Occupy Rosh Hashanah Sermon
The following is the sermon delivered by Daniel Sieradski at Occupy Rosh Hashanah in Liberty Square, earlier this evening.
Today we are here to rejoice and we are here to cry. For as Rebbe Nachman taught, “On Rosh Hashanah you must be joyous… and on Rosh Hashanah you must weep.”
We are here to rejoice in the world and in our bodies… To celebrate our very existence. For today, according to Jewish tradition, is humankind’s birthday. HAPPY BIRTHDAY HUMANS!!! Today we celebrate our creation as a species and we celebrate our Creator, the infinite Divine which wills itself into the form of human beings and which breathes into each of us the breath of life, imbuing within each of us a holy spark, intrinsic worth, individual purpose, and inalienable rights.
That is why we are so pleased to celebrate tonight with our Jewish and non-Jewish friends alike, because it is not just our birthday as Jewish people, it is all of our birthday together as people, period. Our Rabbis taught that all people are descended from the same source and are all made in the image of the Divine. And thus we are bound together, all of humanity, as one family, responsible to and for one another: And so it is said, “You should love your fellow as yourself.”
And that is why were are also here to cry. We cry because, whether individually or communally, we have failed to live up to our best versions of ourselves and to meet our responsibilities to one another. We have failed to be as righteous and just as we each have the potential to be in our words and deeds. We expect better from ourselves and for each other. And so, while we celebrate, we also repent.
As we look around the world and we see its fullness and brokenness, its poverty and wealth, its hunger and its greed, its laws and its lawlessness, we know: We are failing to merit the blessing of our Creator. We know that even with all we have accomplished, we are capable of so much more as individuals, as communities and as a species. And so we cry. Because as the Talmud teaches, “When others are suffering, no one should say, ‘I will go home, eat, drink, and be at peace with myself.’”
The severity of humanity’s crisis cannot be understated. In Shemot Rabbah we learn, “If all other troubles were placed on one side and poverty on the other, poverty would outweigh them all.” Exodus Rabbah says, “There is nothing in the world more grievous than poverty; it is the most terrible of all sufferings.” And Talmud Nedarim says, “Poverty is a kind of death.”
You have likely heard the famous Talmudic teaching, “Whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.” That makes 46.2 million worlds to save in the U.S. alone.
How did it come to this? How did we find ourselves here?
Through indisputable greed and the hardening of our hearts.
The Seridei Eish says, “Exemption from taxes is acceptable only for those taxes established by the government for its own sake, but not those that strengthen the needy.” Yet our politicians continue to lower taxes for the wealthy while slashing social programs that benefit the poor and the working class.
It says in Talmud Baba Metzia, “Whoever withholds an employee’s wages, it is as though he has taken the person’s life from him.” And yet we import cheap labor, export jobs to overseas sweat shops, resist minimum wage laws, and attack workers’ collective bargaining rights.
The Ben Ish Chai wrote, “It is forbidden to steal or embezzle anything at all–whether of great or little value.” But what of our savings, our pensions, our homes? Will no one be brought to justice for their gain from our losses?
Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato wrote that, “Most people are not outright thieves but get a taste of stealing whenever they permit themselves to make an unfair profit at the expense of another.”
Talmud Shabbat says, “When one is brought for their final judgement, the heavenly tribunal says to him first, ‘Were you honest in your business dealings?’” What will they ask of our coreligionists, among the executives of Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns? Will their sins be overlooked for their sizable contributions to charity? No, says Rambam: “A mitzvah that is done by committing a sin is not a mitzvah.”
How many folks here have been told to “get a job and take a shower” when they’ve said they’re an Occupier? Vayikra Rabbah says, “If a rich man says to the poor man, ‘Get a job,’ God says to the rich man, ‘It’s not enough you deprived him, but you mock him too?”
In Deuteronomy, we are given warning: “Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God…Otherwise…when you build fine houses and settle down…and your silver and gold increase…then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God…You may say to yourself, ‘My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.’ But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you…wealth.”
The Torah reminds us again and again, you did not earn what is yours by your hands alone, you earned it with the blessing of the Creator who also blessed you with the good fortune to be able to share with those in need!
Rambam says those who ignore their responsibility to the poor are called “lawless” in the same way that an idol worshipper is called “lawless.” He says, “God is close to the pleas of the poor. Therefore be careful with their cries!”
"He who closes his ears to the outcry of the poor, he too will call and not be answered!"
But we are not here to call for nor glory in the downfall of our fellow. We do not wish ill upon the wealthy. We are here to rescue them from their fate, which is ours too. Just as our father Abraham sought to rescue Sodom, pleading with the Creator to spare the city its ultimate retribution for its cruelty to the poor, we come to plead for the poor and wealthy alike.
As Rebbe Nachman taught, “The purpose of sounding the Shofar is to arouse people from their sleep.” And so we seek to rouse the wealthy with our collective cry.
"Our repentance, our mitzvah of listening to the shofar blasts," said Rebbe Nachman, "arouses Hashem’s pity on us." And so with the cries of our shofars, we beseech the Creator to have pity and plead for mercy on behalf of the poor and the destitute, on behalf of the worker and the migrant, on behalf of the enslaved and the oppressed, and on behalf of the wealthy who exploit, enslave and oppress, that they may come to repent and be redeemed.
Thus we find ourselves here, at Occupy Wall Street. We come here to this seemingly unusual setting on one of the holiest days of the Jewish Year, not only to celebrate, but to “Open thy mouth, judge righteously and plead the cause of the poor and needy.” We come here to dedicate ourselves to the struggle on behalf of our fellow human beings, to ensure their dignity, to uphold their rights, to pursue justice on their behalf, and to resist the cynicism, callousness, greed and evil exhibited by “those who would devour the needy.” We assemble here to rededicate and renew ourselves, reawaken our spirits, refine our consciousness, reassert our values, clarify our purpose, and to reignite our passion. We have come to renew the world, with a sacred vision for humanity.
Rebbe Nachman teaches, “Know that thought is very powerful. If a person concentrates very deeply about something he can bring it about.” And so on Rosh Hashanah, we devote our consciousness to conceptualizing and projecting a vision of the world in which we want to live: A world of justice, kidness, compassion, charity, healing, peace, and loving.
Close your eyes and envision a world without want, a world without suffering, a world without pain, a world without inequality, a world without inequity. Hold that vision in your mind. Imprint that vision upon your consciousness. Keep it in your mind when you wake up and when you go to sleep. When you contemplate your interactions with others. When you contemplate your activism and your work on behalf of those in need. When you’re on the barricades tomorrow, tussling with the NYPD. When you’re talking with your partner and your children. With your fellow students and coworkers. With your parents and their cranky, conservative friends. With the conservatives with whom you argue on Facebook. Keep it in mind for as long as you can, with as much intensity as you can, and in spite of every deterrent. Rise to meet that vision. Allow that vision to transform you, to transform the way you interact in the world. To transform the way you interact with yourself. Recognize the Divine in yourself, recognize the Divine in your fellow, celebrate humanity and the dignity of all humans the way you celebrate those dearest to you. And soon you will find that the world will rise to meet your vision.
May Hashem bless us with a year of prosperity and peace and the heralding of a new paradigm in which justice reigns supreme.
Happy birthday humans! Happy birthday OWS! Happy New Year! Shana tova u’metukah! Chag sameach! Peace, blessings and love to all!
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