Kol Nidre 2018: Our Sin of Apathy
The following is a sermon delivered on Kol Nidre September 18th, 2018 at Temple B’nai Israel in Parkersburg, West Virginia.
I’ve never lived in Las Vegas, Nevada. I’ve been there for vacation, but I have no connection to the city on any emotional level.
I’ve never been to San Bernardino, California. My wife’s family is all from California, but I’ve never made it to that particular part of the state.
I’ve never been to Aurora, Colorado. Or Newtown, Connecticut. Or Parkland, Florida.
Yet the names of each of these places is burned into my mind. I remember these places, and in some cases, even the details of my life when they became significant to me. These places hold profound importance for our country, as they are the names of just some of the homes to mass shootings due to gun violence in this country.
But Cincinnati, Ohio is my home, at least for the four years I’m in rabbinical school. My wife and I work and learn there. We go to the movies and grocery stores. We worship in the congregations and we eat in the restaurants. Cincinnati is our home. And yet, on Thursday, September 6th, a gunman walked into a bank building and opened fire, making my city the home to the next pin on the map of violence in America.
We all know what happens next, because we’ve become well practiced at it. First, we all rush to our TVs and smartphones to find out what has happened. Were there injuries? Yes. Were there fatalities? Yes. Is the gunman at large? No. We fill our quota of the necessary questions,, and then…well, we wait. Wait for the outrage that comes with a public that can’t understand how this is still happening on a regular basis. Wait for legislatures to write tweets containing the famous line “thoughts and prayers.” And we wait for legislation to come that will make it harder for someone to go into a public place and kill people for no reason other than that human beings are full of anger and hatred. We’re still waiting.
Well, in the case of Cincinnati, we did some of those things. But in general, we went back to work, back to class. On campus at HUC, we even went ahead with the previously scheduled active shooter drill, because we certainly need to learn how to handle that kind of situation, heaven forbid it ever happen to us. Maybe that Thursday it was more important than ever that we be prepared.
During Kol Nidre, we continue the process of asking for forgiveness for our sins. We call out “For the sins we have committed against you, we repent!” For the sins of anger and violence, for the sins of unkindness and cruelty. But tonight, we repent for what might be our greatest sin of all: we repent for our apathy.
Because we know the sources that we’re supposed to cite here: We know that Leviticus 19 tells us that we are not to stand idly by while our neighbor bleeds. We know that Rabbi Tarfon tells us in Pirkei Avot that we aren’t obligated to finish the work, but we aren’t free to ignore it either. We are well familiar with the text of the Mishnah Sanhedrin which tells us that when we save a life, it is as if we have saved the entire world, while destroying a life is as destructive as if we had killed the entire planet. We know the words that help to remind us what we are supposed to do. Yet, in the wake of some of the most recent acts of violence, we can’t seem to get ourselves to feel the same feelings of anguish and pain that we associate so clearly with the likes of Newtown, Parkland, and Las Vegas.
For the sins we have committed against you, oh God, we ask for forgiveness. But for the sins we inflict upon one another, this day does not atone. It is only through our request for forgiveness from one another that we are able to find redemption on this day.
We owe it to ourselves and to our communities to never grow complacent with acts of violence and hatred. We can never afford to normalize to the senseless killing of those with whom we walk the streets, whether they be those we know or those we do not. We are called to exhaust all possible options, in order that we can say that we have done everything in our power to make the world a better place.
Jewish mysticism teaches us that it was an act of destruction that helped to create the world. God filled clay vessels full of the divine light upon the creation of the world, and the sheer power of God’s presence caused the pottery to shatter, scattering small pieces of holiness throughout the world. It is our task, we are taught, to repair these broken pieces, to engage in Tikkun Olam, repairing the world, in order that we may welcome holiness back into a place that desperately needs these small pieces of Godliness.
We can resonate with the notion that something is deeply, deeply broken in a world that allows gun violence to become so normal to us. And yet, before us, stands the task of repairing these pieces. It isn’t up to God to find and fix this brokenness. It is on us, that we are pushed to create something beautiful and whole. We are welcomed into the process, so that we have ownership of the world that God may have created, but that we will have a hand in perfecting.
We have sinned before God and before one another with our apathy. But there is always hope left for us, in order that we may be called to repentance and to action. While so many have been filled with despair and disengagement at the hands of violence and murder, Jewish teenagers in Cincinnati, Ohio, made sure that their voices were heard. In a blog post published by two teen leaders of the youth movement, these incredible young women wrote: “As teens who care about making the world a better place, and as NFTYites, we will take this tragedy and turn it into a way to get our fellow teens to become registered voters, contact our representatives to make our voices heard, and many more civic engagement tasks.”
These teens were not silent. They were not complacent. They saw the world in two ways, both as it is and as it could be. We accept their gift, the gift of refocus and rededication, as we consecrate ourselves to our mission for Tikkun Olam, and as we seek to make this day one of redemption and repair.
G’mar Chatimah Tova, May you be inscribed for goodness in the Book of Life.