Kol Nidre – Responding to our Times by Seeing the Face of God in Others

Let’s dream big. Let’s change our world. Right now

Kol Nidre – Responding to our Times by Seeing the Face of God in Others

In an interview in 2011, Shimon Peres was asked to recount his greatest achievement. He replied that “There was a great painter named Mordecai Ardon, who was asked which picture was the most beautiful he had ever painted. Ardon replied, ‘The picture I will paint tomorrow.’ That,” said Peres “is also my answer.”

At the moment when the present seems so troubling, Peres focuses on that future. He refused to be defined by the past – the past is something that needs to be reshaped.  He reminds us to envision a future yet to be realized.

In a world so deeply shaken by terror, war and displacement; our country facing profound racial unrest, violence and a political environment of intolerance and conflict; and in a Jewish community so polarized many people hear only opinions that conform to what they already believe – it is hard to envision a different tomorrow. Peres teaches us to do so.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote a book ten years ago that is even more accurate now called To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility.  Today it is more relevant than ever.  Rabbi Sacks argues that the greatest danger facing western societies is a sense of powerlessness.  When problems seem too great to solve and too difficult to cure, the feeling of powerlessness leads to a sense that anything we do to respond is futile. The result is fear. Rabbi Donniel Hartman, President of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem describes the impact of this fear: “Fear instinctively causes us to go into defensive mode, to shift our attention to our own needs, and protect ourselves from the real or supposed dangers that threaten us.”  That fear is real in our culture, politics and society right now.  Hartman describes fear as an infectious disease which spreads.  We withdraw.  We believe in fewer possibilities.

So what do we do? We embrace Peres’ wisdom that we possess the ability to create a different future. We seek a different way. Peres reminds us that hope is a core Jewish value and while fear has us standing on the precipice of hopelessness, hope can and must defeat fear.  Hope is not denying reality, nor naïve magical thinking.  Hope looks squarely at reality, demanding a creative tension between what is and what should be. That tension plays out as we envision possibilities.

Tonight I want to talk about our role in nurturing hope in our local community, our country and the Middle East. Hope requires vision, activism and listening.  Hope requires that we listen to and work with people with whom we share vision, and also – and maybe especially – with people with whom we disagree.  That is a key principle that has been lost.  Engaging with those who disagree with us allows our assumptions and conclusions to be challenged. Through that encounter, we refine how to best realize hope.  We build on places where we agree and thoughtfully take small steps that create change.

We ground hope in a theology that sees each human as a reflection of divinity. When every human is of ultimate worth, what we envision, and how we listen, changes.  Hold onto the story of Jacob and Esau.  You could not imagine deeper hatred between brothers.  After Jacob steals Esau’s birth-rite, Esau vows to kill his brother, forcing Jacob to flee for his life. Jacob stays away for 20 years before finally returning home. Approaching Esau and his 400 men, Jacob fears for his life.  But when they see each other and embrace, Jacob says, “Ki al ken ra’iti fa’necha kir’ot pnai elohom – To see your face is to see the face of God.”  Seeing the divinity in fellow human creates the mindset necessary to catalyze change.

I cannot think of a place where we need to see the face of God in others more than in issues of race and the police. Can we envision something different than the current distrust and anger – listening to voices connected to this issue with respect and beginning to build shared responses? We can and we must.  It starts with talking together.  Mistrust between police and minority communities begins to change when leaders talk. Amidst that conversation and in other venues, the deeper issues emerge: bias, fear, violence in the minority communities, policing policies – de-escalation, training, non-lethal use of force, mental health.  Talking together generates its own dynamic and energy, and ultimately solutions.

I have invited the Redwood City Chief of Police, JR Gamez to join us tomorrow at services. We’ll begin by saying “Thank you” for protecting us – for risking your life every day for us.  He is a man of great integrity, rooted in our community and committed to hearing the pain and frustration in our community. He and the local police care. They listen.  In coming months I will also invite African American and other minority clergy and leaders to come and talk with our community.  We’ll hear the concern that exists in the African American community about policing, frustration and anger about being treated with fear and suspicion, and seek to understand the realities of bias in our justice system. I know that as we listen carefully, potential solutions emerge and healing begins to happen.   We come to know each other and can say with sincerity: “Ki al ken ra’iti fa’necha kir’ot pnai elohom – To see you face is to see the face of God.”  Tiny rays of light pierce through darkness as we talk face to face.

In some ways we are a third party in this issue – what difference can we make? The difference is the shared voice swelling from the bottom up, saying that this issue requires respect and listening.  It is part of a sea change that has to happen in our country – where we define who we are by how we treat each other.  This election has been grueling – things must change. We need to live that change.

We can be key players in the discussion – making it part of our synagogue community and joining with the Jewish Community Relations Council – the JCRC, who has been doing a Year of Learning on Racial Justice.  They are holding town halls with local experts on law and race.  One is coming up on the Peninsula and presents the opportunity to listen, create relationship and envision a different way.  Our voice and activism matter.

Transforming hope into change is not easy. It means persevering through frustration, impasse and even despair. I found myself thinking about the black police office in Baton Rouge, Montrell Jackson, who was so troubled by this summer’s violence he posted this on Facebook: “I swear to God I love this city, but I wonder if this city loves me.  In uniform I get nasty hateful looks and out of uniform some consider me a threat…These are trying times.  Please don’t let hate infect your heart…This city MUST and WILL get better. I’m working in these streets so any protesters, officers, friends, family or whoever, if you see me and need a hug or want to say a prayer I got you.”

This story has so much promise – amidst confusion, anger, sadness and despair, Officer Jackson reminds us that small acts of connection can create seeds for a different reality.  But that is not what happened.  Sadly, a week after this post, Officer Jackson and two other officers were gunned down in an ambush targeting the police. Officer Jackson, of blessed memory, reminds us of the painful sadness of present reality where people don’t see the face of God.  We weep and despair. Fear and anger threaten to push hope aside.  Amidst all of that, can we hold onto a legacy from Officer Jackson that reminds us of what can be.  With eyes wide open, he envisioned something different, where the divinity of protester, friends, fellow officer and community are lifted up through empathy and kindness.  Ki al ken ra’iti fa’necha kir’ot pnai elohom –  to see your face is to see the face of God.

We can live this truth in so many areas.  We had several extraordinary moments at CBJ last year where rays of hope appeared as we interacted with Imam Abdullah Antelpli and the local Muslim community. Imam Abdullah started with reality – our two communities are disconnected. We have no idea who the other is. From there, together with us, he envisions a different story – one where we listen to, and learn about each other.  As we have come to know him, and embrace this cause – tiny rays of light poke through the darkness.

Imam Abdullah rejects Kumba-ya – look how nice – a Jew and a Muslim talking.  Real relationship is asking difficult questions – squarely facing difficult issues – anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, difficult religious texts, terrorism.  Imam Abdullah told a powerful story of growing up in Turkey in a society pervaded by anti-Semitism.  In his words, “You swallow anti-Semitism without trying.”

His change came through education and meeting Jewish people. Through the humanity of relationship he rejected the anti-Semitism of his youth that he knows is still alive and real.  He envisions a different world and to create change founded the Muslim Leadership Initiative – MLI, where American Muslim leaders study at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Israel – learning about Judaism and our connection with Israel.  It is a two year program, allowing a depth of understanding to emerge and leaders from around the country to begin creating change.  We cannot change the narrative unless we truly know each other, and he wants a large cadre of Muslim American leaders to know us in a real way – our connection to Israel, our stories, our approach to sacred text. He asks us to understand that for leaders like him, and the vast majority in the Muslim community, violence in the name of Islam is not Islam.

He asks us to understand how painful it is when every Muslim American is viewed with distrust and seen as a terrorist.  As we talked and listened we found shared devotion to fight terror, and talked about how to do that without unfairly generalizing. This community came to truly see kind people, with whom we share sacred values and stories.   We can help Imam Abdullah build a cadre of leaders who will partner with us to create a different America. We can learn about our Muslim neighbors and build trust and connection.  Our connections will grow and bear fruit.  Hope is kindled by small, thoughtful steps – which ripple. We have gotten off to a good start – and we must and will expand this work.   “Ki al ken ra’iti fa’necha kir’ot pnai elohomTo see your face is to see the face of God” – things can change when we see the face of God in one another.

And the same thing can happen around Israel – where hopes for peace seem so distant. Divergent opinions seem so unbridgeable.  But there are places where shared interests emerge – even amidst radically divergent opinions.  Shimon Peres spoke over and over about how shared mutual interests can bring us together.  Our local Jewish Community Relations Council – JCRC is launching another effort right now.  It is called Invest in Peace and is a coalition of community leaders who find shared interests in key pieces of life.  As we connect to these joint projects, we find hope and create connections which can bear fruit.

The initiatives are interesting: Zaitoun Ventures is an investment firm founded and managed by a Jew and a Muslim focused on investing in companies with diverse human capital.  EcoPeace is a coalition of Palestinian, Jordanian and Israeli environmentalists who have joined forces to protect their shared environmental heritage of the region.  Mifalot, is an Israeli organization that brings together Palestinian and Israeli children to play soccer together. Take a card about Invest in Peace as you leave today, and we will be leaders in this effort.

As we envision and work to create change our eyes are open. The world is full of hate, and we must be active and vigilant in thwarting those who would deny our divinity. I am not talking about dialogue with those who embrace violence, or reject our commitment to Israel. Criticism of Israel is often about rejection of Israel as a sovereign state rather than striving to create a different reality. Anti-Semitic currents on campuses are real and worrisome.  BDS too often is another name for rejecting Israel. We need activists who defend us and Israel from real threats. My message is for the vast majority of people who do accept my rights as well, or can enter dialogue in a way that makes a difference.  Change will take a long time – but requires seeds and soil in which to grow.

When we see each other, work together and care – the most unexpected things happen.  Do you know the story of Syrian refugee Aboud Dandachi? He is a Sunni Muslim from the city of Homs who now lives in Istanbul.  Aboud created website called Thank you Israel, highlighting the gratitude he feels for the humanitarian aid and compassion Israel and Jewish organizations have provided him and his people.

Listen to his words: “As a Syrian, I am morally obligated to ensure that the goodwill that Israelis and Jews have displayed towards my people will not be overlooked nor forgotten…”  Aboud was turned away time after time, from country after country and found support from Israeli medical teams and hospitals, and Jewish organizations and individuals. They saw the face of God in his face. He saw the face of God in their faces.

We must hold onto hope to overcome fear. A different America, Middle East and world begin with tiny steps right here. Those steps catalyze more change as they ripple and grow. It is time to listen with open hearts.  It is time of envision and bring hope to life. It is a time to see divinity in fellow human.  In a TED Talk last year, Shimon Peres was asked if he had any regrets in his life.  He responded:  “My greatest mistake is that my dreams were too small.”  Let’s dream big. Let’s change our world.  Right now.  Gmar Chatimah Tovah.