Open for us the Gates, as the Gates Begin to Close – Erev Rosh Hashanah 5777/2016

A man drives home to see his family.  Dinner is already on the table, and the man’s children are waiting for their father to ask them questions about their day, offer a tussle of their hair and a gentle kiss goodnight.  It has been a long day, and the man is pulled over by a police officer.  As the officer  walks to his window he reaches into his pocket to remove a cell phone to call his wife to tell her he will be a few minutes late.  The police officer tells him he was speeding, quickly checks his registration, and then releases him with only a warning, saying, “Have a good evening.”  The man hurries home to his wife and children, waiting with open arms.

This may not be the end of the story you were expecting.  It is not the sickening and tragic end we have watched play out too many times this year across our country.  We know that if the man in the story was black, he would have risked losing his life after something that should be routine: a traffic stop.
African-American men and women have been killed in encounters with police officers in Charlotte, Tulsa, Ferguson, Baltimore, Baton Rouge, Minnesota, New York, Cleveland, Raleigh, Montgomery, Los Angeles… need I keep going?  The disproportionate number of unarmed black men unjustly killed in confrontations with the police is not an indictment of our nation’s law enforcement system, most of whose officers are decent, law-abiding, brave, and care about the communities they are sworn to protect.  Instead this reality reflects systemic injustice and racism that has reached a boiling point in our country.  The patterns of racism go far beyond these few painful stories.  The injustice has penetrated the very fabric of our society in ways that have led the gates of justice to begin to close.  We see the dream of Martin Luther King Jr., the Freedom Riders and the Civil Rights Act crumbling, the racial divide in our cities growing wider.

Our High Holy Days encourage us to imagine the opportunity for personal renewal and strengthening of relationships as mighty gates that, in the words of the machzor, begin to close, even tonight.  But on this day, in this year, our own repentance is not enough.  The gate of justice stands open, beckoning us all to pass through.  And that gate of justice is beginning to close.

Many of us believed we had already arrived at a time of racial justice.  Some still do.  When blacks lost ground in the last decade in every leading economic indicator we know we do not live in a just society.  Could it be that our own experience with slavery is so far in the past that we no longer summon up true empathy with those who still feel keenly the weight of shackles on their wrists and ankles?  Are we too blind to our own privilege to recall a time, not so long ago, when Jews were not considered “white” but “colored?”

The problem may seem too large, too distant, or even irrelevant to us.  “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor,”[1]  “Remember the stranger,”[2] says the Torah.  And on Yom Kippur we will read from Isaiah – “Is this the fast I desire, a day to starve yourselves?  Rather I desire you to unlock the chains of injustice, to break every oppressive chain, let this be your fast.”[3]  We have learned all too well that injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere, and it becomes our responsibility.  Abraham Joshua Heschel reminds us, “In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”[4]  The gates of justice are open for Jews now.  But they are closing in on so many in minority communities in America. Will we ensure they are open for all?

A mother boards a plane to see her family.  Dinner is being prepared at home, and the woman’s children are waiting for her to ask them questions about their day; to tussle their hair and offer a gentle kiss goodnight.  It has been a long day of traveling when the woman is pulled out of line by a customs officer.  She is questioned, asked for her passport and documentation. A few minutes later, the officer excuses the woman, who quickly finds her luggage and heads home – only a few minutes late.  She kisses her children and tucks them in.  She need not worry about deportation, about the threat of being ripped from her family in an instant.  This woman feels safe and protected – America’s gate of freedom has always been open for her family. Of course they were once immigrants too, but that was a long time ago.  We know all too well…hers is not the story that plays on our fears of the “other.”

In the past twenty years, we have seen support for comprehensive immigration reform come and go.  We know the system is broken, regardless of our politics.
Eleven million people in our country live in fear of being separated from their families, and hundreds of thousands from the only home they have ever known.  The truth is we have always been, and continue to be a nation of immigrants.  America was founded by our immigrant ancestors who came here seeking a better life.  Each and every Passover we read, “My father was a wandering Aramean who was treated harshly, a stranger in a strange land – a reference to Abraham the Ivri, the immigrant.”  And we celebrate Passover because of the liberation we ourselves experienced, through Abraham, through Moses, and in every generation.

Next week I will travel with our confirmation class to New York, where we will explore our own immigrant stories by visiting Ellis Island, and viewing the Statue of Liberty.  Your family most likely stood on that shore too, decades ago.  But perhaps the image of that particular gate, the gate of freedom, and the struggle we fought to keep it open for our own families, might still remain in our consciousness. At the base of the statue itself it says, ‘Thou warden of the Western gate above Manhattan Bay; the fogs of doubt that hid thy face are driven clean away.’  She is a very literal representative of that welcoming gate that ensured our people’s safety and freedom, and now represents the same for so many others.

Immigration is not an idea belonging to some distant time. It is a principle that has guided the development of our nation since its earliest days.   Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Shall we refuse the unhappy fugitives from distress…? Shall oppressed humanity find no asylum on this globe?”[5]  We continue to struggle not only for reform, but for keeping families together – we need only to imagine Spanish or Arabic speakers speaking Yiddish instead, and they could easily be us, a hundred years ago: human beings, no less deserving than you or I to pursue life, liberty, and happiness.

Instead of arriving from Mexico or Syria we were from Lithuania, or Russia, Spain or Morocco.  We were dealt with harshly over concerns about national security and quotas.   There have always been those who wished to close borders, build walls, and to keep the dream of America to themselves.  But that is not what it has ever meant to step through the gate of freedom into the land of the free, the home of the brave. And that has never been what it is to be a Jew.

The only authentically Jewish response to our immigration crisis is to recognize that the gates of freedom that were open to us must remain open for others.  We have a moral obligation to keep children and parents together; to not tear families apart through deportation.  The only appropriate course is a legislative one, for we are a society run by law, and our laws have woefully under-protected and underrepresented the status of undocumented people.

We remember all too well the plight of the Jewish refugees during World War II aboard the ship called the St Louis, which was turned back to Europe where hundreds who had seen American shores died in the Holocaust.  We remember the Shoa and every other example of countries turning their backs on us.  We cannot ever afford to forget.

Confronting the gate of freedom, the question is not: who are they, and why might we let them in or keep them out?  The question is: who are we, and what kind of society do we hope to become?  Which gates will our country open, and which will we continue to close?  Will we draw strength from difference, foster tolerance and understanding?  Or will we circle our wagons, preserve the existing ethnic and social class order, and revert to the isolationism of the America First Committee which argued for making peace with Hitler in the 1940’s; or the Know Nothing party of the 1840’s; or the Ulstermen of the 1740’s?  Whether were born here, immigrated here or were brought here in chains, our religious and ethical obligation is to keep open the gate of freedom, the gates of America, as they begin to close.

Another man takes the bus home every night.  Dinner is waiting, as are the man’s children, for he too has children – waiting to play, waiting for a tussle of the hair and a gentle kiss goodnight.  It has been a long day, and the bus makes an unexpected stop.  There is a bag sitting near the front of the bus that no one will claim.  As he waits for the driver to remove the bag, the man calls his wife to tell her he loves her and the children.  He dares not mention the suspicious bag sitting only feet from him on the bus.…

This story has no end.  It is being written as we speak.  I would like to believe the bus safely transports people of all ages, races, from all walks of life.  I would like to believe that this bus brings us into contact with one another; all making our way home to our families.  I would like to believe that this will not be the bus that is bombed,

that the man and all those who hold their breath around him will not have their lives cut short.  I need to know that the man gets home again, safe and sound.  I cannot know that he does.

In some cities the sounds of terror have grown all too familiar.  Not here, not yet.  But in some cities a bus stop or coffee shop or night club or walkway might not feel safe.  In truth we do not know what to fear, but we feel fear moving closer and closer to us.  What once festered only in the Middle East and across the seas has dramatically and tragically come to roost here in the United States.  Our children grow up in a post-9/11 world, and fear seems to know no limit.  In the past years we have seen the targets of terror expand again and again, from buses and airplanes to nightclubs and malls; from the Middle East to Paris, to California and Boston, with anti-Semitic attacks increasing right here at home.

The third gate that stands before us tonight is the gate of ideology.

Our efforts to spread peace and democracy are tested today in ways we have not seen since the Second World War.  Terror knows no national boundaries, it flies no religious banner.  We live in fear of nation-states ruled by tyrants, but even more of what Thomas Friedman called “super-empowered individuals”[6]: single fanatics and small groups who control an army, or a bomb, or simply carry a knife.  We cannot control what dangers lurk around the corner; we cannot know when our security will be breached.  What we can control is how we live our lives in response, and that is our ideology. It is what we stand for, and helps us decide what we will not stand for.  All that is necessary for terror to work its way into our hearts is for fear to guide our decisions.  We must make a choice to open a different gate, embrace our purest ideology:

to see the opportunity we have to engage with others instead of fearing them; to work with moderate Muslims and people of all faiths in our own city and around the world to foster understanding and strengthen relationships, rather than erecting barriers and living in isolation and fear.  Then, when tragedy does strike, we respond together, we are comforted by one another, and we are made stronger by our bonds of community.

Even as we speak, these opportunities are slipping by.  We feel the urgency. Generations from now, our children’s children will look back at this moment in time, the beginning of the twenty-first century, and they will want to know where we stood, what we said and believed, what choices we made on these defining issues.  Our choices will define us.  Future generations will want to know that we fought hard to keep open the gates of justice, freedom, and ideology. They will hold us accountable.  It is for them that we work tirelessly to push these gates open, instead of allowing them to close.
Our dignity, our morality, our very sense of self will be rooted in the course we set today. Our machzor reminds us that now is the moment to push back against the closing gate; to resist, and to force the gates open.  “Open for us the gates, even as they begin to close.”

Once Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev argued with God on Yom Kippur after seeing the suffering of the disenfranchised: the poor and the stranger.  As he arrived at the silent Vidui, the confessional prayer, he started weeping and cried, “Our world is upside down.  It once was that people told the truth in daily life and lied in the synagogue.  Living in harmony with one another, when they came to the High Holy Days and read, ‘we have sinned,’ they were lying.  But now it is the other way around.  They live in denial, harboring racism and fear.  They lie to themselves about what is happening all around them.  And then they come to the synagogue and pray, ‘we have sinned,’ and are telling the truth.”

Let our prayers tonight, and for the next ten days be truly repentant ones.  Let us open our hearts to see what is happening all around us.  Let us recognize that we have stood idly by while injustice has reigned in our streets.  Let us take responsibility for the continuing struggle for freedom for those who wish to be a part of our great nation.  Let us sit together next year, at our next Rosh Hashanah, and say we did more to create bridges of peace and understanding.

Open for us the gates, O God, as they begin to close.  Open the gates of justice for those who feel the crush of oppression still.  Open the gates of freedom to those who seek a better life in America for their children.  Open the gates toward an ideology of liberation, possibility, dialogue, compassion and love.  And when we arrive at Neilah at the end of our High Holy Days, open the gates even then, so that we might all arrive home to kiss those we love, and hold them tight, and know that someday all people, everywhere will be able to do the same.


[1] Leviticus 19:16

[2] Exodus 22:12, Leviticus 19:34, Deuteronomy 10:19

[3] Isaiah 58:6

[4] A J Heschel, Vietnam: Crisis of Conscience. p. 50.  Also in Prophets pp 14-16

[5] Bergh, Albert Ellery, Editor. “The Writings of Thomas Jefferson,” Volume 3, p. 33

[6] Friedman, The Lexus and the Olive Tree