October 3, 2016 | All Hands On Deck: A Journey Toward the World as it Ought to Be (Rosh HaShanah 5777)
Stephanie D. Kolin
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There’s water pouring into the hull of the ship, waves are crashing from above. The boat is in trouble, the crew and passengers, too. There are two commands, in this harrowing moment, that a captain might call out to signal that there is an emergency. Which one the crew hears determines what happens next.
Scenario 1: The captain yells, “Every man for himself!” And there is chaos. In the Navy, this would set into motion a formal suspension of the chain of command, making each person responsible only for his or her own survival. The ship goes down in a storm or is boarded by an enemy in an attack. Some make it, some don’t.
OR Scenario 2: The captain shouts, “All hands on deck!” This means that every sailor, crew member, every passenger, anyone who can help, is needed – no matter if they just finished their shift or are fast asleep. They run to the ship’s deck to work together furiously to get everyone to safety.1
Two calls. Two very different outcomes.
Now, as you may have surmised, I don’t know a whit about sailing. I grew up as a NYC kid whose idea of a boat ride was the one that ended up at my cousin Barry’s house on Staten Island. But one teenage summer, I found myself on a sailboat in Seal Harbor, Maine, in waters far too rough for our small vessel. We were at a 75-degree tilt, and the Captain yelled: “All hands on deck.” There were only three of us and I was a guppy of a novice. As the waves crashed on us, I clumsily tacked and jibed, and ducked when the boom swung over. The other two performed far greater feats and together – gratefully, we made it safely back to land.
Since then, I’ve been intrigued by this call: All hands on deck. And its converse: Every man for himself. Had our captain made the other choice, there was no way I would have survived. In fact – there’s a lesser-known second half of the phrase “Every man for himself” – does anyone know it? The full idiom is “Every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost.” Which tells us that when we decide that each person will only be responsible for him or herself, we acknowledge that the most vulnerable among us, the hindmost, the one in the proverbial back, will probably not survive this moment.
Here on this powerful day, our new year, when we consider who we are, how we want to be in the world, and, ultimately, who we are going to be to one another, these two opposing maritime modalities present a choice: do we want to live as if we are every man for himself? Or as we navigate the turbulent waters of our lives, will we grab the oars, the rope, and one another, and shout, “All hands on deck?”
The truth is, against our highest ideals, today we mainly live in an “every man for himself” kind of culture. When we or our families face specific challenges – we are generally expected to figure it out on our own. Here’s just one example: A family I know has a child with special needs. He wasn’t getting the services he needed in school, but when his mother tried to fix the problem, she found herself on her own lost in a complicated and intimidating system. She made hundreds of phone calls, took off work, and advocated valiantly to protect her son. It took years, but finally, exhausted, she was successful. Along the way, she found there were other families in the school and district who needed similar solutions, but every parent found him or herself in their own lane, each exhausted. It wasn’t their fault; this is how the system was set up. But when she told me all this, she lamented: “what if we had all been able to come together to get our kids the help they needed? How different might that have been.”
Now, as New Yorkers, we know what all hands on deck looks like – moments in the recent history of this city where we have all shown up for one another. During Superstorm Sandy, New Yorkers, Central members, tacked and jibed, taking families without electricity into their own homes. Our teens and adults lined up to serve hundreds of Thanksgiving meals and to bring carloads of supplies to those in the Rockaways and others hardest hit. The Devil would not have the hindmost.
That story stands out, though, because it stands out. In our day-to-day challenges as individuals and families, we often find ourselves left to fend for ourselves. Even when it’s likely that we’re not the only ones: challenges with our kids’ education, teen anxiety, caring for our aging parents, job or health related issues, the ability to afford this city that we love. And that’s just the stuff happening in our own families. When it comes to the broader suffering in our city or country, the sense that we are powerless to do anything about it is pervasive: Homelessness that we can’t seem to explain to our kids, gun violence that regularly knocks the wind out of us, racial fractures and lack of opportunity for some that we find untenable. Even just listing them out – instead of gearing up to take them on together, we likely think – why yes, rabbi, that is a list of things that will never ever change!
Because we’ve internalized the presumed #1 rule of the sea: it’s every man for himself, so figure it out or get left behind.
But that’s the thing – it doesn’t have to be that way. Do you know what the actual #1 international rule of the sea is? That if you see someone in the water unable to help themselves, no matter who they are, you must stop and save them.2 Oh, and the #1 Jewish rule of the sea (we have one of those!)? Same thing. Maimonides writes, “if one person sees another drowning in the sea and, although able to rescue him either alone or with others, does not rescue him…he transgresses the commandment “You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor (Leviticus 19:16).”3
Collectively, we don’t ascribe to the notion that what is strong or what is brave or what is right is to handle it all by ourselves
No one wants to be the one struggling alone in the waves. And no one wants to be the one in the ship, passing others by. Yet we’ve been trained in this “every man for himself” culture, that it’s weakness to share our struggles and naive to believe that together, we can overcome the most challenging problems of our day. But we are called to be unsatisfied with that.
The Zohar, a mystical text from the 11th century, teaches that at the beginning of Elul, the month leading up to today, each of us is standing “achor el achor” – we are, in relation to one another, “back to back.” But, the Zohar continues, by the time we reach Rosh Hashanah, this very morning, we have turned to face one another, and we find ourselves “panim el panim.” Face to face. A clear, powerful image – that we shift our posture from not even knowing the other is there to looking into one another’s eyes. Achor el achor, we cannot possibly know the struggles our neighbor is facing. Achor el achor, we have no choice but to navigate our tempests alone.
While our culture may pull us like a centrifuge to turn away from one another, our tradition draws us toward one another with an irresistible gravitational pull until we are panim el panim, face to face. In the eyes of the other, we recognize how much pain, joy, and courage we share in common.Panim el panim, we confess the number of times we feel helpless in the face of brokenness - of our neighbors or ourselves, our city, our country. Panim el panim, we start to notice the resolve in each other’s eyes. Maybe we don’t have to feel so helpless.
Jewish philosopher, Emanuel Levinas, teaches that once we look into the eyes of another person, we become obligated to that person.4 Seeing their pain, their reality, their humanity demands something from us. It means that I can’t just say to you – hey, sorry to hear that. Tough luck, bro. Or yeah, it sure is a mess out there. And then go on with my day. But rather, seeing your face – or a face on the street or subway or in a sister church means that I am responsible to you in some real way.
But let’s be honest: getting panim el panim, face to face, and the responsibilities that follow – that sounds like a lot of work. Isn’t it easier to stay every man for himself? To put in all that effort, when we know – or we think we know – that the kind of change it would take to really make a dent - it’s not really possible - is it?
Alone? Probably not. Together? Maybe. In Dallas, a congregation like ours worked to make it so that people who need medical goods, but can’t afford them, always have access to them. In Los Angeles, they are creating jobs building rapid transit on the most congested highway in the country, easing a decades-old nightmare for those getting to working class jobs. In Cleveland, in the face of great racial divides, they are working with law enforcement to improve policy and relationships between officers and civilians.
Right here at Central six years ago, you guys worked with others to open a new public school to address overcrowding in classrooms. When I was leading work like this in California, Reform congregations called “all hands on deck,” not by picking an issue or cause out of a hat, but by listening very closely to what people felt were the real obstacles in our families and in our state. Panim el panim, face to face, we heard hundreds of stories. One was from a president of one of the congregations in Bel Aire who told her community that as a child, her family was what’s called “housing insecure.” They stayed with grandparents, friends, always stitching something together, but also always on the move. Never feeling safe or stable. It shaped her as an adult. In response, others began to share their experiences. And then even those who had not experienced something similar felt an alliance with her because they’d started to care about each other differently. Through this, the community moved from being achor el achor to being truly panim el panim – seeing each other anew, more honestly, for the first time.
We called our campaign: “Wander No More” – a reference to our own people’s wandering the wilderness without a permanent home for forty years, and the assertion that our Jewish values affirm that no one should have to be without shelter today.
Alone, we really couldn’t have done much about that particular issue, but our stories moved us to join with a broader coalition from many different faiths and backgrounds in a campaign for affordable housing, in which we secured what will ultimately be billions of dollars for critically needed housing for California’s most vulnerable families.5 With all hands on deck, we were powerful enough to have an impact on something that mattered to us all.
Is this kind of work challenging? Absolutely. We are resisting the most deeply ingrained culture of hyper individualism that exists today. In the short run, it sounds easier to fend for ourselves. But as Rabbi Buchdahl challenged us last night, perhaps that’s not who we’re called to be in these days. Britain’s former Chief Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, writes that “In Judaism, faith is not acceptance, but protest, against the world that is, in the name of the world that is not yet, but ought to be.”6 Protest against a world that is harder for the most vulnerable. Protest against the very belief that we are powerless to make change.
We are a community who prays together, who celebrates our greatest joys together, who grieves together, who feeds the hungry together, who studies Torah together. Imagine what could be possible as a community who acts together to address the shared challenges we face and to impact the most pressing issues of our day. Imagine us one day gathered 1,000, 2,000 strong – not a faceless crowd, because we’ve come to know each other. I can’t make any promises. Only that we can be changed by this work. And that we can try to change the course of things. It doesn’t happen overnight – it takes time to build and figure out, but it can happen if we start by hearing one another.
So that’s what we are planning to begin here at Central. We are going to get face to face with one another. There’s a team of about twenty wonderful Central members who have been working hard to prepare for this effort and who are going to help us launch 500 conversations in the months ahead. We’re going to find out what matters to us most as a community and when we look at this city that we love, what do we want to fix? And how are we guided by and grounded in our Jewish tradition to do so?
Our stories – your story, your voice, your heart – will help us make a determination about which particular struggle we will address first. And then, we will join with other communities in our city who share our vision of the world that ought to be. What will we do? I can’t tell you that yet because, in part, it will emerge from your conversations.
Each of us has a story, a storm that troubles us, but also motivates us. And, this isn’t something any of us could do alone, so in your hand or somewhere crushed underfoot at this point, is a card with a pencil attached to it – one way we hope you’ll join this effort that we are calling “Central in Action.” In just a moment – but not yet – we’d love for you to fill it out. The first box asks if you’re willing to have a 45-minute coffee with another member who wants to hear your stories and share theirs with you. The second invites you to learn the art of leading one of these conversations and maybe even help us get to 500. And the third is if you want to delve deeper into what our tradition has to say about tikkuning this olam, repairing our world – and is a chance to study with our clergy. Then at the end of the service, just get it into the hands of one of the shamashim, the ushers, and you’ll hear from the Leadership Team soon to schedule. If you find you don’t have one, there will be extras in the back at the end of the service. And if you want to sleep on it, no worries, the card will come to you by email in the days ahead. But definitely take the pencil home, because how great is that pencil? And through these conversations, we will bring into focus Central’s vision of the world as it ought to be. Okay, enough instructions – back to our purpose.
When God speaks to almost anyone in the Torah, it’s through an intermediary – an angel or a dream. But when God speaks to Moses, our text says: vayidaber Adonai el Moshe panim el panim ka’asher ish el rei’eyhu: God spoke to Moses, face to face, as one speaks to his friend (Ex. 33:11). Our rabbis teach that this kind of sacred interaction is unique – it changes a person. It wakes us up, helps us understand truth. When we speak with someone face-to-face, midrash teaches, it’s an exchange that stays with us and becomes part of us.7 As we turn to face one another, may our own encounters aspire to such possibility. May we always be a community in which we care for and are responsible to one another. May we be a beacon in this city, through our actions, bringing greater compassion into the world.
You are the cartographers, the sailors, the captains and it’s an all hands on deck moment – may we safely and bravely chart our course and guide this ship. Shanah Tovah U’metukah.
- Deep gratitude to Rabbi Captain Natan Trief who was generous in sharing experiences and wisdom with me regarding his captaining a voyage from Israel to the US several years ago.
- Much thanks to Rabbi Noah Farkas who served as chaplain in the Navy for sharing this with me.
- Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Torts, “Murder and Preservation of Life” 1:14, 16.
- Emanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity.
- Jewish Journal, California Reform Jews Succeed in Push to Fund Housing
- Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, “From Despair to Hope,” June 2016.
- Multiple sources: Radak on Genesis 32:31:2; Maimonides’ Hilkhot Yesodei Torah 7:6; Rabbi Tuviah ben Eliezer HaGadol wrote in his Midrash Lekach Tov (Vayikra 1:1); Maimonides Mishneh Torah, Foundations of the Torah 7:6