Rosh Hashanah 5780
Sept. 30/ Oct. 1, 2019
When They See Us
by Rabbi Alan Cook
Sinai Temple, Champaign, IL


The young man lamented to his mother, “I feel like everybody in the world hates me.”

His mother replied, her heart breaking, “I know it feels like that.  But I love you enough to make up for everybody.  Don’t ever think you’re alone.”[1]

Surely any of us who have children in our lives can empathize with this mother’s statement.  We want the young people for whom we care to be nurtured and protected; we want them to have every possible chance to realize their potential without these prospects being marred by societal ills and pressures.  For some young people, they are fortunate that they do experience their formative years as a time of opportunity, with numerous exciting options laid at their feet.  Others face an uphill climb every day.

In my opinion, the haunting narrative known as the Akedah, which we explore each Rosh Hashanah morning [on this Second Day of Rosh Hashanah each year], has something to say about this phenomenon.  This Torah text seeks not only to further the narrative of Isaac by preventing his sacrifice; it also serves as an explicit instruction for the Jewish community—and arguably, for all adherents of Abrahamic traditions—throughout the ages.  Marking a clear distinction from other ancient near eastern tribes among whom the biblical Israelites would have dwelt, our religion pointedly did not require child sacrifices to signify our fealty to God.  We are familiar with the climax of the story, wherein an angel stays Abraham’s hand and proclaims, “Al tishlach yad’cha el ha-na’ar v’al ta’as lo m’umah—do not raise your hand against the child, and do nothing to cause harm.”[2] This historically has been seen not only to proscribe Abraham against hurting Isaac, but also to warn all parents and caregivers who may encounter this tale against harming children.  Moreover, it cautions us against permitting outside forces to diminish or destroy our children.  And what we seek for our own children, we must pursue for all of the children of the world with an equivalent passion.

In spite of this ideal, we know that in our nation—let alone throughout the world—there are “haves” and “have-nots,” and this societal striation can acutely impact our children.  If the story of the Akedah is to be an effective tool for shaping how we treat children, then its lessons must be appreciated and applied universally.  Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso composed a blessing that has become popular at many Jewish naming ceremonies for infants.  It begins, “What I wish for my child, I wish for all our children.”[3]  As we go about our daily business, as we take moral and ethical stances, as we enact public policies, the moral lessons of the Akedah implore us to behave in a manner that will bless all children, to wish for our own offspring what we wish for others’ children.  As we hear the teachings of this passage as an enduring drumbeat each year at this season (and again in a few weeks, when the story appears in its regular place in the lectionary cycle), we must recognize that its message is imploring us: do not turn your backs on children; do not sacrifice them to be ignored and neglected.  Even if young people are not of your own flesh and blood, do not act indifferently toward their suffering.

Some will argue that the issues and concerns that I am about to discuss are political in nature and are out of place in a synagogue setting.  On the contrary, I believe that our Torah gives us clear moral guidelines that we must intervene when we have the power to prevent our neighbors from falling victim to injury or catastrophe.  Judaism’s prophetic call to acts of tikkun olam—working in partnership with God to improve the world—requires that we engage with such issues.

The young man whom I quoted a few moments ago at the outset of my remarks is named Antron McCray.  He is one of five young men who came to be known as the Central Park Five.  In 1989, Antron and four other African-American boys, ranging in age from fourteen to sixteen, were convicted of the rape and attempted murder of a jogger in Central Park.  All five men insisted that they were innocent and that their confessions had been coerced.  In 2002, their sentences were vacated as another individual confessed to the crimes.  Earlier this year, director Ava DuVernay released a film, “When They See Us,” that explores the trial and its aftermath.

Antron and his fellow defendants spent thirteen years incarcerated for a crime that evidence shows they did not commit.  While their peers were enjoying high school and college, and exploring the heady freedoms of young adulthood, Antron and Raymond and Korey and Yusuf and Kevin found themselves discarded and written off by society.  They had been sacrificed to a system that was more eager for the “win” of a conviction than it was interested in the truth.

Of course, much about the criminal justice system has changed in the ensuing years—mostly for the better.  But we can and must continue to address systemic inequities that continue to be seen in many corners of our society.

Brian Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, notes, “The Bureau of Justice now predicts that 1 in 3 black male babies born in the United States is expected to go to prison during their lifetime.  That was not true in the 19th or 20th centuries, but has come true in the 21st century.”[4]  To be sure, this statistic reflects not only issues in the justice system but also societal realities that shape and constrict opportunities for African Americans, Latinx, and other individuals of color in such a manner that criminal activity often comes to be seen as a passport out of the cycle of poverty and oppression.  It is long past time that Americans recognized that we are all in this together; when any segment of society is viewed as “less than” or “other”—or when they come to view themselves in this fashion, then we consign the children of that generation to despair.  We sacrifice these children by depriving them of hope for a brighter future for themselves and their families.  And we do so at our great peril.

Disrupting such a cycle requires that we move beyond the passive call of our Torah portion to “do no harm.”  We are also called to work actively to create hope and opportunity.  As the late Senator Paul Wellstone reminded us, “We all do better when we all do better.”[5]  When we insist that all individuals in our community be given the same chance to learn and to grow, and to thrive, and to fulfill their highest potential, then we have truly protected all of our children.

We owe such protection not only to the children born into our communities; we should strive to afford similar protections to those whose parents have come here seeking political asylum in search of a better life for their families.  Certainly the issue of immigration is an emotionally fraught one, with a myriad of complexities.  But all of us—unless we are descended from indigenous American tribes—have an immigration story, whether our ancestors arrived on these shores freely or under duress.  Countless generations of immigrants came to this country in pursuit of the American dream, and contributed to the fabric of this great nation.

Lady Liberty continues to “lift [her] lamp beside the golden door,”[6] extending her welcome to those who come to the United States seeking a fresh start.  Indeed, their right to seek asylum is protected under international law.[7]  But beyond the legal responsibility, as Jews we should recognize the moral responsibility we have to provide sanctuary and welcome to those fleeing persecution.  Our late rabbi, Isaac Neuman, often taught that the most significant verse in the Torah was, “There shall be one standard of law for you and for the stranger who resides among you.”[8]  The Torah repeats this sentiment no fewer than 36 times, reminding us to affirm our ancestral history of having been slaves in the land of Mitzrayim.  Having known oppression, it is incumbent upon us to embrace another who finds himself or herself in similar situations.  Al ta’as lo m’umah– do not let any harm befall him (or her).

Reasonable people may differ on immigration policy; we may debate about the number of immigrants that the United States can reasonably and responsibly absorb, or the appropriate way to vet individuals who wish to establish a new home in this country.  But I believe that in parsing such policy differences, we must never lose sight of the basic dignity that should be afforded to every single human being, regardless of his or her station in life.  We have failed as a society if we cannot recognize and lift up the innate humanity of each individual.  Turning individuals—asylum seekers and potential immigrants—into political pawns, separating children from their parents, denying them bathing facilities and basic dental hygiene and immunizations against the flu and judicial due process not only demeans and demoralizes them, it diminishes us all as a society.  The lessons of the Torah exhort us to bring compassion to the forefront in all of our policies and all of our interactions.  Al ta’as lo m’umah, do not bring harm to another person.

If we truly wish to have a conversation about how we are harming young people in this country and robbing them of the opportunity to grow up in safety and security, then we must include a discussion of our nation’s fetishization of guns.  While authorities differ on how to define a “mass shooting,” one standard defines it as an incident in which more than four individuals are killed or injured.  By this standard, more than 270 incidents had taken place from January through August of this year alone.  That averages to more than one such incident per day in this country.[9]  Retailers are now offering bullet-proof backpacks for students; new school buildings are designed with S-shaped curves rather than straight hallways in order to impede a potential shooter’s progress; children as young as preschoolers and kindergarteners regularly participate in active shooter drills.  While such methods may indeed reduce casualties when – God-forbid—a shooting occurs in a school setting, the true reasons they have been adopted is that such band-aid solutions are more palatable to politicians and policy-makers than doing the hard work of confronting our nation’s obsession with firearms.  Leaders at local, state, and national  levels time and again have refused to bring forward sensible gun control following mass shootings, tacitly sending the message that possession of firearms is of greater importance than the lives of American citizens—even our children.  Personally, I am not advocating for the elimination of all guns, but for the closure of loopholes and the implementation of safety measures that can lead our country toward far fewer gun fatalities.  If we fail to even explore such possibilities, we are complicit in standing idle while our neighbors bleed.  Al ta’as lo m’umah—do not allow harm to befall any individual, when you have the power to prevent it.

Following World War II, German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller, who had survived internment in Sachshausen and Dachau, wrote:

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.[10]

At this season in which our tradition calls us to engage in self-examination, to explore our values and our behaviors and our very place within this world, Niemöller’s words should resonate with us.  Will we stand with our friends and neighbors when others rise against them?  Will we demand, in the voice of the angel from today’s parasha, “Al ta’as lo m’umah!—do no harm to that person?”  Or will we remain mute in the face of atrocities committed against others, standing idle as our neighbors—and neighborhoods—bleed?[11]

Our Haftarah this morning tells the story of Hannah, who prayed so fervently for a child that only her lips moved as her heart poured out its inmost supplications.[12]  Would that we could direct our hopes, prayers, and aspirations to all the children of the world with equal devotion.  Would that we cared enough about the future of every child that we would work with every fiber of our beings to shift our societal paradigms and ensure that no child would fall through the cracks of poverty and despair.

Al tishlach yad’cha el ha-na’ar v’al ta’as lo m’umah—do not raise your hand against the child, and do nothing to cause harm.”  For the sake of the future of our children and of all humankind, let us do our utmost to heed these important words of Torah.  Let us continue to strive for the day when all the young people of the world know lives replete with dignity, and love, and opportunity.


[1] From the Netflix series “When They See Us,” written by Ava DuVernay, Julian Breece, Robin Swicord, Attica Locke, and Michael Starrbury.

[2] Genesis 22:12

[3] Found, for example, at Retrieved July 25, 2019.  The original text of Sasso’s prayer read, “my daughter” instead of “my child.”

[4] Address by Brian Stevenson to the annual convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, Cincinnati, Ohio, April 2, 2019.

[5] From a 1999 speech to the Sheet Metal Worker’s union.

[6] From “The New Colossus,” by Emma Lazarus, inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty.

[7] The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) states, “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.”  This has been subsequently ratified in other international agreements.

[8] Numbers 15:16

[9] Retrieved August 29, 2019

[10] Many versions of this quote exist on the internet; this appears to be Niemöller’s original text.

[11] A paraphrase of the negative commandment in Leviticus 19:16: “Do not stand idly by as your neighbor’s blood is shed.”

[12] See 1 Samuel, Chapter 1.