Rosh Hashanah 5780: Hearing the Call to Moral Courage

I learned about moral courage in a faraway land in Central America, in the midst of volcanos and coffee plantations. On a trip to Guatemala with the American Jewish World Service, I learned about moral courage from the lawyers of el Bufete Jurídico de Derechos Humanos who defend the human rights of indigenous people and who successfully prosecuted corrupt generals and presidents, despite threats from those very powerful men. I learned about moral courage from citizen journalists La Prensa Comunitaria who were threatened and even arrested for their online reporting of mass displacement of entire villages by corporate interests who rob indigenous people of their land, with the support of the government, for mining or drilling that deprives people of their livelihood and poisons the land. I learned moral courage from Anna Elizabeth and three other women who traveled 27 hours by bus to tell us how she stood up to her own father to be able to go to school, and how their organization, Nuevo Horizonte, taught them the skills to stand up to the male-dominated leaders of their town, to run for a seat on the city council, and fight to give women a voice and a budget for economic opportunity, for access to food and health care for women and children, and for an end to violence against women. I learned about moral courage from people who may never become famous or powerful, but who risk their lives every day to defend human rights in their homeland.


Each day when I wake up, I fortify myself with the stories of everyday people who choose to take a moral stand. Despite the risks to themselves and their families, despite the setbacks that lead to despair, despite the power of the government itself to shut them down, these people do not give in and they do not give up. In fact, when we asked them why they did it, many of them told us that for them, there is no other choice. Anna Elizabeth told me that they are planting seeds together and though she doesn’t know when they will bear fruit, she will die trying.


But we need not look to Guatemala for models of moral courage. Here in the United States, I recently learned of a journalist and two doctors who took risks to uphold the moral principles that were fundamental to their jobs.


Susannah Sirkin shared the story from Physicians for Human Rights, of two doctors who defied their superiors to tell the truth about medical conditions for immigrant children in detention. A year ago, Dr. Pamela McPherson and Dr. Scott Allen, who serve as subject matter experts for the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties blew the whistle on their own department in a letter to the Senate’s Whistleblowing Caucus. The doctors described cases in which children experienced severe weight loss, accidental vaccinations with adult doses, and dangerously slow medical attention.


Judith Levine shared another story of the son of a dear friend who gave up his job as a journalist a few weeks ago over journalistic integrity.

Jeffrey Dale, the copy editor of The Patriot Ledger and Brockton Enterprise, was reading over a story set to appear on the front page, titled ‘Braintree man accused of brandishing gun, yelling racial slur.’ Deep into the story, the editors had decided to publish a quote that spelled out the N-word fully in print. To give some context to this story, Dale said, “I have worked for six papers directly and hundreds of papers indirectly in my short 10-year career in the newspaper industry and I’ve NEVER EVER seen that word published in full.”


Seeking to change the published version, Dale tried to find out who made the decision and why, but all of the senior editors had left for the evening. It was at that point that he packed up his desk and quit on the spot.


As it turned out, within twenty-four hours the paper reversed itself and changed the online version. But at that point, this man with deep moral courage, decided that the decision reflected a serious problem at the paper, and as long as those decision-makers remained, he could not.


These brave individuals remind me every day how privileged I am. And they remind all of us that, despite the American insistence on profit and self-sufficiency, there is a moral bottom line. And that is the Jewish teaching that I believe is at the heart of what we are here for today.


To celebrate community in response to rugged individualism.

To care about people as well as profits.

To cultivate hope in place of helplessness.

To press for change in a time of challenges.

To take action in the face of adversity.


In these perilous times, when our rights are being violated, democracy is being hacked away, and leaders blatantly disseminate lies to win votes, when the American ideals of “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” have been eradicated by leaders who keep children in filthy cages, without medical care to keep them alive and without their parents to give them comfort, and when our very earth is being stripped, poisoned, baked, and brutalized, we are called to uphold the ideals of respecting the dignity of human beings that is embedded in our Jewish souls. On this holy day, we must pray that we can face each day with the courage of our convictions, wherever we are called to make a difference.


Courage is a rare and hard-won commodity these days for most of us. This past year the Jewish community has collectively experienced a level of fear unheard of in my own lifetime. The deadly shootings at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and at the Chabad synagogue in Poway, California, the arsons attempts at the homes of local Chabad rabbis, and threats from White Supremacist groups across the country reminded us that, yes, it can happen here.


We have been targeted because we are Jews. We have been targeted for our love of Israel (whether that love is expressed through critique or through wholehearted support). We have also been targeted for standing with immigrants. For standing side by side with Muslims. For daring to suggest that a growing unrepentant racism and xenophobia are reminiscent of Germany in the 1930s. Our own president called us “disloyal.”


The times could lead us to retreat from our principles, to hide in our homes, to lock our doors in fear. Fear is a natural response to threats. But fear can also prevent us from taking any action, or it can lead us to act without judgement. Instead, I urge us all to carry with us the teaching of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav. He did not say “do not have any fear at all.” Instead he proclaimed: V’ha’ikar lo lehitpached klal. What is essential is not to be overcome by fear.


Two years ago, I spoke of the importance of proudly resisting white supremacy and anti-semitism by courageously expressing our Judaism. That takes a certain amount of courage in itself.


Today, I urge each one of us to cultivate moral courage.


What is moral courage? In 1897, at the first Zionist Congress, Ahad Ha’am prophetically warned the gathering delegates that “the secret of our people’s persistence is that… at a very early period the Prophets taught it to respect only spiritual power, not material power.” 


The Jewish tradition offers a different lens on the world and our own place in it. We are reminded by the teachings of the prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Micah, that there is more to living our lives than amassing property, profits, and power. There is a different kind of power that has sustained our people through oppression, through poverty, and through exile. We have survived through spiritual power. And spiritual power comes from moral courage. Moral courage is the Jewish heritage and the Jewish legacy.


In the last century, at the March on Washington on August 28, 1963, Rabbi Joachim Prinz, who had come to the US in the 1930s from Germany, who was a longtime defender of civil rights and an organizer of the march, was invited to speak. You may not remember him or his words. He came to the podium in front of the Lincoln Memorial immediately following Mahalia Jackson singing “How I Got Over,” and just before Martin Luther King delivered his famous "I have a dream speech."


Rabbi Prinz declared:


I speak to you as an American Jew.


“As Americans we share the profound concern of millions of people about the shame and disgrace of inequality and injustice which make a mockery of the great American idea.


“As Jews we bring to this great demonstration, in which thousands of us proudly participate, a two-fold experience -- one of the spirit and one of our history.


“In the realm of the spirit, our fathers taught us thousands of years ago that when God created man, he created him as everybody’s neighbor. Neighbor is not a geographic term. It is a moral concept. It means our collective responsibility for the preservation of man’s dignity and integrity….

“When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned, in my life and under those tragic circumstances, is that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problems. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.

A great people which had created a great civilization had become a nation of silent onlookers. They remained silent in the face of hate, in the face of brutality and in the face of mass murder.


America must not become a nation of onlookers. America must not remain silent…”


Every time I read these words, a chill of recognition runs through my veins. These words touch every fiber of my being. They call me to make my voice heard. Rabbi Prinz has described the difference between courage and moral courage.


One need not be a famous rabbi preaching on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to have moral courage. Any one of us can face a moment when we feel called to speak out, called to act. In the story of the Exodus, our tradition tells a story of an average man, Nachshon, who demonstrated moral courage. As you may recall, the Israelites stood in a quandary at the edge of the Red Sea, with Pharaoh, his army and his chariots approaching from behind, and the uncrossable sea blocking their way forward.


According to the midrash, Nachshon came to a decision. The decision would not guarantee their survival. Both ways, going back or going forward, threatened certain death. While others argued, while Moses prayed, Nachshon made a choice. He stepped into the water. Then he walked into the water. He kept walking until the water reached his nostrils, but he did not back down. He did not give up. And at that perilous point, the sea parted and the entire Israelite nation moved forward.


Where did Nachshon think he was going? He used his moral compass. He refused to go back to Egypt, refused to submit to Pharaoh, refused to surrender his dream. He moved forward. He set his sights in front of him, not into the sea, not across to the other side. Nachshon’s compass pointed him to the only destination that the people had ever set: toward the Promised Land. It was that principle that led him to make that fateful choice, to overcome his fears, to recognize that fear was not going away, but this opportunity might. In doing so, Nachshon chose survival of the spirit. And the sea parted because of him.


Some might say that Nachshon had faith, emunah. I would argue that it was not faith that drove him, it was faithfulness, amana. There was no guarantee that he would succeed. After all, even the Talmud says, don’t trust in a miracle.


Rather, Nachshon acted out of faithfulness to his principles. Everything that Moses had taught them hung in the balance. Would the people return to servitude? Or would they move forward to the Promised Land? In that decisive moment, Nachshon trusted in his moral and spiritual grounding, which gave him the courage to take the first step.


As a Jewish community we know our destination. We have a vision of where we want to get to, grounded in Torah and proclaimed by prophetic voices from Isaiah to Heschel: to a world of mutual and collective responsibility, a world of justice tempered by compassion. A world where everyone has access to health care and education, and where every child is treated as the most holy of all beings, deserving of every benefit to help them grow and thrive. A world where we cherish and guard and protect the earth. A world where we value teshuva—the capacity to change and grow, where we welcome the stranger, and where we pursue peace.


Nachshon knew, like Rabbi Prinz, that his action was not solely for his own benefit. If he was heroic, it was in order to lift up all the others surrounding him who needed a beacon of hope, so that they too would have the moral courage to step forward toward the Promised Land.


While the women of Nuevo Horizonte inspired me, they looked to our group of fifteen rabbis for inspiration as well. Watching our collection of women and men as we worked together as partners, they saw in us their own Promised Land. That memory, along with the stories of moral courage they told, obligates me to continue to lift them up, to magnify their voices, and to take risks myself. Though my words feel paltry compared to the life-threatening risks they take, I don’t hold back, because words do carry significance.


As we think about Anna Elizabeth and the human rights defenders in Guatemala, about Dr. Pamela McPherson and Dr. Scott Allen, the whistleblowers in the Department of Homeland Security, and about Jeffrey Dale, the journalist who would not put up with the implicit bias in his newsroom; as we hear the call of Rabbi Prinz and retell the story of Nachshon, my question for you today is this: What can you do to be courageous in the New Year? What is the Promised Land for you? What are the principles that you will think twice about before turning back?


If you need encouragement to take that first step, take to heart this poem by Rabbis Janet and Sheldon Marder. I will close with their charge for every one of us as we enter this New Year 5780.


Do not wait for a miracle

Or the sudden transformation of the world.

Bring the day closer, step by step,

with every act of courage, of kindness,

of healing and repair.

Do not be discouraged by the darkness.

Lift up every spark you can

and watch the horizon

for the coming of dawn.

Look closely!

It has already begun. 


Shanah tovah—may this be the year that our moral courage brings our world a few minutes closer to the coming of the dawn.


Rabbi Barbara Penzner

Temple Hillel B’nai Torah

Rosh Hashanah 5780


Posted on October 2, 2019 .