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September 25, 2023

Standing Up for One Another (Yom Kippur Community Service 5784)

Sivan Rotholz

Standing Up for One Another
Sivan Rotholz, Yom Kippur Community Service 5784

Gmar Chatimah Tovah. I want to thank you for being here and for welcoming me on this most meaningful and reflective of days. 

Not long ago, in Toronto, an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor passed away. With no nearby family, his funeral was planned by a local volunteer rabbi. The night before the burial, Rabbi Zale Newman realized he did not have a minyan – the quorum of ten Jewish adults required for certain religious obligations, including burials. Late that night, Rabbi Newman posted a message on Facebook:

ATTENTION TORONTO JEWISH COMMUNITY! We need to have a minyan present tomorrow at noon for a sweet Holocaust survivor who passed away leaving no relatives... Can you come escort a Hero of the Holocaust for his final journey, at NOON TOMORROW... for a graveside funeral? This is a huge PURE act of kindness. Won't take long but please dress warmly.

On the day of Eddie Ford’s funeral, it was negative 16 degrees.

Three people responded to the call on Facebook and said they would be there.

As Rabbi Newman pulled into the graveyard, he encountered a long line of cars. Oh no, he thought, there must be another funeral here today. But as he began asking people whose funeral they were attending, each and every person answered, “Mr. Ford’s.”

Over two hundred strangers showed up in negative-16-degree weather to perform the mitzvah of accompanying Eddie Ford into the next world. Not only did he have a minyan, he had a mega-minyan — 20 times over.

At the heart of the Yom Kippur liturgy is the frequent recitation of the Viddui –  a confessional in which we list a whole variety of sins for which we are asking forgiveness.  In this list of sins that we recite over and over again on Yom Kippur, Rabbi Michael Strassfeld observes, “We do not ask for forgiveness for not attending synagogue regularly or not keeping Shabbat. Instead, we confess transgressions against the community and transgressions of our hearts.” What is most striking to Rabbi Strassfeld is that “the confessional is in the plural -- yet, it is clear that none of us have committed all these sins. Why,” he asks, “should we confess even to transgressions of which we are innocent?”

“The plural form,” he answers, “reminds us that we are part of a community -- simultaneously our congregation and the people of Israel. We are responsible for one another, not just for ourselves alone. On Yom Kippur, we stand together as a community of sinners; not some righteous and some wicked. All of us recite the same list of sins; no one's list is shorter than anyone else's. Together we seek forgiveness and strive for change... it is only as a community that we can effect the social changes necessary to better all our lives. Our concern on Yom Kippur is not just for the self… even as we spen[d] hours looking inward examining who we are, we cannot forget to look at the world around us.”

When I think of the Yom Kippur liturgy, of each of us standing up and confessing to sins most of which we ourselves did not commit, standing up and taking on one another’s burden for the sake of community, I am reminded not just of those who showed up and made a minyan for Mr. Ford, but also of the famous ending of the 1960s film "Spartacus." In this iconic scene, a Roman general announces to a group of former slaves that unless Spartacus is surrendered, all of the slaves will be crucified. Spartacus is willing to turn himself in to spare his friends, so he stands up and declares, "I am Spartacus!" But then the rest of the slaves stand up beside him in solidarity, each proclaiming in turn, "I am Spartacus," taking the burden of one onto the shoulders of the masses.

I will not be so grandiose as to say that applying for rabbinical school was my “Spartacus” moment.  But there was something that felt like a persistent tap on my shoulder saying, “Sivan, there is more you can do than you’re doing; more people to help than you’re helping.” And it took me a long time to listen. Part of my resistance, honestly, was that I wasn’t a kid anymore — at age 36, I had a husband, a son, a hope for another child, and a realization that family expenses were already stretching us thin. I had seen that the path to the clergy requires, as you all know, a significant amount of time spent in books, classes, and shul. But no matter how many times I decided to deny the quiet call, there was this louder reminder that the rabbinate might me be one small way I could answer what Rabbi Strassfeld describes as a community of responsibility. 

We have all had those inflection points – when something makes us take a harder look at what we personally can do. But sometimes, there is no help that any one of us can offer when faced with the gravity of the world's ills. Sometimes the issues are structural, and we can feel overwhelmed, wondering what – if anything – we might do to help.

I remember one such moment in particular. I was perusing my social media and came across the story of an expensive taco. Piled high with gold flakes, Kobe beef, black truffle, and Beluga caviar, this is, in fact, the most expensive taco in the world. A plate of two costs $25,000.

I kept scrolling and came across a story from Britain. Elaine Morrall, a mother of four, froze to death in her home. Unable to pay her bills, she refused to turn on the heat for herself alone; she would only warm her apartment when her children were home from school. She froze to death saving up the little heat she could afford for the sake of her family.

The story of Elaine Morrall was heartbreaking. But what I could not live with was that, within a single day, I was confronted with a $25,000 taco and a woman who died because she could not afford to turn on her heat. The disparity broke me.

I want to acknowledge that this is a difficult story to hear. And that, often, this kind of disparity is more than we can bear. Sometimes the harshness of the world is so overwhelming that we feel helpless. That we disassociate. Sometimes we feel so powerless, we don’t do anything at all.

We might not be able to fix the structural issues that allow for some people to eat $25,000 tacos while others freeze to death, but we can take small steps to care for our fellow humans. And it is these small steps that our tradition invites us – reminds us – to take. I know that everyone in this room does what they can for your fellow humans. That so many of you donate, volunteer, and work without public recognition to lift up others. And while, sometimes, no matter what we do, it can feel like it’s never enough, Judaism does demand that we do what we can. “It is not on you to complete the work,” our wisdom literature teaches, “but neither are you free to desist from it.”

“We are responsible for one another,” the Yom Kippur liturgy says explicitly, “not just for ourselves alone.” Kol Yisrael arayvim zeh ba-zeh. We are all asked to think about, to care about, one another’s well-being. When we list our sins on this holy day of reckoning, we do not sit down for those we did not commit. Instead, we stand together -- we stand up with and for one another on this day, lightening the load by sharing the burden.

The prophet Isaiah teaches that we must share our bread with the hungry, bring the homeless poor into our houses, and clothe the naked. That’s no social justice cliche – it’s fundamental to our tradition. “If you generously offer food to the hungry and meet the needs of the person in trouble; then your light will rise in the darkness.” Isaiah also tells us that “the work of tzedakah [will] bring peace.” While we often think of tzedakah as charitable giving, it more accurately means righteous behavior and the pursuit of justice. The rabbis said of tzedakah that it is “equal in value to all the other commandments combined.”

Maybe this is what the Yom Kippur liturgy is pointing us toward. On the holiest day in our year, we are called upon to rise for one another, to take care of one another, to lift one another up. It is not only decent; it is righteous -- an act equal to all of the commandments combined -- to be there for another human being.

The great 15th c. Jewish thinker Don Isaac Abravanel identified three reasons for giving tzedakah: to show mercy to the poor; to see the poor person as your relative; and as a commitment to sustaining your community. I’m not pretending for a moment that it’s uncomplicated or even intuitive to show mercy to the poor person on the street or across the world, let alone to view the poor person as your relative. Sometimes it can be the hardest thing we do. But maybe that’s part of the work of this holiday: to bring closer the person who feels so distant, disconnected, unrecognizable. To humanize the human who feels alien. Thinking about tzedakah as a commitment to sustaining your community makes tachles – practical – sense: lifting up one person can improve a whole society. 

There is a rabbinic story about a group of people traveling in a boat. One passenger begins drilling a hole under his seat. The others complain that this could cause the boat to sink. “Why should this bother you?” the man asks, “I am only drilling under my own seat.” And the others respond, “But the water will rise up and flood the ship for all of us!” The moral of this story is obvious: one person’s destructive action may sink the entire community. But the inverse is also true: a single positive change has the power to make things better for us all.

I am so very new to Central Synagogue, but I have already learned some important, wonderful things about the people who make this community sacred. This shul has volunteers who greet every person who enters the sanctuary each Shabbat so that no one feels unwelcome or unseen. Members sign up to phone the homebound and the sick. They feed the stranger who comes for a warm breakfast on a freezing morning. They mentor the first-generation high school senior and shepherd the refugee who arrives with nothing. Central Synagogue invites and inspires all of this – even creating this space we are in right now – a Community Service for those who aren't – or aren’t yet – members. This is so much more than a place of worship, education, celebration, and comfort – it is made up of people who strive to make this a community and a sanctuary in the truest sense.

So much of what is wonderful about Central – and many other synagogues – is open to you even if you are not a member. So much of what happens here – Shabbat services, volunteer projects, classes – is available to anyone who wants to take part. I know that some of you are longtime Central members, some of you have never been to this synagogue, and some are on the storied waitlist. But something has compelled you to be here. Maybe you’re looking for community. And perhaps you will take small steps to get there. Perhaps you'll commit to taking a class. Or to volunteering. Or to showing up for services, attending a Shabbat dinner, or joining one of our many groups that exist for the sake of bringing us closer to one another – so that we do not have to feel disconnected. Each and every one of us in this room today has the opportunity to take part in a community that does not wait until Yom Kippur to stand up and say, “I am Sparticus.”  

Our sages teach that concern on Yom Kippur is not just for the self. We atone together, pound our chests together. We do not apologize or act alone, we show up for a communal reset, a communal recommitment to our better selves.

On this Day of Atonement, as we rise together side by side, sharing the burden of one another’s sins, I hope you might ask yourself: How will I be there for someone else – not only today, but all year long? What are the ways that I personally might commit to strengthening my community, whether it be Central Synagogue or outside its doors? Whose funeral will I show up for, even in negative 16-degree-weather? How will I show up, stand up, and lift up my community this year?

I pray that our collective Book of Life in 5784 will be filled with stories of communal responsibility. In Deuteronomy 15, God instructs us clearly: “When you happen on someone who's in trouble or needs help… don't look the other way pretending you don't see [them]. Rather, you must open your hand and [give] whatever is sufficient to meet the need.”

May this day of deep personal introspection move us to open our hearts and meet the need in a world crying out for each and every one of us.

Ken Yehi Ratson – may it be so.


Watch our sermon above or on Youtube, listen on Apple Podcasts and Spotify, or read the transcript above.