My grandfather loved God dearly, but he didn’t fast on Yom Kippur. He believed that he prayed better on a cup of coffee, and that God would hear him better and appreciate his prayers when he was praying his best.
My grandfather felt that God understood him and he understood God. It was a personal relationship, part of his daily experience. He meant and lived everything he said to God, so he felt confident making the judgment — and he drank his coffee hot and sweet.
Most of us don’t have such a personal relationship. And it struck me that even in Isaiah’s time 2,500 years ago, many people must have suffered from this lack of meaningful personal relationship — because when Isaiah talks about the connection between fasting and prayer he focuses on hypocrisy: He calls out prayer that is ineffective and fasting that is meaningless. They are empty because they are not backed up with tangible ethical action.
Isaiah made clear that God did not care about the fasting per se — God cares about repentance, about turning from wrong to right, about making amends. Whether we eat or not isn’t the point. God expects us to be partners in repairing the world: “This is the fast I desire: to unlock the fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke to let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe them, and do not ignore your own flesh.”
The core of the message? If you have advantages, share them. If you are not oppressed, not wretched — if you are privileged — you cannot look away. You must share — and not leave your brethren behind.
But that’s not all. Isaiah explains the necessary moral action. “If you banish the yoke from your midst” — the yoke being whatever subjugates people and keeps them down — “If you banish the yoke from your midst, the menacing hand, and evil speech, and you offer your compassion to the hungry — then shall your light shine in darkness.”
Now, who were the suffering, oppressed, hungry, and wretched Isaiah was speaking about? 2,500 years ago, we knew those individuals because they were visible in our community. They were neighbors or relatives — they lived in our village or we passed them on the road. They felt like ours. We were personally connected.
In today’s world we know there’s much more suffering than just what happens within walking distance. Thanks to technology, we know — or ought to know — about hurricane damage and tragedy in Texas, in Florida, in Puerto Rico — and about earthquake damage in Mexico.
There are poor, subjugated, and oppressed people in every corner of the globe. Just a tiny sampling: the attacks on the Rohingya by the Burmese army. The attacks of the Syrian government against its own people. Genocide of the Yzidis and Shia and Christians by Islamic State, political suppression in Hong Kong and mainland China. Human trafficking all over the world.
Because it’s not 2,500 years ago, because of technology, we now know and can see the ravages of the yoke, the menacing hand, and evil speech all over the world, all the time. And as we learn more, we need to consider what the right moral action is in this day and age. How do we help protect, save, care for, stabilize? How are we to be partners in repairing the world, particularly when we’re talking about people who don’t feel like they’re from our village?
I have these conversations with myself. Sometimes, I quiet my concerns by making a donation to this cause or that disaster recovery. Sometimes the donations feel empty too — like ritual fasting. Particularly when I have so many advantages, so many privileges.
I’m the first born in my family — and the literature shows there are concrete advantages to being the eldest. I was born to educated people who provided me with opportunities and challenged me— and all kinds of studies show that education is a crucial platform for success. I was born an American – with the extraordinary rights, privileges, and advantages that American citizenship confers — you know — there are people literally dying trying to get in here.
And there’s another way that I am hugely advantaged and privileged. I was born white. And here, in this country, both within walking distance and further away — being born white is a significant advantage.
When a system of oppression permits, tolerates, or instigates brutalization as it does in our prisons, or suppression of opportunity, as is often the case in our schools; when it fosters the menacing hand as it does when black people are killed at an extraordinary rate by government employees who are otherwise employed to protect us; or when we tolerate evil speech, as in the slurs, allusions, and jokes that are allowed or ignored in countless workplaces, we need to be God’s partners in repairing our broken world.
Whenever we are not intentionally acting as part of the solution, we are part of the problem. As Elie Weisel said, “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must — at that moment — become the center of the universe.”
That’s what Isaiah was talking about. Isaiah wanted the people to show their true hearts — the best of themselves. He wanted them to behave ethically and to share what they had. My grandfather drank his hot, sweet coffee and prayed, fervently, so God would know what was in his heart. I had no coffee on Yom Kippur Morning, and my praying was, well, perhaps like many of your prayers — somewhat distracted. But I am sharing with you what is in my heart.
How can we take even small steps toward banishing the yoke, the menacing hand, the evil speech — and make a difference after the years and decades of subjugation and oppression, the threats to physical well-being and human dignity and equality, the whistling and signaling that it is acceptable to treat people as less than, as unworthy, because they are in some way not us?
We can call out racism and all the other kinds of menacing behavior and evil speech when we encounter it — which means being sensitive to and on the lookout for it. You don’t even have to accuse anyone — you can say, “Excuse me, you might not realize how that came across. I’m sure you weren’t intending to be racist…”
These are very tricky situations, so if you’d like to be able to confront someone, or explain why something is wrong, please let me know. We can work together to craft appropriate language, and even to rehearse, if that would help.
We can contact our elected representatives and express support for equality, fairness, and dignity like making sure people who are in need have all the basics, that healthcare is readily accessible, and that there is social justice and equity. We can refuse to support officials who exhibit menace or speak evilly.
We can rethink our philanthropy. Of course — it’s crucial that we keep giving to our shul! But as an example, I’ve greatly reduced donations to my alma mater, which already has lots of money, and shifted those contributions to social justice organizations and disaster relief.
The real point is not to be neutral in the face of either suffering or evil. Whether we started this day with coffee or not, may we all pray together with full hearts, to express our gratitude for every privilege and advantage we have, and to commit to sharing what we have with those who are oppressed and who have less.
May our light then shine in the darkness, and may we deserve a wonderful year for us and ours. May we move forward and learn. May we have good health and plenty of energy for change. May we be and feel successful. May we be our true selves and move the world in the directions only we can move it.