Rabbi Penzner's Rosh Hashanah 5777 Sermon: A Moral Revolution for Change: Ten Things we can learn about teshuva from the election, and vice versa

A story from an earlier time. Imagine a Norman Rockwell painting:

A young boy walks into a drugstore to use the pay phone. He dials a number and asks to speak to Dr. Bergson.

“Hello, Dr. Bergson, would you like to hire someone to cut the grass and run errands for you? Oh you already have someone? Are you satisfied with him? You are? Ok. Thank you. Good bye.”

As he is about to leave, the proprietor of the drug store stops him and says, “Listen, if you’re looking for a job, you can work for me.”
“Thank you,” the boy replies, “but I already have a job.”
The proprietor, confused, asks, “but didn’t I hear you ask Dr. Bergson if he needed someone to work for him?”
“Well, not exactly,” answersthe boy, “you see, I’m the one who works for Dr. Bergson and I was just checking up on myself.”

This is a time for us as individuals to be checking up on ourselves.
It’s also a time for our nation to check up on ourselves. How are we doing? Are we satisfied?

I imagine most of us would answer that in this election season we are far from satisfied. This election is dramatically different from any other election in my lifetime. In most American elections, what is at stake are two differing views of how to resolve our country’s problems. But in this election, what is at stake are two differing views of reality. In most elections, we are asked to consider issues and compare plans. But in this election, we have been bombarded by a populist wave of white supremacy, xenophobia, scapegoating, and misogyny. In most elections, we are participating in a process that enables democracy to thrive. But in this election, we are spectators to disdain for the rule of law and dismissal of the principles of the Constitution, and to what amounts to a willful disregard of the ideals of democracy.
The next question is what do we do about it?
What would the young caller do if he heard his employer Dr. Bergson wasn’t satisfied with him? Would he attack Dr. Bergson for being unfair? Would he give up and move to Canada? Would he quit and work for the proprietor of the drug store instead? Or would he find out what needed to be done to restore his reputation, to become the best employee he could be?

That is our task: to become the best human we possibly can be. In these ten days, we must determine to set right where we have fallen short. And in these five weeks until the Election, our task is to become the best country we possibly can be. From now until November 8, we must work to restore the moral values that have made America great.

Today we celebrate the Creation of the universe. The midrash (Pesachim 54a) teaches that when the earth was created, it had no foundation. It was unsteady, unstable. And so God created teshuva, the possibility of repentance, the human capacity to grow and to change.

As a Chasidic commentator explains, “Therefore, it must be the case that the power of teshuvah is implanted in every creature, and so too, and most essentially, in human beings who are microcosms of the world.”  (Pri Ha’aretz, on Re’eh)

Thus, one of the greatest teachings in Judaism is that teshuva is the foundation of the world.  It is hard-wired into us: the remarkable capacity to assess our deeds and the opportunity to change our ways. This is what we celebrate today on Rosh Hashanah, as we celebrate the Creation of the World.

But when we are not self-aware, when we refuse to reflect on our deeds, and most importantly, when we are opposed to admitting our own wrongdoing and we are incapable of saying the words, “I’m sorry,” the world loses its foundation. Indeed, without teshuva, the world is poised to plunge into chaos.

We come together in the urgency of this New Year to do nothing less than to repair our damaged souls, rebuild our moral character, heal our broken relationships, and revive our faith and our hopes.

We come together in the urgency of this election, at a time when we face enormous challenges in America: to bring prosperity to the poor and middle class; to combat the corrupting relationship between big money, elections, and governance; to heal our racial divide; to remake our criminal justice system so all Americans receive equal treatment under the law; to respond with compassion to refugees, immigrants, minorities and people on the margins of society; to rebuild our crumbling roads and bridges, to repair our inequitable education system, and to reduce the disparities in health care; and to reverse the looming climate crisis.

These are all major challenges to the future of our United States. None of them can be solved by any president alone. If American society is flawed, if the democratic system is broken, then each of us, as citizens, is responsible for its survival; each of us is obligated to restore it to full health. Our votes count, not just the votes for President or Representative or Senator, but the votes for city councilor and sheriff and register of deeds. Democracy depends on ensuring a moral foundation at every level of government. So if you believe that the system is unfair, it is unfair not because the system has abandoned us, but because we have abandoned it.

Rebbe Nachman taught, “If you believe you can ruin things, then believe you can fix them.” In other words, do not despair! Neither are we, flawed mortals, so beyond hope that we are not capable of change, nor is our country beyond hope and incapable of repair.

In fact, that is the point of having elections, just like it’s the point of coming together for the Yamim Nora’im. It’s a time for us all to do some tikkun, some repair, and without delay! So if the election is important to you, then the work needs to begin right here, right now. Before we can change our world, we must begin by changing ourselves.

This fall, the Moral Mondays movement launched a voter drive called “a Moral Revolution of Values.” (You may have seen & heard Rev. Barber speak passionately at the Democratic National Committee.) The movement’s stated goal is
“to support state-based fusion movements to combat extremism in state and national politics, and to be a catalyst for a resurgence of political activism in order to end poverty, racial inequalities, and the most pressing issues in our country.”

Three Mondays ago, I joined a Moral Mondays procession around the State House on Beacon Hill, led by 100 members of the clergy. We were part of a movement that took place in 25 states. That morning, we read the Higher Ground Moral Declaration on the State House steps, as people were doing in all those others sates. Afterward a delegation met with Governor Baker to proclaim the Moral Revolution right here in Massachusetts.

Rosh Hashanah is the time for a moral revolution. Revolution and teshuva are both a kind of turning that starts with each one of us. And with our honest commitment and hard work, it will have an impact far beyond the nearest horizon.

Here are seven things we can learn about teshuva from the Election, and ways that teshuva can give integrity to this Election.

At the pivotal moment when the Israelites are about to enter their own land the Torah warns that they should beware of setting up a king, “He shall not keep many horses or send people back to Egypt to add to his horses, and he shall not have many wives, lest his heart go astray; nor shall he amass silver and gold to excess.”  And should they go ahead and set up a king, “he shall have a copy of the teaching written for him on a scroll. Let him read in it all his life, so that he may learn to revere godliness and observe faithfully every word of this Teaching as well as these laws. Thus he will not act haughtily toward his fellows or deviate from the Instruction to the right or to the left.” (Deut. 17:14-16)

The king, if you are so desperate to have one, must engage in perpetual teshuva. The king, or any leader, must know the law, have a moral code, and consider himself subservient to that code.

The Torah does not speak of democracy, but it values law and is suspicious of a concentration of power. That suspicion also led to the Declaration of Independence and to the creation of American democracy.

Rabbi Harold Kushner has written:
“Teshuvah means a remaking of the self, a new ordering of priorities, so that something which seemed irresistibly important to us before is now seen as much less important. Repentance means becoming virtually a new person in terms of our values and priorities. That is why the classic test of repentance in Judaism resides in finding yourself in the same situation to which you had formerly responded weakly, that is, sinfully, and meeting it differently this time--because your understanding of what you stand for as a person has changed.”

Teshuva is not a quick fix. Change is most effective and sustainable when we attend to it steadily over time. Examining our deeds and our thoughts may eventually lead to a breakthrough as long as the ground is prepared.

Showing up for Rosh Hashanah isn’t enough to achieve teshuva. Showing up on Election Day without considering the impact of your vote is not going to lead to change. You might get a sticker at your polling place that says “I voted.” We won’t give you a sticker in synagogue saying, “I sat in a pew.”

3.    IT’S UP TO US
The Talmud teaches that Yom Kippur does not atone for wrongdoing between one human being and another. God won’t forgive you if you don’t lift a finger to seek forgiveness yourself. And God won’t help our nation if we don’t step up and vote. Whether repenting or voting, we can’t leave this up to others, not even God.

Teshuva and voting are alike in this way: there are plenty of people who avoid it, refuse to do it, or consider it unnecessary. Not only do they miss out, but they harm the rest of us by not making the effort. Part of our task is to seek out the uninterested, to persuade them of the seriousness of this endeavor.

It is not our responsibility to change the minds of people who oppose us. But if we believe in the democratic responsibility of voting, then we need to work on getting out the vote, reaching people who have given up, people who feel there’s no good choice for president. With voting as with teshuva, the world is better off if everyone does it.

4.    ONE SMALL STEP     
I’m not quoting Neil Armstrong, but the Book of Deuteronomy again:
Perhaps you will eat and you become full, you will build nice homes and become settled... you will become very rich and will have plenty of everything. And then you could become arrogant; forgetting the Almighty... And then you may say, "My power, the strength of my hand, made me all this wealth." (Deut. 8:12-17)

We might think, I’m well-off. I’m not a terrible person. I’m a pretty good person. In fact, I believe I’m the best I can be. Why should I have to work so hard to do teshuva? What do I really have to change? This is a kind of arrogance.

We might believe that one vote is meaningless. We might feel that elections don’t really change anything. This is a kind of arrogance as well.

The Kotzker Rebbe once asked, “what is the difference between East and West?” And he answered, “ein klein drei,” one small step. Whether we think everything is going just right, or is completely hopeless, a small change can make a huge difference. We can all turn. As we learn in the Talmud (Avot 5:26): L'fum tzara agra – "according to the effort is the reward."

The Midrash tells the story of a woman who was walking in a forest, lost for many days. She couldn't find the right path. Each time she thought she was getting somewhere, she found herself even more lost. For days and days she wandered in the thick woods. Eventually, she came upon another just like her - someone else who had been wandering lost in the forest. "Now that I have found you, you can show me the way out," she said.
"I don't know the way out either," said the second. "But I do know this, do not go the way I have been going, for that way is not the right way. Now let us walk on together and find the light."

None of us has the whole truth, so when we find others who are also searching, we will have a better chance of finding our way. Humility resides in knowing when to speak up and when to stay silent. And when to ask for help. We all need support to make the most important changes in our lives. No one can do it alone. Even a president can’t make changes without the support of Congress, and the constitutional approval of the Supreme Court.

Don't give up, organize! Don’t isolate yourself. Too often we get lost in our own self-importance. We perpetuate squabbles with others that, principled though they may be, help no one. To do teshuva requires admitting that the way I have been going is not the whole truth, not the right answer, not the only way. Likewise, voting responsibly requires listening as well as speaking, sharing our hopes and dreams as well as our disagreements, and working together for change. None of us can do it alone.

6.    LET IT GO    
The Midrash expounds on a verse from Psalms (Ps. 102:19):
“May this be written down for a coming generation, that people yet to be created may praise God.” The rabbis ask, why does the verse say “people yet to be created”? Up until now have we been waiting for a new nation to be created? Rather, this verse refers to any generation guilty of evil-doing and injustice. If they do teshuvah, and pray on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, because they make their actions new, God (re)creates them as a new being. That is the “new generation.”

Today is the day for us to make our actions new. We are the generation who are witnesses, and thereby accomplices to, evil-doing and injustice. But if we take this task seriously, we, and our nation, may be recreated as if we are new beings.

What does it mean to be like a new being? When we start over, we also have to let go. We let go of old ways, old habits. Starting over also means we let go of some control and allow something new to arise.

Voting is a form of letting go. Each of us can make a small contribution, but ultimately none of us will get everything we want. It takes faith to vote. It takes faith to accept the newness of change.

7.    WORDS MATTER    
In one of the haftarot of this season, the prophet Hosea exhorts us, “Take words with you, and return to godliness,” Kechu imachem dvarim, shuvu el Adonai. (14:3) One of the most deadly weapons that has ever existed are words. Most of the sins we confess on Yom Kippur are sins of speech: we have spread lies, we have given bad advice, we have mocked, we have scorned, we have gone astray and have led others astray.

Words can also be weapons for love. Words can express compassion and forgiveness. With words we ask questions and provide thoughtful answers. Words can instruct and inspire. We have to choose our words carefully, starting with, I’m sorry and I forgive, and with them, eradicate words of hate.

“Take words with you, and return to godliness.”
If hate wins, America loses. If hate wins, we lose democracy.

Today, we need a moral revolution in our hearts. And that moral revolution should compel us to a moral revolution in how we vote and how we choose our representatives and how we govern. We need a moral revolution to root out hatred and prejudice. We need a moral revolution to say “yes” to justice and equity.

I call on every person here, as you spend these ten days in the process teshuva, to commit to take a moral stand in the next five weeks, to stand up for democracy, and to stop the hate.

Ken yehi ratzon.  May it be so.

Rabbi Barbara Penzner
Temple Hillel B’nai Torah, Boston, MA
Rosh Hashanah 5777, October 2016


Posted on October 4, 2016 .