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sermon: Yom Kippur 5779

Voting: Our Commitment to Community

When we put our learning and prayer into action it forces us to consider the areas of civic improvement outside of these walls.

There was once a king who was visiting a town. In preparation for the king’s visit the town decided to fill a giant barrel with wine and present it to the king upon his arrival. But where were they going to get so much wine to fill the giant barrel? They came up with a brilliant idea; each family in the town would bring from home one flask filled with wine and pour it into the giant barrel. That way the barrel would fill with wine.

They placed the giant barrel in the center of the town with a ladder reaching to the top and every day people lined up to pour their flask of wine into it.

The day finally arrived, the king was coming to town. The people were so excited to present the king with this wonderful gift. They showed the king the barrel and gave him a kingly goblet. They filled his goblet with wine but instead of delight, they were shocked by the look on the king’s face as he drank the wine. The king was obviously very unhappy. When asked why he was so unhappy he responded, “It’s just plain water”.

It turns out that each family wondered why they should be the one to pour wine into the barrel? They said, “I will pour in water instead. I am sure no one will notice if there is just one flask of water among all that wine.” Everyone in the town made the same calculation and no one filled their flask with wine. Everyone was relying on someone else.

The power of this story is that it is so familiar. How often have we given only just what was required or a little less than what was required because we thought we could get away with it? This is what social psychologists call social loafing. “People are prone to put forward less effort when they are working in a group as opposed to when they are working alone is defined as social loafing.”1 It’s easy to do and not often malicious. The people in the story were not out to get the king, they didn’t know the king and apparently didn’t know each other. They thought everyone else would do the right thing, when in reality no one did. Instead of rich wine for a grand celebration, everyone’s good intentions were watered down. Everyone lost.

We mistakenly focus only on ourselves on Yom Kippur. Again here, it is easy to do. We come and we sit and we pray and we feel personal hunger. However, if we only consider our personal experience, we are missing the point of this communal holy day. Today is a day to think about how we as a community have failed and how we can do better. Israeli poet and thinker, Shai Agnon, says about Yom Kippur, “It’s not an individual holy day, it’s about a collective act of purification.”2 Isaiah in our prophetic haftarah text, calls upon the metaphor of fasting to spur us to action. Isaiah says,

צַּמְנוּ וְלֹא רָאִיתָ עִנִּינוּ נַפְשֵׁנוּ וְלֹא תֵדָע הֵן בְּיוֹם צֹמְכֶם תִּמְצְאוּ־חֵפֶץ וְכָל־עַצְּבֵיכֶם תִּנְגֹּשׂוּ׃ ד הֵן לְרִיב וּמַצָּה תָּצוּמוּ וּלְהַכּוֹת בְּאֶגְרֹף רֶשַׁע לֹא־תָצוּמוּ כַיּוֹם לְהַשְׁמִיעַ בַּמָּרוֹם קוֹלְכֶם׃ ה הֲכָזֶה יִהְיֶה צוֹם אֶבְחָרֵהוּ יוֹם עַנּוֹת אָדָם נַפְשׁוֹ הֲלָכֹף כְּאַגְמֹן רֹאשׁוֹ וְשַׂק וָאֵפֶר יַצִּיעַ הֲלָזֶה תִּקְרָא־צוֹם וְיוֹם רָצוֹן לַיהוָה׃ ו הֲלוֹא זֶה צוֹם אֶבְחָרֵהוּ פַּתֵּחַ חַרְצֻבּוֹת רֶשַׁע הַתֵּר אֲגֻדּוֹת מוֹטָה וְשַׁלַּח רְצוּצִים חָפְשִׁים וְכָל־מוֹטָה תְּנַתֵּקוּ׃ ז הֲלוֹא פָרֹס לָרָעֵב לַחְמֶךָ וַעֲנִיִּים מְרוּדִים תָּבִיא בָיִת כִּי־תִרְאֶה עָרֹם וְכִסִּיתוֹ וּמִבְּשָׂרְךָ לֹא תִתְעַלָּם׃

Do you call that a fast I desire: To unlock the fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke to let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to ignore your own kin.Isaiah 58:3-7

Isaiah is asking us not to delude ourselves into thinking that if we are sitting in this sanctuary that we are participating in the community in the way that God wants us to.

The goal of ritual behavior, Isaiah argues, is to bring about an increased awareness of your surroundings, and not a substitute for ethical practices. The experience of fasting should attune the faster to the suffering of those who regularly lack food, and should inspire a type of reflection that makes you feel more-and not less-obligated to act in the world.3

Our people have been living the values of caring for the poor, taking in the stranger, standing up for civil liberties for millennia. We are in a place in time where we have the ability to share our values with the greater society. We are no longer shtetl-dwellers paying tribute to lords and kings. We are no longer second-class citizens because of our religious and cultural identity. We have enjoyed this freedom for such a short time relative to the length of Jewish history. Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg z’l wrote,

We cannot hide from the task of making the world more just and decent. In a society without law, where brute power prevails, no one is safe, and most often the Jew is the least safe of all. Jews, therefore, must stand up for a society that is bound by human morality – and speak truth to power.4

On this, the Sabbath of Sabbaths, the day of communal reflection and holding ourselves and our community accountable. It is upon us to ensure that our Jewish values are represented in the wider American landscape. We need to take another risk and set a high goal of becoming a 100% voting congregation. Just like the trope of tzedakah, prayer, and charity that mitigate the severe decree — so too, do action, advocacy, and voting allow us to live our Jewish values in the public sphere. When we put our learning and prayer into action it forces us to consider the areas of civic improvement outside of these walls.

We ask ourselves today: What are we going to do about immigration? What we are going to do about climate change? What are we going to do about mass incarceration? What are we going to do about homelessness? What are we going to do about access to medical care, about women’s reproductive rights, about equal rights for women? These questions keep me up at night and I know that I am not alone. The problems are so big and the people in charge hold so much power that we can feel defenseless and helpless to make any change. Over the past two years, people have been taking to the streets, marching and protesting. We have demanded action in large numbers. As Jews, it is incumbent upon us to do what we can. In addition to speaking out, we also need to vote.

The quote on the voter pledge card in front of you reads, “As Americans, we know that nothing changes until we act. As Jews, we know that where there is room to act, there is reason for hope. Our action, our hope, begins with our votes.”

Voting, I have learned, is a sticky subject for people. It’s personal, it’s financial, it’s about our moral voice. In our fierce independence, we do not want to be told how or for whom to vote. I get that. When we walk into that voter booth or sit down at our kitchen table to fill out our ballot, we are taking a leap of faith. We are choosing someone else to be our voice. We are using our best judgment when deciding how our state or federal government should work. That leap of faith is hard but it is the only way to have influence in matters that affect not only ourselves but those who are more vulnerable than we.

There are loud voices right now saying that voting doesn’t do anything, that it doesn’t have an effect at all. Colin Kaepernick, athlete and activist, has doubled down on his stance about not voting because, in his view, it has no effect against the injustices against people of color in our country. He has certainly raised awareness for Black Lives Matter, which is highly needed. However, I believe that he is wasting his platform by encouraging others not to vote. Former President Barack Obama said,

If you don’t like what’s going on right now — and you shouldn’t — do not complain. Don’t hashtag. Don’t get anxious. Don’t retreat. Don’t binge on whatever it is you’re binging on. Don’t lose yourself in ironic detachment. Don’t put your head in the sand. Don’t boo. Vote.5

There are some synagogues in our area that have worked with Faith in Action to match voter rolls to congregational lists to get the exact percentage of current voters in their congregations. We do not have such statistics. But what we do know that voter registration and turnout is low for our area. According to statistics presented by the Jewish Community Relations Council,

In the last midterm election, in 2014, voter turnout in California was 42-percent, an all-time low for the state. This year, California’s primary election saw higher turnout than recent years for a primary, but most voters still opted to skip it. The final tally was 37-percent.6

This is us, here. This is the ultimate social loafing, thinking that everyone else has done something, when in fact only 37% have.

This is us, here. This is the ultimate social loafing, thinking that everyone else has done something, when in fact only 37-percent have. We can do better than this. According to the Talmud (Sanhedrin 56a), “The duty to create and support government is one of the few duties that Jewish law recognizes for all, Jew and non-Jew alike.”7

Starting today, we are doing something about that percentage. We are starting at home. As a PTS community let’s commit to becoming a 100% voting congregation. It is imperative that we vote by November 6. By participating, this nonpartisan civic engagement campaign “will bring the full force of the Reform Movement to bear by empowering all people to exercise their right to vote and ensuring that Jewish voices are present in the public square, regardless of party or politics.”8

In this new year, let’s all work together to make sure that our 18-year-olds have their ballots and mail them in. Let’s help our new members register to vote. Let’s challenge our friends and family to vote. Hold a voting party, volunteer here — this is our right and responsibility.

Friday, you will receive an email with our civic engagement plan that has been tailored to our congregation and backed by the PTS Board of Trustees and the California Religious Action Center. We have been developing this plan and it is our responsibility to actively participate. As a beginning, I am challenging you to fill out the Voter Pledge card that is in front of you and placing it in the High Holy Day Appeal pledge card box. This card will allow us to hold our community accountable. In addition, at upcoming events and Shabbat services, we will have volunteers checking voter registrations and assisting those who would like to register. In October we are holding two voter education events surrounding Proposition 1, the Veterans Housing Bond Initiative and learning about the rest of the ballot measures. Our campaign will conclude with a prayer for those who voted after the November election.

Make voting part of your Jewish commitment this year. This is what Isaiah was talking about, this is our chance to make our literal and metaphorical fasting worthwhile. We cannot be complacent.

From the prayer for our country in the Yom Kippur machzor:

God of holiness, we hear Your message: Justice, justice you shall pursue.

God of freedom, we hear Your charge: Proclaim liberty throughout the land.

Inspire us through Your teachings and commandments to love and uphold our precious democracy. Let every citizen take responsibility for the rights and freedoms we cherish. Let each of us be an advocate for justice, and activist for liberty, a defender of dignity. And let us champion the values that make our nation a haven for the persecuted, a beacon of hope among the nations.9

G’mar Chatima Tova

  1. Psychestudy: Social Loafing
  2. Days of Awe: A Treasury of Jewish Wisdom for Reflection, Repentance, and Renewal on the High Holy Days by S.Y. Agnon
  3. There Shall Be No Needy by Rabbi Jill Jacobs, pg. 47-48
  4. quoted in Mishkan Hanefesh, pg. 231
  5. quoted in “Kaepernick is proof that protest changes America, not just voting” by Will Bunch
  6. Jewish Community Relations Council
  7. as cited in “The Jewish Duty to Vote” by Rabbi David Evan Markus
  8. Religous Action Center Civic Engagement Campaign
  9. “Prayer for Our Country (United States).” Mishkan Hanefesh, pg. 286