Rabbis Lara and Yoni Regev's Yom Kippur sermon - 2016/5777

Of all of the challenges of bringing a child into this world, we never expected one of the most difficult would be choosing his name - a name that would not only honor the memories of beloved family members, but also fit and in some ways define the character we hoped that our baby would inherit and embody in his life.  Yoni and I both come from a long line of people devoted to their families; their memories and their spirits were surely present with us as we were honored to continue their line and live out their legacies through the birth of our child.  It was really important to us not only to name our baby after members of our loving family, but to choose a name that would reflect the enduring teachings and values of our tradition and heritage as well.

We spent months agonizing over a name, but somehow found it truly impossible to pick one that would fit this person we didn’t know, someone whose life had not yet begun.  People offered suggestions based on letters we wanted to use, but nothing seemed quite right.

The day of our baby’s birth was filled with miracles, one after the other.  And finally, when all was said and done, I was left with only two questions for the doctor: Am I ok, and is he ok?

He.  He who still didn’t have a name, but already had a growing identity as each minute passed.  He, someone for whom I cared deeply and someone who I was just getting to know.

We spent 24 hours in the hospital with him, talking over and over again about the name we would choose for him.  We called family and friends to share the news, and all anybody wanted to know about was his name.  We said that we would share on the 8th day at his bris as was the Jewish tradition.  But the truth was, we really couldn’t decide.

And then the nurse walked in with the birth certificate form and said, “Now’s the time to decide.”  We had narrowed it down to two choices, but we both knew in our gut what we wanted.  And so I looked at Yoni.  “Are you sure sure?”  “Yes.”  And I wrote it in ink.  And that was that.  Our child was to be known to the world as Noah Samuel Regev.

Did my care for him change now that I could call him Noah?  Did he have a different personality or identity because he had a name, was no longer just an “it” or “him”?

The great Hebrew poet Zelda composed a poem in 1974 titled “L’chol ish yesh shem,” “Every person has a name.”

ואימו אביו לו ונתנו אלוהים לו שנתן שם יש איש לכל

We each have a name given by God and given by our father and mother.
We each have a name given by our stature and our smile, and given by our clothes.
We each have a name given by the mountains and given by our walls.
We each have a name given by the stars and given by our neighbors.
We each have a name given by our sins and given by our longings.
We each have a name given by our enemies and given by our love.
We each have a name given by our celebrations and given by our work.
We each have a name given by the seasons and given by our blindness.
We each have a name given by the sea and given by our death.
 
We each have a name.  Noah’s name was given to him by his mother and his father.  And at six months old, Noah’s name is just that.  His name.  Noah’s stature is growing and his smile is humongous.  Noah’s clothes are picked for him, as are his walls, his neighbors, his celebrations and his seasons (of which he has had 2).
 
At six months old, Noah has not yet had the opportunity to truly create a name for himself in this world.  The journey he travels right now is the one we choose for him.  He knows nothing of sins or longing, or the enemies he will face one day or the walls that people will create around him or against him.  He knows nothing of the blindness he will face in others or even the blinders he might create for himself as he begins to face challenges in this world.
 
And it is these unknowns we fear the most.  Is it up to us to teach our children about blindness and hatred?  From where do they gain these concepts?  From where do our children learn to hate?
 
Is it like the old song “You’ve got to be taught,” from the musical South Pacific that says:
 
You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught from year to year,
It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

 

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a different shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

 

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

 

The age-old nature vs. nurture debate is interwoven in every decision we make, the words we choose to teach our children, and the actions we model for them day in and day out.  No individual is like another, no matter how you are made or how you are raised.   You might share certain values with your family and live with the same certain morals or ethics as the close friends whom you have chosen.  But each one of us is our own self, different from those who surround us, and how we welcome those people into our world who may have a different color skin or speak a different language or think in a different way is exactly how we will define ourselves in this world as moral human beings with a responsibility to do good and not evil.

The Hebrew word for responsibility is Achrayut.  It begins with the letter Aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, a letter that cannot stand on it’s own for it only makes a sound when accompanied by a vowel or letter.  When you add the second letter, a Chet, you get the word “ach,” “brother.”  And when you add the next letter, a Resh, you have built the word “acher,” “other.”  The Hebrew word for responsibility contains the words for brother and other in it together.  You cannot have responsibility without care for your brother, but it is also our responsibility to care for the other.  We cannot separate those out or differentiate between the two.  They are interwoven concepts that cannot stand on their own.

Every man has a name.  Every person has her place.  Every individual has something to add.  And every human being should be cared for and given the opportunity to be his/her own self in the midst of the brother and the other in the world.  Black.  White.  Gay.  Straight.  Trans.  Jewish.  Christian.  Muslim.  Latino.  Syrian.  Other.  Other.  Other. 

It is too easy to ignore the rest of humanity when we don’t give them a name, when we simply think of them as other.  But the opposite of that is not simply recognizing them as other, but actually reaching out with our heart and mind, seeking out, being open to relationship, knowing that we are always the other to someone.  In recognizing each other’s humanity, we actively engage in the holy task of relating.  As the great Jewish philosopher Martin Buber taught in his book I-Thou, Even as a melody is not composed of tones, nor a verse of words, nor a statue of lines one must pull and tear to turn a unity into a multiplicity–so it is with the human being to whom I say You.  I can abstract from him the color of his hair or the color of his speech or the color of his graciousness; I have to do this again and again; but immediately he is no longer You.”

We do not reach our full potential except through encounter.  We continue to grow and to be enriched by the process of encountering the other.  This does not mean that every encounter is loving or happy.  We are more whole as human beings when we are in relationship with others.  The smaller we make that circle, the smaller we make our lives, and the larger we widen the chasm between the world as it is and the world as it should be.

In the Babylonian Talmud tractate Shabbat, there is a famous story of Hillel the Elder who was approached by a man who asked him to teach the entire Torah as he stood on one foot.  Hillel’s reply was simple: “What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor.  That is the entire Torah, the rest is just commentary.  Now go and study.”  Hillel’s answer is unassuming.  Every person can name that which is hateful to them, those things that they resent in others, and the actions that have been taken against them in animosity or disgust.  And our instruction is easy enough: Do not do it.  Do not engage in acts of hate.  Do not shun others because of the color of their skin or their religion or their place of origin or their sexual orientation.

But the book of Leviticus frames Hillel the Elder’s comment as a positive commandment:

כמוך לרעך ואהבת, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  

We can take the message from Hillel the Elder before and not do unto others as we would not want done to us.  We can sit in a place of complacency, stick within our comfort zone, and not engage in acts of hate.  But how much more of a challenge it is to actually love our neighbor as we love ourselves.  To love is an action, and we are commanded to reach out to the person next door, to our brother and to the other in love, in support, in solidarity, in trust.

You don’t have to love everyone like your best friend or your brother.  That’s not what’s expected of you.  But as a society we absolutely have responsibilities towards the other.  We have to be proactive about it.  We have to guarantee their recognition and their rights.  We can’t wait until they come to us for recognition; we must go out and say, “I see you.  You are not invisible to me.  I have a responsibility towards you.”

Some of you may have seen a video going around social media recently that shows a father and his young daughter sitting at a table in a restaurant.  The young girl, no more than five or six years old, is holding up a plate of steak and potatoes she hasn’t touched.  She takes the plate and walks it out the door of the restaurant and onto the street, where a homeless man is sitting on a bench.  The girl smiles at the old man and hands him the plate and silverware and marches back into the restaurant to her father who exclaims, “I’m so proud of you, you just made his day, you just made his week...” and I would argue that she just made his world and ours a better place.  The meal was surely appreciated, but the simple act of acknowledging his presence, and recognizing his humanity; that meant everything.

It turns out that you don’t need to spend a fortune to make a difference because dignity is free to give away. What this little girl figured out is that one small act of recognition, of connection to a stranger who yearns to be seen, can be transformative; for her, for her father, for the stranger who was merely a ‘he’ and had no name to the girl.  And the ripples of such acts are simply infinite.  This understanding is clearly articulated already in the Mishnah, the great 2nd century Jewish legal code, where it is written, Kol hamekayem nefesh achat.. ke’ilu kiyem olam maleh.  Anyone who saves one nefesh, one soul, it is as if they have saved an entire world.  So it is when we transform a ‘He’ into a ‘You.’ In meeting the other we affirm their humanity, and our own.

Anne Lamott tells an insightful story about her brother who was ten years old at the time.  She writes:

[He] was trying to get a report written on birds that he'd had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him put his arm around my brother's shoulder, and said, "Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

I think that’s the only way we change the world; bird by bird, person by person, you and me and you and you and you.

As our Torah reading this morning states:

You stand this day, all of you, before your God Adonai - you tribal heads, you elders, and you officials, all the men of Israel, you children, you women, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer--to enter into the covenant of your God Adonai, which your God Adonai is concluding with you this day, with its sanctions, in order to establish you this day as God’s people and in order to be your God, as promised you and as sworn to your fathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before God Adonai and with those who are not with us here this day.

The radical inclusivity of this text demands of us to recognize that there should never be an “other,” only an “us.”  All of us who were there, all of us who are newly here, all of us who wish to be counted, every single one.

Our tradition teaches that we are given three names: one by our parents, one by God, and the name which make for ourselves.  And so I pray today, that as our little Noah Samuel grows to claim and shape his name, he never loses sight of the truth; that we only ever truly become ourselves when we meet the other and come away transformed. I pray that we all posses the courage of spirit and soul to look out and seek those who need to be seen and touched and known.

We pray to see that day.