Lifting Up Our Voices in the Arena | Congregation Beth Am

Lifting Up Our Voices in the Arena

By Rabbi Chuck Briskin on
September 7, 2002

There's a brief but memorable scene in the 1980 movie comedy, Airplane.  The flight attendant, Elaine, asks an elderly woman if she'd like something to read.  "Do you have anything light?" the woman asks. Elaine responds, "How about this leaflet. 'Famous Jewish Sports Legends?"

While our people - Shawn Green and Sandy Koufax notwithstanding - may not be legendary athletes, we do make some great fans.  Throughout my childhood, even into my early adult years, my dad would take me to games at Fenway Park.  I loved watching my baseball heroes compete.  I loved the excitement of a tied game, decided by a game winning shot launched high over the Green Monster.  [I hated driving to Fenway.  It took so long to get in and out of the parking lot.]  I've always rooted for the Red Sox, hoping, praying at the start of each season that this would be the year the Red Sox were going to win the World Series.

I remain a devoted Red Sox fan, despite three plus decades of disappointment, and have faith in them as only a native Bostonian can. Although I've come to acknowledge that the Messiah may come to Jerusalem before a World Series championship comes to Boston., my love of the game, and the Boston Red Sox, persists.

Had we lived over two thousand years ago in ancient Palestine, we might have spent a warm Sunday afternoon in a Roman Coliseum.  The "national pastime" was not baseball, but rather Gladiator fighting.  Two swordsmen, dressed in the regalia of their sport, one muscular arm supporting a heavy iron shield, the other a sharpened swory, fought - often times to the death.  Back and forth these ancient warriors sparred until one was killed or laid down his shield conceding defeat. If the defeated gladiator was still alive, the spectators were asked to judge: Had he fought valiantly and courageously?  Did this gladiator deserve mercy?  Did he deserve to live? 

If so, the people raised their voices, calling out "release him!" in approval, sparing the gladiator's life from the sword of his opponent.  If the people thought otherwise, they voted with a quick gesture of a downward pointing thumb. This vote of disapproval signaled the victorious warrior to slay his opponent, right there on the coliseum floor, in the presence of all the spectators.

As you may imagine, the rabbis who lived in ancient Palestine were appalled by this vicious and barbaric sport. Baseball, it was not. Infact, most of them prohibited Jews from attending and witnessing this spectacle. The rabbis strongly believed that Jews - who value life above all and consider each human being to be a gift from God - could not be spectators at an event where life was so callously disregarded.  Yet the lone voice of Rabbi Nathan disagreed.  You see, those in the stands had a critical role to play.  Their vote would decide the fate of the defeated gladiator. So Rabbi Nathan demanded that Jews should be there, in the arena, if only so they could make their voices be heard and save an endangered life.

Consider how bold and radical an opinion this was.  These bloody, gory spectacles were an integral part of the Roman athletic culture and most rabbis didn't think that a Gladiator fight was a good place for nice Jewish boys to spend their day. The raw and violent energy among the spectators is rarely replicated today (except perhaps at Oakland Raiders games).  Sitting in the stands of a Roman Coliseum was not like watching a game at Fenway or Pac Bell. The frightening atmosphere in these death fights was fraught with sheer terror and danger.  When a baseball player is injured on the field, the fans are hushed, gravely concerned, until they see the fallen athlete stand and walk away.  When a gladiator was stabbed by his opponent's sword, the spectators cheered wildly, calling for more blood.  Rabbi Nathan insisted that Jews be present and be visible in these frightening battles because the consequences of their absence would be so devastating.

Two thousand years have passed, and the gladiators have receded into history.  But Jews today face a question not unlike the one our rabbis faced long ago.  Should we American Jews go out to the arena?  Should we be actively engaged in the culture around us, even when we are surrounded by cruelty and brutality? Even when we are afraid?  This year, in particular, this is a difficult question for us. 

For this year, many of us have been reluctant to be too visible in the world.  The aftermath of September 11th has turned many people inward, reawakening dormant fear and suspicion of the "other."  We're witnessing rising levels of anti-Semitism in Europe. Jewish students encounter pro-Palestinian demonstrators who spew vile, incendiary rhetoric on college campuses in San Francisco, Berkeley, and nationwide.  We're living in a climate of hatred and intolerance. And some of us are angry as well. Add to all this, the many responsibilities we have to work, family, and our own Jewish community. Of course we're reluctant. Why should we care about others when nobody else seems to care about us? 

But if Rabbi Nathan were here today, he would raise his voice once again, even if he were the lone voice in the crowd and he would tell us - no he would demand, that despite it all, we must go out into the arena and raise our voices for the defeated.

Let me tell you about one extraordinary family that has club level seating in the arena:  Almost a year and a half ago three pre-teen siblings in our Congregation were discussing the ongoing crisis in the Middle East with their parents.  They were frustrated by the difficulty in getting Jews and Muslims to talk to each other.  So with some help from their parents and some clergy, they were able to form a youth group comprised of Jewish, Muslim, and Christian kids (and their parents).  Since joining together, this small group has learned much about one another's faith, has shared meals together, and has built strong bonds of trust and friendship. The events of September 11th could have driven a wedge between these kids.  Instead it brought them closer together. 

Developing relationships was good, but they wanted to do something to make a tangible difference.  They designed interfaith cards - simple, blank cards with a Star of David, a cross, and a crescent along the top of the card, the words, Shalom, Peace, Salaam, just below. These social justice entrepreneurs began selling their cards - at supermarkets, at Beth Am, and soon they will be available on the web.  They have sold thousands of cards so far, the profits supporting the September 11th fund, the Afghan Children's Fund, Seeds of Peace, and the Antioch Church of the Redeemer - devastated by an arson attack earlier this year.  One simple idea - getting children of different faiths to talk to each other, led to another simple idea - creating and selling interfaith cards to raise money for special causes. These simple ideas, and their hard work has aided countless people, but more importantly, has transformed the way these children relate to kids from different faiths, how they look at the world, and how they actively participate in raising their voices for peace, awareness, and mutual understanding.   

This incredible story was born out of these children's desire to make a difference.  These kids inspire me.  I hope they inspire you as well.  I hope they inspire all of us to think about what we might do to get out of our own enclaves of suspicion and see what bridges we might build. 

Here's another story that teaches us a valuable lesson about how to respond in to the hatred around us.  When our Redwood City neighbor, Temple Beth Jacob, suffered a second attack of hateful graffiti several months ago, they could have simply built a larger fence, isolating themselves from their community. They didn't.  Instead, they opened their gates and sent their members out as emissaries, going door to door, meeting their neighbors and talking to them, one-on-one.  They built relationships, educated them about their congregation, heightened awareness of the recent spate of anti-Semitism in their neighborhood, and enlisted their support in helping watch out for potential acts of hate and violence.

This small step has created a neighborhood environment of trust in which neighbors look out for and protect one another. Our brothers and sisters in Redwood City could have easily become xenophobic in response to the hateful acts perpetrated against them by faceless cowards. Instead they overcame their fear and distrust and have managed to build bridges, enlisting the community to work in partnership to eradicate hate and religious intolerance in their small corner of our world.

The Mishna teaches us that "Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh Bazeh - All Jews are responsible for one another."  But if Rabbi Nathan were here today, I believe he'd say that Jews are responsible for all of humankind - Jew and Gentile alike.  He'd say that we are betraying the ideals of the Torah if we ignore that responsibility.  So what can we do?  What can we do, given that our lives are busy, our time is limited and we can't solve all of the world's problems no matter how much we do?  Let me suggest a few simple acts that we can do that will keep us in the arena, allowing our voices to be heard in the larger community.

First:  Go grocery shopping. Plain and simple. Go to Safeway, this week.  Spend an additional ten minutes filling one or two extra bags with non-perishable foods.  When you return next week on Yom Kippur bring your bags of food. Dedicated members of BATY or BAJY - our senior and junior youth groups - will share your donated food with two organizations that serve needy residents of our community; The Ecumenical Hunger Project in East Palo Alto and the Day Workers Center in Mountain View.  If each one of us were to bring one ten-pound bag, we'd collect twenty thousand pounds of food to feed the hungry in our midst.  Our individual acts can, collectively provide for the thousands of hungry people in our community.

Second: Make a contribution to MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger.  We'll give you an envelope as you leave today.  Mazon is a national organization that collects food and money, to distribute to shelters, food pantries, and hunger relief organizations worldwide.

It was founded sixteen years ago by leading Jewish social justice advocates, and our very own Executive Director, Terry Kraus serves on Mazon's Board of Directors. Take the envelope; figure out how much money you would usually spend on food and drink during a typical day.  Add up those Mocha Frappuccinos and Jamba juices; lunch at Fresh Choice and dinner at Max's. Since you won't be eating on Yom Kippur, contribute that money to Mazon's "Gleanings from the Field - High Holy Day campaign" instead.  Our traditional observance of Yom Kippur requires fasting. We make a choice to be hungry for that single day. Yet tens of million of people - including 1 of every 8 children don't have that choice, and are hungry every day.  What you spend on food on a typical day could feed a child for a week.

I've had the privilege of celebrating many simchas with Beth Am families this past year.  Each Bar Mitzvah, wedding, and baby naming shared these four things in common: Jewish ritual, gathered family and friends, tears of joy, and an abundance of food. 

I challenge each one of you here today who will be planning a simcha during 5763 to join the thousands of Jews nationwide who donate 3% of the food cost of their simcha to Mazon. We'll preach this message from the Bimah and teach it in the classroom, but it's up to all of us to make a difference.  Indeed, we have a responsibility to feed our guests who celebrate with us.  Nevertheless, we cannot ignore those who have little reason to celebrate.

Third:  Join the Beth Am Local Organizing Committee of Peninsula Interfaith Action, known as PIA. PIA is a consortium of 25 different congregations, of which Beth Am is the sole synagogue. Our dedicated PIA representatives have come together to research, rally, and advocate on behalf of important issues - such as affordable housing on the Peninsula, and access to health care for the working poor - that significantly affect our local community. Our PIA advocates raise their voices and work hard to make a difference, proclaiming a message of economic justice and equal access for all who live in our community.

Although advocacy is the core strategy of PIA, to me it is the deeper human dimension that makes PIA's work so extraordinary.  Our members work closely with people of other faiths, in equal partnership, in advocating for social justice and smart public policy that affects us all. They participate in ongoing dialogue with Catholics and Protestants; people of color; Spanish speakers and English speakers; the affluent, middle-class and working poor. Through this interaction, fear and suspicion abates. Our PIA advocates represent Beth Am well.  Each one is an "Or L'goyim" a light unto the nations, sharing the message that we are responsible for all of humankindI invite you, too, to get involved with PIA. Here are a few ways you can help.   First, our congregation's special PIA project for this year is the Rotacare Free Health Clinic in Mountain View. If you are a doctor, nurse, pharmacist, or pharmaceutical technician, you could donate one or two evenings per month to care for patients at the clinic in Mountain View. [Look for a PIA volunteer after services and they can give you more information.] 

If you are not a medical practitioner, you could join the Beth Am Local Organizing Committee and play a vital role in the advocacy work that we do.  If your time is limited, you could sign up on the PIA e-mail list and respond to periodic advocacy alerts, writing or calling our elected officials when important legislation is pending.  And you can just show up at PIA community meetings or rallies. When all of the PIA partner congregations mobilized last March for a rally in support of affordable housing on the Peninsula, 1500 people filled the seats of the Fox Theater in Redwood City, including many from Beth Am. We went into the arena and raised our voices on behalf of those who are suffering. Rabbi Nathan would have been proud.  Next week, members of PIA will be leading a Yom Kippur study session.  I urge you to learn with them and be inspired by their work.

If I haven't given you enough things to consider already, permit me to make a few more suggestions.  Help a child in a local public school learn to read by becoming a tutor in the Jewish Coalition for Literacy.  Prepare and deliver meals to people with AIDS through the ARIS Project.  Serve meals at the Urban Ministries of Palo Alto Soup Kitchen.  As you leave today, pick up a flier with contact information for all these organizations on the table outside or look for Tikkun Olam opportunities on the Beth Am website.

Finally, you can join members of Palo Alto faith communities, this Wednesday, September 11th, to commemorate the tragic events of last year. I strongly urge you to join us for any of the programs; However, I point to the unique gathering we will have early in the morning, beginning at 5:30 in which representatives from six different faith communities will mark the six tragic events that devastated our country one year ago - to the minute - after it occurred.

A schedule of all the day's commemorations is available outside as well.  Simply joining together as diverse communities of faith helps to combat fear, hate and bigotry.

Two thousand years ago, in a world dominated by Gladiator games and a callous disregard for human life, the great rabbinic sage, Hillel, uttered these famous words:  "Im Ein Ani Li Mi Li - If I am not for myself, who am I," "U'k'sheani l'atzmi, mah ani - If I am for myself only, what am I."  "V'im lo achshav, eimatai - If not now, when." 

Indeed, we must attend to our own concerns first. We cannot simply ignore our own needs, or neglect our community's interest lest we lose sense of who we really are.  However, if we focus only on ourselves, what are we?  We lose sight of what it truly means to be a Jew.  Above all, we cannot wait to act. The consequences of waiting - for someone else to do it, or a more convenient time to participate could be devastating.

Leonard Fein - a leading advocate for Jewish social justices writes: "I like to think that Rabbi Hillel was a savvy teacher and knew precisely what he was saying.  He knew that in a heterogeneous society, . . .nothing can be achieved without working together and with others. . . . None of us can. . .hide behind the gates and hedges of our own neighborhoods.  If we think for a moment that we can establish impermeable boundaries between ourselves and others, if we think for a moment that our own privilege can exist independently of what is happening behind the ghettos' walls or that the chaos within those walls can be contained, what we will surely and quickly learns is that chaos knows no boundaries."[1]

Hillel also taught us, 'Al tifrosh min hatzibbur - do not separate yourself from the community."  And by that I do not think that he meant the Jewish community alone.  For it was Hillel, as well, who said that the essence of Torah is to care for our fellow human beings.  For Hillel taught, "What is hateful to you do not do to your fellow." 

Later in our service we will bear witness to one of the central ritual acts of Rosh Hashanah:  The sounding of the Shofar. Jewish tradition sees this as a spiritual wake-up call. Are we awake to the meaning and the power of Hillel's words?  Have we heeded the message of Rabbi Nathan and his warning about the dangers of Jewish isolationism?  The great medieval philosopher Maimonides exhorts, "Rouse yourselves, you slumberers from your slumber! . . . Look closely at yourselves, improve your ways and your deeds!"[2]  Rosh Hashanah is the day to look, and reflect, and improve. For, if not now, when?

Our sages teach that the ram's horn should remind us, as well, of the story of Abraham, our patriarch, whose faith and integrity are tested in the Torah portion we read today.  Most commentators claim that Abraham passed God's test, proving himself a faithful, loyal, and unquestioning servant to God even in the face of such an odious demand. 

But a few of our sages, a few brave voices argue that, on the contrary, Abraham failed the test.  We know that Abraham raised his voice when God was about to destroy Sodom.  He dared to challenge "The Great and Awesome Sovereign, Creator of humankind."  And he challenged God on behalf of strangers - people he did not know, with whom he did not share beliefs.  People who worshipped a different God and were part of a different culture. Abraham dared to inquire, "Would you destroy the cities if but 50 righteous people were found within its gates?  Would you make the innocent perish with the guilty?  With these words, Abraham called for a single transcendent standard of justice and compassion, for a universal ethic of concern for every single human life.

Why then didn't Abraham raise his voice when the same God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac?  Why didn't he speak out when God was telling him to do the unthinkable?

 Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, a leading figure in Polish Hasidism observes that after this event, God never spoke to Abraham again.  The Gerer Rebbe said that God cut off communication with him because he failed the test. Just as Abraham had spoken out on behalf of Sodom, God wanted Abraham to raise his voice on behalf of his beloved son, Isaac.  He didn't.  Instead he gave into fear - and was silent. 

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was one of the most influential scholars and activists of last century.  A story is told about a teary exchange between Heschel and his father when he was a young boy. His father was telling him the story of the binding of Isaac, and how he was saved at the very last minute by an angel of God.  By the end of the story young Heschel was in tears.  'Daddy,' he cried, 'what if the angel had come too late?'  His father tried to reassure him: 'Don't worry, son.  An angel cannot be late.'  But he continued to weep, saying, 'No - an angel cannot be late, but a human being can be too late." 

My prayer for all of us as we prepare to enter this new year of 5763 is that we will heed the lessons of Rabbi Nathan, Rabbi Hillel, and Rabbi Heschel.  Let us raise our voices, reach out to those around us, and speak out for healing, justice, and compassion.  Before it is too late, let us speak out for life.


[1] Leonard Fein in "The Jewish Condition" p. 75

[2] See Gates of Repentance, p. 139 for full quote

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