Tefilah – The Still Small Voice

Yom Kippur Reflection

For The Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington DC.

By Rabbi Rain Zohav

Rabbi Rain speaking at High Holy Day services at IFFP

Rabbi Rain speaking at High Holy Day services at IFFP

Welcome to the Yom Kippur service of the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington DC. If this is your first time here, you may notice that this a different kind of congregation made up of people from both Christian and Jewish heritages. We strive to fully respect all of our paths.

If you have been at our other High Holy Day services, you know that I have been reflecting on three aspects of our lives that can have transformative power as described in our liturgy: Tzedakah, right giving, Teshuvah, repentance, and Tefilah, prayer. I have already spoken about Tzedakah and Teshuvah, so that leaves Tefilah – prayer – for today.  

Tefilah, often translated as I have just done as ‘prayer”, actually means something much more like introspection. The verb l’hitpalel in Hebrew, from which the noun is derived, is a reflexive verb. It is something ones does for oneself, like dress oneself, wash oneself, etc.  So on this most introspective of days- Yom Kippur – it seems fitting to share my own introspections. My guiding imagery for this is another line from the liturgy: “The great shofar is sounded! A still small voice is heard”. (U’N’taneh Tokef) This phrase; “a still small voice” reminds me of a passage from The Hebrew Scriptures, describing an experience of the prophet Elijah( Kings,19:11 – 13)

Behold! the Lord passes, and a great and strong wind splitting mountains and shattering boulders before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake and the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake , fire and the Lord was not in the fire: after the fire a still small voice:   דַקָּה דְּמָמָה קוֹל

Kol d’m’mah dakah.

What exactly is this still small voice? I think it is the voice of conscience. And my conscience this Yom Kippur is feeling like a strong wind that wants to split mountains and shatter boulders, or like an earthquake, or like a fire. And the thing that it keeps shouting to me, quietly and softly is that the Black Lives Matter movement needs to be heard loud and clear. I stand with Janell Hobson, associate professor of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University at Albany who writes, “I speak the names of the victims because their own stories and their own spirits need to be magnified, especially as the noise of the media shifts to the murderer”. I will not speak that name here.

But at a recent Tikkun Olam committee meeting, none of us present, including myself, knew even one name of those murdered at Mother Emanuel A.M.E. church in South Carolina. So I am going to read them now and share this list so people can say their names when we rise for Mourners Kaddish later.

The names and ages of those murdered at Mother Emanuel  A.M. E. Church in South Carolina:

Ethel Lee Lance age 70

Tywanza Sanders age 26

Cynthia Hurd age 54

Rev. Depayne Middleton-Doctor

Senator and Reverend Clementa Pinckney, age 41

Susie Jackson age 70

Myra Thompson age 59

Rev. Daniel L. Simmons age 74

Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton age 45

(Janell Hobson is an associate professor of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University at Albany, State University of New York. She is the author of Body as Evidence: Mediating Race, Globalizing Gender and Venus in the Dark: Blackness and Beauty in Popular Culture, and a frequent contributor to Ms.)

Rabbi Michael Strassfeld, author of the First and Second Jewish Catalogues and “The Jewish Holidays: a Guide and Commentary” writes that “Yom Kippur is supposed to lead from thought to deed- from looking at ourselves to transforming the way we act…Not like Jon Stewart said “ That we will look and do nothing”. [It] calls for profound re-examination of our self-definition and our relationship to the world. The tradition recognizes the difficulty of this process and sets aside the day of Yom Kippur specifically …to force us to focus on a subject we prefer to avoid”. And that subject, is “How can we be better people and how can we help bring about a better world?”. Rabbi Alan Lew, often called “The Zen Rabbi”, writes “This is a journey from denial to awareness, from self-deception to judgement, from hard-heatedness- to broken- heartedness”. This is exactly what the Black Lives Matter Movement is calling us to do – to move from hard-heartedness to broken – heartedness.  It is not that African Americans and Latinos and Native Americans and transgender people are suddenly being killed more often and disproportionally by police, by motorists, by racists. It is that right now, some people are organizing to prevent as much of this as possible. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his book “The Prophets” wrote : “Few are guilty, but all are responsible”. In the case of the pervasive racism that persists, breaking many of our hearts, this statement is completely relevant.

So how do we take responsibility for the pervasive racism around us? First be aware. You don’t have to succumb to any false dichotomies that would have you believe that saying Black Lives Matter means you don’t care about other lives. A Facebook friend likened this to saying  that we need to save the rainforests means we don’t care about any other forests, where of course, in both cases, these statements just mean these are the most endangered people and the most endangered forests.

Support the policies coming out of the Black Lives Matter movement such as better training and accountability for police officers. In Montgomery County and in the Washington DC and in Arlington, VA there are “Ride- Along” programs where citizens can ride with a police officer, usually in the district where you reside, to get a sense of the police and their work. This might be an excellent way to both build relationships with your local police department and introduce some accountability or restraint on the part of police officers. Although I have not done this myself, I think it is an idea with potential. And this will be the first and only suggestion I make that I have not done myself.

Be aware of one’s own internal, unbidden messages of racism. Psychologist Beverly Daniel Tatum likens racism to smog and notes that “…if we live in a smoggy place how can we avoid breathing the air?” (Why Are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?p.6). She further quotes James Baldwin who wrote, “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced” (ibid. p.xix).

So here is a personal confession on this day of confessions. Recently, I was in an area near Harper’s Ferry, planning on ending up at Harper’s Ferry. I overheard a young African-American man asking folks for a ride to Harper’s Ferry. My first though was “Is this a hype?” Where did this thought come from? Would I have thought it about a European- American young man? He was accompanied by a young woman and I heard him explain she had fallen and twisted her ankle and so they could not continue their hike along the Appalachian Trail. Still I did nothing, even though I knew I and my male friend were leaving for Harper’s Ferry in a few minutes. I tried thinking this through. I noticed that I had some fearful feelings about taking two African-Americans into my car. But I also noticed that they had heavy backpacks near them and that probably this was no hype. But it wasn’t until the young woman directly asked me about a ride that I was able to do the right thing and say yes; we could give them a ride. My companion returned from reading the historic markers and we gave this young couple a ride to Harper’s Ferry. This is not an easy confession to make, as I view myself as an anti-racism activist, but this is the day to confront ourselves and where we can do better.

I also want to share three stories of things I have done proactively to empower you to take some steps in eliminating racism. Once, my first child came home from pre-school saying he didn’t like a certain child ‘because she was black”. I gave him my “flower garden analogy” that just like it would be very boring if all the flowers were the same color, it would be very boring if all humans looked the same, and then, more importantly, I spoke with his teacher. She was appalled, did a lot of self-reflection and took steps to correct anything that might have been originating in the school or in students’ homes, including posting material on how parents could combat racism at home. At the end of the year, she reported a huge change in the school.

I have organized “Undoing racism” workshops led by ‘The Peoples Institute for Survival and Beyond”. This became a catalyst for making change at the local level. One person started diversity training for T.A.’s at the local university, another organized trainings for public school teachers.

I participated in a “Study Circle on race, ethnicity and student achievement” at my daughter’s Middle School.  One small, but hopefully potent change that we were able to make was to enlarge the definition of what kind of students could be honored by having their pictures on the walls of the school. Until this study circle, only honor rolls students were recognized and they were overwhelmingly white. The teachers really heard this concern voiced by an African-American staff person and instituted a “Student of the Month “program that honored students for a wide variety of accomplishments and contributions. All of a sudden, the faces of students of color began to adorn the walls of the school.

Rabbi Strassfeld calls Yom Kippur a day of “at-one-ment”. As we realize that we are all connected, I believe that we will agree with Rabbi Alan Lew “…that everything depends upon our own moral and spiritual choices…that this awakening is always a matter of the upmost urgency… It is always something very real for which we are completely unprepared”. ( p.16). Nonetheless, this making the world a better place, this healing of the world, this Tikkun Olam is the task we are called to – today and every day.

Thank you.

Rabbi Rain Zohav

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