Is There No Balm in Gilead?

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5776

Ma nishtana ha shanah ha zot mikol ha-shanim?[1] How will this coming year of 5776 be different from all other years? How will this year be better?

My friends, it is an understatement to say that this has been a hard year. This year has been so full of so much difficulty and struggle, that writing sermons has been a more overwhelming task for me than ever before. How, how do I stand before you and offer wisdom when I look around and feel such loss.

This year our congregation has suffered. We have lost so many people this year. We have had more funerals for members of our congregation during this past year than we have had all together in the six previous years that I have served as the rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami. People who founded and shaped our community. People who taught our children in religious school. People who stood up here on the High Holy Days and chanted Torah. Parents, grandparents, expected deaths, unexpected deaths. Together we have mourned so many people. So many that we have gotten too good at mourning. We have learned so much about funerals this past year, that it is too much. We have learned too much about mourning. If there is a Congregation Kol Ami in Olam Habah, the world to come, this year they welcomed in an entire minyan who were lost to us. May peace be upon their eternal souls and may their memories bring us blessings. But oh, how we wish we had them here to celebrate with us rather than reciting their names week after week as we say Kaddish for them.

And well, right now, the world. The world. I sigh, I mourn, I wring my hands. I watch the migrants in Europe. Remembering that we were strangers in a strange land and so we are obligated when others find themselves wondering and looking for a safe home. It was not so long ago that Jews were the ones wandering throughout Europe wondering who would take us, who would rescue us, where would we find shelter. How do we as Jews best respond, when we see the Syrians wandering? How as Americans should we respond? Are we doing enough? Can we ever do enough? Is it in our best interest to do more? Does it harm us? Does it make us better and stronger? I wish, I wish I had an answer to these questions.

I watch the struggles for and against a nuclear deal with Iran. I watch as the Jewish community struggles with itself over this. Our movement, the Union for Reform Judaism, carefully crafted a response that offers hope for the day after congress makes its decision. Which at this point looks as if it will pass. Our movement offers the hope that we not let this decision divide us. If only we could read the future. If only we knew that this deal would in fact place Israel and the United States in more danger or less danger. There are strong passions on both sides of this in the Jewish community and the strong passions are there because we all look for and hope for a day when we are safe. We want to ensure our safety. And we fall on this issue along the lines we believe will offer the most safety. And all of it is about an unknowable future and we can only protect ourselves so well. But this cannot be the thing that keeps Jews from loving each other. This, cannot be the thing that causes us to call each other ugly names like “war-monger” or “enablers of a second Holocaust.” This cannot be the thing, that divides our community.

And because in our country this has not always been true, we had to be reminded this year and instructed that Black Lives Matter. From Selma to Washington DC there has been a march going on for the last month. A Journey for Justice for African Americans, for equal voting rights, for equal treatment under the law, this journey is to bring attention to the lives of black people in our country, who for too long, in too many places in America, have been treated unfairly by our justice system, by our police departments, by our own unconscious racism. They will get to Washington DC tomorrow morning, a New Year’s peaceful rally to ask for things to change. Many Reform Rabbis have taken part in this march. They have carried a Torah through the streets of the south, they have been spit on, and yelled at, and also supported. One of the men who had prepared to march the entire way, went by the name, Middle Passage. He carried an American flag throughout his march. I just learned that yesterday (Saturday) he had a heart attack while marching and died before reaching the end of his journey for justice. So many of my colleagues who marched were moved and affected by Middle Passage’s words and character. He knew this walk might be his last, and yet he felt that his life would not improve without it. The march, organized by the NAACP and supported by our Religious Action Center has made, as far as I can see, no impact at all out here in the Pacific Northwest. Until this moment, most of us probably haven’t even heard that it has been going on. And yet, that does not mean that racism doesn’t exist here too. That white privilege doesn’t exist here too. It may be covert and it may not be in the news as often, but it is here too and we have not addressed it. When we respond to “Black lives matter” with the words “All lives matter” we are again ending an important conversation. We are not allowing those who have suffered unfairly to express their pain, and we cannot learn to be better if we do not allow the conversation. Do all lives matter? Have they ever? If not, isn’t it time. Isn’t it time for African Americans to live without the fear of arrest and death for failure to use a turn signal when changing lanes? Isn’t it time? Isn’t it time?

And I look with horror at the shooting of a police officer standing at a gas station filling his tank. What have we come to? We must have a police force that can be honored because they behave honorably and we must not allow anger to move us to violence. When a person in uniform is unsafe because of the uniform meant to keep us all safe, something is terribly wrong, something is terribly upside down. Our fear and anger with each other is too much. This year it is just too much.

Ma nishtana ha shanah ha zot mikol ha-shanim? How will this coming year of 5776 be different from all other years? How will this year be better?

I watch. I watch as religious ideals, not Jewish religious ideals take hold more and more over the public morals of our country. Even as I rejoice that we have this year achieved national marriage for all of our citizens without regard to sexuality. But I watch as the attack continues against Planned Parenthood and women’s rights to make our own health care decisions. I watch with horror over the increased attempt to control girl’s clothing in schools, sending home even the youngest kindergarten girls for wearing spaghetti straps because their shoulders are found to be offensive or distracting to others in some way. The insistence that our girls must be controlled because our boys are uncontrollable undermines both genders. This insistence requires nothing of our boys and so they do not learn about what they are truly capable of and it requires far too much of our girls so that they are taught that they are responsible for everything without the tools or help to protect themselves from the repercussions of requiring nothing of our boys.

And now we are in a debate about what exactly religious liberty means. I’ll admit that I have been unduly obsessed with the Kim Davis situation in Kentucky. On the one hand it seems so easy. Here is an elected official who represents the government refusing to sign her name to allow marriages to happen in her county that the Supreme Court has ruled are legal. She is refusing on the grounds that her religious beliefs do not allow her to allow these marriages to go forward under her watch. She has gone to jail and has been released from jail still while refusing to uphold the ruling of the Supreme court because as she claims, of her religious liberty. It seems so easy, that if the Supreme Court has ruled on this, then a government official must uphold the law as it has been decided.

But I think this is sneaky and I worry it will come to affect us very much. The question of what exactly is religious liberty is what is being debated. There is law about this, several in fact. Under Title VII of the Civil rights act, both public and private employers might exempt a person from doing a certain task required by their job that goes against their religion or they may be exempted on certain days, as long as it does not create an “undue hardship” for the employer.  Of course there is a lot of room for interpretation under the rule of what presents “undue hardship.” And for us this is important. May a Jew doing any job be permitted to take time off for the Jewish High Holy Days without it creating a hardship in their workplace? We face this every year. We ask for accommodations for our observances on a regular basis, and we have a right to them. When it comes to elected officials, the laws get trickier. I am for sure not an expert in the law to understand or explain all of the ins and outs of that. But what I do know is that we also have another law, the first amendment which tells us that congress may not raise up one religion over another. This is what seems to me to be very much under attack right now as lawmakers and those like Kim Davis who represent the government try to use their understandings of their religions to create binding laws that all of us become beholden to. Kim Davis believes her religion prevents her from signing marriage licenses for people who meet the legal requirements but do not meet her religious standards. She creates an undue hardship on those who then may not be married, but her religion teaches her that what she believes to be true for her is true for everyone and then she has a moral requirement to continue to fight the law. But her religious freedom creates problems for the the religious freedoms of others. I am concerned about how this will play out. Will the standard of “undue hardship” be defined in a way that becomes a hardship for Jewish practice? I hope not I pray this is not what the future holds.

And it is not only in the United States that extreme religious views have come to the forefront. As Jews we mourn the death of 16 year old Shira Banki who was murdered in Jerusalem by a knife wielding Orthodox Jew who felt he was called to stab everyone he could get close to during the gay pride march in Jerusalem. He had been released from jail only a week earlier after spending ten years behind bars for the same crime. He believed he was fulfilling God’s will. And Shira died believing that she was upholding the mitzvah of loving your neighbor. While her murderer adorned himself as a pious man wielding a knife.

So that is the bad news. That is only some of the hardship we have watched this year. The hardship that has left me feeling like I have not done enough, like I have spent too long watching, and even when I am prepared to act, I am unsure where my efforts will create the most good, the most hope. And I feel like I have failed.

Ma nishtana ha shanah ha zot mikol ha-shanim? How will this coming year of 5776 be different from all other years? How will this year be better?

The prophet Jeremiah imagined our future struggles and he cried out, “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?”[2] There is a lot of speculation on behalf of historians, horticulturists, rabbinic commentaries, and others as to what exactly this balm of Gilead might be. What is it made of, what medicinal form does it take, and what exactly might it have been used to heal. There seems to be general agreement around the idea that Gilead, which is located east of the Jordan River in what is now the country of Jordan, but was at one time divided between the territories of the Israelite tribes of Gad and Manasheh, was famous for its balsam, a kind of medicinal plant that grows there. People throughout the ancient middle east may have travelled there to find healing. Balm seems to also have had a wonderful smell and was used as a perfume or a spice for food. The medicine may have come from the plant in a resin form then mixed with oil to create an ointment. All of this though is supposition based on a few Biblical verses. What we do know is that Jeremiah believed that the Balm of Gilead could heal almost anything physical wounds as well as spiritual. He believed the Balm of Gilead, when obtained and used properly could rescue the Israelites from exile could heal their scars and turn them once again toward behaving justly, observing mitzvot, and listening for the voice of God.

So where do we turn, after the kind of year we have had? Where is our Balm of Gilead? On what part of our bodies to we apply this magical healing ointment?

So here is the good news. As hard as this year has been on us as individuals, as a congregation, as Americans, and as Jews, to a large degree I think we have already found the magic. It comes from sharing our pain with each other. It comes from opening our hearts not just to those members in our own community who struggle, but also opening our hearts to those who struggle in other communities, and even more to being aware of and working toward the healing in our enemies lives as well. Rabbi David Posner, the Rabbi Emeritas of Temple Emmanu-El of New York City once suggested that the modern balm of Gilead that we need is found in family, friendship, and fellowship. I cannot disagree. But I would add to it action. I believe that when we reach out to each other in our own pain and in theirs. When we use our words and our hands, when we use our names and even our funds to improve the lives of others. We will heal ourselves as well.

Ma nishtana ha shanah ha zot mikol ha-shanim? How will this coming year of 5776 be different from all other years? How will this year be better? Because this year we will work even harder to change the world we have into the one we want. Because this year we will not stand idly by. Because this year we will hold each other up and allow others to hold us too. I do not want another year like this one. I want to do better in 5776, I want to use my voice more to speak out against the injustices that I see, and I want to use my open hands to work to improve the lives of those I see struggling around me. And you my congregation, my family, my community, I pray you will walk with me towards our own journey of justice.

I hope and pray that the new year is one with more peace, with more safety, with more justice, more family, friendship, and fellowship, more healing. May the coming year bring an end to war, an end to unjust hatred, an end to the fear of others. May this year 5000, 700, and 76 be a year of goodness, sweetness and love.

Ken Yehi Ratzon, may this be God’s will.

[1] Many thanks to my colleague Rabbi Zoe Klein for posing this question in her outstanding sermon for Rosh Hashanah II 5776, “TywanzaSandraShiraKhaleel”
[2] Jeremiah 8:22