More than the dorm where I lived my freshman year, the Hillel that shaped my Jewish identity, or even the Pinball Pete’s arcade where I spent many hours and lots and lots of quarters, there was one place that I knew I was going to make sure I took my daughter when I dropped her off last month at my alma mater, the University of Michigan – and that place would be the steps of the Michigan Union.
It was on those steps in the early hours of October 14, 1960, sixty years ago next month, that Senator John F. Kennedy arrived to spend the night, having debated the Republican nominee, Richard Nixon, earlier that evening. Kennedy intended to catch a few hours of sleep at the Michigan Union before a one-day whistle stop train tour across the state. Despite it being 2:00 am, some ten thousand students stood assembled waiting for him. Kennedy had not planned to speak, but in his extemporaneous remarks he issued a challenge to those assembled that evening that would be remembered and would ripple forward for a long time to come
“How many of you who are going to be doctors are willing to spend your days in Ghana? Technicians or engineers: how many of you are willing to work in the Foreign Service and spend your lives traveling around the world? On your willingness to do that, not merely to serve one year or two years in the service, but on your willingness to contribute part of your life to this country, I think will depend the answer whether a free society can compete . . . . So I come here tonight to go to bed! But I also come here tonight to ask you to join in the effort.”
The reaction to Kennedy’s speech was swift and enthusiastic; in the days that followed seven hundred students signed up for a non-existent international humanitarian program. By March of 1961, President Kennedy signed an executive order formally establishing the program we know as the Peace Corps, with some quarter of a million participants by now and still growing.
Historians have spilled much ink debating the motivation behind Kennedy’s Peace Corps. While some note the realpolitik Cold-War context of the program, most acknowledge that the initiative provided a vehicle for America’s pioneering spirit during a turbulent period – in the words of historian Dr. Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman, a symbol of “what America wanted to be, and what much of the world wanted America to be” – a counterpoint of idealism to America’s affluence and influence. (All You Need is Love: The Peace Corps and the Spirit of the 1960s, p. 1) At the very least, one can trace the rhetorical line from Kennedy’s words that night on the steps of the Michigan Union to his words spoken on the steps of the US Capitol at his inauguration just a few months later: “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country…” Whether Kennedy actually wrote those words is beside the point. (I have been told that when asked, his speechwriter, Ted Sorenson, replied wryly: “Ask not . . .”) The speech exemplifies the heroic spirit of the age, heroism defined by Joseph Campbell as giving one’s life to something bigger than oneself or other than oneself.
I never served in the Peace Corps and though I am a proud graduate of the University of Michigan, that historic 1960 night preceded not only my arrival on campus but in this world. I think I took my daughter to those steps not just because I wanted her to touch a place where history was made, but because as she sets out on her life path, I wanted her to touch a place where an ideal was given voice – the seemingly simple but presently elusive idea that life is not just about what you get, but about what you give, not just about rights granted, but about responsibilities discharged, and not just about freedoms taken but about sacrifices made. “Ask not,” asked Kennedy of his generation, what is in it for me? Ask rather, what is my role in it? What is my responsibility and what is my contribution toward the betterment of the world in which I live?
Today is Yom Kippur. Today is a day set aside for an audit of the soul, to acknowledge our wrongdoings and to seek and grant forgiveness. Today is a day that reminds us of the fragility of life, an opportunity to stare our mortality in the face and reflect on the degree to which we are using our lives wisely. But at its core, Yom Kippur is a day to touch an ideal – an ideal that in its fulfillment signals triumph of the human spirit and in its breach proclaims the sting of human failure. Simple in formulation but difficult in implementation, Yom Kippur reminds us that we all exist in relation to others and therefore what we do matters. Our actions have the potential to transcend the limits of our own self-interest and to positively impact the world. Conversely, our actions or inactions have the power to do harm to the world and the people in it.
Long before the moral philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote that “no person is an entirely isolated being,” our Jewish texts and tradition argued the same. Yes, Genesis chapter one introduces humanity as created in God’s image to “fill the earth and master it. (Genesis 1:28) But not a chapter passes before the human being is placed in Eden in a caretaking role – to till and tend the garden, in other words, to be responsible for it. (Genesis 2:15) What about our obligations to our fellow? “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Cain asks of God, with the blood of Abel still flowing. (Genesis 4:9) All of Jewish ethics, a teacher of mine once said, is really just an extended response to Cain. We are our brother’s and sister’s and neighbor’s keeper. We dare not stand idly by. And what of our obligations to our community? Here, too, our tradition is clear. Both Noah and Abraham were born into wicked generations. We Jews lay claim to the patrimony of the latter, not the former, because when Abraham heard of the imminent destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, he entered into a debate with God. When Noah heard a similar prediction, he entered into his ark. “Do not separate yourself from the community,” teaches Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Fathers (Avot 2:4). Our humanity does not exist in a vacuum; our deeds impact those around us and each one of us has the potential to move the needle of the human condition and the world.
We need look no further than the prayers of the next twenty-four hours to take note of the aspirations of the day. We began this evening with an acknowledgement that our prayers will be recited in the midst of a community of imperfect souls. The biblical Yom Kippur ritual, described in tomorrow morning’s Torah reading, and the service of the High Priest, described in the Avodah service of tomorrow afternoon, are both performed in a communal setting. We announce our transgressions not in the first-person singular, but the first-person plural: ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu . . . . What a strange thing it is to confess our private sins, in person or virtually, in the company of a congregation. Until you realize that we do so in order to remind ourselves that our actions are never just about us. Our mistakes, miscues, and misdeeds have consequences on others. We have hurt others, diminished others, and inflicted pain on others – no different than others have done to us. As the poet John Donne wrote: “No man is an island . . . every man is piece of the continent, a part of the main.” Yom Kippur is our reminder that we are all part of the main. For better or for worse, what we do – sins of commission or omission – matters.
Sixty years after Kennedy’s charge to our nation, the civic idealism of yesteryear seems very distant. We are experiencing its dystopian inverse, the assertion that putting oneself first is a moral virtue to be celebrated. If I had to put my finger on the thread that binds our era’s shortcomings, it is that our generation is akin to the second child of the Passover seder. We believe our personal interests exist independent of the collective narrative; no one owes anything to anyone. As Wade Davis recently wrote, ours is a world that has lionized the individual at the expense of the community. A world where concern for the other is viewed as an extravagance. A world where failure to put your own interests first is seen as a sign of weakness. A world where citizens who are willing to make a sacrifice, even the ultimate sacrifice, are dismissed as suckers.
We have failed in so many ways to take seriously our role in shaping the world in which we live. We declare our hands clean, we point fingers, we pass the blame, we point to the magnitude of the problem to justify our inaction, or we pass the buck to the other guy or to the next generation. Like the prophet of the day, Jonah, when we see something, instead of saying something – or, God forbid, doing something – we run the other way. Rather than struggling with the uncomfortable, we dismiss ideas that don’t conform to our own, smug in the security of our own ideological certitude. We cancel that which makes us squirm instead of engaging in difficult conversations that could change people’s minds and the world. We reject a worthy cause in its entirety because we find an aspect of it objectionable, as if any of the causes or organizations we ourselves support would ever pass such a stringent purity test.
I am reminded of Sadie Goldstein, who goes to the butcher to buy a chicken. She is not satisfied with inspecting the chicken from across the counter, so she asks the butcher to hand her the bird. She lifts up a wing and sniffs it suspiciously, then the other one, then one leg at time – a shmeck here, a shmeck there, no part of the chicken left unexamined. On and on she goes, until the butcher blurts out, “Mrs. Goldstein, do you think you could pass such a test?”
Moral escapism comes in a variety of forms; sniffing our noses is but one tactic of turning inward, turning away, and abdicating personal agency. Seeing an environmental crisis, we shrug our shoulders and wonder what we can do. Seeing a racial problem, we console ourselves that at least we are not “that kind” of racists. Seeing economic inequity, we dive back under the safety blanket of our lives. The book of Deuteronomy warned against the person who fancied himself immune, thinking “I shall be safe as I follow my own heart.” (Deuteronomy 29:18) You may recall the famous exchange between Henry David Thoreau and his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson visited Thoreau as he sat in jail for his refusal to pay taxes which would support government policies he objected to. Emerson asked Thoreau: “Henry, what are you doing in there?”
Thoreau replied, “Waldo, the question is, what are you doing out there?”
That is the question of Yom Kippur: “What are you doing out there?” It is no longer enough, in this day and age, simply to care. You have to do! You have to make that problem your problem!
To be a citizen – of a family, a faith community, a nation, or the world – is always a balancing act between individual rights and civic responsibilities. The very word “civic” comes from the Latin corona civica, the garland that was given in ancient Rome to a person who saved a fellow citizen’s life. For civil society to be upheld, we must consent that society makes a claim on us and that private desire yields to public good. It’s a Jewish value and an American value. It’s actually what the word “republic” means, a form of government in which the good of the country is a public, not private, matter. It’s also not rocket science. If you want to drive a car, you have to wear a seatbelt. If you want to have free speech, then you can’t falsely cry “Fire!” in a crowded theater. If you want the right to own a gun, that right must be balanced with public safety. And if you if you want to have an earth that we, our children, and grandchildren can live in, then you have to live in a manner that reflects that desire. John Stuart Mill put it best when he wrote: “Everyone who receives the protection of society owes a return for the benefit, and the fact of living in society renders it indispensable that each should be bound to observe a certain line of conduct towards the rest.” (“On Liberty”) If there ever was a time to make a political virtue of not amplifying our own personal freedoms over the safety of other, now is that time. What a shonda that our country, once led by an “ask not,” has been reduced to a “mask not.” Wearing a mask and social distancing reflect not just my fear that a virus will spread from you to me, but my concern that a virus will spread from me to you. Your well-being, you yourself are the object of my concern. Wearing a mask and social distancing are not earth-shattering acts of leadership; they are basic gestures of citizenship, an acceptance that my actions matter and that I have a role to play in the health crisis of our time. Civil society withers not merely by way of the rise of authoritarian leadership. It withers and it dies when those who lay claim to the title of citizen forget, neglect, or cease to protect the obligations that come with being a member of civil society.
Don’t worry, I am not going to announce the formation of a Jewish Peace Corps. I did think about it, but then I realized that calling for a reconstruction of American Jewish life, as I did last week, was enough for one holiday season. That said, Yom Kippur is a call to action, and I would like to call you to action in three specific ways, by way of the three concentric circles of our existence: our wider community, our Jewish community, and ourselves.
First, the wider community.
It is with great pride that I share that the hard work of Rabbi Witkowsky and Rabbi Philp, Mara Bernstein, and our lay leaders Amy Steiner, Susan Newmark, and Samantha Tanenbaum these past months has produced a revitalized vision for tikkun olam/social justice programming. Park Avenue Synagogue has a long tradition of putting our values into action, by means of our teen food pantry, Vicki K. Wimpfheimer Mitzvah Day, and other efforts. This year and in the years ahead, through the lens of Na’aseh v’Nishma, we will act and we will learn, we are putting service and education at the forefront of our synagogue agenda. Whether the challenge is climate change, poverty and hunger, voting rights, racial inequality, or LGBTQ and gender equity, all of us have a role to play; justice work will be part of our communal expectation. The Tikkun Olam committee has assembled an array of opportunities to learn, donate, and volunteer, all paths for you to actualize your “ask not.” Look at the website, and if there is a cause dear to your heart that you would like on the synagogue agenda, then come to a meeting and get involved. By this point in the holidays, you hopefully realize that every service is framed by one of the five notecards we sent home to membership in our holiday care package. Tonight the frame is card number four – Kehillah – renewing your commitment to strengthening this community and this world. So, like the good televangelist I have become, I am asking for your commitment today. Fill out the card, telling me the issue that you want our community to work on; send it to me, and make a commitment to get involved to mend this broken world of ours.
Second, the Jewish community, specifically, our own synagogue.
I am pleased to share that through the hard work of our clergy, lay leaders, and professionals, we have drafted a Community Covenant, a statement of commitments regarding what it means to be part of the Park Avenue Synagogue family. A commitment that all our members treat each other and our clergy and staff with respect. An affirmation of our entire membership in all our ethnic, sexual, and gender diversity and in every variety of family structure. A zero-tolerance policy for any form of harassment. And an expectation that every member will communicate respectfully to each other and to our clergy and staff, in person and online. For all our talk of communal boundaries, we must never forget the most important one – that of our own personhood. Every one of us has a right to feel safe and respected. The covenant is on the membership page of our website. It will arrive soon in members’ inboxes so you can click to signal your assent to being a stakeholder in our Kehillah Kedoshah, our sacred community. What better way to begin the new year than by committing to maintaining our communal culture and values?
Third and finally, ourselves.
Here I have no program to lean on and no document to share – just us. The primary demand of Yom Kippur is to do teshuvah, repentance. If the point of today is to remind us of the effect our words and actions have on others, then it is through teshuvah that we express that ideal, both in the admission that our words and actions have caused hurt, and in the hope that our words and actions can bring about healing. Many of us are living in close quarters, making decisions in deeply imperfect conditions, so that every deed and misdeed is magnified beyond proportion. Others are separated from family and friends, a distance that has strengthened some, but for others, many others, has been a source of confusion, misgiving, and distrust. Between brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, between generations, between colleagues, even between rabbis and their congregants. Every other day of the year we have the cheek to tell ourselves that every sour exchange, every relationship gone awry, every tiff, and every dispute was due to a fault or failing of another person. Not today. Today we ask not what someone did to us, but what we ourselves did to prompt or perpetuate the cycle of hurt. Today we don that uncomfortable cloak of personal agency; we wear it, we own it, and we do everything in our power to reach beyond ourselves and mend those relationships in need of repair.
I began with a story about my daughter, and I will end with of her favorite childhood story, a story that I hope she and all her peers and all of us take to heart. It is the story of a small shtetl that received word that the king planned to visit. In anticipation of the royal visit, the town leaders decided to fill a giant barrel with wine and present it to His Majesty. A lovely plan, but where was such a modest town going to get enough wine to fill a giant barrel? Each citizen, they decided, would bring one flask of wine and pour it into the barrel in order to fill it with wine for the king.
The barrel was placed in the center of the town with a ladder reaching to the top, and every day citizens lined up to pour their flask of wine into the barrel.
Finally the day came for the king’s visit. The people were excited to present the king with their spectacular gift. The king was escorted to the center of town and presented with a royal goblet which was filled with wine from the giant barrel. When the king drank, his face fell with disappointment. The citizens asked why he was so unhappy, and the king responded, “It’s just water.”
As it turns out, each citizen thought, “Why should I give up a flask of wine? I’ll pour in water instead. No one will notice if there is just one flask of water mixed in with all that wine.” Everyone in the town made the same calculation. No one poured in wine; everyone poured in water instead. Everyone assumed someone else would step up.
Today is Yom Kippur. A year of great moment sits before us, and the fate of our country, our world, and the common good hangs in the balance. Will we step up and join in the effort? Will we offer watered-down versions of our best selves, or will our actions prove worthy of the King of Kings? Will we do everything in our power to mend this world and the relationships we hold dear? The answer to these questions is in our hands. What we do matters. May each one of us and all of us together prove worthy of the ideal of the day.