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Kol Nidre 5783      October 4, 2022

      I wish everyone a Tzom Kal – an easy fast and a meaningful day of prayer.

     The great storyteller, Robert Fulghum, in his book, Uh-Oh: Some Observations from Both Sides of the Refrigerator Door tells a story of a job he had in 1959 just after he graduated college, at the Feather River Inn, a resort where he helped wrangle some horses and served as the night desk clerk. The owner/manager was an Italian-Swiss man with European ideas about how to treat employees. Fulghum and the owner did not get along.

     One week, the employees had been served the same thing for lunch every day, wieners, and sauerkraut with some stale rolls. To compound the insult, the money for lunch was deducted from their pay. On Friday of that awful week, he was at his desk job and the night auditor had just arrived; it was 11 pm. He went to the kitchen to get a snack and saw there a note from the owner to the chef that wieners and sauerkraut are on the employee menu for two more days!

     Fulghum, came back to the desk on a tear, ready to quit. The only person for an audience for his rant was the night auditor, a man named Sigmund Wollman. I will spare you the gory details of the rant, filled with much profanity and punctuated with blows to the front desk with a fly swatter. For twenty minutes Fulghum raved on and on about the hotel, the horses, the hotel guests, and he thundered on at the top of his lungs, kicking chairs. It was a call to arms, freedom, unions, uprisings and the breaking of chains for the working masses. I think you can get the idea.

     As he pitched his fit, Wollman sat quietly on a stool, smoking a cigarette (as they did in 1959) and watching him with sorrowful eyes. Fulghum describes Wollman as a bloodhound in a suit. The reason he was so sorrowful was that he had spent three years in Auschwitz, a German Jew. He coughed a lot. He liked his night job because it gave him intellectual space, gave him peace and quiet and even more, he could go into the kitchen anytime we wanted for a snack, all the wieners and sauerkraut he wanted, to him, a feast. There was nobody to tell him what to do. In Auschwitz he dreamed of such a time. The only person he sees at night was Fulghum, the nightly disturber of his dream. Their shifts overlap by one hour. And here Fulghum is again, a one-man war party at full cry. Finally, Wollman says, “Fulchum, are you finished?”

      “NO! why?”

      “Lissen Fulchum, Lissen to me. You know what is wrong with you? It is not wieners and kraut and its not the boss and it’s not the chef and it’s not this job.”

     “So, what’s wrong with me?” 

     “Fulchum, you think you know everything, but you don’t know the difference between an inconvenience and a problem. If you break your neck, if you have nothing to eat, if your house is on fire, then you got a problem; everything else is inconvenience. Life is inconvenient, Life is lumpy. Learn to separate the inconveniences from the real problems. You will live longer and will not annoy people like me so much. Good night.” In a gesture of dismissal and blessing, he waved Fulghum off to bed.

     Fulghum concludes, “For thirty years now, in times of stress and strain, when something has me backed against the wall and I’m ready to do something really stupid with my anger, a sorrowful face appears in my mind and asks, “Fulchum, problem or inconvenience? I think of this as the Wollman test of reality. Life is lumpy. And a lump in the oatmeal, a lump in the throat and a lump in a breast are not the same lump. One should learn the difference.”

     We begin tonight by opening our hearts and souls before God. We have indeed had a lumpy year, some more lumpy than others. It is true, some of our lumps are just life being inconvenient to our plans. Some lumps look ordinary from the outside but have deep, dark holes in the center. A Rabbi has to listen carefully to separate the real problems from inconveniences.

     It is a real problem if your house is on fire, caught up in a wildfire in the California mountains. It is a real problem if your home is blown away by a hurricane in Puerto Rico. It is a real problem when you are bombed out of your home during a civil war in Yemen or captured by invaders as in Ukraine or exiled from your home like the Rohingya in Myanmar. When there is nothing left of home, where do you find home again?

     There are many people who don’t think of the crises that other people suffer; it all seems so far away. It is one thing for the people of Poland and other nations in Europe to take in all the refugees from the war in Ukraine. These Europeans opened their home and their hearts to those women and children who were facing the Russian onslaught. As train after train of refugees fled to the west, the people made space for them not just in their homes but with jobs and in schools as well. They even had to work to overcome language differences.

     These European nations also began to suffer as a result of their welcome to Ukrainian refugees. Russia began to limit exports to Europe including heating oil and gas. As winter approaches, how everyone will keep warm has become an important question and yet these nations don’t blame Ukraine. They understand the injustice of the Russian attack and they are trying to help those who are most in need.

     But while Ukraine is in the news every day, there are other refugees that need attention. Just a year ago Afghans, who had helped in the American war effort for over 20 years, were fleeing the advancing Taliban who threatened to kill anyone who worked with the American army. There were many who had helped, and they all had families who were in danger. Not all of the Afghans in danger were able to get out as our troops withdrew. Some fled to other nations hoping the United States would honor its pledge to help those who once helped us. So far, our country has not done much to help these Afghans in need.

     Europe may be taking in Ukrainians, but they are not doing quite the same when it comes to refugees from Syria who are fleeing the long civil war in that country. Unrest in Libya and Tunisia have also triggered refugees fleeing to Europe. There are now also refugees from Ethiopia and Kenya who are being evicted from their homes due to ethnic violence. They are being told to either move out or die. And let us not forget the Rohingya of Myanmar who are being chased from their homes by the army of Myanmar. They also have to choose to stay and die or flee to Bangladesh which, so far, is keeping them in refugee camps and leaving them in limbo, unable to go back and no place to move forward. It does not help that Bangladesh will soon have to move thousands of people who are being flooded out of their homes by rising sea levels caused by climate change.

     The southern border of the United States while being treated as a political problem is really a refugee problem. Central America has people moving north because they don’t have the economic means to live in their own countries. There are cartels, insurrections, militias that are forcing residents to either join their group or face being murdered. So, they choose to flee, looking to the United States as a place of refuge, justice, and economic stability. And it is not just Central Americans involved. Cuban and Haitian citizens are there are well, fleeing the political unrest in their own countries. And what do they get when they enter our country looking for asylum, looking for a place to start over, looking for a place where they can find some peace? They become pawns in political stunts where they are told there is a place where they can find jobs and housing, but instead they are bused to cities that have no idea they are coming and who have to scramble to meet their needs. It is not that the destination cities can’t absorb these refugees; the political trick is to surprise them with a busload of people with nothing but the clothes on their backs. This is human trafficking not for profit but for political points.

     It was the late Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks who wrote in the British newspaper The Guardian, “I used to think that the most important line in the Bible was “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Then I realized that it is easy to love your neighbor because he or she is usually quite like yourself. What is hard is to love the stranger, one whose color, culture or creed is different from yours. That is why the command, “Love the stranger because you were once strangers,” resonates so often throughout the Bible. It is summoning us now.”

     I spent some time this summer looking at the news from HIAS. This is the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. For almost 150 years, HIAS has its mission, to welcome the stranger and protect the refugee. Since 1811, when the first of the great waves of Jews from Eastern Europe arrived on these shores, HIAS has helped those with the serious problems of homelessness, often in the worst-case scenario, where there are no homes to go back to and where there is no place to turn for help. While they started their mission helping Jews, they have extended their scope of operations to include refugees from all over the world. Why do they do it? Why do they see the worldwide problem as a Jewish problem? Because as far back as the Torah, we are told that we must care for all who are expelled from their homes.

     Think of how many mitzvot in Judaism reference our leaving Egypt. The very first of the ten commandments recalls the Exodus from Egypt. The last section of the Shema references the Exodus from Egypt. The Kiddush we recite on Shabbat and Festivals references the Exodus from Egypt. The blessing for Yom Kippur in the Amidah even references the Exodus from Egypt. The Torah tells us some 36 times to be kind to the strangers because we were once strangers in the Land of Egypt. Our people started out as refugees. We started out a homeless bunch of former slaves that could not go back to Egypt (no matter what the complainers said) and we had no idea where we would someday find a home. A land had been promised to our ancestors, but would we make it there? Would we finally be able to put down roots there? We couldn’t be sure. And then, having to wait 40 years to see that land, did not make it any easier.

     Today we may have fine homes all over the globe, but we must not forget our years of wandering and exile. The Torah insists that we never forget our origins as refugees. We actually set aside a holiday where we relive our exile, eating the bread of slavery and redemption, filling our mouths with the bitterness of slavery, and singing Hallel in praise of a God who took us out of Egypt and brought us, eventually to the Promised Land. Yom Kippur, in some ways, is also asking us if we have personally done all we can on behalf of the strangers among us.

     Dr. Erica Brown, a professor at Yeshiva University, noted a passage in the Talmud that asks the question as to why we need to remember the Exodus from Egypt when we are performing mitzvot that have nothing to do with the Exodus from Egypt? Mitzvot like not charging interest, mitzvot in regard to wearing tzitzit, fringes on our tallit, mitzvot like having accurate weights and measures in the marketplace. Dr. Brown writes, “the animus for these laws is the historical experience of upheaval and change that shapes and transforms a people forever and, thereby, imprints something upon our consciousness for all time. It is the before and the after, and it influences everything. Every time we remember Mitzrayim – Egypt – we are in touch with that primal consciousness of the refugee. According to the Talmudic statement, we must even see it in God’s hand in history, in the way we must do business, in the significance of symbols, and in a garment that touches the skin. The refugee experience is itself like a second skin.”

     I know there are people who refuse to acknowledge the refugee, who have no patience for their needs and their problems. Why do we have to take in Ukrainian refugees? Why do we have to help resettle Afghan refugees? Why must our government help Rohingya refugees when their exile is not our problem? Let California pay to rebuild the houses that fire destroyed as it tore through the cities in the forests. Dr. Brown reminds us that at some point in all of our lives we all have felt marginalized and left out when all we wanted was to belong.

     Manny Lindenbaum, who escaped Germany just before the war on the last Kindertransport to England wrote an essay called, “They are Us” where he writes, “I see the news from all over the world. I read the headlines: BORDERS CLOSED. Mothers, fathers, children and babies, all refugees, all fleeing. Even if they make it over the border, more trauma awaits them. Perhaps, in some places, a hand reaches out – a warm welcome amidst blatant animosity and xenophobia. I know this story all too well. Seventy-nine years ago, my family was chased across a hostile border. Germany watched as 17,000 of its citizens –JEWS- were taken to the Polish border and forced across by guns and dogs. … I am here today because, in my darkest moments, people reached out and made a difference in my life. My story is not much different from the plight of sixty-five million refugees all over the world today. It may be hard to see – beneath a dark cloud of fear and xenophobia that is fed by falsehoods and exaggeration”

     And always, it is the children who suffer. Manny was just six years old when he was forced across the border from Germany into Poland, just months before the Nazi German army would invade Poland and start World War II. Manny and his brother made it on the Kindertransport. His sister was shut out because too many children were already on board the ship. She was told to wait until next year. She died in Auschwitz.

     Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Encino, California, tells a story of what he learned from putting his small children to bed at night. He would read a story, sing a song, tuck them in and quietly leave the room but his daughter began to scream, “There is an alligator under my bed. There is a monster in my closet. There are spiders on my ceiling.” The rabbi would look under the bed, no alligator. He would look in the closet, no monster. He would examine the ceiling, no spiders, now go to bed. Rabbi Feinstein did this dance every night for a year until he stopped one night and asked himself, “who is right?” Which of us is factually correct? We have to admit that it is the child. She doesn’t know the names of the alligators under her bed, but we know the violence and evil that is out there in the world. Yet we tell our children all is okay, things will be better tomorrow. In this way we teach our children to trust. Our children make even the most hard-boiled atheist into believers. This is the deep spirituality of parenting.”

      Refugee children sleep with real monsters under their beds. They have seen the monsters. They have heard the guns and bombs. They have seen the fires and the shells of their homes. They have left home sometimes with only a stuffed toy to give them some comfort. How can we tell them they will be okay? How can we make them believe that tomorrow will be a better day? Can we tell them there are no monsters under their beds?

     Tonight, we begin Yom Kippur. Just ten days ago, on Rosh Hashana, we learned that “If I have a problem then you have a problem, and if you have a problem then I have a problem and if anyone has a problem then everyone has a problem because …. We are all in the same boat.”

     The very first commandment given at Mt. Sinai was “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the Land of Egypt.” God’s first act of redemption was to make our people refugees. Amalek came to kill and plunder our defenseless people. Edomites massed their army so we would not cross their border. Moabites would not let us pass and tried to put a curse on our people, the ragged refugees they saw as so dangerous. To this day we Jews fight for respect from the nations of the world who would deny us a homeland who only see us as wandering Jews. “Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves”.

     It is all too common to blame others for this refugee crisis. Some people even blame God for not caring for other human beings in trouble. It is easy to cast out blame, but it is harder to remember that we are the ones who have to do the work to make a difference. One day, at Hebrew Union College in New York, Rabbi Noa Kushner told a story of a rabbinical student who was railing against the world’s injustices and the tragedies, illnesses and natural disasters that regularly occur. “The student was grandstanding as we all tended to do, and we were easily swept up in his anger against the pathetic God who would allow these things to happen. When he finished, Dr. Eugene Borowitz, the late professor of Theology stood up and quietly looked at the student. He then asked, “Are you saying, then, are you prepared to say that there is no divine justice? No evidence of God at all in the world?” Rabbi Kushner says, “and just like that, in the blink of an eye, we went from victims of a vindictive, careless God to people who remembered that it is our work to seek righteousness wherever we can find it.”

     We don’t have the right to ask God to change the world so that people don’t suffer; we have to lift up the suffering person ourselves. Michelle and I sent our children to summer camp, and we would go, as well, as teachers for the summer. I once told my children, “What happens in the dining hall when someone drops a tray, and the sounds echoes through the room?” My children replied, “everyone laughs and claps.” And how does that make the person who dropped the tray feel?” “They don’t feel very good at all.” “What would happen if you got down on the floor and helped them pick up the mess? How would that make them feel?” “They would feel pretty grateful.” “That is always the choice you have in life. You can be one of the people laughing and cheering or you can be down on the floor helping. You decide where it is you want to be.”

     It is our duty to help clean up the mess that people make in this world. To give shelter to those who have no home. To give of what we have to those who have nothing left. We must feel the pain of the refugee and make their pain our pain. We all were once marginalized and left out. Now that we see others in that same space, what can we do that would make them grateful for our presence? What can we do to provide shelter for those who no longer have safety from the storm? What can we do to provide the basics of life, dishes, pots and pans, heat for the winter or even a job so that they can begin to rebuild their lives? Can we get down on the floor to help lift them up? Where else would we choose to be?

     Rabbi Dr. Mimi Feigelson, the spiritual mentor for rabbinical students at the Schechter Rabbinical School in Jerusalem recently wrote: “It is rare that a Hasidic teaching haunts me; every once in a while, it happens… There’s a teaching of the Baal Shem Tov that haunts me every time I come back to it, honestly, that happens more often than I admit. Honestly, probably almost every day. The question is, what do we do with people that challenge us, challenge the way we walk in the world, challenge our peace of mind, and challenge the way we look at ourselves? The Baal Shem Tov has a concept that is called “שמץ מינייהו” “something of it within us.” When we see a person who challenges us, who makes us uncomfortable, someone that we feel is easy for us to judge, the Baal Shem Tov says what we’re looking at is ourselves.

     When we see pictures of refugees struggling to cross a border or to find a safe haven for their family, we need to see ourselves in that picture. Each refugee is a mirror that reflects back on us who we are and where we come from. Are we just another stranger in the street or are we worthy of a helping hand, an act of justice, a refuge from the storms of life? Can we see ourselves in the many pictures of those displaced persons due to weather, a bad economy, war, or famine? It is not “the others” who we have to find worthy of support. The real consideration is if we can truly see our face in that mirror and ask ourselves if we deserve the support of others. There can be no other answer than yes, we must support those who are so much like us.

     Rabbi Feigelson goes on to add … The Talmud says one must give according to the person’s specific needs. We need to know who the individual we’re dealing with is, and what it is that they are lacking. We are commanded to offer them what they need, whether it makes sense to us or not. Maybe it seems over the top or superfluous, but if that is what they need for their sense of self and their sense of dignity that’s what we’re responsible for.”

     We need to provide the specialized help some refugees need. If they had a trade, we need to see that they get the training to use their trade in this country. If they are professionals in their place of origin, then we need to help them learn to be doctors, lawyers, or other professionals, bringing them up to the professional standards to be able to work here. To have skilled hands and make refugees do menial labor, is a waste of our resources and their talents.

     Dr. Erica Brown notes that Ukraine was the home of one of the great Hasidic rabbis and teachers, Rabbi Nachman of Brazlav. It was Rabbi Nachman who taught: “Kol Haolam Kulo, Gesher Tzar Meod. V’haikar, Lo Lefached Klal – The entire world is a very narrow bridge, but the main thing is not to be afraid.”

     None of us know what the future may bring. The lives we save today could be the very same people who will save us in the future. We all walk that very narrow bridge. Today we know who the refugees are, the ones in so much danger of falling off the constricted path. We are the ones who have the solid footing to help them get back on the road to health, life, and peace. Some of these refugees, may, in the future, be able to return to their homelands, stronger and better able to face the problems of their home countries; able now to bring about what was once impossible; showing their own people what can be done and helping them to work together to achieve their goals.

     Others may never be able to return home and even if they could, there is nothing there to return to. After World War II many Jews tried to return to the homes they had been evicted from. They found other people had moved in and taken over their property. Many Jews were murdered after the war when they tried to take back their homes. Some people just can’t go back. We are the ones who must reach out our hands to help pull them back up on their feet. They are not looking for handouts, they only need some support as they try to start a new life after losing everything. The main thing is not to be afraid. Refugees must not be afraid of the future, that there will always be kind people to help them start anew. And we must not be afraid either, of the stranger who seems so strange but who really is just a mirror reflecting our own image.

     We live in an age of great migrations. Whole nations are on the move. Climate Change will only cause more movement and more refugees. As long as we are able, we must reach out our hands to help. HIAS.org has many ways we can help refugees. The Connecticut Immigration and Refugee Coalition (CIRC) has needs for Afghan families that have come to our state. In the lobby, on your way out, you will find contact information for local organizations that are resettling refugees here in our own area. Take a card and make contact, to extend your hand and your heart to those who are right here and who need our help. It is our religious duty to do all we can. We know what it is like to be a stranger and we must take that knowledge and help others find their way to a new beginning and a new life.

     May God give us the strength so our hands can lift up others in need. May we always see ourselves in others so that we no longer see strangers, but people, who are just like us, and who are suddenly in need. Let us put aside our own inconveniences and put out the effort to solve this very real problem. We can start as soon as tomorrow. as we say …. Amen and Gemar Tov, May all of us be sealed in the book of life.

Tue, November 29 2022 5 Kislev 5783