Yom Kippur 5783
October 5, 2022
We Need to Look Out for Each Other
Rabbi Alan Cook
Sinai Temple, Champaign, IL


Some people aren’t going to like this sermon.  This sermon is going to ask you to think about things that might be uncomfortable for you to think about.  It’s going to ask you to care about others in a way that may require a degree of personal sacrifice.  It’s going to talk about issues with which you may disagree.

It’s OK.

I believe that you can handle it.

And if it does make you upset or angry, I’ll ask you to sit with those feelings for a few days.  If, come Friday, you’re still feeling that way, then by all means give me a call or send me an email or kvetch to a board member.

The thing is, we are actually commanded on Yom Kippur “V’anitem et nafshoteichem—you shall afflict your souls.”[1]  For many, this translates to abstaining from food and drink during the holiday.  But we’re meant to experience a degree of actual discomfort; by being pained and inconvenienced in some manner, we begin to think and care more deeply about things outside of our personal comfort and experience.  We come to see more clearly our place within the broader society, and hopefully we begin to acknowledge our responsibility for the welfare of others.  As Isaiah notes in the Haftarah for this day, God does not desire us to engage in fasting and self-denial if we are merely going through the motions and divorcing these actions from any sense of a broader moral responsibility.  The prophet declares, “No, this is the fast I desire: to unlock fetters of wickedness…to share your bread with the hungry, and take the…poor into your home; [to clothe the naked], and not to ignore your own kin.”[2]

Not to ignore our kin.  The actions Isaiah prescribes require us to pay attention to the needs of our neighbors and remain involved in their lives.  Over the past few years, responses to the COVID-19 pandemic have perhaps nudged us to a greater degree of isolation from which some of us are just beginning to tenuously emerge.  A side effect of this approach is that it became easier to only focus on concerns that impacted us as individuals, and those in our immediate orbit.  Perhaps, in retrospect, “social distancing” was an inappropriate name for the containment and prevention tactic that we practiced in the early days of the pandemic.  For while science and medicine prescribed that we should maintain physical distance between ourselves and others, that should have driven us to emphasize other avenues of socialization—not to forgo such interactions.  Muscles atrophy when they are not regularly used.  If we go for an extended period without using our legs, we may find it difficult to walk.  If we go for an extended period without exercising our heart, we may find it difficult to care.

Eden has a t-shirt she’s worn a few times this summer.  I can’t take credit for it; Rabbi Jody found it for her.  It reads, “We Need to Look Out for Each Other.”

At first glance, the shirt expresses a wonderful, uplifting sentiment: we residents of this beautiful planet need to show concern and empathy for one another.  We need to lead our lives in a way that is mindful of the needs and aspirations of our friends and neighbors.  I feel fairly confident that this is the message the designers of the shirt were hoping to convey.

But there’s a presumably unintentional double entendre in the shirt’s message.  One could read it as saying, “We Need to Look Out for Each Other,” we need to be cautious and wary because others whom we encounter may not have our best interests at heart.  It might suggest that we need to approach others whom we don’t know with suspicion and cautiousness lest they prove to be a threat to us and our livelihood.  Sadly, that’s a message that, at least tacitly, seems to be broadcast in American society nowadays.  We see individuals unwilling to take action for the sake of the greater communal good because it may cause them some degree of personal inconvenience.  So death tolls and property damage costs from natural disasters continue to climb because individuals and communities are unwilling to make lifestyle adjustments to curtail climate change and preserve our planet for future generations.  Immigrants legally seeking asylum from violence in their home countries are treated inhumanely because some have too readily forgotten that they and their ancestors were themselves once strangers in a strange land.  Vaccination numbers during the COVID-19 pandemic were depressed because some people failed to appreciate and empathize with the fact that they were not merely protecting themselves but also building layers of protection for the immunocompromised and other vulnerable populations.  Gun violence continues unabated—an average of two mass shootings per day in the United States during 2022—because many who wish to own firearms resist increased background checks, ammunition purchase limits, and other reforms.  The right of individuals with uteruses to exercise free choice over their reproductive health and maintain autonomy over medical decisions is curtailed because some have determined that their religious doctrine on this matter supersedes the constitutional right to privacy.

These are but a few examples in what is a growing list of ways in which we are showing callous disregard for our neighbors.  In the aftermath of the horrors of World War II and the Shoah, Pastor Martin Niemoller began to speak out about his experiences, and the danger that society might allow them to be repeated, remarking, “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.”[3]  Niemoller was no saint; he was initially a Nazi sympathizer before he finally decided their precepts were against Christian ideology.  But his words nevertheless serve as a cautionary tale: beware turning a blind eye to others’ suffering; you may be the next in line to absorb the blows of the oppressor.  Nearly eighty years after the end of the war and the liberation of the camps, we may not be witnessing history repeating itself quite yet.  Mark Twain is said to have quipped, “History doesn’t repeat itself.  It rhymes.”  My friends, I think that even for those who aren’t students of poetry, the rhyme scheme is becoming evident.[4]

The last major liturgical observance on the Jewish calendar prior to the High Holidays is the fast day of Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av.  This day is said to commemorate a number of calamities that befell the Jewish people over the course of history, including the destruction of the first and second Temples in Jerusalem.  The Talmud teaches that God allowed the destruction of the First Temple due to transgressions of the people against God.  The Second Temple, however, was said to have been destroyed due to sinat chinam, baseless hatred of one individual by another.[5]

We no longer have a single temple as the central institution of our lives.  Yet I’d argue that the fabric of our society faces a risk of destruction, much in the same way the Temple once did, as we once again face a rise in sinat chinam.  Avowed hate groups are increasingly feeling emboldened to have a more visible presence.  But perhaps more insidious are the individuals who profess not to have a hateful bone in their bodies but nonetheless turn blind eyes or deaf ears when their neighbors are in need.

A story is told of Rabbi Moshe Leib Erblich of Sassover, a real person who lived in the 1700s.   Reb Moshe entered a tavern one evening and encountered two peasants.  One man turned to the other and said, “Tell me, Reuven, do you love me?” Reuven responded, “Of course I love you, Shimon. We’re drinking companions. Naturally I love you.” Then Shimon said to Reuven, “Then tell me, what causes me pain?” Reuven said, “How should I know what hurts you? I’m just your drinking buddy.” Shimon replied, “If you loved me you would know what causes me pain.”

I have a confession: I’ve told that story for years in various contexts.  But I don’t think I ever fully comprehended it until fairly recently.  To me, the key question of the conversation is not whether Reuven knows what hurts Shimon.  It is whether, once he discovers what brings his companion pain, he takes any measures to alleviate it.  This is the action needed to defuse sinat chinam in our society.   As poet Amanda Gorman puts it, “To love one another just may be the fight of our lives.”

Loving members of the LGBTQ+ community means refusing to ignore homophobia or vote for political candidates who wish to curtail marriage equality or transgender medical care.  Creating welcoming environments for People of Color and indigenous people means embracing education about our nation’s ongoing oppression of these populations.   Our friends and neighbors will feel our love for them amplified and underscored when we consider their bests interests as valuable as our own.  This is what it means to heed the commandment found in this afternoon’s Torah portion: “Lo ta’amod al dam rei’echa—do not stand idle while your neighbor bleeds.”[6]

If we only bandage the wound, and do not get at the root cause of the pain, we have done our fellow human beings a tremendous disservice, and have failed to look out for one another.

Adjacent to the admonition against standing idle while our neighbor bleeds, we find one of the most famous mitzvot in the Torah.  It has been defined by some as the core tenet of Judaism, upon which all other precepts are built.  The verse reads, “V’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha—love your neighbor as yourself.”  Every major faith tradition has some iteration of this teaching, often referred to as “the Golden Rule.”

As most of us are aware, the Torah does not contain vowel markings or punctuation.  It also does not contain asterisks, footnotes, or fine print that apply conditions or exceptions to this commandment.  We are expected to show love and respect and dignity to all of our neighbors without exception.  Even if an issue doesn’t directly impact us, even if we can’t fully appreciate how and why it concerns our neighbors, if we are being told that it causes others pain, we should be taking that to heart.

During rabbinic school, I did a summer internship in which I got to shadow three experienced rabbis at a large congregation.  Once, I was invited to sit in on a counseling session with a young woman who had come to recognize that she needed assistance with issues related to her substance abuse.  Prior to the meeting, I was very nervous.  I asked my mentor how I could possibly respond to such a situation: I had no personal experience with addiction, had never taken drugs, and was very moderate in my alcohol consumption.  The rabbi assured me, noting that we need not have personally lived through a given situation in order to be able to express care and concern for how it is impacting others.

We should not confuse sympathy with empathy.  Sympathy is when we display care and concern for others because we have weathered an analogous moment.  We understand another person’s emotions, but from our own personal perspective.  Empathy, however, does not require that you share another’s experience, only that you recognize the validity of the person’s emotions and reactions related to the event.  Choosing to care for others and welcome them into our lives suggests that we will make an effort to behave empathetically toward them as they face life’s joys and sorrows.  But I would argue that true menschlikeit—a true display of our humanity—calls us to extend our empathy even to those who are not in our immediate circle.

Now, some might say that, broadly speaking, they support the rights of all and want to see everyone be able to achieve their hopes and dreams and aspirations.  Their only bone to pick, they assert, is that everyone should be treated fairly.  So, student debt relief becomes a contentious issue because it is deemed unfair to those who have already paid off their loans.  Or welfare and other social safety net programs are deemed unfair because many people in previous generations had to scrape and suffer in order to build a better life.  But for quite some time, the deck has been stacked in favor of a very specific population; what is being cast as “unfair” is an attempt to level the playing field after centuries of favoritism shown to middle-class and upper-middle-class whites.  There are inherent implicit biases built into many of the educational and social systems of this nation that discriminate against non-white individuals; if measures can be put in place that seek to correct these disadvantages, should they not be celebrated?  As the late Senator Paul Wellstone taught, “We all do better when we all do better.”[7]

Our Torah portion today instructs us, “Kedoshim t’hiyu—strive for holiness.”  I believe that the text is not merely speaking about a religious and spiritual imperative, but also a moral one.  We have the opportunity and the obligation to bring sacredness into our often troubled and broken world by ensuring that chances to advance and thrive are available to all people.  We have the responsibility to do our civic duty to vote for those candidates and those issues that speak to our values and preserve democracy and fairness for all.  We are called to behave lovingly toward our fellow human beings.  We understand that, “To love another person is to see the face of God.”[8]  We need to look out for each other.

We afflict ourselves for this one day each year in order to purify ourselves before God, that we may be wholly prepared during the remaining days of the year to ensure our neighbors are not unduly afflicted.  May our eyes, our ears, our hearts, and our minds always be open to assisting others in reaching their aspirations and their highest potential, and may we thus each merit to be inscribed in the Book of Good Life and Blessing.

[1] Leviticus 16:31

[2] Isaiah 58:6-7

[3] Pastor Martin Niemoller.  It is hard to cite a specific text for this quote, since Niemoller repeated it (and transformed it) in many post-war speeches.

[4] A variation on a quote attributed to Mark Twain: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes

[5] BT Yoma 9b

[6] Leviticus 19:10

[7] Senator Paul Wellstone, from a 1999 speech to the Sheet Metal Worker’s union.

[8] Victor Hugo, Les Misérables.