Honoring the Sixth Day Creations
Rosh Hashanah Sermon
September 13, 2015 by Rabbi Heather Miller
Good Yuntif. Hayom Harat Olam– today is the birthday of the world. And that is indeed what we are celebrating. We remember the legend of creation:
א בְּרֵאשִׁית, בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים, אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם, וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ.
1 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
2 Now the earth was unformed and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters.
3 And God said: ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light.
On the second day, there was a division between that which was above and that which was below, then on the third, fourth, and fifth days came the dry land and waters, trees, planets and creatures. And then, on the sixth day, God created humans in God’s own image.
The rabbis affirm the value of these last creations, of humans, as sacred. Rabbi Akiva from the second century CE tells us: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ is the most important rule in the Torah,1 because the rabbis were primarily concerned with ethical treatment of humans to one another.
Moreover, they noted their disdain for those who would disregard human life. In those days, the oppressive Roman Empire epitomized a culture that did just that.
In a classic text,2 we learn of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi’s visit to a Roman marketplace where he scoffed at the sight of columns wrapped in thick, protective carpets so that they would not become brittle from the cold nor crack in the hot wind, while he saw a poor man wrapped in a single reed mat.
The rabbis gave a scathing revue of Roman culture; in their eyes, it was backwards in this sense: why didn’t the inanimate columns get the flimsy mats and the human made of flesh and blood get the thick carpet?
To the rabbis, human life is of paramount importance. That’s why they popularized the dictum: to save a life is to save an entire universe.3 All life is infinitely valuable.
I learned this lesson in the Jewish high school that I attended. There, a teacher of mine asked our class to consider the chemical compound makeup of the human body. After we determined it was comprised of about 65% oxygen, 18% carbon, 9% hydrogen, etc., he told us then that value of the human body, based upon what each of these chemical compounds was worth, would be about a dollar.
But that was not the point, of course. Actually, as I recall, he shared that it was a kind of trick question whose lesson, in a Jewish day school, was a core teaching.
The value of the human body is actually of infinite worth. It cannot simply be broken down and valued as the sum of its parts, much less by the market economy for chemical compounds. That day, our Science teacher, through Science, taught us about the intangible sacredness of human life.
Tonight, on Rosh HaShanah, I will ask us to contemplate something that may be somewhat uncomfortable. Something difficult. But, I believe the time is now and the time is urgent. People are dying.
The question I want to ask us all to consider today, on Rosh HaShanah, when we celebrate the creation of the world and the creation of human life is: how do we value one another’s lives?
I ask this because this is the season of reflection upon our personal and communal shortcomings– and this year especially, I have grown painfully aware that we are part of a society that disregards human life. And we as a society do so unevenly. And I believe this is an affront to God. Or, if you prefer, it is an affront to morality. I fear that we are increasingly building a society more like that of Rome than that of the Jewish ideal.
Why should we examine this on one of the holiest days of the year? Because, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, speaking at a conference on Religion and Race in 1963 stated, “You cannot worship God and at the same time look at man as if he were a horse.”4 We cannot value some lives as worth more than others. But the system is set up to do just that. In the media we have seen images of some atrocious disregard for lives in America.
Here in Los Angeles, on August 12, a 30 year old Black mother named Redel Jones was killed for allegedly stealing $80 worth of merchandise from a pharmacy with a kitchen knife.5 Even if she had been guilty, was her life worth that $80? How much are lives worth? How much are Black lives worth?
Overall, here in Los Angeles and across the nation, there is a system of prejudice that needs to be addressed. Consider the observation of Yale Law School Professor Harlon L. Dalton who shares: “Slavery continues to shape our lives more than a century after abolition because the link it forged between Blackness and inferiority, Blackness and subservience, Blackness and danger, has survived to this day.”6
This includes the media which is quick to portray African-Americans as thugs, gang bangers and criminals. This includes a defunding of inner city institutions like schools and other public facilities. This includes prejudicial hiring practices in major corporations and de facto segregation of communities. And, this includes the creation of a school to prison pipeline which takes normal school aged children and treats them as criminals culturally and literally.
When students are suspended or expelled they are less likely to perform well in school. This in turn diminishes their completion of school and pursuit of higher education which in turn prevents them from economic opportunities. When this happens to individuals it is a shame. When this happens institutionally, it is a travesty. And, as Angelenos of good conscience, we all have a role in fixing the system. It is our responsibility to affirm that their lives matter lest we posthumously affirm that their deaths matter.
Yes, all lives matter but there is a cartoon that shows two houses– one that is ablaze and one that is not on fire and the firefighters are pouring water on the one house that is not on fire. And the caption is “All Houses Matter.”7 This image teaches us that we shouldn’t pay attention to the houses that are doing alright. When there is an emergency, we need to pay attention and apply resources where they are needed.
All lives matter, but the Torah itself specifies that we should care for the stranger, the widow, the orphan. The Torah doesn’t say that ALL lives matter. That is self-evident. Rather, concentration is paid to those lives that are the most vulnerable. Once upon a time, we, in the Gay community were once told that the phrase “Gay Pride” was an anti-straight movement. That gay marriage would somehow degrade straight marriage. But saying Gay lives matter does not mean that straight lives don’t matter.
See where I’m going with this?
What I am talking about here tonight is that we should look at how we can stop this pattern as Heschel insisted, in the 1960s, “…not only how to do justice to the colored people, [but also] to stop the profanation of God’s name by dishonoring the Negro’s name.”8
In modern terms, we need to affirm the sanctity, the sacredness, the holiness, of human life. Of ALL human life. Unfortunately, because of the disproportionate devaluation of Black lives, we have come to recognize that this means we specifically need to affirm that Black lives matter.
So, back to my original question: is ours a society that values the creations of Genesis featured on the sixth day? Some lives yes. Others, not so much or not really, others just plain old “no.”
But again, this is against Jewish values rooted in the Creation story which we revere today.
In the Mishnah, the sages ask the question of why God created one person at the outset whose offspring would then populate the earth? And they answer: this is so that no one person can claim that their ancestor was greater than another’s.9
Again, the rabbis insist that all lives matter. And again, they don’t just insist that, they also remind us that any devaluing of human life is an affront to God.
There is another famous story in the Talmud.10 A recently ordained rabbi is riding on his donkey when he comes upon (and this is the language of the Talmud) an exceedingly ugly man. The rabbi says to the man, “My! What an ugly man you are!” And the ugly man’s response? “Why don’t you tell my Creator how ugly of a creation I am!” You see, when we see others as less than or unworthy or unsavory, the rabbis tell us we offend the Creator of all life.
As we examine our actions tonight and over the next 10 days of awe, let us begin broadly this year: What lives do we value and what lives don’t we value as much?
And if we do that earnestly, we begin to see that it is very complex question. Because, some lives are valued in some contexts and devalued in other contexts. Let’s take a look at the Torah portion we read as a community tomorrow, the story of Sarah, Abraham and Hagar, through a lens of intersectionality– the lens that analyzes multiple institutional systems of oppression operating at once.
As a woman in a patriarchal society, Sarah was blamed for not bearing a son to her husband, Abraham. So, she asked her handmaiden, Hagar, to do so for her. Hagar, as a woman and a servant, has no choice but to oblige. Later, however, miraculously, Sarah was able to give birth to a son, Isaac.
Now her place among the societal totem pole was in question– was she to be considered more lowly than her handmaiden who bore a son before her? Was her son to be placed at a lower position than her handmaiden’s son? What would become of him?
Her worry and concern because of these social strata and her positioning among them, drove her to wrath. Sarah bitterly ordered Abraham to cast away Hagar and Ishmael lest they threaten her line.
She was caught up in a web of sticky, biased, hierarchal social lines and null-sum thinking which prevented her from recognizing the humanity of Hagar and Ishmael.
She demanded that Abraham,
גָּרֵשׁ הָאָמָה הַזֹּאת, וְאֶת-בְּנָהּ:
“Cast out this bondwoman and her son, for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son!”11
Clearly, she was solely concerned with her own status and that of her son Isaac, and paid no attention to the humanity of Hagar and Ishmael.
Is she the villain here? Yes. But she’s not the only one. She should be reprimanded for her role in the atrocious kicking out of Hagar and
Ishmael from the house of Abraham. But, we must also look at the institutions of inequality that set her up to do so– patriarchy and classism. Her status and that of her son were threatened by their complex placement in the hierarchy of society. But society, as ordered in this way, was to blame as well. But who is society? It is a collection of individuals.
And, so, that brings us back to today. If our society is set up to privilege some over others, and society is built by individuals, what activities are we as individuals doing to continue the inequality pervasive in our communities today?
And I mean not only our universal community or our community of the United States or even our beloved city of Los Angeles. I also mean our Jewish community. Because if Jewish communities more explicitly recognized that Black and Jewish were not entirely different communities, and instead we affirmed that the identity of being Black AND Jewish can exist within the same person, we might institutionally begin to realize that the #BLACKLIVESMATTER movement is ALSO a Jewish issue.
And when we, as an LGBT affirming community, recognize that the identity of being Black AND LGBorT can exist within the same person, we might institutionally begin to realize that the Black Lives Matter movement is ALSO an LGBT issue. And an issue of women’s rights. And an issue of immigrants’ rights. And so forth.
We begin to see this when we realize that three women founded the Black Lives Matter movement– and two of them identify as queer. These facts, then, seem to be clear reminders that, as reflections of Adonai, we really are all One, as the Shema affirms.
And, in colloquial speech, an affront to one group really is an affront to all groups. As a Jewish LGBT-affirming multiracial community, we at BCC need to be aware of not only blatant systemic racism in the world, but also microagressive interpersonal acts, especially ones that occur within the Jewish community.
Microagressions occur as everyday verbal, non-verbal, and environmental slights, snubs and insults.
Jewish Community Relations Council Director Ilana Kaufman, herself a Jew of Color, shares a story about her intern, Tovah, also a Jew of Color, who experienced one of these incidents at her high school when a boy approached her in disbelief, “You’re Jewish Tovah? What? No way dude!”
She recounted the story in tears to Ilana. Why did it hurt so much? Because she said, “My name is Tovah, I wear a Jewish star around my neck, I go to synagogue, my mom is Jewish, what more can I do to be seen as Jewish?”
Tovah was invisibilized within the Jewish community. She was not counted. The great medieval Rabbi known as Nachmanides tells us that, ‘we take a census not so the census takers can count, but rather for the benefit of those who are counted: to be counted and feel they belong, and to impress upon each one of us the value and sterling worth of our soul.’ It is for those being counted so they know they matter to someone.”
In what ways do we show that the Black lives in the Jewish community count?
Jane Lazarre who is a white Russian Jewish mother of Black sons writes that her children got the speech known as “The Talk”: to “never run on the street, not even on your own block to catch the bus. Always show your hands. Never fail to be respectful even if police are insulting and disrespecting you. They have sticks, and guns, and your job is to come home safe.”12
We live in a world where Black children have to have “The Talk.” Where they can’t run on their own street. Where Black children are arrested and threatened and thrown to the ground for having a pool party at the end of the school year.13 Where wearing a hoodie is seen as suspicious behavior- even on a rainy night.14
Black Jew Yehudah Webster wrote that as he matured in life, people began to see him through the lens of the thug profile– including at Jewish religious school. He shared:
“As I interacted with my white Jewish peers, I began to hear questions and labels that seemed insensitive at best, but ultimately racist and deeply hurtful. ‘What’s your favorite food – fried chicken?’ they’d ask. ‘Want some more grape soda?’ ‘Can I touch your hair?’ ‘You’re different,’ they said, ‘not like other black people.’ Oreo. [The N word]. Goy. Sadly, I’ve been called them all.”
He shared these experiences at a recent Jewish youth conference because he, “wanted the teens to see that this was not happening to someone else. It was happening to people just like [him]…black (sic) and brown [and] Jewish, [in] our community, too.”15 In what ways do we affirm or deny the value of Black lives in the Jewish community? And, what can we do?
One of the important steps in our work needs to involve a recognition of intersectionality. That is, that identities are complex and multidimensional and that our communities overlap.
And, ultimately, we are one, even if society would prefer to separate us and pit us against one another in a kind of divide and conquer strategy. That is to recognize that the assault against the dignity of Blacks in America is a Jewish issue because Black Jews are part of our Jewish community
But then we also need to go beyond that. As Indigenous Australian artist and activist Lilla Watson has suggested, it is imperative that we recognize that “your liberation is bound up with mine.”16 That is to say that even if Black Jews did not exist, we need to stand with all those seeking to bring about greater human dignity to the world.
In the 1860s, when Black life was legally valued at 3/5ths white life, abolitionist Rabbi David Einhorn of Baltimore asked rhetorically: “Does the Negro have less ability to think, to feel, to will? Does he have less of a desire [for] happiness? Was he born not to be entitled to all these? … Slavery is immoral and must be abolished.”17
It gives me a chill up my spine when I think that these words once again bear relevance. In this century there are still fishing and hunting clubs that are for whites only.
Our Jewish ethical values and human decency implore us to get beyond what might be uncomfortable about examining our own contribution to this unequal system, and begin to turn it around. Lest we, “…forfeit the right to worship God as long as we continue to humiliate Negroes,”18 as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel claimed in his call for national and personal repentance, in a letter to President Kennedy June 16, 1963. Let’s work for human dignity for Blacks and Black Jews and Black Gays, Lesbians, Bisexual and Transgendered folks, and too many others whose lives don’t seem to matter to society as it is currently setup.
Together, let’s take cues from our very own BCC members who:
-have joined the BCC Tikkun Olam page where we organize and invite one another to social justice events around Los Angeles
-who stand up every Shabbat to mention the names of Transpeople of Color who have been murdered
-who organize Shabbat services with the theme of Righteous Resistance to racism
-who bring awareness to the flaws in our justice system
-who participate in teach ins and conference calls with communities like the Black Jewish Justice Alliance
-and so much more.
This Friday night during our early services and also afterwards, we will hear from an expert on the possibilities of restorative justice as a way of creating safe communities.
Also, later, on Yom Kippur, there will be postcards in the lobby to stand with other Reform Jews across the country in fortifying the 1965 Voting Rights Act. There are plenty of opportunities to make a difference. We need only begin.
Rabbi Lisa, in our very own Rosh HaShanah Machzor, notes that some midrashim insist that Rosh HaShanah is the exact day that God created human beings.19 How are we, this Rosh HaShanah, considering how we honor all human creation and especially those who are devalued in society?
During this season where we take a cheshbon of our nefesh– where we take an accounting of our souls– let us begin wide with the accounting of how we contribute to societal inequalities, and let us begin to turn it around tonight.
After creating humans on the 6th day,
לא וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים אֶת-כָּל-אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה, וְהִנֵּה-טוֹב מְאֹד…
And God saw every thing that God had made, and, behold, it was very good…20 On this 5,776th anniversary of that day, may we renew our commitment to partner with God to make it so. Ken Yehi Ratzon. Amen.
1 Jerusalem Talmud, Nedarim 30B.
2 Genesis Rabbah 33:1.
3 Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5.
4 Heschel, Rabbi Abraham Joshua. “RELIGION AND RACE” (14 JANUARY 1963) http://voicesofdemocracy.umd.edu/heschel-religion-and-race-speech-text/
6 Harlon L. Dalton, 1995
9 Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5.
10 BT Ta’anit 20a.
11 Genesis 21:10.
19 “Lost and Found: The Gathering of Women at Rosh HaShanah” by Rabbi LIsa Edwards, PhD. Mishkan HaNefesh. New York: CCAR Press, 2015, p. XXVI.
20 Genesis 1:31.