Kol Nidre 5774-All Our Vows

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A sermon on Syria, Egypt and our silence in the face of atrocities. A challenge for us to speak up even when things do not seem black and white.
  All Our Vowsa sermon by Rabbi Gary M. Bretton-GranatoorKol Nidre 5774 (September 13, 2013)Temple Beth El, Hillsborough, NJ  Yes, I have my doubts – and if you heard me last week, you know that doubtis my friend, because it causes me to think things through. And since I havemade a promise to all of you that I would address my remarks on thisevening towards the issues surrounding Syria and Egypt, my brain – and mysoul – have been in doubt-filled over-drive.We may have been pulled back from the brink of a military intervention,however limited, by a political solution to the presence of chemical weapons.And since the srcinal outcry of August 21 and following, when the worldwoke up to Syria’s violation of the 1925 Geneva Protocol against the use of chemical weapons, and the “red-line” had been crossed, we have collectivelywrung our hands as to the best way to punish the Syrian regime. A militarystrike to degrade the ability to use those weapons would certainly have beenin order, and called for – and if this diplomatic arrangement removes thepossibility of further use of such weapons: dayenu (it is enough). Thoughthat little doubt monitor in the back of my brain has a familiar soundbite onrepeat mode: “If you don’t stop hitting your sister with that toy, I’ll have totake it away from you….” So, has the crisis been averted? If you refer to theuse of chemical weapons as “the crisis”, we will know in days to come. But,the bigger crisis – the real problem – that gnawing and sickening andfestering crisis has not really been touched. And it is this: our silence. Tonight we heard Cantor Pincus intone on all of our behalf the searing wordsand melody of Kol Nidre – in which we recognize that we are sometimesunable to fulfill promises that we have made – and if after honest attempts,we have still failed, may we be relieved of them, so that we can push aheadin the game of Life (unburdened by the weight of our past failures of heart,or courage or intent or ability). But what of promises made over and overand over again, and broken every single time? Can we really believe thatthe Kol Nidre absolves us of those promises?From the darkest moment of our people’s history in modernity, the Shoah,we arose from the ash, rebuilt Jewish life again and vowed that Never Again,should we, or any other people, suffer so. The world finally woke up to thehorrors of genocide – a term coined by Raphael Lemkin, a Polish lawyer forcivil rights (and a friend of the Reform Jewish community). Lemkin srcinallyused the term in 1944 to describe the atrocities visited upon the Armenians 1  at the hands of Turks in 1915. Promptly after its coinage, it was used todescribe what happened to our people at the hands of the Nazis.In the First World War poison gas was used against American troops, in theSecond World War poison gas was used to eradicate a people. And by thesecond half of the twentieth century, the world had seen the horrors of theuses of poison gas, and the world had seen the horrors of wars meant toerase an entire community or people. And one would think that we have hadenough. The whole enterprise of the United Nations was hauled into place in1945 – called into being under a charter, in part written by my teacher andmentor, and the leader of the National Federation of Temple Sisterhood’s,the late, beloved, Dr. Jane Evans.We the people of the United Nations determined: To save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twicein our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, To reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worthof the human person, in equal rights of men and women and of nationslarge and small…And one hoped that in the face of evil, a confederation of the “good” wouldrise up and stop violence and slaughter.So much for our expectations… Just two weeks ago, we celebrated the 50 th anniversary of the remarkableMarch on Washington – made most memorable by the Rev. Dr. Martin LutherKing Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech. But that was not the only speech offeredthat day, and he was not the only speaker. Rabbi Joachim Prinz came to thepodium prior to King’s speech and in his remarks he said, “When I was therabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learnedmany things. The most important thing that I learned under those mosttragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgentproblem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and themost tragic problem is silence. (Rabbi Joachim Prinz at 1963 March onWashington)Clearly Prinz saw the linkage between the oppression of our people and theracism extant in this country. President Barak Obama, highlighting theevents of the March on Washington noted that Prinz shared the followinginsight: “In the realm of the spirit, our fathers taught us thousands of yearsago that when God created man, he created him as everybody's neighbor.Neighbor is not a geographic concept. It is a moral concept. It means ourcollective responsibility for the preservation of man's dignity and integrity.” 2  When the world learned of the atrocities in Kosovo, Rwanda, Darfur… we inthe Jewish community stood up in solidarity – we exclaimed that we recalledthe feelings of hatred, we knew the effects of violence and terror, weunderstood what it was like to be “the stranger”, to be isolated and vilified. Istood in Washington DC on the site of what would be the US HolocaustMuseum, joined by other Jewish leaders to protest what was happening inKosovo. I stood with Jewish leaders across from the United Nations to protestthe slaughter in Darfur. I protested in front of the South African Embassy inNY when we were outraged by Apartheid.Add to these signal reminders countless other examples of injustice,intolerance, baseless hatred and you will often find Jewish organizations andleaders refusing to be silent. And yet, and yet…. We have watched overmany months the wholesale slaughter of Christians in Egypt. Members of the Coptic community, whose ancient roots are found in Egypt have becomepawns in a war between Muslim factions. It was only our school-mate andfriend, Rabbi Jonathan Miller of Birmingham, Alabama who publically decriedthis atrocity. Reminding us of the Biblical injunction: “Do not oppress thestranger, for you know the heart of the stranger as you were strangers in theland of Egypt...” Rabbi Miller states:And the bulk of the Jewish historical experience among pagans,Christians and Muslims has been to be their “stranger.” We haveinternalized in our spiritual psyches the pain of exile and ourdefenselessness before the brutalities of the powerful. We know thatthe glory of being a stranger is the glory of holding fast to our faith andour culture, even when we are vilified, vandalized and even brutalizedby those who exert power without goodness, and display piety withoutcompassion. To be a stranger in a strange land is disorienting and frankly, evenfrightening.He goes on to remind us that 10 percent of the Egyptian population isChristian and yet we have ignored their suffering. He reminds us that buriedin the back pages of our newspapers for months upon end, are stories of churches firebombed, schools and businesses ransacked, theft of propertyand land, beatings, rapes and murder.And then Rabbi Miller makes a profound statement:I know the heart of the Christian. The heart of the Christian today inIslamic Egypt is no different than the heart of the Jew in France,Sweden and Belgium, or the heart of the Israelite living among thePharaohs. They are told that they are now the strangers in their ownhomes. They know what it is like to be a stranger in a foreign land. 3  At this time of great turmoil, when Islamic radicalists and secularistsare battling on the streets of Cairo for the future of their country, andhundreds upon hundreds have been killed in civic clashes, some areturning away from the battles at hand to lay harm to Christianinnocents who are unable to protect themselves.… Too often, whenhuman beings feel powerless or hopeless or frightened, we buildourselves up by knocking down someone else. The Islamist mob inEgypt is no different than the bully in the schoolyard…. The Bible tells us to be kind to the stranger, to take care of thestranger. It is perhaps the most difficult thing to do, to be consistentlykind to someone or some group we define as being different from us. Throughout history, the targets vary. Sadly, the bullies remain thesame.I am so profoundly grateful to my friend Jonny Miller for speaking out as hedid. But here is where I am stunned – this cry did not come from theChristian community. Where were the Christian voices? Where were theprotest rallies? The placards? It was a lone voice from Birmingham Alabamathat pricked my conscience. This time it was a Jewish voice fromBirmingham. Fifty years ago, from the same Birmingham Alabama, whilesitting in a jail, another voice called out to pierce our souls: Injusticeanywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapablenetwork of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affectsone directly, affects all indirectly. (MLK - 16 April 1963, Birmingham, AL)And we, as a community, for the most part, have been silent for too longabout what is going on in Syria. Here, too, Christians are the pawns in a warbetween Muslims – but Muslims themselves are also fodder as one side orthe other tries to gain control. And by the time the world actually looked up,and noticed that there were not only rampant atrocities, but that chemicalweapons had been employed by government forces to decimate civiliancenters in which rebels held sway, over 120,000 souls had been murdered,countless civilians fleeing the fighting raped and tortured. My good friend,former colleague and incisive blogger for the Jewish News Service (andCommentary Magazine as well) Ben Cohen wrote on September 3 rd (“SyriaDebate Shows Our Moral Decline”)“…the use of chemical weapons by Bashar al-Assad’s regime at theend of August was decidedly not the first time these had beendeployed. Back in June, as I and others reported, the Frenchgovernment declared it had “no doubt” that “the regime and its 4
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