Rosh Hashanah – Yossi Fendel

Sunday September 20, 2020
Congregation Netivot Shalom, Berkeley CA
Yossi Fendel

Rosh HaShana 5781 Day 2 D’var Torah by Yossi Fendel

One year, I returned home during Yom Kippur to find a group of teenagers in my house playing a game called “Cards Against Humanity: A Game for Horrible People”.  If you’re not familiar with the game, the basic mechanic is that one person plays a card with a sentence that needs a blank filled in, and the others play cards to fill in the blank in a “humorous” way. 

For example, one person might play a card that says “Rosh HaShana D’rashot would be improved by incorporating _________.”

And the other players then play cards with their suggestions to fill in the blank:

  • “Irritable bowel syndrome”
  • “Elvis’s ghost”
  • “Risqué knock-knock jokes”

And the winner of this round would of course be whoever played “Elvis’s ghost”.  But these examples are actually pretty tame, and much of the game’s “humor” comes from how thoroughly offensive the stuff on most of the cards is. 

So upon encountering this scene of teenagers playing this awful game on the holiest day of the year, I asked them “do you think this is an appropriate game for Yom Kippur?”  And without skipping a beat, one of them said “it’s called a ‘Game for Horrible People’, and if there’s one message that comes through clearly on Yom Kippur, it is that we are, most definitely, horrible people.”

And I get that this is a natural takeaway from our liturgy, but I don’t personally think that this is the core message of these Yamim Nora’im, these days of awesomeness.

I think the message is not that we are horrible people.  It is that we are powerful people. 

During these Yamim Nora’im, we recite a mantra many times that describes God’s power to change God’s own mind.  This is recited both as a beseeching of God to exercise this power, and also as a reminder to us of our own power in this regard.  The middle section of this mantra is:

ארך אפים ורב־חסד ואמת

Slow to anger, abundant in kindness and truth.  

When we describe the power of God during these days, we describe the particular power that each of us is also capable of – the power to assert control over our emotions, to change our minds toward kindness, and to change our language towards truth.

Changing your mind requires power.  Changing the language you use requires power.

For my personal example, there’s a phrase that I’ve only started saying recently: “Black Lives Matter”.

And of course, it’s not that until recently I thought Black lives did NOT matter.  But saying the words, “Black Lives Matter,” was – until this summer – not something I felt comfortable doing.  I’ve changed my mind about that, and I’ve found there’s real power in changing one’s mind.  This is the power I associate with Yamim Nora’im, and I’d like to use this opportunity to share my process in making that decision, and in exercising that power.

Some of my hesitation to say this phrase undoubtedly comes from the particular geographic circumstances of my upbringing.  Now I grew up here in the Bay Area, and therefore wasn’t faced with the same distortions as those growing up in other parts of the country.  But I was faced with the distortions of growing up a few miles away in Piedmont.  Piedmont, as you may know, is a small city surrounded entirely by Oakland.  And while Oakland is a city famously rich in Black culture, Piedmont is not.  My class at Piedmont High School only included a handful of Black students.  When Black lives are mostly absent from your community, and are found literally just outside the city limits, it is more difficult to see the importance of standing up for them.  I still carry that skewed perspective with me.

But more recently, the main source of my reluctance to say “Black Lives Matter” came from the Movement for Black Lives platform that was released four years ago.  In this platform, the Movement for Black Lives singled out only Israel from among all nations for condemnation, accusing it of “systemic discrimination”, “government abuses”, “apartheid”, “human rights violations”, and of course, “genocide”.

These accusations are no small matter to be brushed aside.  Historically, when Jews are accused of crimes, violence against Jews follows.  So for nearly four years, saying the words “Black Lives Matter” felt like an implicit endorsement of this platform, and became something I could not do.

But as years have gone by, that Movement for Black Lives platform has become less and less prominent.  It has not been updated since it was released in 2016, and while the problematic accusations were never revoked, they are also no longer visible on the website – you have to click through to a PDF file to find them.  And more importantly, the distinction has become clearer between the general Black Lives Matter movement – a decentralized call to action – and the specific Movement for Black Lives platform, which has a related mission but is not formally connected to the larger “Black Lives Matter” movement.  There is nothing to be found on the general Black Lives Matter website that demeans Jews or Israelis, or anyone else for that matter. 

With regard to taking a position against my people, the slogan of “Black Lives Matter” has – if you’ll indulge the personification of a slogan – changed its mind.  And there is power in changing one’s mind.  Even if it was not done with apology, or with any obvious deliberation, the stain of seeking liberation at my people’s expense has to me been effectively removed from the slogan.  This is T’shuva, and Black T’shuva also matters. 

One reference that has been recommended frequently to me in considering how to connect these Yamim Nora’im with a quest for racial justice is a book by Robin Diangelo called “White Fragility”.  The first thing that struck me about this book is how awful the title is.  Considering oneself to be “fragile” is not actually conducive to generating the T’shuva that the author clearly thinks is desirable.  However, titling the book “White Power” would be obviously problematic in a different way, so I can give the title a pass.  There is a passage where Diangelo even addresses this:

Let me be clear: while the capacity for white people to sustain challenges to our racial positions is limited – and, in this way, fragile – the effects of our responses are not fragile at all; they are quite powerful.

The “fragility”, as Diangelo sees it, comes from other angles.  For one thing, white people are overly comfortable sharing their opinions on race, a topic that they are generally uninformed about and unsuited to opine on.  A white person might, for example, have the audacity to write an entire Rosh HaShana sermon about racial justice despite not being a Jew of color, not having many people of color in their social network, and not having any particular experience or expertise on the topic to inform their view.  I relate to that. 

The “fragility” is also an aversion that she sees in white people from even seeing themselves as white.  I relate to that too.  I won’t go so far as to say that Jews aren’t white, but I will say that it’s complicated.  I certainly look white, but I still won’t usually say that I “am” white – I’ll say that I’m “white-presenting”, or that I “read as white”.  And Diangelo might say that this is evidence of the fragility she’s referring to, and maybe she’d be right.  But it’s also the case that I know that my whiteness is conditional, and certainly those who embrace a supremacist vision of whiteness don’t see Jews like me as being white.  So… it’s complicated.

But regardless of whether I say that I “am white” or just “look white”, one thing that’s certain is that I’m not Black.   And this leads me to the last reason why it took me a long time to be comfortable saying “Black Lives Matter” – it wasn’t clear to me that this was even something Black people want me to say.  One of the more surprising aspects to me of the Black Lives Matter movement was the negative reaction to non-Black participants apparently overreaching in their participation.  There were clear messages that if you’re not Black, your role in this movement is to witness and to be supportive, but not to express yourself, because this is “not about you”. 

This was surprising to me because, narcissist that I am, I assume everything is absolutely about me.  Injustice pollutes MY world and diminishes MY community.  This was a lesson I learned from my grandparents’ example.  After the Fair Housing Act of 1968 passed, many white landlords in my grandparents’ hometown of Dallas, Texas continued to illegally refuse to rent to Black tenants.  This injustice was offensive to my grandparents, so 50 years ago, they participated in a regular sting operation.  Black people who were denied tenancy would give my grandparents a copy of their rental application.  My grandparents would then submit their own application to rent the unit using similar financials as the rejected tenants.  And when my white-presenting Jewish grandparents’ application was accepted, they then turned around and supplied the rejected Black tenants with the evidence they needed to sue the landlord for obvious discrimination.  To my grandparents, this was of course about THEM, because it was bringing justice to THEIR community. 

The experience of our Black sisters and brothers today is different from how it was in Dallas 50 years ago.  But they are still confronted by a society that makes them wonder out loud whether their lives even matter to their neighbors. 

When I taught at Midrasha, one of my first students was a young man named Kenny Kahn.  Kenny went on to teach at El Cerrito High School for 10 years and is now entering his 5th year at Monte Vista High School as an Assistant Principal.  A few months ago, he wrote an article called “Try to See Me,” that included this plea:

Try to see behind my smiles and laughs. I am black, white, and Jewish. I am a husband, father, son, brother, uncle, and friend. I am an East Bay native, educator, sports fan, writer, speaker, and BBQ enthusiast. Try to see me.

George Floyd did not resist arrest in Minneapolis. He should have been treated with kindness and understanding. When big black guys like me are harassed, we become scared, short of breath. We can’t breathe.

I’ve had horrible run-ins with the police. As an educator, I have also partnered with police officers. I have family and friends, people I consider brothers, who work in law enforcement. There are good police who are ostracized when these horrors happen, but systematically I have been positioned to be opposed to them. Who protects them in the face of such a tragedy and improper use of authority?

Who will protect my sons in the face of racism and prejudice and profiling?

Who will protect me?

So after years of reluctance, I now feel that it’s important to articulate my intention to take this small measure if for no other reason than to protect my student and my teacher, Kenny.  When violence is committed against Black people by authorities charged with protecting us, it feels important to articulate that Black lives matter.  When immigrants are detained at our borders, it feels important to articulate that immigrant lives matter.  When Asians are scapegoated during a pandemic, it feels important to articulate that Asian lives matter.

And of course the choice to say “Black lives matter” is not the last or the only step we take toward racial justice.  There is of course much more to do, with addressing mass incarceration, reducing health outcome disparities, correcting wealth inequality, providing reparations, and other ways that we can do T’shuva on a national level.  But these are very big, and hardly within your control.  In contrast, allowing yourself to be motivated by kindness and truth beyond the limits of your emotions is within your control.  Moving past the skewed perspective created by geographic circumstances from your upbringing is within your control. What you say – your articulation, and your expression – is within your control. 

And now is not the moment to be concerned about whether this articulation, this expression, is perhaps just about you.  These are the Yamim Nora’im, the days of awesomeness.  They are ALL about you.  They are about your power, and changing your mind, if you choose to do so.  It is personal.  It wouldn’t be powerful if it weren’t personal.

As Ben Zoma remarks in Pirkei Avot:

איזהו גבור, הכובש את יצרו

Who is truly powerful?  The one who can change their habits.

And for this he quotes a prooftext from Proverbs, with a familiar phrase:

טוב ארך אפים מגבור

An “erech apayim” – one with the power to slow their anger, and exercise control over their emotions – is preferable to one with physical power.

These Yamim Nora’im, days of awesomeness, are not for horrible people.  They are not for fragile people.  They are for powerful people.  And we are powerful people.  You are a powerful person.

So how will you wield that power?  What are the injustices you have on some level tolerated that you are now inclined to change your mind about and address more forcefully?  What are the powerful words you will choose to start saying, and what are the powerful actions you will choose to start taking?

When someone asks you next Rosh HaShana what is something that you’ve changed your mind about in the past year, what will you reply?