Yom Kippur sermon by Rabbi Seth Goldstein from Temple Hatfiloh
“One who destroys a single life, it is as if one has destroyed an entire world. One who saves a single life, it is as if they have saved an entire world.”
This is a teaching from the Talmud, a powerful, important teaching—one that invokes the preciousness of human life, and the care we must show to our fellow human beings.
It is a line that even shows up at the end of the movie Schindler’s List, when the surviving Jews present Oskar Schindler with a ring engraved with this phrase, in appreciation for protecting them and sheltering them through the horrors of the Holocaust.
It is also a line that comes up often in Jewish-Muslim dialogue, because it is a teaching that is also found in the Koran, the sacred scripture of Islam, and so is therefore a shared value, a point of connection, between our two faiths.
And it is a teaching, I will admit, whose depth I did not fully understand, or have a realization of, beyond its plain meaning, until I met Maria, who we as a congregation welcomed into sanctuary this past month.
The reference point for this teaching in the Talmud is the story of Cain and Abel in the Torah, based on a close reading of the Hebrew. In the story of Cain and Abel, the first murder in the text and, ostensibly, in history, Cain kills his brother Abel out of jealousy. God then called out to Cain, asking him where his brother was, only to be met by the famous reply, “am I my brother’s keeper?”
God’s initial question was rhetorical because God, being the omniscient God of the Torah, then says, “What have you done? Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground!” The commentary hinges on the phrase “blood of your brother” which is demei achicha, with the word demei literally meaning “bloods”—it is in the plural “bloods of your brother.” As opposed to dam achicha in the singular, “blood of your brother,”—the word dam perhaps familiar to us as the first plague which we recite at the Passover Seder as we spill drops of wine from our glasses.
“Bloods of your brother” is taken by the ancient rabbinic commentators to mean that when Cain killed Abel, he did not just kill one person. Rather he killed all the generations that would have descended from Abel had he lived. Cain did not kill one person, but killed millions. Thus one who destroys a single life, it is as if one destroyed an entire world.
And, the rabbis teach, the converse is true. One who saves a single life, saves an entire world.
How can we truly understand this text until we are in the position of actually saving a life? When the fate of a person—and therefore the multitudes that will come from the person—are in our hands?
Such it is with Maria and her child. Our guest, who came to us seeking protection, and safety, and security. Seeking asylum in this country having fled domestic violence in her home country of Guatemala, and now facing deportation.
She seeks what any of us seek. Safety. Security. A better future. Shalom, peace. And shalom bayit, peace in the home.
For to return to Guatemala would certainly put her in danger. Due to its history of civil war and gang activity, violence, and particularly violence against woman, occurs at a staggering rate in Guatemala. Guatemala’s rate of murder of women is 3 times the global average. A new class of laws were passed in Guatemala in 2008 to address femicide—making violence against women its own crime—but there is only a 4-6% conviction rate.
A UN report reads: “Violence against women… has been a continuum in the history of Guatemala and gender violence was perpetuated as a tool of submission and control on women’s bodies and lives, this also based in the patriarchal and conservative culture added to a fragile security and legal system that breeds impunity.”
And indigenous women, like Maria, are even worse off, facing gender based violence compounded by discrimination against the indigenous populations. All these factors is what is driving migration, compelling people to make the difficult decision to make the perilous journey north rather than face the violence at home.
And they are met with closed doors, an administration that wants to keep them out. In June, 2018 Attorney General Jeff Sessions overturned precedent and said that fear of domestic violence or gang violence are not grounds for an asylum claim. William Barr bolstered this by restricting asylum seekers even more. And this compounds the fact that the US played a role in creating the violent conditions in Guatemala in the first place, supporting a coup in 1954 that led to decades of war and insurrection, resulting in violence and human rights violations against civilians, especially the indigenous populations.
That is why we are doing this, this act of sanctuary.
I recognize that by bringing someone into sanctuary, we have admittingly entered unknown territory. Becoming a sanctuary congregation a year ago and now bringing someone into sanctuary is a risk. It focuses attention on us and our guest. Sanctuary is a last resort for her, ande our status as a sensitive location provides some form of protection, since by policy this is not a place that ICE would carry out enforcement. But ICE policy is just that, policy, not law. We knew the risks, we discussed it, we assessed our options, made our preparations, and ultimately accepted this risk.
And I would argue that we are obligated to take that risk. We know that 36 times in the Torah we are told to love the stranger, love the other, love the immigrant, because we were once the stranger in the land of Egypt. We remember our oppression, so we have empathy for another’s oppression. We remember when our lives were held in the balance, so we reach out to support those whose lives are currently held in the balance.
But to what end? How far do we go?
In the Talmud again (Sanhedrin 73a) we read: “From where is it derived that one who sees another drowning in a river, or being dragged away by a wild animal, or being attacked by bandits, is obligated to save him? The verse states: “You shall not stand idly by the blood of another” (Leviticus 19:16).” “You shall not stand idly by”—we are going to read this verse from the Torah tomorrow afternoon. And according to our traditions to not stand idly by means that to save another we sometimes must put ourselves in a difficult or dangerous situation. The rabbis imagined jumping into a river, or confronting a wild animal, or stepping into a band of bandits, or, presumably, some other type of risky situation.
Our situation is different but we too have decided to live into this teaching from the Talmud, and not stand idly by, even though there is risk involved. For in this situation we are confronting not raging waters or wild animals or bandits. We are confronting injustice, and authoritarianism, and the inhumane treatment of the other by our government. There is our immigration policy in the United States, and there is justice, and our moral teachings compel us to take this public stand to ensure that the former reflects the latter.
We are making a public statement, pushing back against the policies of this administration, in the name of obedience to our values. And we honor the fact that as people took these same risks for us as Jews in the past, we as Jews are going to take a risk for someone right now.
Some of this risk is the attention paid to us. And this shouldn’t be anything new to us. We have always lived with risk. For we have seen throughout history, and we have seen in our own day, that it is simply a risk to live as a Jew.
We are here about a year since Pittsburgh, when a gunman killed 11 people in a synagogue. Two and a half years since Charlottesville, when white supremacists marched through the street chanting “Jews will not replace us.” Anti-Semitic incidents are on the rise. And we have a President and other leaders who condone this activity and dog-whistle anti-Semitism through references to “globalists” or “George Soros.”
Being open in Jewish community is a risk. I don’t say this to scare anyone but to be pragmatic. Because anti-Semitism is nothing new, it was, is, and might always will be. And remember that we in Olympia dealt with neo-Nazis marching in town and a swastika spray-painted on our statue way before the 2016 election.
So we assess realities, and we have honest conversations around security and safety in order to mitigate this risk. It’s what made us decide to keep the doors locked at all times. It is what caused us to establish a trained greeter corps. It’s what caused us to want to upgrade our security system and do, what the experts call, “target hardening.”
At the same time we do so with an eye to not building walls, but building bridges. In our diverse community in the name of safety we try to balance what is acceptable, what is effective, what is comfortable. It’s not always easy. Someone is going to always be upset. But we can agree that the best way to address our security concerns is to continue to build relationships with others, among other faith communities and other allies, with other communities similarly oppressed.
But the risk of being Jewish will always be there, and we can also alleviate the risk by refusing to give into it. We must say, as you are doing tonight, gathering in visible Jewish space, at known Jewish time, that our rights, our history, our identity is worth the risk of being Jewish in America in the 21st century.
Because ultimately, we must admit, life itself is a risk. Being alive is a risk. We can be careful, take precautions, but ultimately, as many of us have learned, life is a risk. Despite all of our planning, our precautions, life has a way of reminding us that just living itself can be dangerous and risky.
I learned this myself over 10 years ago when I had my first of two brain surgeries to correct a cyst that was growing in my brain, a defect that had been growing since my birth but waited over 30 years to present itself to me by compromising my eyesight. And after one surgery, another after it returned. Up to now it has still not returned, but it left me with both hypothyroidism, for which I will take a thyroid supplement for the rest of my life, and with osteoporosis. Yes, I have osteoporosis. Yes, my 71-year-old mother and I trade calcium tips.
And then a few years later what I thought was a bad flu turned out to be after a rush to the ER to meningitis. A week in the hospital, including a stint in the ICU, followed by a few weeks of intensive intravenous antibiotics, and I had survived with minimal long term effects. I only learned several weeks later how close to death I had come.
I struggled for a while with what this might mean. My theology is too big to think that everything happens for a reason. But I’ll admit that perhaps even harder to fathom is that somethings happen for no reason at all.
They just do. And this one precious life that we are given is a risky proposition. We recall that over the course of this sacred day, when we make ourselves vulnerable, refrain from eating, remove ourselves from our regular life to humble ourselves before each other and before the Source of All. Doing teshuvah, seeking and granting forgiveness, conducting an accounting of our soul, atoning for what we have done wrong, these are ways that we can try to make life better despite the admission of the risks of simply being alive.
Sanctuary is a risk. Being Jewish is a risk. And life itself is a risk.
Living itself is a risk. But there is so much beauty, and fun, and love, and goodness, if we are mindful and seek it out.
Being Jewish is a risk. But there is a millennia old tradition that sustained our ancestors, that is so spiritually rich, that is so rooted and yet so creative, that encompasses wisdom and ethics, that allows us to argue and challenge, that bridges cultures and languages.
Fighting injustice as a sanctuary congregation is a risk. But in the words of the Quaker teacher Parker Palmer, “…the simple secret of all who have risked punishment by standing up to cruelty and injustice [is] they’ve realized that no punishment anyone might lay on them could possibly be greater than the punishment they lay on themselves by conspiring in their own diminishment. Every time any one of us refuses to conspire in the abasement of self or others, we’ve taken a step toward the good, the true, the just and the beautiful.” There is a risk to disobey, but there is also a risk to obey.
To live a life without risk is impossible. The alternatives are untenable. It means living a life of fear and hopelessness and meaninglessness. It means being divorced from this rich Jewish tradition, or relegating it to the realm of “supposed to,” or calling upon it only when in need, or losing it all together. And it means permitting injustice to persist and, in this case, to put the very life of a woman and a child in danger.
We don’t do this carelessly. In developing our sanctuary plan, one of the key members of our congregation engaged in its development was Raven Lidman. Raven, a lawyer, law professor, and social justice activist, was instrumental in helping to clarify what sanctuary means for us, especially navigating the thorny legal issues. Sadly, Raven died before we were able to fully realize this vision.
Shortly before the end of her life, she gave an interview to Northwest Lawyer magazine, conducted by another member of our congregation, Lisa Brodoff. In that interview, she gave this advice which resonates, not only for sanctuary work, but truly for life (slightly paraphrased): “Take risks. Think strategically. Ask for help.”
Take risks. Think strategically. Ask for help.
That is exactly what we are doing in engaging this work of sanctuary. That is exactly what we do in life.
We are taking risks, and we do so thoughtfully and carefully. We create plans, procedures and guides.
And we don’t do it alone. We have help. In our risky lives we have friends, loved ones, spiritual leaders and professionals that we can call upon for guidance. We live Judaism in community. And we engage in the work of sanctuary with many, many community partners.
In many ways all of these three are culminating in this moment, on this sacred day. As mentioned on Yom Kippur we lay ourselves bear with that humble admission that life is full of risk. We show up at a place that could be the focal point of hatred. And we gather here knowing that we are sharing space with another, expanding our tent. On Yom Kippur we approach life strategically, with the guidance of the traditions and liturgy, and the practice of cheshbon hanefesh, taking an accounting of our souls, and teshuvah, repentance. And we do so with help, that liturgy written in the plural, and all of us here in community. We have come here to declare, in the presence of ourselves, our neighbors, and our God, that despite all of these risks that define our lives, we are going to embrace life anyway.
I’ve been inspired recently not only by Raven but also by the author Courtney Martin who wrote a book on social justice called, Do It Anyway. Her point, told through profiles of contemporary, young social justice activists, is that the mission of previous generations to “Save the World” is ultimately impossible. We are not going to save the world, but rather than this lead to defeat, we must do the small acts that will both impact another and sustain us.
She writes, “We must hold these large-scale revolutions in our hearts while tackling small, radical acts every day with our hands. We must wake up wondering how we might fail at changing absolutely everything in such a way that we manage to change a little something.” She calls this “good failure” that our actions may not “Save the World,” but we do it anyway.
Do it anyway.
In just two months, as we descend deeper into the darkness of winter, we will turn to the lights of Hanukkah. We will celebrate that story of the Hasmoneans who fought a rebellion against their oppressors, who established independence for the Jewish community, and who restored the Holy Temple after its desecration.
We recall the story of the oil, in which in the course of that rededication the Maccabees had hoped to relight the menorah, the lamp that provided a perpetual flame. And as the story goes, they only found enough sanctified oil to last one day, but the oil lasted for eight days, enough time for a steady supply of sanctified oil to be produced. Hence our eight-day celebration.
We often call this the miracle of Hanukkah—that this small supply of oil lasted eight times as long as expected.
But I disagree.
The real miracle of Hanukkah is that with only a small supply of oil, anticipating that it will burn out after only one day, realizing that the Temple would revert to its unholy state as before it was rededicated, coming so far to fall short in their ultimate goal—the real miracle of Hanukkah, is that they lit it anyway.
They lit it anyway. That is the miracle of Hanukkah. Not knowing what would happen, they lit it anyway.
Take risks. Think strategically. Ask for help.
And do it anyway.
Not sure what this next year will bring you, and hesitant about the risk of big changes you wish to make in your life? Do it anyway.
Feel drawn to connect with Judaism but feel that you don’t know enough, or don’t have the background, or feel anxious about the risk because of the rise of white supremacy and anti-Semitism? Do it anyway.
Unsure about the risk we are taking with sanctuary and even not convinced that this one action is even effective in the fight for immigrant justice? We have to do it anyway.
We are not going to “Save the World,” but we can save a person. Maria. Her child. Or maybe, this Yom Kippur, you will save yourself.
It may seem small. It’s just one person. But as we know:
“One who saves a single life, it is as if they have saved an entire world.”