Rabbi Penzner's Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5776: Making Micah's Message Your Mantra

This past summer your rabbi entered a monastery.

I assure you that I have not decided to live the cloistered life or considered a new religious tradition. I chose to spend three days for personal reflection and writing as a guest of the Benedictine monks of Weston Priory in Vermont.  In return for living in the guest house for a few days, guests are asked to eat all meals with the brothers and to join them for daily prayer. For me, it was like having my own High Holy Days with the monastery as my synagogue, the monks as my rabbis, and the other visitors, priests and nuns and spiritual seekers, as my congregation.

It turns out that monks daven more often than Jews (and less than Muslims). Muslims pray 5 times a day. Jews observe shaharit, mincha and maariv (the 3 Jewish daily prayer services, morning, mid-day and evening). The monks prayed four times a day. Starting with morning vigil at 6 am and ending with the evening compline at 8, I joined worshipers in a small and simple worship space, singing psalms in English, often accompanied by a guitar. The brothers urged us to follow their practice, with each voice blending in so that no one’s voice stands out. No rousing harmonies, just a sweet melding of voice. Sometimes I davened the Shema and Amidah on my own. Sometimes I sat in silence while others prayed aloud. No matter what, I always felt at home spiritually, feeling grateful to be among people who were seeking to connect to the Holy.

While I imagined I was going to spend a great deal of time in silence, there were plenty of opportunities to get to know the brother monks. I ended up chatting with them before lunch or dinner as we waited to enter the dining room, or while washing the dinner dishes together.

At Weston Priory I experienced an abundance of love from twelve men who were total strangers to me, as I was to them. At the buffet table, they welcomed their guests to take their portions first. When I mentioned a reading that I had appreciated at morning prayers, a copy of the text appeared under my plate at lunch. When they spoke to me or any other guest, it was with soft gazes and open hearts. When I left, they offered me home-baked bread to take home for the journey.

Yet, they did not bend over backwards to serve me or anyone else. They did not anticipate my every need and fulfill my every desire. They love their guests by treating them with dignity, asking guests to carry in their plates after their meals, to clean the room and make the bed before they leave, and to take part in the practice of loving hospitality by offering a blessing for the next guest, so that they might enter the room with love.

One of the greatest gifts of my stay came in the form of an invitation from Brother Richard after prayers one afternoon. He wondered whether I would be willing to sit with them after dinner and dish-washing so we might get to know each other. In that precious hour, I learned that we had a great deal in common. They told me that forty years ago Abraham Joshua Heschel had been a frequent guest, as well as Rabbi Arthur Green, who had brought a group of rabbinical students last fall, and Reb Zalman (zochrono livracha). A monk in his 90s showed me where Heschel had sat. Another monk described how the rabbis would pray in the mornings wearing their tallitot. As the hour of conversation unfolded, I came to understand how their spiritual practice informed their passionate commitment to social justice.

They proudly described how thirty years ago, Weston Priory declared itself a public sanctuary. The monks extended their hospitality to a family of refugees from Guatemala. They outfitted the cider mill to become a home for two adults and their five children. They committed to housing this family for two years. Not only was this an act of radical hospitality, but an act of civil disobedience as well. The governor of Vermont stood behind them, protecting the monks from intervention or prosecution by the federal authorities. This act of love and social justice emanated from their spiritual practice, sustained by their daily prayers, nourished by their daily study, fortified by the work of welcome.

The brothers anticipated housing the family for two years. But as they became part of the community, the children grew up, went to college, and then to graduate school and law school.  The children moved away to start their own careers helping other immigrants. Twenty-five years after they had arrived in Vermont, the parents, Felipe and Elena, returned to their homeland to continue their work of social justice. It seems that life in Weston Priory had infused the entire family with the experience of loving hospitality, gratitude, and courage that they, in turn, extended to others.

Everything I learned from the monks of Weston Priory supported the words that have become my personal philosophy this past year, the teaching of the prophet Micah:

Do justice. Act with love. Walk humbly.

For me, these three simple phrases mean:  act for social justice in the world. Create loving relationships with every person. Develop a practice that helps you recognize your place in the universe.

As we contemplate our lives on this holy day, we have a rare, fleeting opportunity—much like life itself—to take the long view. What are we here for anyway?

The prophet Micah gave us a pretty good answer 2700 years ago.

עֲשׂ֤וֹת מִשְׁפָּט֙ וְאַ֣הֲבַת חֶ֔סֶד וְהַצְנֵ֥עַ לֶ֖כֶת עִם־אֱלֹהֶֽיךָ

Do justice. Act with love. Walk humbly.

Micah lived at the same time as Isaiah, in the 7th century BCE. Like Isaiah, he envisioned a world of equality and peace, as he is also remembered for saying:

“Then every one will sit under his vine and or fig tree, with none to make them afraid.”

That is one of the most familiar phrases we can recite from the prophets. But it is this one verse, Micah 6:8, that has become the basis for my everyday practice:

Do justice. Act with love. Walk humbly.

Three ways to act in the world, each a strand of the tapestry of a good life. Some days look more like a day of loving relationships, others a day for action. Sometimes they all come together, but each requires its own inquiry. What does it mean to do justice? Is it possible always to act with love? How does one learn to walk humbly?

And don’t these three ideas contradict each other? Can one be humble when demanding justice? Can one act justly when dealing with those we love?

In fact, the three parts of Micah’s message are in tension. That’s what makes them so enduring. They are not trite but they are true. They are not simple, but speak to the contradictions and complexities of life. They encompass the everyday choices we make and they point toward a grand vision.

Do justice.

Act with love.

Walk humbly.

Do justice

For many of us here, this is a primary calling. The work of social justice is our religious imperative. Some of us have chosen to make tikkun olam the source and purpose of our livelihood. Whether we heal the sick or create affordable housing or organize workers or defend the poor or teach or touch people in other ways, justice is what we do.

Some of us do justice without taking a paycheck, volunteering, protesting, writing letters, signing petitions, getting out the vote, or making contributions to just causes. Either way, doing justice gives our lives purpose.

But the life of an activist can be exhausting! The problems are so vast and intractable, and our efforts are often frustrated. How can one get up every morning and start the struggle again? How many different injustices do we encounter in the world, and how can I possibly give my best effort to all of them?  The calling to do justice may give life purpose, but by itself, social action is not enough to sustain a life. And I can’t do it all by myself. Successful social justice work depends on creating relationships and fortifying ourselves to meet each day’s struggles.

Walk humbly

I know, you may be thinking that I’ve left off the rest of the verse. Perhaps it may even be the most important part of the verse for you. Micah actually says, “walk humbly with your God.” I believe that to walk humbly, with or without a personal God, is to develop a sense of the world’s grandeur and our proper place within in. Sometimes that means knowing our power and acting on it, and at others, letting go and feeling part of something beyond the self. I suggest that “walking humbly” refers to having a spiritual practice. What does that mean to you? Many of us do have practices: we sustain ourselves by taking walks on the beach or in the woods, sitting in meditation or prayer, engaging in text study and deep conversation, becoming in tune with the body through dance, yoga or tai chi, or by singing. What makes these spiritual practices is that we use them to settle the mind, to quiet the ego and to ground ourselves. The spiritual life is a path toward connection. Surprisingly, a practice of solitude is often the clearest reminder of our place in the universe. And to truly engage with the Life of the Universe is to develop a deep sense of humility, to walk humbly.

The life of the spiritual seeker can also be challenging. Contrary to popular opinion, the spiritual life is not about navel-gazing. It is not only self-care, though sleep, healthy eating and exercise make an important contribution to spiritual health. The goal of spiritual practice is to become mindful, both of what is going on around me and of what is going on inside my own mind. To develop such clarity takes discipline, patience and often boredom. Like learning to play an instrument or to play a sport, they take—practice!

And to truly see what is going on inside my own mind, what drives my desires and emotional responses, also requires ruthless honesty. I must face my harshest critic: myself. The spiritual seeker teeters on a precipice between total self-involvement and brutal self-criticism. Either way, the contemplative life has to lead somewhere. Once we truly understand our place in the universe, then we become more attuned to the voices around us, asking for our compassion, demanding justice. The calling to walk humbly is grounding, but it also demands inquiry: for what purpose? 

Each one of us is a seeker, whether for inner wholeness or for repairing the world.  The world needs both kinds of seekers: those who do justice and those who walk humbly. We should devote ourselves to what we are good at, and draw on what we know best. But is that enough, for the world? Is it enough for us? The prophet Micah claims that every person has a need for a spiritual life and a life of social justice, to walk humbly and to do justice. Spirituality sustains our work to do justice, and social justice fulfills the purpose of walking humbly. One leads to the other, one supports the other, one fulfills the other.

I’ve spoken to activists and spiritual practitioners alike who understand this connection intuitively. I know young organizers who practice meditation. I’ve met deeply religious individuals whose faith drives them to action. But the path from spirituality to social justice and back again is not so obvious to everyone. There is one missing ingredient, which is the third phrase in Micah’s potent teaching: Act with Love.

In the center of the verse is the hinge that unites doing justice and walking humbly. Cultivate an open heart. Learn patience and compassion. Listen attentively. Recognize when anger and fear are arising and clouding judgment. Martin Buber gave us the notion of the I-Thou relationship, describing relationships that touch hearts. Relationships that are not instrumental or oppressive or manipulative, but are authentic and sincere. The I-Thou relationship can happen in any moment, with a stranger, a friend, an animal, even a tree. Buber taught that this deep encounter is a manifestation of the divine. Remember the song in Les Mis that goes, “To love another person is to see the face of God”? The Prophet and unsuccessful Broadway playwright Micah made the same connection: between walking humbly with your God and acting with love.

And when you receive another person in this openhearted way, how can you help but become humble? How can you contain yourself from acting on their behalf?

One of my favorite Hasidic tales comes from Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov. The rebbe was watching two Russian peasants drinking together at an Inn. The first asks, "Boris, do you love me?" His friend replies, "Ivan, do I love you? We've worked side by side on our farm for years. Of course I love you!" They return to their vodka and a minute later, Ivan asks, "Boris, do you know what causes me pain?" Boris thinks for a moment and answers no. At that point Ivan roars, "If you don't know what causes me pain, how can you say you love me?”

Afterwards, Rabbi Moshe Leib said to his students, "This is the essence of our connection with one another. We must look deeply enough into one another's souls not only to know what makes us happy, but also to understand what causes us pain."

Spiritual practice leads to opening the heart. And an open heart feels the pain of others. It is in that moment that we seek to do justice.

The work of social justice depends on relationships. It may start by hearing the story of injustice, by knowing someone who is ill and has not received proper care, someone who was evicted and needs help keeping their home, someone whose child was killed by gun violence. A teacher who listens deeply to a student can help her to learn better. But we can’t do justice all by ourselves. We need friends, family, and allies to join together to visit the sick and comfort the bereaved. And then we need our allies to join together in communities to serve in soup kitchens and create health clinics and support schools. And finally, our communities must rally together to become movements, to organize for good jobs and fair pay, to protest racial profiling and to change the criminal justice system.  This work cannot exist without relationships, and the relationships cannot work without love.

That is Micah’s grand vision. To do justice is to be abundantly loving. To act with love is to learn humility. Act with love: meet others with goodness, kindness, mercy. Act with love: listen attentively, feel deeply, respond caringly.

The relationships we create and nurture feed us and heal the world at the same time. When I hear the story of an immigrant working to clean twenty-five hotel rooms in an eight-hour shift, I share in her pride and in her pain. We are not likely to become best friends, but, in a very fundamental way, we can learn to love each other. On the basis of that love, I will ardently defend the rights of hotel housekeepers for a fair wage and safe working conditions. I become a better advocate because I know the heart of the stranger.

On the basis of that love, she becomes more hopeful. Together, we establish a platform for building a community, for creating a movement that will change the world. And it all starts with one relationship of chesed, love.

Do justice, act with love, walk humbly.

We need all of them. Our world needs all three of them.  

Here at Hillel B’nai Torah, I want to challenge us to become a Micah-driven community. We already have individuals who are social justice leaders and others who are spiritual guides. At our heart, we aspire to be a warm, welcoming community, a place where we nurture relationships where we can be our true selves. And now, I urge each of you to enter this New Year with a commitment to become a follower of Micah.

Start your day with the intention:

Do justice, act with love, walk humbly.

And at the end of the day, reflect: did I do justice? Did I act with love? Did I walk humbly?

In a recent email from the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute, Tina Chery, the founder, offered these closing words:

“I want to leave you with the prayer that I pray as a reminder of what God wants from me, as I seek for Inner Peace and the Peace of our Beloved Boston.

The instructions are simple yet difficult. 
[Micah 6:8 New International Readers Version (NIRV)]:

The Lord has shown you what is good.

He has told you what he requires of you.

You must act with justice.

You must love to show mercy.

And you must be humble as you live in the sight of your God.”

Tina Chery affirms that Micah’s call from 2700 years ago can still resonates in our twenty-first century lives. 

Do what you can to do justice, act with love and walk humbly.

And if you didn’t do enough today, the next sunrise offers us all another chance. Shanah tovah.

Rabbi Barbara Penzner

Rosh Hashanah 5776

Posted on September 21, 2015 .