me more alive than I am myself.
I am a Jew because born of Israel and having found it again, I would have it live after me even more alive than it is within me.
I am a Jew because the faith of Israel demands no abdication of my mind.
I am a Jew because the faith of Israel requires all the devotion of my heart.
I am a Jew because in every place where suffering weeps, the Jew weeps.
I am a Jew because at every time when despair cries out, the Jew hopes.
I invite you to spend some time thinking about why you are a Jew. Later this afternoon, we will have a chance to look at an article that also reflects on this question.
 ROBERT F. KENNEDY, attorney general, remarks before the Joint Defense Appeal of the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League of the B’nai B’rith, Chicago, Illinois, June 21, 1961.—A New Day: Robert F. Kennedy, ed. Bill Adler, p. 26 (1968).