Rabbi Stacy's sermon can be heard here; the full transcript is below.
TURNING A HEART OF STONE TO A HEART OF FLESH
A friend recently recounted the following conversation to me. Three rabbis (she was one of them) were talking together when one of them mused philosophically, “My saba Shmuel used to say that there are two kinds of people in the world, those who like their latkes with apple sauce, and those who like them with sour cream.” Another disagreed, adding, “I believe there are two kinds of people in the world, but I divide them into those who prefer their matzo balls light and fluffy, and those who prefer them heavy and dense. The third rabbi shook her head in wise and gentle rebuke and said, “I believe there are two kinds of people in the world, those who think there are two kinds of people in the world, and those who don’t.”
You and I know that life is not so black and white. But today, with so many being antagonized, polarized, and demonized, our nation is being divided in two. You are either a Republican or a Democrat. We watch CNN and MSNBC or we watch Fox News. We are either patriots or traitors. We embrace immigrants and refugees or we want to build a massive border wall. We either want our rabbi to speak about the issues of the day tonight, or we don’t. And from religion to tax cuts, from healthcare to global warming, we are either on the right side or the wrong side of an issue, with nothing in between. And these either/ors, these artificial divides have only forced our country and its inhabitants further and further apart.
A New York Times study found that, “Partisan animus is at an all-time high…Democrats and Republicans view each other as selfish and dangerous threats to the nation.” And this partisanship has also seeped into our neighborhoods and our homes. Did you know that today we are less likely to have neighbors who belong to another political party than we were 50 years ago? And, bipartisan marriage is on the decline, because we view each other as, “unsuitable for marriage.” Over the past year, Thanksgiving dinners and Passover Seders have become fraught with anxiety for many of us, not because of the turkey or matzo balls, but because of this deep partisan divide. “How are we going to sit together at the same table?” some wondered. “My family lives in a red state. How will we even talk to each other?”
I recently spoke with one of our politically conservative members and asked, “What has this year been like for you?” I wanted to understand. “It’s been challenging,” she admitted. “I haven’t been able to share my ideas very freely. If you don’t agree people, they get very upset,” she added. “So I have kept very quiet.” And while she and I may not agree on everything, I care deeply for her and respect her and her family greatly. And I hope that I have earned her love and respect as well.
For months now, the divisiveness and nastiness has darkened our souls, constricted our thinking and weighed heavily on our hearts. I feel it. I know many of us do. I’ve been hyper vigilant about keeping up with the news, and turn to late night comedy for some relief, but that is short-lived. I, like many of you, haven’t slept so well this year; my neck hurts from holding the weight of it all so tightly, and sometimes, I even forget to breathe. I have also, I will confess to you, gained what I lovingly call, the Trump Ten. But what weighs on me most heavily are the millions of people in our country who have become pawns in this politically divisive battle; children uncertain if they can remain in the only country they have ever known, people unsure how they will pay for their life saving medication, African American parents afraid to allow their children out of the house, fearing for their lives, wondering if they will make it home safely at the end of the day. And what weighs on me also is our fragile planet spinning wildly out of control, with unprecedented temperatures, earthquakes and hurricanes.
And because so much has become politicized lately, it’s become increasingly difficult to talk about these things. For years, the JCRC and the Religious Action Center have been taking positions on everything from immigration to health care, from global warming to education. For decades we at Rodef Sholom have proudly marched for justice, we have stood up to defend the rights of the oppressed. And long before there ever were democrats or republicans, long before the congress and senate even existed, our people were fighting for justice. Almost four thousand years ago, our patriarch Abraham, the very first Jew, protested before God to save innocent lives. And since that time, our Torah and its righteous values have guided us to heal our fractured world. The Torah teaches us to uphold the rights of the needy, to care for the most vulnerable among us, to love the stranger in our midst. This is not politics, this is Torah. And our job is to interpret Torah and to live it everyday the best way we know how…because life, it’s not an either/or proposition. Life is messy some times; it’s complicated. Life is not an either/or proposition and neither is Judaism, because it guides us to hold both at the same time- the good and the bad, the right and wrong, the joy and the heartbreak, the holy and the mundane.
Just look at Hillel and Shammai, two of the most famous and prolific rabbis of the Talmud. They disagreed about everything. One was conservative, more stringent in his views, the other, liberal. And both of their views, whether accepted as Jewish law or not, were recorded in the Talmud for all time, revered, and studied to this day. Moreover, their most fierce disagreements God called, machloket l’shem shamayim, disagreements for the sake of heaven. As much as the rabbis disagreed and debated, and they did, their sole purpose was not to be right, but rather, it was to honor God’s name and holiness, to learn and grow, and to raise up those sparks of the divine.
Rabbi Naomi Levy describes a dream she once had just before the High Holy Days. In it, she is asked, “So rabbi what’s Yom Kippur really all about? What’s the true essence of this day?” And her mind went blank. She couldn’t think of a thing, but then, the words just started flowing as if from another source, and she said, “Yom Kippur comes down to this. And I will remove your heart of stone and I will give you a heart of flesh.” And then she awoke from her dream.
My friends, tonight, this is no dream. For the next 24 hours, we stand naked before God, vulnerable, with our hearts and our souls and our lives flung open. This day has power. The gates of prayer and repentance are open wider today than any other day of the year. And if we do it right, we can grow, if we truly give ourselves to this day, we can heal. In the Book of Ezekiel we read, “And I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit into you; I will remove the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh.” Tonight, we start by removing the stones we have carried all year from our hearts - one by one, the hurts, the resentments and anger. We remove the regrets and fear. And when we do, we expose our hearts of flesh, and that is what makes us human. Holy. Alive. And sometimes it hurts, having a heart of flesh, because we feel all the pain in the world. But with a heart of flesh, we also open ourselves to the beauty and wonder of life. Then slowly, with every breath, with every prayer, and with each song, a new spirit begins to fill us, lifting us even higher.
Reb Shlomo Carlebach z”l, said, “If I had two hearts, I could use one to love and one to hate. But I only have one heart ... so I use it to love.” Maybe we each will do the same this year.Last spring, when I traveled to Greece to meet with Syrian refugees, there is one experience that particularly stands out for me. Yotam Polizer, the Co-Executive Director of IsraeAID, the small and mighty Israeli humanitarian aid organization we traveled with, explained, that early in the days of the refugee crisis, IsraAID’s volunteers were among the only aid workers there. The rescued one boatload after another of frightened and desperate people, all overcrowded into small rubber rafts. Wearing a shirt with an Israeli flag and the IsraeAID logo, Yotam reached for a man, saving him from the turbulent waves. When safely on shore the man looked at Yotam asking, “where are you from?” “I’m from Israel.” And so we all of young men and women working alongside Yotam, there were Israeli Arabs and Jews and Christians who had all come together to save lives. At that moment, the man whom Yotam rescued, an engineer from Syria, grabbed his hand and said, “Thank you. Today, my worst enemy has become my friend.” And the two are still in touch today. I keep this raft in my study at the synagogue to remind me of the fragility of life, and the generosity of the human heart.
The 2nd century rabbi, Shimon bar Yochai explained that people were traveling on a ship together when one of them took a drill and started drilling underneath his seat. The others cried out saying, “What are you doing?” “What do you care? I am only drilling under my own seat,” he replied. They replied, “But the water will rise and flood us all on this ship.” My friends, we are all in this together. We have one world, one planet, and one life, and we are all one human family. There is no them and us, there is only we. So we might as well work together, assume the best in each other, and do what we can to care for each other and our world with a wide-open heart.
A trusted friend and mentor asked to speak with me last spring. I asked him, “Is everything alright with your family? Are you feeling well?” “I’m fine,” he replied. “I’m concerned about you.” “You don’t seem yourself lately. Are you okay?” After thinking for a moment I answered, “I’m okay…and I’m also not okay.” The truth is, that after a year of turmoil, my heart was torn in two. After a year of protests and posts and politics, I was tired, and I, like you, held the pain of the world so tightly in my heart. And I had just returned from Greece and couldn’t stop thinking of the people I met there, and carried unfathomable pain with me as well. It weighed so heavily on my soul.
So when it was time to plan our family’s summer vacation, I was ready for something healing, a mountain top retreat or a deserted cabin by a lake. My family, on the other hand, had other ideas. “Mom,” Eli said one morning, I think we just need to lay low this year.” So that’s what we did. We drove to Los Angeles where Frank’s family lives, and spent the week there. And before we set out, the ever-wise Eli had one simple request, “Can we please not talk about politics this week?” So, we didn’t. Instead, we swam in the waves, and walked along the beach early in the morning when the air was clean and still. We played cards, read books, and watched silly movies. We didn’t tune into the news at all. We ate well, and I rediscovered my taste for kale and quinoa. And over time, my heart and soul and my body all began to lighten, and I began to heal.
Each year, around the High Holy Days, it is tradition to visit the graves of our loved ones. So earlier today, I visited our Rodef Sholom cemetery to honor our beloved community members. First I visited Rabbi Michael and Hannah, whom I miss every day, but particularly on these holy days. Then I visited the graves of our founders and elders, our parents and grandparents. And then I stood by the graves of those who died far too young, our sons and daughters and spouses and siblings. I read each of their names, and offered them blessings at their graves: Stuart and Scott and Rachel, A.J., Lily, and Catie, and so many others who left us much too soon. And what I saw up there on top of our hill, our community’s holy resting place, is love and life, so much of it.
Earlier today, as I stood there, I was aware that one day, Frank and I too would be buried this holy place. And at that moment, everything else fell away; the noise of the world below evaporated into the horizon. I stood among the mountains and the trees of the memories of so many. And somehow, I became filled with an overwhelming sense of equanimity and contentment and love. Because in the end, that’s all that really matters, not the stones we keep hidden away in our hearts, or those we hold so tightly with clenched hands. But it’s those we let go of, and those we share while we are alive that matter most.
We each have the same beginning and the same destination,
What we do with our days and weeks and years,
that is the question of this day.
We have only one life, so this year, let’s use it for good.
We have only one heart, this year, let’s use it for love.